It had been an uncomfortable journey, reaching the old hunter’s shack. I had taken the bumpy, pitted backroads in the jeep until I reached the valley and then continued on foot along the muddy trail. When I arrived at the hut in the clearing the temperature was dropping.
The shack was in a state of disrepair, it had been abandoned since the take over. No one hunted as it required dangerous tools, which was not permitted. Despite its delapidated state I preferred it to my grim, colourless chamber of a space in the high rise. It was evidence of something raw that had been lost. I was never a hunter, never even fished, I had too much respect for nature, but the hut felt like a shrine to me for some reason.
My drone detector hadn’t vibrated once so I was confident I had not been followed by a lens in the sky. I had also worked out a way to block the signal from the micro-chip implanted in my arm with a patch of foil, but there were so many moments that could compromise you, I never felt safe from being caught.
When I slipped into the cold, cluttered, wooden outpost, there were only three others there waiting this time. There was Tyler, Mike and Zander. They shuffled back and forth amongst the animal traps and tools, charged with nervous energy.
“Where’s Sam?” I asked.
Zander shook his head slowly, eyes fixed on mine, indicating to me I would likely never see Sam again.
“How did they get him?”
Mike stepped forward, looking awkward and a little scared.
“We don’t know,” he said. “He just vanished one day from work. I think he talked in his sleep and his girlfriend, well, maybe she was worried they’d take her next for not reporting him.”
It was strange talking in English but a relief. The language had only been banned a year now but adjusting to Neward tongue felt clunky, and it missed meanings I could not explain any other way than in English. The re-education camp I had been assigned to was ruthless. If I hadn’t learned Neward well enough, I would never have been let out, but still, it was the wrong kind of noise in my head and always would be. The words excluded the good things and elevated conformity – it was so obviously a designed language for narrower self-expression.
“That’s bad news about Sam,” I sighed. “We have to be so careful. One wrong step is all it takes. Just remember, don’t give up your friends. It’s great to see you guys, sorry I am late.”
“We were just thinking of reciting some poetry,” said Tyler, aware time was precious. “We have a book that was smuggled in from a turned guard on the border fence. It’s by someone called T.S. Eliot.”
Just hearing Tyler speak was like light erupting from darkness. Every day we were watched, monitored, pushed and forced to work on a production line. We were only permitted black clothes, only fed regulation food and there was no TV or music anymore.
When we returned home from a long day’s shift, the neighbourhood guards were relatively relaxed, sometimes not in post or asleep on a tower staircase. We were very lucky to have lazy guards on our block, it was a gift. In addition, there were major blind spots in security, meaning I could leave the apartment complex and navigate the backroads undetected. I was lucky to reside on the edge of the city, it gave me opportunities to slip out of the area that I would never have had in the city centre.
I had managed to keep hold of my old jeep, parked off estate, surrounded by undergrowth and covered with a tarpaulin. It was not automatic, I had to drive it by hand, not voice, which I was grateful for – all things considered. I had driving skills from my days exploring in wild locations, conducting scientific research.
Everyone in our club had to risk everything regularly with plans that were often less than full proof.
We all shook hands and embraced before spreading back into a circle. Tyler was wearing fingerless gloves for warmth as he flicked through the dusty old book to the grass-blade marker he had left in there. He coughed once to clear his throat, held the book up closer to his eyes and began reading. I could sense the pleasure he took. This was a ritual. It kept us needing to breathe.
“He wrote something called The Waste Land. It has a deep feeling about it, it paints a picture in your mind. I love that! The flow of it…Here goes… April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory with desire, stirring dull roots with Spring rain…”
I could feel my shoulders relax and I fumbled a makeshift seat together from a wooden crate.
It was the late evening. The sky was pink and blue outside, about to fade into black. The poem soothed our minds, reminded us of where we had come from, who we were, our souls drumming with a heartbeat, still pulsing despite the oppressions from government ‘tutors’.
As the poem came to an end, I noticed Mike welling up, tears trembling out. At first, I thought it was the pure untainted emotions of release and then, as I watched his face contort in apology, in pleading, I realised what he had done.
Outside, I could make out the unmistakable sound of military sentinels, robust all terrain bipedal robots with dozens of sensors, armour and inbuilt guns. Behind the two sentinels would be a metal cage, a fully transportable prison cell on tracks – autonomously driven and ready to take us away. They must have been lurking outside when I arrived, watching for the last in the party, to complete their catch.
A loud synthetic voice boomed through the thin wood of the shack, in stark, aggressive Neward.
“Quad hom re step abode.” It was a mashed-up language. I hated the way it never flowed, it stuck in the throat, made my mind backward in process.
I stared at Mike, dumbfounded in shock.
“You sold Sam out, and then us. I’m right aren’t I?” I said, not in rage, not in malice, in disappointment.
Mike fell to his knees, head bowed. “They were going to cut out my tongue!” he winced.
I absorbed the contents around the shed, knowing time was against us.
Again, came the measured demand outside, from the machine: “Quad hom re step abode.”
