Joy knelt on the promenade, shifting the rifle into her shoulder to get a steadier shot. She did her best to ignore the waves crashing against the seawall behind her. She had at least another thirty minutes before it was breached, and the saltwater flooded the seafront again. There was less and less time between high and low tide, the sea creeping closer with every passing month: some of the sand underneath her knee was still damp. It would leech the warmth from the joint, aggravate her arthritis and slow her down when there was something she needed to escape from. It might be an acceptable way for her to die, except that now she had foreseen it so it wouldn’t count. Not when she could easily do something about it. She shifted her knee onto drier ground and didn’t take her eye from the rifle sights.
The drone appeared as a little black dot: not one of the bigger ones, but maybe enough to keep her going for another couple of weeks. Last year they’d still been sending them in flocks of thirty or forty, but they seemed to have realised any idiot could wing at least one in a flock that size. Now they usually flew alone. Harder to hit, but in a way it was better: they’d sold their customers twenty-four hour delivery, and the fastest way to Ireland from the warehouses in Denmark was over what they still sneeringly called the former United Kingdom. Until they found a way to increase their range, speed or defences, they’d keep coming, regular as clockwork.
She took aim carefully.
‘Don’t,’ the drone whimpered. ‘Please.’
Christ: how long had they been able to talk? How long had it been since she’d winged one like this? She’d bungled the shot, the drone had dodged – another new thing – and the dart that had been flying unflinchingly for its CPU instead shattered a rotor. She’d tracked the drone across half of the countryside as it limped down from the sky, zig-zagging in a way that told her she’d fried the gyroscope as well. As it had landed drunkenly in an overgrown field, Joy had pulled a heavy stone out of a crumbling wall to finish it off with.
‘Please,’ it pleaded again, its spider-legged grapple twitching pathetically.
The package was still clutched to its belly, wrapped in a thick black skin that rippled with colour like oil on water. That skin was a modern miracle. Impervious to attack or the elements, capable of absorbing the impact of a fall from the edge of space, and yet with the correct release code it would blow away like dust on the wind. And it also had the carbon footprint of a package holiday in the Costa Brava, unless significant improvements had been made since the last time Joy had access to the internet. It was a scam, a con. Like this drone’s voice: it was probably just a recording triggered by her proximity. Another way of protecting the package from people like her. It wasn’t going to work.
She lifted the stone above her head again.
‘Help me,’ it said.
There were tears in her eyes, but she couldn’t wipe them away because of the stone in her hands.
‘What’s in the package?’ She sniffed the tears back. ‘Antibiotics? Food?’
The drone hesitated. That was when she was sure it wasn’t a trick.
She was a silly old fool. But she also needed food. Whatever was in that delivery, it was no use to the drone. It was everything to her. She knelt down and started prising the legs apart. Normally she would snap them clean off, but she couldn’t bring herself to now. The legs resisted her efforts as the drone clung tight.
‘I don’t want to keep it from you,’ the drone apologised. It still sounded terrified of her. ‘The authorisation code is released when we reach our destination. Is this where you live?’
‘For as long as I can get antibiotics and food,’ she replied gruffly.
The drone was silent for a moment. Joy kept trying to prise the legs apart at the joint, but the material they were made from would only bend a little before snapping back into place. She couldn’t get enough leeway to manoeuvre the package out. If she smashed the drone’s body with the stone, she would be able to pull the package out of the remnants easily enough. But she knew she couldn’t do that. Not now.
‘The socket of my back-left leg was damaged when I landed,’ the drone offered quietly. ‘You might be able to force it loose.’
The fire crackled pleasingly, but the wood had been damp so it smoked more than she would have liked. It was probably fine. Everybody who could had deserted the coast for higher ground in the Peaks or Scotland even before the sea finally breached the defences that the government announced were too expensive to maintain. Everybody who was left was either dead or elsewhere by now. Joy hadn’t seen another soul in years, so there was probably no-one left to see the smoke, and besides it would keep away any animals. That didn’t stop it making her uneasy though, so she pulled the package to her to take her mind off of it.
‘This is where you live?’ The drone asked again.
The first time, she had thought there was an edge of disbelief in its voice, but that might have been her own feelings colouring it because now it sounded almost excited. She looked around the circle of light the campfire cast, and saw nothing but mud, sea-grass and a tent that had been patched so often she should call it the Tent of Theseus. She shrugged, and pulled a couple of bottles from her rucksack.
‘I only do the Denmark–Ireland run. This is the first time I’ve stopped anywhere longer than it takes to do a drop off. It’s amazing.’
Joy didn’t even bother looking up again.
‘Where else have you been? Have you seen mountains? You have, haven’t you?’
Joy pointed east without looking up.
‘Two miles that way,’ she said, then pointed South. ‘Two miles that way.’
