Before we begin the story, I want to say that I’m sorry this took so long to get down on the digital page. I completely re-wrote this story six times before i was properly satisfied with it, and it was way too long to keep going through all at once. I’m editing and proofreading the second part and it will be ready in the next couple of days. this, I think, will be the group around which the bulk of the rest of our stories revolve, with occasional side-stories when the mood strikes me.
Stay safe, survivors.
I squinted across the windswept moor in the breaking morning light, gleaming droplets of dew shimmering in tiny rainbows as I adjusted the field of view on the binoculars slung around my neck. I head been wearing them so long that the leather strap had started to chaff the back of my neck, summer sweat stinging me whenever I jostled the things about.
In the slightly dusty lenses, just now coming into focus, four of Them ambled lazily in the field. They might have been a pack of wolves on patrol, or even a small cadre of horses chewing the day’s first blades of grass. They were a dull, rusty orange color and moved in a low-slung and predatory fashion. Dogs. Quadruped mechanical wolves, armed with hydraulic rear legs for incredible leaping ability and a 9mm sub-machine gun mounted on Their front shoulder.
I sneaked a glance to my right. Settled on the grass next to me, Hugo was nervously chewing on a stalk of grass. He was young and foolish, and this was his first time out on a salvage run since the Crisis began nearly a month prior. He had stayed holed up in the Sveren utility bunker during the first weeks, like most of the rest of us, until things had calmed enough to move about without attracting too much of Their attentions. He had protested mightily when Leurig, our commander, had assigned him to our patrol for data retrieval. He was our second Mole, replacing our former man who had died a week prior. Hugo was always asking what had happened to our previous data digger, but with the loss so fresh none of the team were very forthcoming about it.
To my left, Julia and Olivia were both looking toward me, rifles already unslung and looking expectant. They were sisters, barely out of high school, and when they weren’t trying to out-shoot each other on the practice range they volunteered for every salvage run, every data mine, and every sweep and clear assignment they could get their hands on. Recently they had begun sticking with my team regularly, which suited me just fine. Not forgetting their generally positive personalities, they were both excellent marksmen. They both had round faces and large eyes, with olive-tinged skin that suggested a Mediterranean heritage. I had never bothered to ask; those types of things seemed so very unimportant when there were hungry Geeks starving for all of the data we could mine for them.
To my right, beyond the grass-grazing Hugo, Levi was staring forward, gently parting the long grass in front of him to gaze intently at the small pack of machines in the field. He was a bear of a man, with long matted hair and a big bushy beard adorned with two braids. He had squinty, watery eyes and a smile as broad as it was warm. He had been a fur trapper, and was invaluable when it came to keeping our group fed; he knew every game trail and rabbit hole on the islands it seemed, and until recently had never failed to bring back fresh kills when he went out to hunt. He had found his home on my team, tracking the movements of the machines through the grasslands and hills. Easy work, as he always said, since the machines never bothered trying to cover their tracks.
Though recently, he had begun reporting a severe decrease in animal life. Less birds singing, traps and snares remained untouched for days, and he was hard pressed to find a deer or elk track within five kilometers of our bunker.
Definitely strange, but hunting meat was left to the Farmer Johns. We were here for ones and zeros.
I got to my feet in a crouch, keeping the crest of the low hill between myself and Them and made my way over to Levi.
“Second on the right,” I whispered to him, and his hunting rifle came to bear in an instant. He locked his target and gave me a quick nod.
“First on the right,” I whispered in turn to Hugo, who noticeably fumbled his rifle at my order and nearly dropped it. I half sighed, made a mental note to put an extra round in his target, and moved over to the girls.
“First on the left,” I whispered to Olivia, who was situated closest to me.
“Second on the left, neck joint actuator,” I intoned to Julia, who had already begun sighting her target.
I resumed my place on the line, sighting in the fuel pod on the back of the machine’s frame. I had given Julia the most important shot, seeing as her target was a few meters closer to our group than the others were. I counted off ten breaths, threw a final glance up and down the line, and gave the command.
Five shots rang out, and four fuel tanks erupted into green flames. Twisted, burning metal ricocheted off of each other mid-air and spiraled down to earth like a miniature meteor shower. The fifth machine dropped to the ground, sparking and sputtering but still very much operational. I raised a fist, and everyone went still. The only noise was the crackling of sparks from the incapacitated dog, and the cool early morning wind rustling through the long grass.
