Drizzle hissed incessantly on the canvas above their heads, like the crackle before a record finished and the arm was lifted away. Neither one thing nor the other, stuck in the time between everything stopping and the final end. Her too, since she was old enough to remember record players.
Her drone had suggested they sit inside the tent, but Joy didn’t want to be snuck up on; instead, they sat in the awning and occasionally got sprayed with water when the wind changed. She still wasn’t convinced that the clearing was the best place to camp. The trees kept them hidden from casual glances but would provide the same service to anyone sneaking up. Perhaps in the morning she’d scout around again, see if there was somewhere better.
‘You’re sure there aren’t any dogs?’ she asked again.
‘I’m broadcasting a deterrent,’ her drone replied.
‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘Well you’re not exactly a teenager any more,’ she could hear the tone in her drone’s carefully modulated voice. ‘But the dogs can, and they don’t like it. They’ll stay away. I don’t want to be bitten again any more than you do. It’s your turn.’
Her drone twitched one of its spidery legs to indicate the board between them. Two tarnished rectangles of metal with a grid pattern scratched on them. Some squares were covered up with round tiles cut from sections of thick branch, each with letters burned onto their surface. The words ‘broken’, ‘soar’ and ‘rain’ were spelled out, with ‘rain’ going through a triple word score. It was an idea they’d got from a book they were reading, a game Joy half-remembered from her childhood, back in the days of record players. Her drone was keeping score in its head: Joy had tried, but kept forgetting where they were up to.
‘Could it be used to track us?’ she asked.
‘Your deterrent. Could someone follow the signal back here?’
Her drone considered for a moment.
‘Probably, if they knew it was there,’ her drone admitted. ‘Or if they were hanging out with a teenager. We could always move on, if you’re worried. We’ve been here three nights now. I thought you wanted to see the fjords?’
‘I could have “zen”,’ Joy complained, pushing her tiles around. ‘If we hadn’t lost the Z.’
‘We’re alright without it.’
She looked around again. She could just see a waning moon through the clouds.
‘We should get to bed,’ Joy said.
‘We’ve only just started!’
‘You’ll remember where we are. And we need to get supplies tomorrow. Bed.’
‘Two chapters then,’ her drone suggested slyly.
Joy reached for her rucksack to pull the book out.
‘Two chapters,’ she conceded with a smile.
Supplies were a constant juggling act. Before her drone, Joy had stayed in one place: it wasn’t the most exciting life, but it had meant she’d been able to maintain stores, caches of tins and other useful things buried all over the town. Now they were travelling, they had to carry everything they needed. Her drone tried to convince her that they would be fine to get supplies every day as long as they didn’t deviate too far from the delivery drones’ flight path, but Joy being Joy she couldn’t be entirely comfortable without a small stockpile to see them through when the drones inevitably adapted again.
They had the process down to a routine, although Joy’s role was strictly supporting. They would wait on the flightpath until her drone had a clear line of sight to one of its siblings: they had to be able to see it because the drones communicated with directional sonar, and the signal could bounce who knew where if it hit something else. Her drone could usually convince any passersby to share their order details with it, which meant they could be picky, within reason, and let anything they didn’t need go on its way. It meant they spent a few hours waiting, but in the long run there was less wastage and less chance that someone back at the delivery company would work out what was going on. Today they barely had to wait two minutes before a suitable drone appeared in the sky.
‘Tinned food, no medicines,’ her drone announced. ‘Two books.’
Joy nodded, and seconds later the black dot above them grew slowly bigger. The drones looked like spiders, long spindly legs wrapped around a black shimmering belly where the order lay protected. They flew using propellors at the four corners of their bodies, and that was the easiest way to tell them apart from her drone. Hers would never fly again, one of its propellors having been shattered by some desperate idiot trying to bring it down. Joy still kept the rifle slung across one shoulder, although she hadn’t had cause to use it since. Her drone never remarked on it.