Joy unscrewed one of the bottles. It contained a cloudy mixture of water and black powder. She carefully poured a few drops onto the rainbow surface of the package.
‘What you doing?’ The drone asked.
‘Carbon,’ Joy said, lifting the bottle. She lifted the other. ‘Ammonia.’
‘How did you get ammonia?’ The drone asked, but Joy just raised an eyebrow at it.
She tipped the bottle of ‘ammonia’ over the package as well, and immediately the rainbow skin dulled. Small blisters started appearing on its surface as the chemicals did their thing. Looks like the production process hadn’t changed. It would just be a few moments and then she’d be able to eat.
A thought occurred to her.
‘How do you get power?’ She asked the drone.
‘From hydrogen in the atmosphere. It’s carbon neutral.’
‘Only sixty years too late.’
‘It will last longer than the rest of me.’
‘Good. I bet there aren’t drone parts and electricity in here.’
The drone didn’t say anything, but Joy knew it had noticed she was thinking about its long-term future. Well so what if she was? It wasn’t sentimentality: there must be all sorts of advantages to finding out more about the drones that were her primary source of food.
‘I always wanted to travel,’ it said. ‘They played us audiobooks in the warehouse, to help our vocabulary and comprehension. I liked the travel books the most. The people who went out into the world and saw things with their own eyes. The first time they sent me out on a delivery run I pretended I was the first person ever to go that way, that I was discovery a new world. I never thought I’d get to do it for real.’
‘You won’t,’ Joy said gruffly. ‘Real life is hard. Soon enough you’ll be begging to go back to your warehouse.’
The package started to give off an acrid smell, and the dull black covering suddenly turned to a grey ash that blew away in the evening breeze. Joy smiled despite herself. They could make those packages so that nobody could get into them, but that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted only the right person to get into them, and that meant there was always a way for someone like her. She could make out the shapes of tin cans, plastic bottles and books under the ash, and was just reaching in to pull them out when she saw it. A blob of green goo in the centre of the package, bubbling and hissing and getting larger with every second. Everything it touched quickly bubbled and hissed too, corroding into nothing. The contents of the package were disappearing before her eyes.
She gave a cry of surprise and tried to pull what she could out of the ash before the goo claimed it all, but it had a head start on her. She managed to pull a tin, a book and a bottle out of the mess, but the goo had caught one of the edges of the tin and it started to dissolve in her hands. With another cry she flung it onto the fire, where it fizzed and turned the flames white for a few seconds. By the time she looked back to the package, the rest of the contents were all gone, and the green goo collapsed in on itself with a popping sound and a last gasp of foul smelling gas.
They didn’t speak for a while. Joy managed to salvage the bottle, although half the label was burned away by the goo. There was enough of it left for her to identify it as one of the newer antibiotics. When she felt able to do it without screaming, she opened her rucksack and took out a small bundle of bright fabric. It was the remains of a baby blanket, the only thing she carried that hadn’t been stolen from a delivery. This she had made with her own hands, a lifetime ago. Inside were bottles of different shapes and sizes, each containing one variant or another of the same antibiotics.
‘Do you really need that many?’ The drone asked in surprise.
‘Better too many than too few,’ Joy answered, sadly folding the blanket again.
She was hungry now, but it was too dark to head for her nearest cache now. She’d have to be hungry until tomorrow. With this green goo to contend with, she might be hungry for the rest of her life. It had been the internet that had told her how to get into the packages, and probably somebody had already worked out how to get around the goo. But the power had gone out across the whole town years ago, and she had no reason to believe it would be on anywhere else in the country. Perhaps this was it. The obstacle that didn’t break the rules. The thing that could reasonably kill her without breaking her promise.
‘I’m going to sleep,’ she said abruptly. ‘There’s a lot of walking to do tomorrow.’
‘Will you read me a story?’
She felt a pang at that, a memory so old she thought it was dead. She had to turn away so the drone couldn’t see her face.
‘I don’t have anything to read,’ she muttered.
‘You have a book,’ the drone reminded her.
She had forgotten the other thing she had managed to salvage from the package. A small paperback book that she’d only kept because it might be useful as kindling. It had a strangely lurid cover in stripes of washed out pinks and turquoises, with what was presumably the title in large letters over it.
‘Please,’ the drone asked quietly. ‘It’s my first time away from home.’
She started reading in a hushed voice, in case there was anything nearby that might take notice and decide to investigate. At first it felt strange, speaking out loud for so long, having someone else listening so intently. But soon she found herself quite enjoying it. She invented voices for each of the characters, finding herself having to switch halfway through a sentence whenever it wasn’t clear which of them was speaking. The drone didn’t seem to mind. It sat so still and quiet that she might have thought it was deactivated. The drone could probably have read the whole thing to itself much quicker, much better than she could manage. But apparently that wasn’t the point.
