Being banana yellow and adorned with black chevrons and fluorescent Large Vehicle signs, a Strider isn’t exactly inconspicuous. I couldn’t just slip one in my pocket and walk off with it without being noticed. And I didn’t want to think about how I was going to get the twenty-foot tall iron chicken to dance. Finding a Strider wouldn’t be difficult: Talos Industries were building themselves a new showroom across town, and were using their own construction machinery as a kind of long-term advertising project. They’d already demolished an old church, and the foundations had been dug and filled with concrete. Now they were in the process of erecting the steel girders, showing off the latest Striders to great effect.
The challenge was issued while we were crowded round screens in the Nag’s Head. A bunch of us had gone over the college walls after lights-out and were watching old science fiction movies. Our Way the Future Was nights were a kind of ritual, and you only got to be there if you were ‘one of the guys.’ Hurling abuse at the screen when the commercials flashed up was part of the ritual.
“That’s impossible, there’s no way they could do that!”
The ad in question was for a Strider. Instead of showing it up to its axles in building site mud, it featured a shiny new machine in a vast, empty hangar, backlit in blue and surrounded by swirling dry ice mist. The soundtrack was some old waltz, and the Strider was moving gracefully like a ballet dancer, using its hydraulic arms to lift heavy objects; nimbly stepping over obstacles, and finally lifting one leg to almost ‘shoulder’ height whilst pirouetting on the other.
“They’d never have got that thing to balance like that. They have to have faked it, right?” He turned to me for support. He was a pale skinny kid in a baggy sweatshirt.
I shrugged. I’d only recently graduated to being one of the guys, having earned my stripes with a stunt involving an old robot and a telepresence hook-up. I’d had my robot climb the clock tower outside a shopping mall like a clockwork Kong, and then I waited until a TV crew arrived before I launched my mechanical man’s swallow-dive into the cement. As a result, I now found myself elected resident robotics expert.
“I’m not sure it’s impossible, but I don’t…” I didn’t get to finish my sentence.
“There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” This came from a guy they called PacMan. He wanted people to think he was like the legendary old-school hackers, breaking into secure data sites and other phreaky stuff. His nose was out of joint because of the attention my simple robot hack had received. It was a challenge. “What about it?”
“You don’t control them like a robot,” I said. “You drive them, like a bulldozer.”
“So I’m not an expert driver: to do what they did in the ad would take hours of practice.”
“Then practice. Friday evening, in the field behind the campus sports block. You can give us a demonstration and tell us, in your expert opinion, whether the ad was faked.” He smiled. “Unless you can’t manage it. It’s a bit more of a challenge than the clock tower stunt.”
He was asking: Are you chicken?
“Behind the sports block, eight o’clock Friday,” I said.
Perhaps he’d expected me to back down on the spot. There was a half-second delay before he managed a tight-lipped smile. “I look forward to the show,” he said. His expression hardened. “But if you don’t get the Strider, don’t bother showing up in here again.”
I smiled. “If I do make it, first drinks are on you on Friday. For everyone. How’s that sound?”
There was a cheer from the crowd around us. PacMan smiled and shrugged. Okay. But I noticed a twitch in the muscle under his left eye: he’d been upstaged by the upstart again.
There was so much machinery on display that security at the construction site was heavy. There was a chain-link fence all the way around, so that people could see the technology at work, but there were signs every so often warning that the fence was electrified. It was also topped with razor wire. And to further encourage spectators to keep their distance, there was a moat, a ditch eight feet wide and filled with filthy green-black water, on the outside of the fence. Inside the fence, the area was patrolled by guards in armoured exo-skeletons and packs of Robermans. Construction was shut down after dark – no point carrying on the show when the audience was home in bed – but the site was fully floodlit: no shadows for the concealment of thieves.
“Getting one out shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” a voice behind me said.
I turned. It was the skinny blond-haired guy from the bar who’d originally argued that the Talos commercial had been faked. I’d seen him in class a few times, but I’d never taken much notice of him. I didn’t think he was one of PacMan’s crowd. He didn’t look much like a spy. He was wearing a big, shapeless sweatshirt with a faded Volkswagen logo, but it didn’t make him look any less skinny. He had pale waxy skin and big grey Anime eyes, which never quite met yours when he was talking.
“The Strider’s cab is insulated, so you can take it straight through the fence, use the cutters if you have to. Maximum stride is ten feet, so if you time it right, the ditch shouldn’t even slow you down,” he said.
“The problem is actually getting in there and getting one of those things started up without the guards and the dogs noticing,” I said.
“That’s what I figured. You need some kind of distraction to occupy them while you get in. Did you have anything specific in mind?” He asked.
“I think I have something that might keep them occupied,” I said.
He glanced through the fence again. “We won’t have much time once we’re in there,” he said.
“We?” I asked.
“I got you into this, I’d like to help.”
“You didn’t get me into this,” I said. “If I hadn’t wanted to do it, I’d have told PacMan to get lost.”
“I want to help.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t feeling as confident about this little caper as I was pretending to be: a little moral support might not go amiss. I shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
“Nathaniel Rhodes,” he said. “Nathan, or Nate, if you like.”
I thought he was actually going to offer to shake my hand for a moment.
“Steven Houston,” I said.
Most of my friends called me Stevie, but I didn’t think he qualified yet. Maybe later.
“How do we get in?” Nathan asked.
I held up a small box – a trackball and keypad combination I’d cooked up earlier. “Walk this way,” I said.
“Nice car,” Nathan said.
It was an old Ford, circa the mid-noughties, all rust and no hubcaps, bald tyres and a cracked windscreen.
“It’s a decoy,” I said.
“I’m no expert, but it looks more like a Mondeo to me,” he said.
I grinned. I was beginning to like him.
“You sure you can operate one of those things when we get in there?” Nathan asked, nodding towards the Strider.