We lay there for a full minute, waiting to hear the sounds of heavy footfalls or weapons being primed for a retaliatory strike. We all kept our eyes trained especially on the clump of trees that lined the far edge of the meadow; if a field team lost a member, it was most likely to the Lurkers in the Woods. We were not expecting that to happen to us.
After a moment I signaled the all-clear, and we started forward. Olivia and Julia immediately began sifting through the wreckage, pistols trained on the smoldering husks in case some hint of mobility remained. Levi stood watch a bit further out, scanning the tree line in a wide arc back and forth like a human radar dish. I clapped Hugo on the shoulder, grinning broadly as he slung his hunting rifle and began rummaging through his bag for the terminal and connecting cable.
“Good shot, boy,” I smiled at him. “Nice to see you’ve been practicing.”
“Thanks, but it’s a good thing you didn’t ask me to make this shot,” Hugo replied, motioning with his terminal at the sparking Dog on the ground. “Are you sure it’s not going to hurt us?”
“Positive,” I replied, giving the SMG mounted to it’s front shoulder a stiff kick and snapping the swivel housing mechanism. “Julia put the round straight through the actuator, see there? No drive controls can be sent to anywhere on the chassis.”
I said this, even as a pulled my knife from my boot and began cutting the five main hydraulic cables that ran along the Dog’s flanks. No sense in being careless, anyway.
The Dog’s camera lenses were still whirring, fixing upon us and contracting, then dilating as though to bring is into sharper relief. Though it’s drive controls were completely shredded, this part of the hunt always put me on edge. I wouldn’t be at ease until it’s radio broadcasting had been jammed.
Hugo quickly plugged in the terminal, sitting in the grass next to the Dog and typing away. If he was following protocol, he would be-
“Transmission jammed and held to queue, it was only 60 percent loaded before interruption. Plenty of time,” Hugo grinned, and resumed his typing.
“Well done,” Levi nodded, seeming to relax a bit as he took massive strides forward to help the girls scrounge ammo from the scorched frames.
“Look for received imperatives in the last 9 days,” I instructed Hugo, who’s eyes were scanning lines of radio code frantically. “That’s about the time we noticed the birds were quiet.”
“If it’s a logic tree, it’ll be harder to find, Peter,” Hugo replied, typing furiously. “That would mean these things can make independent decisions based on their situation.”
“That would be a big update, though, wouldn’t it?” Olivia offered, dusting her sooty hands off on the seat of her jeans. “Gabe’s last data dump suggested that each series of machine was limited in decision making based on the available space to house memory. These Gen 1’s are basically microwaves.”
“They can still receive orders from whatever network is actually making the decisions, we know that,” Hugo replied. “Even if they’re not receiving full software patches and completed logic trees, basic commands and imperatives can be received and processed without the need to tie up long-term memory.”
“But Gabe was telling me that their capacity is based on standard biology, like-”
Hugo made a rude noise, raising one middle finger to the sky. “Gabe is a retard, he doesn’t know enough biology to have sex with his wife. He was probably hoping you would give him a lesson.”
“Hey hey, cut this shit,” I sighed wearily, as Olivia made an offended snort and started toward Hugo, finger already wagging in his direction. That was usually a sign she was on her last nerve. It reminded me of my grandmother when my father would tell a rude joke over dinner. She would sit there wagging her finger as the rest of us howled with laughter.
I noticed that Levi was smiling broadly at Hugo, shaking his head at the young pup’s impudence and resuming his protective watch.
“Prick,” Olivia muttered under her breath, balking slightly at the look I gave her and joining her sister at Levi’s side. Protocol dictated that at least three were to watch at all times to reduce the likelihood of an ambush while data was processed.
“Alright, the directory has… wow, 18 recent imperatives in the last 9 days. They’ve been chatting up a storm,” Hugo’s eyebrows raised at this. Apparently, this was unexpected.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“Depends on what the instructions were, I guess,” Hugo shrugged. “These five most recent are new patrol routes. Before that, looks like scouting orders and… oh hey, this one is a rally order. Looks like it was sent to Torsberga.”
“What the hell was it doing way down south, then?” I wondered aloud.
“That was an older command. Olivia was right; the Gen 1 Dogs have a limited memory capacity. Old orders are erased when new orders are received.”
“If she was right, why give her all that crap, then?” I asked, annoyed.
“Girls like it when you tease them,” Hugo smirked.
“Read, boy,” I chuckled, giving him a short cuff to the back of the head. I wasn’t about to be the one to tell him that Olivia would probably break his neck before she touched his manhood.