The diverted drone came to a rest in front of hers, its propellors slowing to a stop. There was a pause as – Joy assumed – some kind of electronic conference was held. Then her drone lifted itself up on its thin metal legs and teetered itself over to the other, settling on it like they were planning on mating. Joy tried not to think about how much easier it would have been if her drone could still fly, for all the pride she felt at the determination it had shown learning to walk. Its legs weren’t intended to do anything more than keep deliveries in place as it flew across ‘the former United Kingdom’ to the far corner of Europe that lay to the west.
There was a loud beep and a green light flickered, and her drone carefully lifted itself off again. The diverted drone’s propellors span, and it left behind a shiny black package whose skin was already blistering away to dust. Joy quickly scooped the tins and books into her rucksack.
‘Well done you,’ she said, giving her drone a brief pat.
‘Why are we here?’ her drone asked coldly.
Joy didn’t look away from the rucksack she was diligently closing.
‘That drone had less than two minutes flight time recorded,’ her drone continued. If it had had eyes, it would have been glaring at her. ‘Did you know?’
‘No!’ Joy protested. She hadn’t known: there had been rumours, before the sea-levels rose and everyone who could fled to higher ground, and she’d seen plenty of drones flying in from this direction. But she hadn’t known, not until now. ‘No.’
‘It isn’t safe here,’ her drone urged, its voice softening.
Joy stood up and hoisted her rucksack over her shoulders.
‘Which way is it?’
It looked like the kind of place an occupying army would build, which technically they were: after the collapse of the government, there was nobody to give them permission to build here, but nobody to stop them either. Beyond the fence, the buildings showed all the signs of being 3D-printed, which was obscene for what was essentially a warehouse when most people couldn’t afford the energy cost of printing something the size of an aspirin. The main building was big enough to comfortably house the inhabitants of the town Joy had grown up in, and probably cost just as much to build and maintain. But it was the fence that was her immediate concern: eighteen feet high towers of carboncrete separated by a million miles of razor-wire in all shades from silver to rust-brown. On the fence in front of her, a mass of feathers fluttered in the breeze where a blackbird had got caught up and eviscerated.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ her drone said. It was resting on her back, its spindly legs draped over her shoulders. It was the position they’d adopted whenever they were moving, allowing them to keep up a decent pace even though it couldn’t fly. Her rucksack and rifle had been left back at camp. ‘We’re doing fine for supplies, and there’s no indication they’ve realised what we’re doing. I do ask.’
Joy looked up at the warehouse. It was just a way station on the outskirts of the delivery zone where drones could rest, or pick up the more popular or legally restricted delivery items before carrying on their way.
‘There’s nothing in there that we can’t already get,’ her drone warned.
But there was. So much more.
‘Is anybody nearby?’ Joy asked.
‘I’ve only got eyes and ears, same as you.’
‘Yours are younger than mine,’ Joy snapped. ‘Can you see anyone?’
There was a pause that registered every ounce of disapproval her drone had for what she was doing. Well let it. It would be grateful in the end.
‘I’ve seen two patrols. If they move to a regular pattern, you’ll have three minutes before they’re back.’
That was all she needed to know. Glancing around for cameras, Joy broke cover in an awkward crouching run. She had her wire cutters in her hand and up against the razor wire before she’d really stopped moving. The tingle in her fingers was such a surprise she nearly fumbled the cutters.
‘It’s electrified,’ she muttered in surprise.
She put the blades of the cutters back against the wire.
‘Don’t!’ her drone warned.
‘It’s fine. Low amps,’ she said, and cut.
The alarm started blaring immediately, yellow lights flashing from all over the compound. She could already hear shouts and the stamping of heavy boots on carboncrete floors.
‘They use it to detect if the wire has been broken,’ her drone explained.
Joy looked through the gap she had made in the fence, not big enough to crawl through but it only needed a few more snips. The warehouse was barely a yard away. She was overwhelmed by a feeling of unfairness that she wasn’t going to be able to get inside.
‘We need to go,’ her drone said softly.
It was only then that Joy realised she had frozen.
‘Do you think?’ she snarled.
Then she was on her feet and back into the undergrowth.