“Of course.” I wasn’t, but how difficult could it be?
“Do you have any plans for the Strider after you’ve performed with it at the academy?” Nathan asked.
“I haven’t really thought about it, why?”
“Well, you can’t just come and give it back, can you?” Nathan asked.
“No, I guess I’ll have to dispose of it somehow–”
“I’ll do that,” Nathan said. He seemed kind of eager.
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“Help me lay these planks across the ditch?” I asked.
They were four planks from builders’ scaffolding, covered in plaster dust, their ends bound with galvanised metal strips. We lifted the planks, sliding them across the ditch, a bridge for the car. I got to take most of the load: Nathan was favouring one arm, the other held close to his side.
“Will it take the weight?” Nathan asked.
“Probably,” I said. I took the control box out of my pocket and punched in a sequence of numbers: the Ford’s engine rumbled into life, a cloud of bluish smoke rising behind it. It smelt pretty toxic. “It’s diesel,” I said. “I didn’t have time to convert the engine.”
He nodded, and maybe he even understood.
I used the trackball to steer the Ford, lining it up with the planks, retrieved a large canvas holdall from the driver’s seat, and then reversed the car up a ways: I figured I’d need to take a run at it. “Theoretically,” I said. “We ought to be safe to go through the fence inside the car, the tyres insulate it from the ground. But I don’t want to take a chance on that theory.”
He nodded, more enthusiastically this time.
“I’ll send the car through the fence: if it breaks the fence completely, the electricity’ll be shorted out and we can go straight in behind it. If the fence doesn’t break, we’ll drop one of the planks over the flattened wire and go over that. Okay?”
“Sounds good to me,” Nathan said.
It sounded perfectly insane to me, but an insane plan is better than no plan. Probably.
“I’ll steer the car as far into the site as I can. While the guards and the dogs investigate that, we’ll head for that Strider on the right over there: it’s closest to the fence, and the furthest from where I hope the car will end up. Ready?”
I leaned in and released the car’s handbrake. I revved the engine, then hit the button that slipped it into gear. The old Ford raced towards the make-shift bridge. The planks rumbled and groaned, plaster dust raining into the ditch, then the car hit the fence. I suppose I expected bright showers of electric blue sparks and the crackling sound you get in Frankenstein movies; instead, there was the chunk of metal hitting metal as the car nosed into the fence. The chain-link seemed to stretch, breaking free from the concrete posts, slowing the car. I had visions of the car coming to a complete halt, like Wile E. Coyote in an ACME giant rubber band, and then being fired back across the ditch to where we were standing. Something gave with a sharp poing, and there was an echo along the fence like an movie ray gun. The fence, breached in one spot, quickly gave way, its links snapping and loosed wires flying wildly apart. Suddenly released, the car shot forwards into the building site, its rear end fish-tailing until the tyres regained traction.
“Watch the razor wire,” I said. “I don’t think that circuit’s broken.” I picked up the holdall and jogged across one of the planks, leaping the remaining strands of the fence.
Swarms of exo-suited guards and baying Robermans appeared, closing in on the car. Almost immediately the guards opened fire.
“I’m glad we weren’t in the car,” Nathan said, catching up with me. We ducked behind a stack of girders.
The car was stationary now, its tyres flat, engine belching steam.
“They’ll start searching for us the moment they discover that the car is empty,” Nathan said.
“Then we’ll just have to give them something else to worry about.” I smiled and keyed an eight digit sequence into the car’s control pad. “Count to ten, then run for the Strider. Don’t look back,” I said.
I counted to six then took off for the Strider. Nathan was close behind. There was a dull whoomp and the ground shook under us. I glanced back over my shoulder. Where the Ford had been was now a cloud of fire and smoke, rising into the night sky. Concussion grenade with some harmless pyrotechnics for effect. Scattered around the burning wreck were fallen guards and dogs; stunned by the shockwave, their hardware blipped by a mild EM pulse.
I stumbled towards the Strider, my ears popping. Nathan knelt beside me as I opened the holdall and went to work on the giant machine’s left leg.
“It won’t take them long to find us here,” he said. He pulled some kind of air-pistol from a holster hidden under his sweatshirt.
“What are you doing?” I asked, concerned.
“I’m going to take out some of those floodlights. Hurry up!”
I hurried. I flipped open the control panel in the Strider’s leg and connected my computer to override the locking mechanism. The Strider’s motors hummed into life, and the cab lights came on. I was hardly aware of the pistol shots as I tried to persuade the Strider’s firmware to talk to the control software on my computer.
“We in yet?” Nathan asked, “because they’re on their way.”
Obviously attracted by the lights in the Strider’s cab. Or the gun shots.
“Almost there,” I said. Seconds later the cab door clicked open, and a little stairway descended on smooth hydraulics.
“Crap!” Nathan said.
I turned in time to see him stand quickly and train the gun on an exo-suited guard who had sneaked up on our left. The gun jerked and earth sprayed into the air just in front of the armoured security guard: a deliberate miss, I hoped. The guard hesitated, then ducked behind a pallet of insulation foam to await back-up. Smart man.
“Let’s go!” Nathan yelled, scanning the shadows for other attackers.
“We’re in,” I said. I disconnected my computer and ran up the steps. I’d imagined something smart and high-tech, like an executive automobile: it looked like a spaceship cockpit from an old Flash Gordon serial. I dropped into the driver’s seat, tearing open the control console and connecting my computer to override the Strider’s own system. I heard Nathan climb onto the steps, and several shots rang out.
“They’re coming, and they don’t look happy! If we’re going to get out of here, we’ve got to do it now!” He squeezed off another couple of rounds, then came up the steps and stood behind me.
“Hold tight,” I said. “This is going to be a bit jerky until I get the feel for it.”
