Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
Sasha waved her hand around her face in annoyance, cutting through swarms of buzzing insects. The academy had taught her to master her various gizmos for gauging her surroundings, but they had never taught her about just how varied her environments could actually be. They had simulated icy, snow-peaked mountains, and crusted sandy terrain, but nothing had prepared her for the dense, humid atmosphere of the forest. She was receiving so much incoming data about constant movement and sounds in amongst the bush, but none of it told her anything concrete. Was it one large animal moving or a hundred tiny ones? Like Jeremy had suggested, it was her visual data that she should be focussing on.
How was she supposed to know which creatures were hostile, and which weren’t? She didn’t have any instincts yet, not like her much older partner.
She slowed down her pace, stricken with glumness. At the academy she had been top of her class, and had received praise from her teachers, and awe from her peers. Out here, in the thick of the forest, she had none of that. She was bottom rank. Rookies like her died in the war every single day, and were fast forgotten. All she had out here to protect her was Jeremy.
“Jeremy?” she whispered.
He spun around with his fingers to his lips, frowning.
Sasha didn’t recognise the gesture. “I need to know what to be looking out for.”
“You’ll know when you see it.” They continued edging forward.
A crack pierced through the hum of the living forest, loud and clear. Jeremy leapt up, aimed his rifle, and stared into the distance. “Just like before..” he muttered.
“What’s that?” asked Sasha, on her feet with her pistol drawn too now.
“We’ve been spotted,” he said grimly. “Sasha- keep an eye on our rear. They might try to circle around us. They’re devious.”
Sasha shouted, “Yes, sir!” and faced backwards, and thrust her gun in front of her. There was so much sound, and so many tiny creatures flitting about. Would she be able to shoot fast enough? Come on, Sasha, she thought to herself. You are trained for this. Top of your class, remember?
Jeremy strode forward. He no longer cared about keeping quiet, and conversely much of the background noise had died down. “Come out!” he yelled into the greenery. “I just want to talk with you.” He could see everything in the daylight. They wouldn’t get the drop on him. He knew their tricks now.
There was a shuffle. Leaves cascaded from trees. A squeaky, bodiless voice sung out, “Help me!”
“Denver!” shouted Jeremy, and plummeted forward, bounding over a log, pushing aside long sharp blades.
“Slow down!” Sasha yelled to him, awkwardly trying to keep up whilst also checking nothing was going to ambush them from behind. “Jeremy, I said wait!”
But Jeremy didn’t, he was tearing through the foliage searching for the source of the voice, hoping beyond hope-
He slipped and grabbed out into thin air. The ground below him disappeared, and opened a wide black mouth to swallow him up. He tumbled down into it, plunged into pitch darkness. He landed with a thump, and some internal circuits bleeped in disgust at the damage he was doing to them. He looked upwards, but the sky far above was gone from his vision, and with it all light. He felt around and found his hand moving through slimy dirt.
“Jeremy?!” Sasha’s voice echoed from far up high. “God, you’re careless! Don’t you look where you’re going?” There was pause. “Can you hear me, you silly lump?”
Jeremy groaned as he stood up, and his head hit the ceiling of whatever underground hovel he was trapped in. He tried to shout up a reply to her, but no sound came out. Great, he thought, now that’s not working.
There was a gurgle from the darkness. Jeremy spun around, and stared blindly. Then, deep breathing, like a huge vacuum sucking in and expelling tonnes of air. A guttural growl followed.
Jeremy felt his limbs shaking. He grabbed for his gun, but he had let go of it during his fall, and now it was lost. He quickly switched on his head-mounted torch, praying that it wasn’t damaged..
A bristling object swung from the darkness and knocked him against the cavern’s wall with a thud. His torch beam blinked and fluttered, illuminating images of a ravenous beast, with a grin five metres wide, lined with rows upon rows of white needle teeth. The monster bellowed, filling the small space with a putrid stench and making Jeremy clutch his ears.