“OK… it’s still compiling. I think this is the big directive, it’s still active which means it’s been committed to base memory. It’s not a logic tree… more of a Prime Directive.”
He stared at the screen for a few moments, brow furrowed in concentration as he read.
“Well?” I asked, giving him a nudge.
“It… well, I think I’m reading this right. All of their base commands are in machine code, and there’s a bit that’s lost in translation. But I think it’s a command to ‘gather organics for processing’.”
“What the hell?” I scoffed, peering over his shoulder. The text was a jumble of code and symbols that may as well have been Sanskrit to me.
“‘Gather organics’. I don’t know if that means specifically us, human beings I mean, or-”
“Has to be, dumbass,” Olivia called over. She had clearly been eavesdropping. “If they meant strictly ‘organics’ they would be stripping plants and cutting down trees, too!”
“Why can’t you be more like your sister and shut up?” Hugo grumbled, earning him a one-fingered salute from both sisters at once.
“I think she’s half right,” I mused, looking out over the silent trees. “It would definitely explain the dropoff in animal life we’ve seen over the past several days. Maybe they’re trying to starve us out.”
“It’s not a command to terminate organics,” Hugo corrected me. “It specifically says ‘gather’. What they’re doing gathering up living things is anyone’s guess, though. There’s nowhere near enough memory in this thing to store an imperative file like that. Just the base commands, and the logic modifiers to carry it out.”
“‘Processing’,” I mumbled, scratching my stubbly chin. I needed a shave, when I could find some spare water and a razor that wasn’t as dull as a butter knife.
“Maybe,” Julia whispered, staring out into the trees. “They need something we have. Or, something only organic creatures have.”
“Could be,” Hugo shrugged, closing the terminal. “I have everything copied over since the day this Thing was brought online, I can go over it more thoroughly at the bun-”
“Lurkers!” Julia hissed abruptly. The entire squad seemed to go cold at once, and we all sprinted back toward the hill for cover. Hugo clambered just next to me, his rifle barrel issuing a sharp twang as it jostled off of his computer terminal. He stuffed the machine back into his pack quickly, cursing fluently under his breath as he joined the rest of us in leveling his rifle at the stand of trees.
“Seven. Dear God, seven,” Levi breathed, as They appeared through the treeline.
Seven foot tall bipedal mechanical nightmares. I hated these things. We all hated these things. They could jump twice their own height, and all came with high powered assault rifles mounted to their arms and stiff, sturdy blades for close quarters engagements. I had seen one slice through a car door like a straight razor through newspaper. They had an odd array of sensors jutting forward on a swiveling neck apparatus, giving them the appearance of turkey-headed mechanical men.
“We didn’t bury the Dogs,” Julia whispered fearfully.
“Smoke’s cleared, they shouldn’t be interested until they’re nearly on top of them,” I replied.
Skreet… Skreet… Skreet…
My heart dropped, and Hugo looked over at me, wide eyed and terrified. We hadn’t put down the Dog we were data mining. And now it was broadcasting a low-frequency distress signal.
“Grate. Get to the grate. Go!” I whispered, and we scooted quickly down the embankment and back toward the service road we had taken here. We moved as quickly and quietly as our trembling feet would allow, though my own feet should have been busier kicking myself in the ass. Stupid, so stupid of me. Protocol was clear; all data mines were to be eliminated before retreat, even if it meant your life.
Fifty meters down the road we came to a drainage ditch dug into the side of a rocky hill, rusty iron grating padlocked shut. I quickly dug the key from my pocket, fumbled it for a moment, and jammed it into the lock. I opened the door and hustled my team through, throwing a look down the road. They had begun a search; yellow beams issuing from sensor matrices in their forward chassis. Scanning the ground, trees, and air itself for any sign of us.
I went through the grate, padlocking it behind me and keeping one hand on the slimy wall to guide me along. We wouldn’t risk flashlights until we had made the first right turn, and then straight forward for 2 kilometers until the pipe dumped out into the drainage basin near our bunker.
I entered the commissary the next day, scratching my chin. Hell… maybe I should just grow a beard at this rate. Supply runs were for food and medicine. None of the Gophers were risking their lives for a pack of razors.
I spotted my team when Julia motioned me to come over. There were lines of chairs all facing front, about a hundred in total. Of that hundred, sixty were filled. These were the data farming teams, the ones whose job it was to hack into the machines and their associated tech, and bring the findings back to HQ for analysis.
I peered around the room, trying to count ex-military men. You could always tell by the haircuts; even now, they kept them high and tight, no facial hair at all. Though by the patchy jobs some of them had done, they were probably shaving with their combat knives. No, thank you.