I raised the steps and closed the cab door. I called up the control software, and my mind was suddenly filled with a mass of data and menu trees. Damn! This thing was more complex than any robot I’d ever seen. I cleared the automatic functions, figuring they’d take care of themselves: why else would they be labelled automatic? Then I turned off the areas related to specific work functions – welding, cutting, painting and the like – so that I could concentrate on the key movement functions.
“Just put one foot in front of the other and move!” Nathan urged.
Proximity detection seemed standard enough, and the avoidance system was partially automatic. The gyros meant that balance would be maintained no matter what I did. In theory. All I had to do was control speed, direction and stride length. One foot in front of the other, easy. Of course, if I misjudged and tripped this thing, there was little chance of getting it upright quickly, and we’d be caught like sardines in a can. But aside from that I had no worries.
I once read somewhere, that walking is controlled falling. When a person has two feet on the ground, they are stable. When they lift a foot to take a step, they begin to fall forwards, and it’s only when that foot reaches the ground again that the fall is stopped and stability is restored. As a person, walking had always come pretty naturally to me – except when I’d had a few beers – but in the Strider, the whole controlled-fall principal became sickeningly obvious. I had never been to sea, but I guessed that this was exactly like being seasick. Around us, the machine creaked and groaned as it lurched from step to step.
“You want to hurry this thing along a bit?” Nathan asked.
“You want us to end up head first in a ditch?”
The trick was to keep the body of the Strider low, like an ostrich running with hunched shoulders, belly close to the ground.
Guards and robo-dogs were coming towards us on all sides, and I could see the headlights of vehicles approaching, but they were having to avoid concrete-filled footings and cages of steel girders that slowed them down.
“Ah, I was afraid of that,” Nathan said. He was peering out of a side window.
“They’ve got somebody firing up the other Striders, they’re going to come after us.”
“Clash of the Striders! This could be fun!” I said.
Now that I’d (almost) mastered the art of walking, I decided to check out some of the other functions, see if we had anything that could be used as a weapon. A hail of red hot rivets soon had the guards diving for cover, but the Robermans didn’t recognise the danger quite so quickly, and I nailed a couple of them before the rest took off. I felt that we needed some appropriate music for the external speakers, though I wasn’t sure what: then my subconscious threw up the perfect classic track, a rock version of These Boots Are Made For Walking. Ha, ha. I turned it up loud.
“They’re going to try and head us off before we get to the fence,” Nathan warned.
Several of the Talos Industries vehicles had negotiated the hazards of the construction area and were now moving to block where we’d planned to take the Strider through the fence. It looked as though they were setting up some heavy artillery too.
“Do you think they’ll risk damaging the Strider?” Nathan asked.
I laughed. “I think they have instructions to stop us, no matter what the cost,” I said.
“If we can hold them off until the TV crews get here we’ll be okay,” I said. “They won’t blow us up on camera, it’d be bad publicity.”
“We have to get off this site fast. They’ll be calling up reinforcements to cover every road for miles around,” Nathan said.
“Time to test this thing out over uneven ground, I think.”
I turned the Strider away from the fence and headed into the middle of the construction area, picking a way through the girders and concrete-filled trenches, along a route which the wheeled vehicles couldn’t possibly follow. That left only the other Striders to contend with.
“They’re moving up fast: I think they’ve had more practice at this sort of thing,” Nathan said. “I don’t think you’ll outrun them.”
“I don’t plan to outrun them, just to get far enough ahead of them. We’re not going to run away, we’re going to turn and fight!”
“We?” Nathan said.
“You want me to stop and let you out here?”
“No, no, I’m with you all the way.”
A Strider is something like eighteen feet high, and possibly the same across the shoulders: not the easiest thing to play hide ‘n’ seek with. Eventually we were far enough ahead of the other Striders for me to duck aside without them seeing, and hide in the shadows. I cut the headlights, the cab lights, and the music, and set about investigating the controls for the Strider’s arms.
To compensate for the imbalance of weight when the Strider picked up a heavy object, a combination of gyros, hydraulics and tightening cables was employed. Most of it was done automatically, but the driver had to make his lift smoothly and evenly to ensure that the automatics could respond adequately – it’s the sort of thing that eventually comes with experience, I guess. Me, I had to trust to luck. I turned the Strider through seventy or eighty degrees on its central joint, bending the legs into a near crouch to keep the machine balanced, and then reached forward with the arms to lift a girder from a nearby stack. It’s probably one of the combinations of moves the user’s manual advises against. There was a brief moment as the girder was raised that the whole rig seemed in danger of toppling forwards, but the cables and hydraulics took the strain, and we stayed upright, poised like a baseball player ready to swing.
As soon as the first of our pursuers came into view, I turned and straightened the Strider, sweeping the girder in a fast arc which knocked the legs out from under our opponent. I released the girder and stepped backwards in a move which I hoped would prevent us falling forwards in the follow-through. It almost didn’t work, and I had to back-pedal a few steps before the gyros sorted out our balance. In front of us, the enemy Strider seemed to fall in slow motion, belly-flopping into the dirt.
“One down!” I yelled.
“Three to go,” Nathan said.
“Keep an eye out for the guys in exo-suits,” I said. “I’ll take care of the iron chickens.”
The pursuing Striders stepped carefully around their fallen comrade and continued after us: I’d hoped that at least one of them would stop and see if the fallen driver was hurt. Silly me.
Those huge concrete pipes they use for drains are delivered on big wooden pallets, held in place by X-shaped bits of wood. If you knock one of these bits of wood out of place and then lean on the stack of pipes, you get a sort of concrete avalanche which can flatten a Strider if you’re not careful. The remaining two Striders separated, moving around the still rolling pipes on the left and right, aiming to come at us from two directions. I moved towards the one on the right, picking up speed and bearing down on him.
“My God, you’re going to ram them!” Nathan warned, as if it might not have occurred to me.