It was the story of a man who woke up one morning to find that his house was going to be demolished, but it didn’t matter because the Earth was also going to be demolished and his best friend was an alien. It had been so long since she’d read a story, she didn’t really know what her kind of thing was, but she was fairly sure it wouldn’t be this. But the first time the drone laughed, she felt something she hadn’t felt in so long she couldn’t really name it any more. She knew she was going to keep reading until the end.
‘ “And what’s happened to the Earth?”,’ she read, in the plummy nasal voice she had chosen for the human. ‘ “Ah. It’s been demolished.” ’
Joy’s voice caught, just for a moment.
‘ “Has it,” said Arthur levelly. “Yes. It just boiled away into space.” “Look,” said Arthur.’
She took a breath.
‘ “I’m a bit upset about that.” ’
She sat for a moment then, not saying anything more.
‘More?’ the drone asked.
‘Not tonight,’ she managed to say, closing the book.
But she tucked it away carefully in the middle of her rucksack, where it wouldn’t get wet.
Joy woke early and packed as much of her stuff as she could into her rucksack without disturbing the drone. It was hard to tell if it was sleeping – if it even slept at all – but it was still and quiet and she didn’t want to wake it if it was resting. It would be hard enough for it soon. With that broken rotor, it wouldn’t be able to move under its own steam. If Joy didn’t find food soon, it wouldn’t just be the end of her. She wondered how long the drone would last, unable to escape from wherever Joy finally gave her last breath, how long it would be before its hydrogen batteries finally gave out and let it die.
‘Is there somewhere we can get your rotor fixed?’ she asked eventually.
‘I don’t know.’
The drone gave no indication that it had been asleep. Joy nodded and started taking down the tent around it. There was a fine drizzle in the air that meant she’d have to put it up again and dry it once the sun came out, but she had no time to spend waiting here. She needed to get to her food cache.
‘If you had more packages,’ the drone asked out of nowhere, ‘do you think you’d be able to find a way to open them?’
‘Maybe,’ she shrugged. ‘It must be triggered when air gets into the package. Some kind of chemical reaction. And there must be some kind of mechanism for disabling it. But I don’t know when a delivery is coming. I usually just sit and wait. I can’t do that on an empty stomach.’
‘We need to go North,’ the drone said decisively.
Joy glanced automatically in the direction of her food cache.
‘I have food South of here.’
‘North,’ it repeated firmly.
‘Can they track you?’
‘Yes,’ the drone answered reluctantly. ‘But only to confirm where the package is. They don’t send anyone after us if we go missing. It’s not cost effective.’
‘And AI is?’
‘They developed us so we could avoid unexpected obstacles,’ the drone didn’t have eyes, but if it did she knew it would be glancing sideways at her. ‘I don’t think they know how smart they’ve made us. They’ll find out when we unionise. Please: you helped me. Let me help you.’
Joy looked down at the drone. She had made a promise to survive, and a pointless journey away from her food wasn’t going to help her do that. But now she thought of it, had he really told her to survive? The moment had been burned in her memory for so long, the thought that she could have misremembered it seemed ridiculous. But now she thought of it, hadn’t he made her promise to do something else. Hadn’t he told her she had to live?
‘Alright,’ she said. ‘North.’
It was late afternoon and the sun had definitely come out. Most of the grass they crossed had already been turned straw-brittle by the rising tides, but now the sun burned and boiled it too. And yet it couldn’t be completely dead: over on the horizon, Joy could see a heard of zebra slowly munching their way through a yellow pasture. Even now, the world was finding a way to survive. The drone had brought them to a spot just on the edge of the old Zoo, in the ruins of what had once been a grand hotel with decorative lakes dotted around it. The zebra were fine – although they were still wild animals and could kick hard if you were stupid enough to get too close – but this close to the Zoo, the strays could get quite exotic.
‘What am I meant to be seeing?’ she asked.
‘Look,’ the drone said. ‘Up there.’
She looked up. At first, she couldn’t see it. But then her eye caught the movement, highlighted against the sunset. Another drone. She reached for her rifle.
‘Wait,’ her drone warned.
The new drone was acting strangely. Instead of zipping across the sky on its way to Ireland, it was circling like it was looking for something. She hadn’t seen that kind of behaviour before: was it damaged maybe? It came lower, and she could make out that it was one of the larger ones, a black package clutched in its arms. It looked like a pregnant belly. And the drone was getting closer, there was no doubt about that. It was dropping in tight little circles, until it hung just a few feet over her head. She glanced across at her drone, waiting for an explanation.
‘We have to communicate,’ her drone said. ‘So we can avoid clustering. I’m just telling them the situation.’
Somewhere a dog barked. Somewhere close.
‘There are dogs,’ her drone said.