Most of us were civilians who happened to have ‘marketable’ skills, as our Commander called it. He was presently at the head of the room, with his feet up on his desk and reading through a thick bound file. He was a tweedy, bureaucratic looking man. If such a descriptor can be applied to a person, I suppose. He always seemed to have a file in his hand, and cracked his knuckles when he was nervous.
“Well, what’s this all about?” I asked.
“Don’t know. I figured we were going to get chewed out for not eliminating our Dog, but they’ve got every Miner 69er in the bunker down here,” Julia shrugged. It had been her that had christened the data mining division with it’s unofficial nickname. The Miner 69ers.
“I think it’s something important. Gabe’s squad was briefed before the word came down to meet here, might have something to do with what they pulled from their Gatherer,” Olivia said, throwing a sidelong look at the handsome blonde man sitting on the opposite side of the room from us.
“Just blow him already and get it over with,” Hugo muttered darkly, while Levi let out a snort that sounded a lot like a Bjork backfiring. This infraction earned the young man a very stiff punch to the thigh from the offended Olivia, and he squirmed in his seat while he frantically tried to rub out the charlie horse he had received.
“Mind your mouth, boy,” I grunted, giving him a standard cuff to the back of his head and motioning forward. Commander Leurig had stood up and was scanning the room. The man never started speaking until the last wisp of noise had dissipate.
“I called this meeting to address some disturbing findings in a few of the latest data mining operations,” he began in a soft voice that nonetheless carried the entire room. “Findings that may warrant a large-scale retaliatory strike.”
That got everyone’s attention. We never went into full shootout if we could help it. Ammo was scarce, and it was getting harder to find replacements for team members lost in combat.
“Six days ago Boyd’s data retrieval team happened upon something quite unique. And lucky, truth be told. A Gen 3 Lurker, half buried under a pile of steel girders at a construction site. It’s core systems were still operational, and their Mole was able to hack it’s memory and download the archives before the Gatherer it was escorting came to reclaim it for materials.”
“Wish our Mole was that good,” Olivia giggled quietly, giving Hugo a small shove with her shoulder. Levi shushed her insistently, staring forward the the Commander.
“The Lurker had recently received an imperative, to be committed to long-term memory. ‘Gather organics for processing’. In the six days since that discovery, nine other teams have mined machines with the same imperative,” Leurig stated darkly.
My entire team eyed one another. Ours hadn’t been an isolated case. And another puzzle piece fell into place. One small group of Dogs hadn’t been responsible for the dwindling life around our bunker. It had been happening all over.
“Last night, Gabe Nilsson’s team incapacitated a Gatherer near the crossroads leading up to the old castle,” Leurig nodded in Gabe’s direction, and he and his team nodded back in gratitude for the small show of respect. “Their Mole found the same imperative. And, due to the larger memory capacity of the Gatherers, they also were able to get a location. Quoting from the data files, this location is for “Unloading organics for processing and modification’. We don’t know what this refers to, but it can be assumed it’s nothing good.”
The mood was tense in the room, everyone sitting forward and paying the Commander every ounce of attention they possessed. This was something new. The machines hadn’t deviated from their standard behaviors until now, and everyone present was spinning wheels in their heads trying to determine what it could mean for us.
“I’m sending in one team of 69ers, for scouting only. Data retrieval is secondary priority. Report on what is occurring at this location over the short-wave radios, and carry out any additional mission objectives received on-site. As always, I ask for volunteers first.”
The last syllable hadn’t even left the Commander’s mouth before Julia and Olivia were on their feet, hands raised in the air as though they were answering a simple question in primary school.
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you forever,” Hugo moaned quietly, head in his hands. Levi too looked grim, and I was starting to feel a twisting unease in my gut-ropes. Julia and Olivia glanced down at us, as though regretting their burst of enthusiasm, before looking resolutely back toward the front of the room. Every head had turned toward us. Some were nodded respectfully, others were grinning at our suicidal stupidity.
“Domino Patrol 03 volunteers, Commander,” Olivia said firmly, and the Commander nodded in ascent.
“Very well. Domino Patrol 03, report to my office in two hours for your briefing. All data mining operations are on stand down for the next 48 hours.” This earned a small cheer from the assembled group. “Everyone report to the Farmer Johns for crop tending or hunting assignments.” The accompanying moan was well received by the Commander, who let out a small laugh and waved us off.
*Continued in Vol. 3, Part Two...*