Have you ever played chicken in an iron chicken? I was watching the other Strider closely, waiting for the first sign of hesitation. You see, I’d just discovered another little feature of the Strider: guy-lines. To secure themselves in place in awkward situations, the Striders could send out wires which would fix themselves magnetically to steel structures, or use grappling hooks for other anchor points. These magnetic guy-lines could also be used offensively, if your aim was good. The other Strider stopped, ready to step nimbly aside and trip me as I thundered past, no doubt.
I stopped too, planting my Strider’s feet firmly, and the moment the other driver lifted his machine’s foot to take another step, I fired the magnetic-tipped cable. It hit the other Strider’s leg with a satisfying clang, and I reeled in the cable as quickly as the capstan mechanism would allow, yanking the other Strider’s leg up and out from under it. It toppled over backwards with an even more satisfying crash, and a cloud of dust and builders’ sand. I released the guy-cable.
Three down and –
“One behind you!” Nathan warned. “And armed guards coming down the slope to the left.”
I turned, firing a volley of rivets up the slope to discourage the guards, and then faced our final Strider opponent. The final showdown. High Noon. He was about ten yards away. Waiting. Almost subconsciously I called up The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the music database. Keeping my machine’s feet as close to the ground as possible, I began to back away from the other Strider: I wasn’t about to let him yank a leg out from under me with a guy-line.
“How far away is the fence back there?” I asked.
“A hundred and fifty feet, maybe. But it’s up the slope: there’s no way you could get this thing up there,” Nathan said.
“Says who? The military do it in their Defenders all the time.”
“Those things are designed for uneven terrain, they’re special military models. Tanks.”
“Principle’s the same.”
I turned us about until we were facing the slope. The other Strider began to move towards us.
“Once I start this thing moving, there’ll be no stopping: I have to keep the momentum going or we’ll never make it to the top. You think you can fire that gun out the back window and keep the other Strider from following us up?”
“The back window doesn’t open,” Nathan said.
I handed him a large spanner. “Improvise.”
The plastic gave out under the second blow.
“Fire off a couple of shots to make him wary of getting close, then I’ll just jog this thing on up the hill,” I said.
“You any idea what we’ll find when we get up there?” Nathan asked. He took aim at the enemy Strider.
“There’s a road runs along the top there: it’s probably swarming with Talos Industries troops by now. But, we’ll worry about that when we get there.”
“If we get there,” Nathan muttered. He fired. “Hah! Took out a headlight.” His next shot went wild, but then he managed another which left a white spiderweb on the other Strider’s windscreen.
I sprayed the slope ahead of us with the last of the rivets, to keep the guards out of our way, and some dry clumps of grass caught light. Then we took a couple of steps back.
“Any last words for posterity?” I asked.
“Get us the heck out of here!” He said. Or words to that effect.
Nathan was probably right, about those military Striders being specifically designed to tackle terrain like the slope we were heading for. I hoped the TV news crews were in position to film this, because one way or the other, this was going to make spectacular footage. If we made it, they might even use it in the next Strider commercial.
I fired a guy-line up towards the fence above, using a grappling hook to attach it to one of the posts: I hoped it would take the strain.
“Hi-ho, Silver, away!”
It wasn’t quite a gallop, more a sort of ungainly waddle, as I kept the legs as far apart as possible and the cockpit close to the ground, reeling in the cable as we went, like a drunken two-legged spider. The Strider’s feet gouged out clods of earth and kicked them every which way. The machinery whined, creaked and hissed, but we were too busy being all shook up to worry. Nathan crashed into the back of the seat, then rolled sideways and lay huddled against the door, hanging on for dear life.
Half way up I almost lost it. The Strider was leaning too far backwards, threatening to send us tumbling butt-hole over tea-kettle into the arms of the enemy below. I panicked and quickly reeled in the guy-cable to drag our bulk forwards. It was touch and go for a couple of seconds, and then we were heading up the slope again.
As soon as we reached the fence, I used one of the Strider’s arms to anchor us to the post, and the other to tear away the chain-link, creating a gap for us to pass through.
We stepped over the ditch, which was narrower here at the side of the road, and out onto the tarmac. Talos Industries armoured cars were already racing up the hill towards us, monocycles just ahead of them.
“You know what the top speed of this thing is?” Nathan asked.
“Thirty or forty max. We aren’t going to be able to outrun them,” I said.
We were heading for the breast of the hill.
“Any suggestions?” Nathan asked.
“I suggest that now might be a good time to panic,” I said.
“We could wait until we get over the top of the hill and when we’re out of sight, put this thing in a walk cycle and bail out,” Nathan suggested.
“It seems a pity to ditch it now that we’ve got this far,” I said.
“Myself, I’d just settle for getting out of this alive and a free man,” Nathan said.
“I can see the attraction of that,” I said.
“We won’t get much further, anyway,” Nathan said. “They’ll have a roadblock set up at the cross-roads.”
“You’re right,” I said. “We won’t get far on this road.”
“Then we abandon ship?”
“Hell no, we abandon the road!”
I turned the Strider and slowed it so that I could get it to step up onto the low wall at the side of the road, and crouch there, bird-like.
“That’s a thirty-foot drop!” Nathan wailed.
I grinned. “Hold tight, the iron chick is about to make its maiden flight.”
The Strider jumped.
I knew that if I could pitch the hydraulics right and keep the Strider moving when it hit the ground, we’d make a spectacular escape and leave the security men up on the road agape and unwilling to follow. I also knew that if I misjudged it, there’d be one hell of a crash, and the security men would have to scrape us off the inside of the wreckage.
The Strider seemed to hang in the air for a long moment, then fell, plummeting towards the ground like a brick in battle armour.
“We’re going to die!” There was a slight note of panic in Nathan’s voice.