Apart from Mike, we all knew instinctively we were not going anywhere without a fight. We would end up disappeared for good anyway, on our second offence for culture crimes. There were simple rules out there now – no hearings, no courts, no exceptions, no humanity – just rules.
“Cover your faces,” I instructed.
I pulled the dust scarf hanging around my neck up firmly, so it covered my nose and mouth. They may well have my Id already but just in case, I wasn’t going to give them my biometrics. I had a gun in my jacket. I never shared that information with anyone in the group, I was far too cautious for that. They all looked surprised when I pulled out the weapon, a high velocity semi-automatic hand pistol with a full clip. I had picked it up from a resistance operative, who knew me well enough that it could one day be used.
Mike edged toward the door, fully intending to give up, it had all been arranged by the authorities. We let him go.
He stepped out into the soft evening twilight, shut the door gently behind him, sobbing as he dragged himself away for arrest. I could hear the cage door open and his heavy footsteps leading into the metal box, defeated and imprisoned. All it had taken was fear and he did the rest for them.
Tyler carefully slid the weathered book back in his inside jacket pocket and picked up an armful of a trapper’s netting left strewn on the floor. Zander was still a little stunned, scanning his surroundings for opportunities to hide or escape but it was clear we were stuck and had nowhere to go. My guess was one of the sentinels had flanked the shed wide in case we smashed a way out the back somehow. That would leave just one in close proximity, near the door and alongside the portable prison cage.
“If we make a mistake, we’re finished, but I am not going back to re-education, I’d rather die, I mean it.”
There was no arguing. We all felt the same, it was why we came to this shed once a week, to stay human, to be who we grew up as, to resist forced culture conversion. It was barbaric and inhuman.
I could hear the robot outside trudging forward toward the door, preparing to burst in. It had ceased with its demands, its AI aware no doubt that we were never going to comply so easily. Tyler pulled the netting over the top of the door frame, hitching it firmly and fanned it out in a wide skirt, pinning the edges so it made a kind of tent of netting about the door. We crouched behind the larger crates and we waited. Time seemed to move differently. When it barged through the door, the netting tangled up in its arms and legs and it skidded over on its side in miscalculation. Its gun mount could swivel but the way it fell on itself reduced its range to a very limited arc. Its AI decided not to fire, because it knew it would miss us.
I shot out its camera lenses, which sparked and shattered with each well-placed bullet.
The more the robot tried to correct itself, push itself upright, the more tangled the net became about it. It flailed and wobbled like a dying animal in the dirt. We listened with satisfaction and relief to the mechanics whine in vein under the tangled mess. With a grunt, Tyler hurled one of the heavier animal traps on to it from where he hid, and after some cursory attempts to wriggle free it stopped struggling altogether.
“I’ll rip its battery out,” sputtered Tyler.
“No, no. leave it. It can electrify itself in these circumstances. It’ll knock you out.”
Tyler stood up but nodded, happy to heed my warning.
I would never forget the day the machines took over. It was one thing to live under their rule, but another entirely to be forced to speak their invented language. I had watched them in those early days of our rebellion, when people fought them in the streets, with anything they could find. I watched families cut down in cold blood and enslaved by the machines. They had many guises, some on wheels, some on metal feet, all with great precision and resilience.
Toppling one was a real accomplishment. It was important to know they were not perfect. Even in the early days of fighting, it was clear they had their weaknesses, despite their ability to outthink us and predict our moves. They needed human guards, and that was their first sign of flawed judgement. They stole several young children from their families in the district and cultivated them as soldiers, teaching them from an early age to comply to the superior machines. In Neward, descriptive words for machines were all positive and authoritarian, it was a trick of language. Humans were regarded in weaker terms and phrases, like products or resources. The truth was that machines didn’t get it, the reality of flesh. Every now and again, a guard would dare to think and feel for themselves and the system, sure enough, would crack a little. There was always hope, there had to be.
One thing we knew, the machines would communicate and calculate. It was their move. They did it fast and accurately. The defeated sentinel was relaying information about our positions and situation to its two machine counterparts beyond the shack, despite its predicament.
Outside, Mike began to scream. The cage had some options inbuilt to ‘encourage’ prisoners to obey commands. In Mike’s case it had decided to increase the heat in the cell to maximum setting, to torture him and lure us out.
The metal box he stood within became an oven in just a few seconds. We could hear him panic.
Mike was in excruciating pain, his skin was melting off his arms and legs in crumpling fleshy folds, mixing into the soup of his clothes. I began to walk toward the hut door, desperate to do something, anything but that’s when he somehow managed to form words through the screams, making a last effort to be heard. He was remembering Shakespeare through the agony, his words, a final defiance.
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises! Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices…”
A whimper and an ear-piercing shriek. Eventually even the screams lost their moisture, words no longer possible.