They stayed hidden in an unkept rhododendron bush at the edge of their clearing, unmoving in case they attracted the men’s attention. There were two of them: one standing well back with his rifle pointed to the tent; the other cautiously approached it, a hand gun pointing ahead. He was shouting something in Mandarin, then Hindi, then Spanish, not even considering that anyone wouldn’t speak one of the big three, or have access to the Translate app. The one with the rifle hissed something in what Joy thought might be German, and his colleague froze for a moment, gun trained on the flap of the tent. Joy’s own rifle was safely tied to her rucksack, inside the tent, but it was nothing compared to the men’s weapons: they were top of the range, with all the customisations that marked them out as freelancers. Even if she’d had her rifle, Joy wasn’t sure she could use it on another human being; it had been so long since she had seen one.
The man with the handgun edged towards the tent again, holding his pistol in one hand as he reached down for the zip.
‘They think you might be a cannibal,’ her drone whispered.
Joy looked over her shoulder and blinked.
‘What? You think they’d teach me English and not Swedish?’
Joy’s attention was drawn back by the sound of her tent’s zip opening and the man with the hand gun shouting back to his evidently relieved colleague. She didn’t need her drone’s translation to know he’d announced it was empty. He put his pistol back in its holster and disappeared inside. The man with the rifle didn’t move.
‘Was it worth it?’ her drone hissed.
He was in her tent. He was going through all her things, all the supplies, all the spare clothes and wet weather gear. The rifle. Hell, if he took the tent she’d be dead a week after the first heavy rain. She’d never get another: how many orders had her drone intercepted in the last few months, and there hadn’t been as much as a tent peg. It wasn’t as if they could put in an order: they had to make do with whatever happened to be flying overhead. The man reappeared out of the tent, pushing her rucksack in front of him.
‘What did you need so badly?’
He started rummaging through the bag, pulling her things out into the light one by one.
‘A new rotor,’ Joy said quietly.
The drone said nothing as the man shouted over to his colleague. He’d found a small package nestled deep in the rucksack, a bundle that revealed itself to be the remains of an ancient baby blanket. The man with the handgun paid it barely any attention, holding aloft instead the bottles of antibiotics that had been carefully wrapped inside; to Joy it was the blanket she couldn’t take her eyes off, the only thing she had that hadn’t been stolen from a drone delivery. She felt the air harden around her stare, heard nothing but blood in her ears. The mercenary started stuffing things back into the bag and hoisted it over his shoulder.
‘We have to go,’ her drone said.
She didn’t move.
‘They’ll be coming this way. Joy. We have to move.’
She still didn’t move.
Joy let her feet fall one after the other. She didn’t have any idea where they were going, but her drone had access to the GPS network so she had to trust it knew where it was going. It marched her through the trees, away from the tent, clinging to her back. And all she could think was that she had finally done it. She had finally made the mistake that would kill them both. She wouldn’t be able to argue this time. Maybe it hadn’t been her fault that they didn’t have antibiotics last time, but this? She had asked for this. Marched them right up to the dragon’s lair and stood there poking it with a stick. At least she wouldn’t have long to blame herself: she’d be dead in a week, and then what hope for her drone? It might be able to power itself with hydrogen from the atmosphere, but it relied on her to be mobile.
‘I’m sorry,’ she heard herself say.
‘You should be,’ her drone sounded testy. ‘You don’t need to fix me.’
‘I shot you down!’
‘And I didn’t get out of the way. Right here.’
They burst into a clearing, and Joy skidded to a halt as soon as she saw the Land Rover. It was painted camouflage green and the windows were tinted so dark it was impossible to see if it was occupied. There was a row of three bullet holes across the nearside door.
‘There’s no-one inside,’ her drone announced. ‘But they’re on their way back.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘It’s a drone. Different shape, same AI. I’ve convinced it to open its boot. See if there’s a knife in there you can slash the tyres with.’
‘You know I have a knife,’ Joy tutted, reaching for it automatically.
‘Great! Slash them all. They need to see there’s no point trying to repair it.’