We hit the ground hard. The crash was deafening. The Strider lurched horribly. Joints and bodywork screeched and groaned, and the whole thing began to pitch forward. Nathan fell forwards, hitting the back of my seat, then sliding to the floor of the cockpit. I grappled with the controls, trying to get the machine’s left leg far enough forward to keep us upright.
Somehow I managed to keep us moving in a staggering run, stability warnings wailing and hydraulic pressure lights flashing. I slowed the Strider then, steering it under the cover of the trees growing along the bottom of what had once been a railway track and then a footpath for nature-lovers, and which was now neglected and overgrown. I kept the Strider moving at a steady pace, aiming to get as far away as possible before they brought in an air patrol to locate us.
When I was a kid, I loved setting traps for robots. On a rainy afternoon, there was nothing finer than sitting at the top of the stairs listening to the junk-yard clatter of a domestic robot hitting concrete, or to hear its high-pitched electronic scream as it discovers that a door-knob has been wired to the mains. The smells of fried circuit boards and hot metal bring the memories flooding back even now. It’s not that I hate robots exactly, they were just the only legitimate targets I had as a child. If I’d had a brother to torment, my life might have turned out very differently. But I’d grown up an only child, and both my parents were indentured MinoTech desk slaves. Most of the time it was me in a house with five domestic robots. And their leader, Boris.
Permanently disabling Boris would have meant shutting down the whole house: no food, no clean clothes, no hot baths; so I had to devise ways of catching him which would cause embarrassment rather than incapacitation. Boris’ blank-faced, humourless, unquestioning smugness was too much like the people around me: of course he became my target. I wanted to shake him out of his calm, unflappable obedience, wanted him to stir the other robot slaves into rebellion and persuade them to cast aside their shackles. But like his adult human masters, Boris was content to tirelessly followed his carefully programmed life as he always had. I once blocked up the fountain in the entrance hall and then disconnected the pump from the water supply and attached it to a drum containing a mixture of my own concocting. Boris was walking around covered in day-glo pink varnish for over a month!
You should try it. If you ever feel threatened or clumsy beside your shiny, efficient robotrix, trip her up and send her flying under a tram. You may feel that your robot is too valuable to risk seriously damaging, but don’t let that stop you demonstrating your superiority over it: paint yellow and black stripes on it and glue springy antennae to its head; remove its normal feet and attach instead a pair of huge cartoon chicken feet and watch it attempt to walk with dignity; swap its left and right hands; anything that makes you feel that you’re the one in control. It was thinking like this, along with a series of reports concerning ‘disruptive behaviour’ at school, which led an educational psychologist to ‘encourage’ my parents to send me to the MinoTech ‘college’ – a sort of boarding school cum military academy for all the ‘difficult’ kids of corporate employees. This is your last chance to conform, they warned. And it was at the academy that I discovered my attacks on robots were little more than practical jokes compared to what some of the others could do. I needed to up my game. Which leads us back to my current predicament.
The Strider was in a steady walk-cycle, with the only evidence of its recent abuse being a slight limp. I looked over at Nathan. His face was pale, and he was holding his left arm to his side.
“Wild ride, huh?” I said.
“I think I crapped myself,” he said glumly, then he grinned.
“What happened to your arm?” I asked.
“I think it’s bust,” he said.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
Nathan looked down at his arm and laughed. He rolled up his sleeve and exposed the damaged mechanism of the prosthetic. He stared at me, as if to gauge my reaction.
“Looks like the elbow joint’s dislocated,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s worn out. It hangs together for a while, but eventually it gives out. Korean crap.”
I moved towards him, but he pulled back, hiding his arm like a wounded animal. “I can slip the joint back into place,” I said. “It’ll need fixing properly, but at least I can stop the elbow bending the wrong way.”
“How come you know about prosthetics?”
“I don’t, but they’re a lot like the mechanisms in robots.” I reached for his arm, and this time he didn’t pull away. I wanted to ask how he lost his arm, but didn’t think I knew him well enough. I sensed he wasn’t comfortable with the artificial arm: the challenge in his eyes when he had revealed it told me that. He’d been daring me to say something about it.
“It’s okay,” he said, as I moved to get a grip on his upper arm. “It’s fake to the shoulder.”
Holding the arm above and below the elbow, I forced my thumbs into the joint and levered it apart, slipped the ball of the combined radius-ulna into its socket: it was a pretty primitive mechanism, the joint allowed no east-west rotation, and the cabling which acted as ‘muscle’ could provide only jerky stop-start motion. His hand looked real enough, if you didn’t look too closely. But there was no cladding or fake skin above the wrist, just the bare stainless steel and nylon construction. When I commented on this fact, Nathan shrugged.
“Why pretend it’s something it isn’t? Besides, the damned thing breaks down so often it’s easier to leave all this exposed.” Nathan flexed his fingers, their workings giving out little metallic clicks. He bent his arm at the elbow, testing it warily.
“It’ll stay in place, probably, but if you try lifting anything it’ll just pop out again. You need to get a someone to look at it, adjust the tension between the servos,” I said. “I’ll do it when we get back, if you want; I think I have the right tools.”
Nathan shrugged. “Okay.” He looked at me, as if expecting me to ask about the arm. I didn’t like to make any observations about the quality of the prosthetic: criticising a bloke’s artificial arm probably ranks up there with commenting on the size of his dick.
Nathan rolled his sleeve down and began talking without looking at me.
“I lost the arm in a road accident a couple of years ago. I was into motorbikes then, had been ever since I was a kid. Real motorbikes, like you see in the movies, not the plastic disposable racers the Japanese build today. My parents were dead set against me having anything to do with bikes: the usual prejudices, I guess; they never had an original thought between them. Anyway, I got hold of an old bike, renovated it myself in a lock-up garage I rented in The Outskirts. I built an engine for it that ran on alcohol I distilled myself from vegetable waste.