I froze. My gun was pointed at the door. I knew this was his final apology and his message to stay away, to not follow the rules of love this time, for survival. It had been an unthinkably painful death. The cage had decided to increase the volume of its speakers, so we could hear the crackling of the body. The three of us took a second to be still, as if paying respects but it was now obvious, their only emotional leverage was gone. A second mistake for the AI. The truth was, artificial is never as meaningful, artificial never fully understands.
The dark was now becoming a problem with the daylight faded away, so I took out a pocket torch I had on me and propped it up to form a rudimentary light source. The barn looked sinister with the long shadows cast from meat hooks hanging from the ceiling.
Zander signalled to me, waving his hand in the air and pointing to the rear of the barn. A creeping noise of stealthily moving metal feet. It was the remaining sentinel. If it was behind us, that meant the door was unguarded. As lethal as the cage was if you were inside it, it was not armed for external attack. Perhaps a chance for us to move?
“We need to go,” I said, “Run for the tall grasses, to the left of the clearing, it will confuse the machine if we get lost in there, if we stay low.”
“We won’t make it. Too much ground to cover!”
“There are three of us, one of us might… Now or never. Spread out when you run.”
I took three quick breaths. We nodded to each other to confirm the plan.
The metal man on the floor was still perfectly still, wrapped tight in the net. We walked carefully around it and with a surge of adrenaline, sprinted from the thin doorway of the shack into exposure, outside.
There was steam and the smell of cooked meat swirling form the cage. The mobile cell swivelled about on its tracks to face us with its cameras, alerting the remaining robot we had fled. I was almost sure we would all make it, until just before we reached the edge of the tall grasses.
The whole area lit up with floodlights, not small portable beams but giant spotlights on rigs, from somewhere in the tree line. How had we not noticed those before? They must have been camouflaged. The wide field of grass was bright, the golden sweep reflecting the artificial lights. Within it stood human guards, spaced apart, in riot gear and armed to the teeth.
The sentinel crept around to greet us, and it occurred to me, we had been trapped all along. The whole thing: the hut, the books, acquiring the gun, being able to sneak away from the block, the jeep, it was all set-up to be monitored. I never did evade them and I hadn’t been free for one second. This had all been an experiment for the AI to learn from our behaviour. It was obvious. We were a training exercise.
Zander and Tyler were distraught, not knowing where to face, whether to run or return to the hut.
“This is all for programming,” I said, closing my eyes. A drone swooped down from above to record my moves.
Behind the metal man I could see an approaching clumsily moving, gaggle of people.
They were being pushed forward with gun butts by a squad of over-zealous guards.
What were they doing here? They were women and children from my block. I recognised them as neighbours. We barely talked and when we did it was in that awful language but once in a while we would find each other’s eyes in the daily grind. They looked scared and helpless, holding each other in a huddle of arms, backs arched and cowering.
To my amazement, the looming robot spoke in English, clearly and almost politely. I had heard tutor bots speak English before, but rarely did a robot communicate this way. It stood against everything they were trying to do. I guessed this was an exception for a reason.
“You have a choice. Use your gun to shoot dead your two co-conspirators or all these people will die here, now. You have 10 seconds to decide. If you choose to shoot yourself or resist, we kill everyone in your block as well as these selected humans.”
The mothers were beginning to cry, they understood well enough but the children had hardly used or heard English before. Their eyes were wide and fearful. They could feel the gravity of dread from their terrified, weeping mothers.
The robot began the count. “10…9…8…7…6..”
I stepped back in horror and flicked my eyes toward Tyler and Zander. They were frozen to the spot in paralysis. What could they do?
“No, wait!” yelled Zander.
Two rapid shots. I aimed for their foreheads, so it would be quick. They collapsed like empty sacks, stone cold dead, their brains splattered across the dust.
I dropped the gun, slowly turned back and looked toward the robot for whatever came next.
It simply said: “No more English, understood?”
“Comply affirm,” I said in Neward.
Under the glare of the powerful lights the robot made ushering gestures to the women and children to return to the transport they had been assigned for this test.
The cage about turned and followed the sentinel, trundling away as if nothing had happened, smoke from roasted flesh still billowing through the tiny letter-box gap in its door. In turn, the guards in the field of grass dispersed back to their vehicles.
I stood there in the clearing and for a long while I did not move. For one I had not been instructed to move. I was alone next to the bodies of my only friends, the only people who talked my language.
The wind was on my cheeks and I could hear it toying with the treetops. In other times I would have enjoyed the sensation, drank it up and used it.
I walked over to Tyler, his head caved in from the bullet, and I reached down and took out the book he had concealed in his inside jacket pocket. It was only then that I remembered the drone was still watching. The experiment, the training, it was still live. I guessed the intelligence was trying to see what it would take to truly break my resolve, until I complied fully.
I dropped the book in the dust. The poems would be lost forever in time. I took one last look at the carnage about me and walked away to pick up the trail back to my jeep. The change would need to be permanent now, I knew that. After feeling death up close, I had lost my appetite to so flippantly embrace it. I would need to start thinking in Neward until English was just a dream I once had, a dream never talked about again.