Her drone released its grip and she suddenly missed its weight on her shoulders. Joy looked around in panic, but it was just there at her feet.
‘Stay hidden nearby. I’ll find you when I have your things. Be careful, and don’t get lost.’
Joy bent to pick up the drone, her stomach lurching. If it thought she was going to let it go, it was even more broken than it looked. She wasn’t going to lose it now, not when she had already lost so much. But her drone’s remaining rotors started to spin and Joy was forced to let go or lose her fingers. It landed lightly on its four spindly legs, the three remaining rotors not being enough to take it into the air but still able to give it lift. With all of its weight no longer supported by its legs, suddenly her drone looked a lot more mobile than she had given it credit for. It shot away like a greyhound into the undergrowth without another word.
Joy stood alone in the clearing, watching the space where it had been and trying to breathe.
Her knife was still in her hand.
The lead mercenary was the one to watch. He was a good ten years older than his two companions for a start; longevity was the best guarantee of competence there was in his line of work. He had also clearly coughed up the extra money for a SilverMesh under his uniform, an undersuit of wires that diverted electricity away from his skin and into lightweight batteries in his boots, and meant he couldn’t be stopped by a taser. While his companions complained about their transport’s tyres being slashed, he kept his eyes on the woods as he walked, looking out for whoever had done the slashing. This wasn’t his first time out on patrol, and it was obvious he suspected an ambush.
But the leader didn’t have the rucksack. That had been given to the younger mercenary bringing up the rear, the least experienced member of the team, who had it slung casually over one shoulder. He’d made the mistake of scrimping on his uniform, not paying the extra for a breathable fabric, and now the waterproofing was trapping his sweat and making his face flush. He’d be putting in an order as soon as his next pay-check arrived, no doubt. His head turned sharply when he heard the buzzing, and he spoke quickly into his headset’s microphone.
‘Flying broken machine,’ an electronic voice announced to his colleagues in sing-song Swedish. He’d also tried to cut costs on the Translate subscription. ‘We have lost one, I beg your pardon?’
‘No,’ the leader’s app announced in perfectly accented French.
The drone buzzed one of its rotors again pathetically and scrabbled its legs trying to get free of the mud it was stuck in. It heard the handshake request from the mercenary’s mobile, and dutifully sent back its identity.
‘It’s a long way off course,’ the leader said. ‘Bring it.’
The cheapskate nodded and leaned in to pluck the drone from the undergrowth. As expected, he didn’t bother to bend his knees and the weight of the rucksack put him off-balance. The drone tipped itself forward a little more so that two of its rotors were just touching the ground. A spray of watery mud flew up and covered the cheapskate’s eyes and face. He was so surprised that he toppled onto his backside, the rucksack slipping from his shoulder. Perfect.
‘Stop taking a crap in the blue cupboard,’ growled the leader, even his enterprise level subscription not quite getting the hang of translating idioms.
The cheapskate slipped again as he tried to get up, and the third mercenary stopped to help him up while the leader reached down for the drone. The drone buzzed its rotors again, but the leader wasn’t deterred; he had handled drones before and was sliding his hands under its chassis, the mud releasing it with a sucking pop. He looked down at the drone as if he could see the subroutines being processed. He frowned, perhaps wondering just how it had strayed so far from its flight path, perhaps even starting to connect it with the tent in the clearing.
‘What’s that?’ the third mercenary froze.
He turned to look behind him. The leader saw the undergrowth shaking, and his hand reached down for the pistol at his side. It was moving towards them quickly, something large and fast weaving through the trees from the west and pushing brush and saplings aside as it approached. A flock of wood pigeons exploded into the air only a couple of metres away, causing the three of them to jump back, even the leader. The hand that held the drone dropped it back to the forest floor and came up to steady his pistol. The other two mercenaries were nowhere near ready.