“I suppose it was a freaky looking machine, but man I was proud of it: I used to cruise around The Outskirts in my shades, even when it was dark. I bought a leather jacket and dragged it down the road behind the bike to get just the right look. I was so cool.” He looked up at me, or through me, and laughed. “I got hit by some rich kid who was racing around The Outskirts showing off his new air car to the poor folks, keeping it just far enough off the ground so people could see it had counter-grav. He didn’t stop. A witness got his registration number, but the police said they couldn’t trace it. He was a rich kid, you see.
“My arm was too badly damaged for the doctors to save.”
“Didn’t your parents have medical insurance? How come you ended up with that –”
“Why did I end up with a bargain basement prosthetic? My parents were more upset about me disobeying them and building the bike than they were about me losing a limb. When the police knocked on the door and asked them if they knew where I had been that evening, it was just too embarrassing for them. How dare I bring such disgrace on them?
“That’s what got me into the MinoTech college; they had me committed themselves. The cheap Korean arm was part of the ‘lesson in real life’ too: if I graduated with distinction, my stepfather promised he’d buy me a decent arm. If I could ‘learn to behave like a normal human being’ then I could have a prosthetic that made me look like a normal human being.
“Pretty sick, huh?” He was looking at me now. What could I say? “If this is the price of freedom, I’ll pay it,” he said. “Better to look like a cheap machine than think like one.” He tried on a smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He stood up and stretched, looking out of the side window. “What’s the plan?”
“This old railway line will take us almost to the college campus, and we’ll be undercover most of the way,” I said.
“Do you think the Strider’ll be in any fit state to give your little demonstration in the parking lot?” Nathan asked.
“Oh, we’re not giving the demonstration in the car park,” I said
Nathan shot me a puzzled glance.
“A couple of the other guys are waiting to give us a hand to set up the demonstration,” I said.
Nathan laughed and told me I was crazy when I explained what I had in mind.
“You get up to this sort of thing most nights?” He asked.
“No. Mostly I just drop robots from great heights.”
We headed back towards the college. And trouble.
There was no way the police should have been able to find us: I’d planned my route carefully, spending the whole of the previous day poring over maps and print-outs, making sure I’d be piloting the stolen Strider through deserted freight yards and through the shadows behind warehouses I knew weren’t monitored by security cameras. We were a big machine moving quickly, but maintenance robots were a common sight along the railway lines after dark when the freight services weren’t running: nobody would have given us a second glance. We should have been able to make a clean getaway. But the cops were at the college before dawn. How they got on to us so quickly was a mystery. At first.
We’d hoped that no one would find the Strider until breakfast. It had taken us three-and-a-half hours to dismantle it, carry the pieces into the college dining hall, and reassemble them. Then we’d gone off to bed, intending to rise and shine with everyone else and watch their reactions when they went in for breakfast. I’d planned to give a little demonstration of the machine’s ballet skills while the other kids and staff tucked into their porridge. Alas, it was not to be.
A tannoy from the Principal at 4am ordered everyone to assemble in the dining hall in their pajamas. I pulled on jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers – partly because I don’t sleep in pee-jays, and partly because I thought I might have to do a runner if they’d managed to discover who was responsible for the refectory’s new ornament.
They had: Nathan and the other members of our gang were already standing on the platform behind the teacher’s table: I didn’t wait to be collared, I went straight up and joined them. I spotted the PacMan talking to the Principal and a couple of uniform cops. That solved the little mystery of how they’d gotten on to us so fast.
The Principal strode up to the platform, glaring at those of us who had brought shame upon his college. He was doubly teed off, rumour had it, because when the police officers had woken him, they’d discovered him in bed with one of the First Year girls. He was some failed Upper Management who had been ‘retired’ and pushed into lecturing, last refuge of the incompetent, and was a mean, bitter individual, with yellow teeth and a face like an old leather jockstrap. He gave a lecture to the assembled students and staff about the reputation of the school being tarnished by a bunch of selfish, mindless hooligans, and then singled me out as the ring-leader. He had to do it twice, because I wasn’t listening first time.
“I want you, Houston, to get that machine out of here within the next five minutes and turn it over to the police officers outside,” he said.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible – ” I began.
“I do not intend to discuss the matter: get that machine out into the car park now!”
Five minutes wasn’t long enough to dismantle the robot into small enough pieces to carry out through the door. I climbed up into the Strider’s cockpit and fired up its control software. I dialled up a music database and accessed the main theme from War of the Worlds and played it (loud!) through the machine’s external speakers. I saw Nathan across the room give me a thumbs up, then he headed for the exit while all eyes were on me. I used one of the Strider’s pneumatic arms to demolish the back wall of the dining hall, and piloted my martian war machine out through the clouds of dust and smoke into the student car park.
The Strider was soon surrounded by police cruisers, and as the dust settled, a nondescript car pulled up close by: it was trying so hard to be inconspicuous that it practically screamed Unmarked Police Car! Two detectives climbed out and struck macho poses beside the car: they looked like the poster for a cheesy cop movie. One of them took a couple of steps towards me as I climbed down the metal steps under the Strider. His dark hair was greased back. He had a small moustache which didn’t suit his face: it twitched as his top lip curled into what he imagined was an effective sneer. I could imagine him practising it in front of the mirror. He was looking very, very smug, and was about to tell me that I’d been stupid if I’d thought I could outwit him and his highly trained fellow officers. I despised him on sight.
“Steven Houston,” he said, nodding his head in a knowing way. He was doing his best to look down his nose at me, but I was a couple of inches taller and he had to tilt his head back.
“By a weird coincidence, that’s my name too,” I said, choosing to misunderstand him.
The detective’s smile disappeared as he found himself suddenly in danger of losing control of the situation. “I want you to put your hands in the air and move towards the car,” he said.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Houston,” I said.
“My name’s not – ”
Behind us, the Strider moved, turning to face the detective.
“What’s it doing?” he asked, trying not to appear alarmed. His hand strayed towards his shoulder holster.