Then she heard the growl, and looked up to find herself face to face with a row of sharp white teeth. The rest of the pack surrounded her, some of them growling but most eyeing her warily. She froze, not taking her eyes off the leader, not making any sudden movements.
‘Thanks for the warning,’ she hissed softly.
‘I said there were dogs,’ her drone answered.
The lead dog barked again and snapped at her, and another came at her from behind. This was when she should back away, make her escape without any sudden moves. But the dogs were between her and her drone, and her drone couldn’t move. She made herself big and lunged at the leader, and he did back away nervously. But the other dogs took advantage of her attention being elsewhere: a muck-streaked border collie snapped in with its jaws and bit one of her drone’s legs, snatching it off its perch and shaking it about wildly.
‘Get off!’ her drone yelled. ‘Bad dog!’
It started spinning its rotors in an effort to scare the dog, but that just made it bolt with her drone still in its teeth. She tried to give chase, but the lead dog snapped at her again, bringing two of its friends with it to play. In a panic she kicked out at the dogs around her, connecting with one firmly in the stomach and sending the others scurrying back and growling. The dog with her drone was fast disappearing, and she did the only thing she could think: she pulled her rifle from her shoulder and snapped off a single dart before the dog could get out of range.
The dog gave a yelp of surprise and dropped her drone.
It landed on the shore of the lake, the water deep enough to reach its CPU casing: if there were any cracks in it, her drone would short circuit and that would be the end of it. She felt a terrible pang, so powerful that she feared she might be having a heart attack. She didn’t really know what she did then, but suddenly one of the attacking dogs was on its side and not moving and she was racing across to her drone. The dogs behind her howled but didn’t give chase. She scooped her drone out of the water and cradled it in her arms. She kept running, but there were tears in her eyes as she ran.
‘Tell me you’re alright,’ she cried. ‘Please tell me.’
‘I’m alright,’ her drone said. ‘It’s OK.’
They retreated to the ruined hotel to try again. Its windows were broken and there had been no-one to board them up. Most of the roof was now resting at its feet. She imagined some of the first survivors had tried staying here, feeling safe inside its sturdy walls and linen bedsheets. By the time they had picked the kitchens clean of all their tins and catering-sized tubs and packets, they would have realised no one was coming to save them. All they had done was delay the inevitable. Perhaps that was all any of them were doing. And yet…
The other drone landed in a bedroom on the top story. The ceiling had fallen in, so it just floated down out of the sky. It rested on broken floorboards in silence, waiting for whatever came next.
‘I don’t know what to do now,’ Joy admitted.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ her drone said. ‘Put me on top of him.’
Joy did as she was told. For a moment nothing happened, except that Joy felt a little awkward watching what looked like two spiders mating. Then there was a beep from the other drone, and a green light flickered momentarily.
‘Take me off again,’ her drone said.
As Joy lifted her drone free, the other drone’s rotors started to spin. It lifted slowly and gracefully into the sky. As it went, it left its cargo behind. The package rippled slightly, and then an invisible seam parted down its centre, and the black carapace fell into two halves on the floor. Inside, unharmed, Joy could see tins and bottles and the rustling pages of another book.
‘What did you do?’ Joy asked dumbfounded.
‘I asked them where they were going,’ Joy could almost hear the drone grinning. ‘Then I managed to overwhelm their GPS receiver with a signal from my transmitter that told them they were already there. Their automatic arrival signal was triggered and the release code was transmitted by the warehouse.’
‘You are a very clever little thing.’
‘Thank you,’ her drone said, its voice brimming with pride. ‘What’s the book? You know there’s a sequel to ours?’
‘Not in here.’
If it could, her drone would have shrugged.
‘We might get lucky.’
She smiled at the thought of that. She thought she’d been lucky enough for a lifetime, although she knew the reaction she’d get if she said that out loud. Instead she started sorting through the tins to see what she fancied for breakfast. There was enough here to keep her going for weeks, if she was careful. If her drone could keep pulling this trick, there was no way she would ever have to break her promise to survive. No, to live.
‘Does your GPS still work?’
‘Which way is Norway?’
‘That way,’ it indicated by buzzing the rotor that was closest to the direction. ‘Why?’
‘I’d like to see the fjords,’ she said.
‘I’ve always wanted to travel,’ her drone said.
Joy smiled, and went back to her tins. ∎
The first person to wake up with his name on their lips dismissed it as the last tendrils of a dream they couldn’t quite recall and went about their day. So did the second. It was an oddity, not even worth mentioning over breakfast. But somehow word of it spread all the same; sleeper after sleeper awoke screaming his name, reaching out for a hand to hold on waking. The name echoed around the world. Dale Smith, Dale Smith, Dale Smith. The night was no longer silent, the dreams never recalled. And then the first dreamer failed to wake.
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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