Before Jeremy could get a good look at the thing, it was on him. Pinning him down with its hard belly, and snapping its jaws in his face.
Sasha yelled from up above, “Are you okay down there, partner? What’s with the commotion?”
Jeremy poured all of his energy into his arms and lifted the beast up, just enough for him to slide out from under it. It swung its paws at him again, knocking him left, then right, like a ragdoll. It reared itself up on two legs, roaring, and Jeremy got his first good look at it. It had no eyes on its head, just sharp brown furs slicked back by mud and its gaping mouth, grinning, relishing the fight. Its round head sat on a fat belly with flab that hung off it, that swung and jiggled as the beast danced left and right.
It slammed its front paws down and waited, listening intently, and sniffing into its singular chasmal nostril.
Snickering echoed throughout hidden tunnels, the sound of the Guardians somewhere nearby, observing the fight.
“Jeremy.. I think there’s something up here with me,” Sasha called shrilly.
Jeremy lay still as a corpse, waiting for the beast’s next move. He couldn’t beat it on strength alone; its thick muscles and heavy body could twist and bend his rusty arms. He had no rifle. His only weapons down here were grenades, and the space was far too confined for that: he would be incinerated too in the blast.
The beast had no eyes, but by smell alone it approached Jeremy’s vicinity until it was almost on top of him again. Jeremy dodged up and over the next two swipes and landed in the mud, and slipped over. The next swipe revealed protruding knife-like claws, that cut three shiny horizontal holes in Jeremy’s side. He pulled his face from the dirt and rolled away as the beast leapt at him, landing inches away with a crash that caused the whole room to shake.
Jeremy’s torchbeam was spattered with dirt now, and became a dull burnt amber, making it harder for him to see. Something glinted, barely visibly, but he noticed it: the handle of his rifle, sticking upwards out of the mud.
The beast roared with frustration, opened its mouth wide, and moved in for the kill, storming forward with saliva gushing down its slimy black lips.
Jeremy grabbed for the rifle and fired, almost blindly, holding down the trigger and filling the room with fire. His torch beam spluttered and died. The cavern filled with a new stench; that of burning flesh. He heard one final long exhalation of breath, and then all was quiet.
Jeremy tapped his head gently and the light returned. It confirmed what he had hoped: the beast was dead. He lowered his head and glanced down at his body. Matted with dirt again, and this time he had suffered some real damage. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to go beyond the surface, and most of his internal systems seemed unharmed. His voice modulator even flicked back to life after a bit of poking and rewiring.
He watched the dead beast with disgust. Another enemy of this forest, attacking him for absolutely no reason. But wait-
“Who’s there?” Jeremy called into the maze of dark tunnels, after hearing some distinct footsteps approaching. They didn’t respond, but they kept coming. “I’ve defeated your monster! What else have you to throw at me?”
Jeremy raised his rifle, ready.
A tiny creature, no bigger than Jeremy’s foot, emerged and waddled over slowly, on two feet. It was grey and fluffy, with pink paws and feet, and from its minute mouth two front teeth stuck out. It let out a soft whimper, and began butting the lying beast with its small dome of a head. It pushed the hulking body with all its might, seeming confused at why the larger creature was not responding. It whined and cuddled up close, its pinhole nostril sniffling.
Jeremy sighed as he watched. Family ties.. something that robots did not have to be concerned about, ever. But still, he knew exactly what it was like to lose a loved one. He reached over and patted the young one’s head.
“I’m sorry, little guy. Come on. Let’s go find Sasha.”
The mole creature bounded up onto his shoulder and began rubbing his head against Jeremy’s facial fur.
Jeremy, with some difficulty, climbed directly up the sheer vertical hole that he had fallen down. It was easy enough to dig his hands into the earth, but more difficult to do so whilst balancing his new furry friend on his shoulder. They made it to the top.
“Sasha?” Jeremy shouted into the deathly silent trees.
But there was no sign of her.