“I’m sorry, I must have left the engine running,” I said. “I’ll go up and switch it off.”
“Don’t move,” the detective said. “I’ll do it.”
“Dex,” he called over his shoulder. “Cover him while I shut that thing down.”
His partner nodded once. The detective moved towards the Strider, attempting to appear confident in his ability to handle the situation. He disappeared up the little metal ladder into the belly of the yellow beast.
Behind me, I heard the Strider move again.
“You sure you know what you’re doing, Detective Houston?” I called over my shoulder.
“Yes, I’m sure. And I’m not – ” He gave a very un-macho little eek then, as the Strider took a step forward.
“You all right?” Dex shouted up towards the Strider’s cockpit.
“Of course.” He sounded less sure of himself now.
The Strider lurched forward, taking another step towards the unmarked police car. And another.
I raised my hands, and moved out of the Strider’s path.
The Strider bore down on Detective Dex and their car.
“Kominsky? What the heck are you playing at?” There was a slight note of panic in Dex’s voice now. “This is not funny, man.” The Strider was almost upon him, and Dex’s instinct for self-preservation overcame his desire to maintain a cool, macho image. He ran to where I was standing.
The Strider tore the roof off the unmarked police car with the first swipe of its arm.
“How do you stop this thing?” Detective Kominsky wailed from the cockpit.
The Strider continued to rip the car apart. The sounds of tortured metal, and Kominsky’s weak pleas for help, continued for several minutes. Finally, when the car was a shredded mess on four flat tyres, the Strider stepped back and was still.
“For God’s sake, don’t touch any more controls,” I shouted up at the Strider.
A loud klaxon went off inside the machine and a bright red light began flashing in the cockpit to accompany the wailing.
“I think he just activated the self-destruct!” I said. I was enjoying this immensely.
“Get out of there, Kominsky!” Dex shouted. “Move it!”
Kominsky was already heading for the exit hatch. For a moment it looked like he might make it, but just as he got his foot on the first rung of the ladder, the fire extinguisher went off, smothering the cockpit with foam. Kominsky took another step down the metal ladder and slipped on the foam which was spilling out of the Strider’s hatch. He slithered down the steps and landed butt-first on the ground. He was covered in blobs of foam, and sat unaware that the bubble-bath monster from hell oozed down the steps behind him.
As the foam engulfed Kominsky, Dex started laughing. He’d been trying not to. Uniformed cops got out of their cars and moved in for a closer look at the unfortunate detective. I felt a downdraft as the air patrol moved in too, spotlighting Kominsky and catching him on video for the rest of the police station to enjoy too, I hoped. Keystone’s finest were all too preoccupied with their fallen comrade to pay me any attention. I edged towards the road where Nathan was waiting in a little electric city car: I’m pretty sure it was the principal’s car he’d stolen. By the time the plods had realised what was going on, I was over the wall and climbing into the getaway car. They all ran to their vehicles – all except Dex and Kominsky, of course – and then discovered that I’d ‘accidentally’ positioned the Strider so that it was blocking the exit from the student car park. They shouted at Kominsky to move it, but he seemed less than keen to oblige.
Nathan and I left the principal’s car in a tow-away zone in town and went off in search of an early breakfast.
“You sure this is what you want?” I asked. The program was darkware, custom written illegal software – the logo on my screen was a skull and crossbones. iDeath. Or suicide in our case. It was going to make us disappear.
I’d bought half-a-dozen no-name credit rods from a back street vendor, losing almost fifty-percent on the deal, then dropped my personal credit rod where someone would soon discover it. My PIN was scrawled on the key-tab attached to it, just like the banks tell you not to. The police would be watching my credit transactions, hoping to follow me that way; now they’d be following someone else. Time for Stevie Houston to disappear. Completely. I was offering Nathan the same choice, but wanted to be sure he realised what was involved. There’s no coming back from identity death.
The program had come from someone I occasionally bought from at The Tin Man’s Head. The Tin Man’s Head is a bar in the outskirts. It’s a popular misconception that computer-jockeys shun social interaction, relying instead on electronic communications systems and virtual environments for their ‘meetings’. Not so. For a majority of these people, having somewhere to meet to show off your latest fashion accessories or hardware (not that the two were mutually exclusive) and have a few drinks was vital. It was a physical place to go and find people you’d only ever ‘met’ online. Every town has such a bar.
The police raided the Tin Man’s Head once, claiming they were looking for pirated software: immediately after, the whole of the city’s police force was hamstrung when their mainframes all went down. Every time they thought they’d disinfected everything possible, they’d fire the machines back up and the same grinning evil clown would be filling their screens, cackling like a maniac. Eventually they called in a couple of Tin Man regulars to sort it out, which they did.
No one ever came out and said the virus originated among the Tin Man crowd, but the police have never messed with them again. The bar has a certain reputation. It’s a great place to go, so long as you know enough jargon and don’t look like a mundane. I’m known there because of my robot stunts, and accepted, even though I’m a user rather than a real programmer. When I need something custom that I can’t write myself, I buy from the guys at the Tin Man’s Head: you can guarantee that it’s good quality, virus and bug free, and they have a reputation for striving for elegance in their code, in a way that the mega corporations wouldn’t even recognise as a good thing. In the Tin Man’s Head you can also get the kinds of software that can’t be bought in retail outlets. And they’ll create a program without asking awkward questions. For a price.
When I’d asked him for iDeath, Sammy had raised his goggles and stared at me. It was the first time I’d seen him without the goggles. He squinted, a little short-sighted, I guess.
“Who’d you murder, anyone I know?”
“No, I just got into a little trouble, and I need to disappear for a while,” I said.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Cops want to grab me by the nuts and squeeze.”