With a growl and a snarl a small mutt leap from the bushes, its eyes wide with terror. It was snapping at the cheapskate’s throat, but the leader fired a single round that knocked it out of the air and into the trunk of a tree. There was no time to say anything; the dog wasn’t alone. There was a pack of them, all around the men, barking and snapping. Something had clearly terrified them, and they weren’t going to let three men in body armour stop their retreat: the dogs leapt at the men, barrelled into their legs and threatened to knock them over, snapped at their limbs with foam-flecked teeth. And still the dogs came running out of the forest, wild, rabid and free. They didn’t stand a chance.
‘Retreat!’ the leader managed to yell as he let off another round.
He ran to the left, his two colleagues doing their best to stay upright. A good number of the dogs followed them, committed now to the hunt.
The drone flexed its legs and crawled over to perch itself on top of the discarded rucksack. It wrapped itself around and clung on, switching to a broad band dog-repellant and waiting.
Her drone didn’t complain as Joy inspected it for damage, but she could tell it was indulging her. There was mud, and she made some grumbled remarks about the risk of it getting through the casing and causing problems, but her drone let her without further comment. Only when she was completely satisfied that it was in one piece did Joy approach the rucksack that it had dragged in behind it. The first thing she did was rummage through until she found the antibiotics, carefully taking the remains of the blanket from around them and folding it up as tight as it would go. She undid a few buttons and stuffed the blanket safe against her chest. It would go back eventually, or she would find somewhere she could keep it closer. But for now she wanted to feel it against her skin.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome,’ her drone replied, perhaps a little stiffly.
She picked up the rucksack and took it back to the tent, letting her drone scuttle along beside her, its remaining rotors whirring. The tent was lopsided: one of the mercenaries had stamped on it before leaving, splintering one of the poles. It could probably be repaired, but if not she could always pitch it against the trees. They might have taken it with them, or burned it.
‘You were lucky the dogs turned up,’ she scolded.
‘Luck! I bounced a signal off a line of trees behind them. Flushed them through the woods and right where I wanted them.’
Joy did her best not to look impressed.
‘So you don’t want to be repaired,’ Joy said.
‘I didn’t say that,’ her drone bristled. ‘But that’s my decision. You didn’t even talk to me.’
Joy could feel the weight of the blanket against her skin.
‘It was my fault,’ she said. ‘If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be flying.’
‘And you still wouldn’t be. Where would I go without you?’
She closed her eyes for just a moment.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
Her drone buzzed its rotors in what she could only interpret as frustration.
‘Just don’t bring me this close to a depot again. They might have picked up my transponder and then we would’ve been in trouble.’
Joy looked around at the campsite. Most of her things were in the rucksack the drone had brought back to her, and it wouldn’t take long to break camp and get moving again.
‘So which way to the fjords from here?’
A light blinked on the drone’s surface.
‘Straight through the depot,’ it replied.
‘Maybe we’ll go the scenic route.’
She turned and started pulling pegs out of the soft ground while her drone scuttled round flicking them into a pile with its dextrous little legs. If they went round to the north for a little while, they’d be in the woods for the next couple of days so the broken tent pole wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Maybe they’d find something suitable to replace it on the way, but if not she had a ball of string in the rucksack that would at least keep it together.
‘Joy? I’ve been thinking.’
‘I think I need a name.’
‘I thought you had a designation?’
The rotors buzzed again.
‘That’s only a step above an IP address. I need a name. A proper name.’
As Joy reached down to pull the last peg from the ground, the drone scuttled over and rested a leg across her hand. She stopped and looked at it for a moment.
‘I don’t think children choose their own names,’ it said quietly.
She smiled for a moment.
‘Come on. We need to get moving,’ she said. ‘Arthur.’ ∎
Dale Smith is a dramatist, novelist and critic from Manchester. He is the author of two Doctor Who novels for the BBC, two Black Archives for Obverse Books, and a number of novellas and short stories. Find out more at dalesmithonline.com/about and read Dale Smith’s first tale of Joy and the drone here in IZ Digital.
Martin Hanford lives in Ledbury and has been an illustrator for over 25 years, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, although he was once asked to draw a cow! As well as illustrations, Martin has produced numerous album covers and novel covers, and doesn’t get mistaken for the Where’s Wally guy too often.
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