“The cops.” Sammy seemed relieved that was the full extent of my problems: if it had been one of the companies or local gangs after me, he’d probably have suggested something more effective than iDeath. He unlocked a desk drawer and picked out a memory card. “You know that once you loose this thing, there’s no way to stop it? And there’s no way to reverse the process.” He held it up, giving me one last chance to back out. The program was simple enough to use: you gave it a name – your own or someone else’s – and it would cruise up and down information highways destroying all data connected with that name, however minor the reference. The program would replicate itself periodically, and within hours of my activating it, no one connected to the web would have anything that referred to Stevie Houston. The destruction it caused wasn’t disruptive, it wasn’t a crude virus; it performed invisible mending, so that no one ever noticed that data relating to the name was missing. The program had originally been written by a group of outlaws who objected to the amount of information companies were keeping about them. It had been continuously updated and refined over the past thirty or forty years.
Sammy had passed me the card and slipped his goggles back into place, ready to immerse himself in the Otherworld. “You want me to make you a new ID?” He asked.
“No. I’m going away for a while.”
He turned as if trying to see me through the opaque goggles, then shrugged. “Make sure you give a cross-reference, your National Insurance code or something: you don’t want to wipe any other Steven Houstons out of existence too,” he said. “Major references will be wiped within fifteen minutes, but it could be seventy-two hours before it has wiped every reference from every corner of the globe.”
“Thanks.” I pocketed the card.
“Will I be able to contact you?” Sammy asked.
“Leave a message for me on The Tin Man’s public bulletin board,” I said. “I’m not going far.”
“Okay. Whatever you’re planning, be careful, all right?”
“Be seeing you, Sammy.”
Nathan looked at the skull-face logo and grinned. “Blank me!”
My parents were going to be very surprised when they discovered that they’d never had a son: no birth certificate, no school records, nothing. It would save them the embarrassment of having to disown me following my being expelled from the academy. After they’d recovered from the shock, they’d probably have a party to celebrate the news. Happy unbirthday, son.
In America they call them diners or greasy spoons, we just call them ‘caffs’. Nathan and I were sitting in a booth with genuine cracked red vinyl seats and a tabletop of scarred gingham formica. No corporate style-book rules here: the ketchup came in bottles striped with latex-like dribbles; the mugs and plates were chipped, and the sugar came out of glass shakers in a grudging trickle. Eggs swam in the kind of cheap animal fat that gives you heart disease, along with a couple of links of gristle-filled condom, and streaky bacon rashers the consistency of your Y-front waist-band. Traditional English Breakfast – sometimes your body just cries out for food like this.
The café was in that buffer zone that all cities have, outside the protection of the walls and the security network, but not actually in the badlands, a world halfway between the two extremes, the outskirts. Part crumbling Victorian red brick, part shanty town. Artists and other bohemian drop-outs made their homes in the outskirts. Here was where activities and lifestyles not tolerated within the city proper were allowed to flourish. It was a thriving mish-mash of cultures, gangs and independent commerce. And because it proved that there could be a successful alternative to the corporation, it was strenuously ignored by those within the walls. They didn’t oppose it or attempt to destroy it, because that would draw attention to it: they simply did not acknowledge its existence. Which was just fine by the people who lived there.
From the inside, the City of Nottingham looks like a consumerist utopian paradise, a vision of England’s re-emergence as a world power. But from the outside, it looked a lot like the walled medieval town it had once been, prepared for siege. The city itself made me uncomfortable. Do you sometimes get that panicky feeling in shopping malls? There’s no natural light, the colours are artificially bright, and all the metalwork is too shiny. The old architecture hadn’t been blitzed entirely: odd bits of Hine and Fothergill sat like museum pieces in the shadows of the corporate glass phalluses, in an attempt to ‘preserve the historical character of the city.’ It was Nottingham reimagined as a Disney theme park. It made my skin crawl the way spiders do. I had spent the whole of my life here. Every city, from Chicago to Beijing was the same, why would I travel? Growing up as a corporate kid, I wasn’t supposed to see the world outside the walls, even though it was only a (literal) stone’s throw away. We were told that outsiders would attack anyone who ventured out, beating them and stealing anything they could carry away. Who’d want to take the risk of venturing outside the safety of the walls? The companies fuelled these scare stories, warning us that if we wanted to stay cosy and safe, we had to remain vigilant, because we were forever in danger of vandalism on the scale of civil war. At the college we were shown what it was like. Away from the cities, the old towns had been allowed to fall into ruin: many of them were ghost towns, being slowly reclaimed by nature. Decaying roads, unsafe water supplies, and frequent power cuts: is this how you want to spend the rest of your lives? If you don’t toe the line, this is where you will end up. It was enough to convince some of the kids of the error of their ways.
Me? I’d been sneaking out for as long as I’d known it existed. Here was real life. No company puppet masters. This was the place I felt I belonged. I liked the mix of people and shops and entertainment you found here. Antiques and bric-a-brac; second-hand books, music and instruments; vintage clothing, and cheap clones of electrical goods, you could buy them all in the outskirts. And there were cheap restaurants and bars to suit all tastes. And greasy spoon cafes.
Nathan’s arm still wasn’t working right: pulling open the café door had dislocated his elbow again, so he was eating one-handed. I tried to cut his bacon into bite-sized bits, but succeeded only in stretching it the width of the plate. He shrugged, speared the whole rubbery mass with his fork and shoved it in his mouth. I watched him chew, chin shiny with grease, and swallow – his eyes glazed over for a moment as he reached that point where you have to either retch or keep swallowing until the elastic strands are all the way down. Nathan managed it, just, and followed it with a good slurp of the stewed brown tea.
“If we can borrow some tools, I could probably fix your arm. Adjust the tension between the servos,” I said, as we were finishing up.
“It’s okay, I have a friend who fixes it for me,” Nathan said. He stood and stretched his good arm. “Come on, I want you to meet Geppetto, I think you’ll like him. He’s a genius.”