chill/chilling · February · Liz's stories

The Cull

By Liz Parkes

ALTHOUGH Lisa and Tom had met in the Zen room of the local community centre, they felt anything but Karma towards each other now. The winter had been colder than any in living memory and getting out had been more than usually difficult. Long days morphed into long weeks, into long months. The cold winter light was short lived on the good days and dismal when the sky darkened to ominous black befoLizre the snow.

At first it had seemed fitting; Christmas cards, fairy lights and snow were a homely distraction. Tom had packed the decorations back into their boxes, neatly labelled them, altered the list of contents for those that had outlived their usefulness and returned them to the cellar. How neat and methodical he was, Lisa thought, as she pushed the ironed sheets back into the airing cupboard.

Her mother had not had the time to iron sheets, Lisa even ironed the towels. She took a pride in her house. Each day Tom ticked off the lists pinned to the kitchen fridge: vacuum, clean the shower, check plug hole and nozzle, dust, polish, clean the windows, sterilise the fridge etc. It was an extensive list, however, not everything had to be done every day, some things could be left a day or so.

It was when Lisa found the window to the bathroom open to the elements for the third time that she cracked. Tom was anal about smells. The cold air swept in, an icy blast of cleanliness. He always gets to shower in a warm room, she thought bitterly as she slammed the window closed.

Tom was making notes on the recipe he had printed out. His computer stood on the kitchen table by the alphabetical file of other recipes he had collected. He spent long hours studying different cooking methods, comparing soufflés to omelettes, possets to custards, sometimes he even tried one out. He was startled when Lisa sent the file whizzing off the table.

“What the……”

Maisie whirred across the floor towards the pile of papers but Lisa got there first. For a moment woman and robot pushed and shoved until Lisa sat back defeated. Maisie straightened the pile of papers and returned them to the table where Tom began to sort them into order again.

“There, there, Lisa.” So human he had called it, when Tom had chosen the voice for their robot. Lisa hated the mock Irish lilt.

“I’m going out.”

Lisa felt the cold air rush into her lungs. The weak mid day sun did little to take the edge off the aching air. Her snow boots slithered on the icy patch around the house and she was glad of the purchase offered by the snowy pavements. Such an old fashioned word pavement, what was it the Americans used to call them? Sidewalks even better, who walked anywhere now? There were community gyms and most houses had gyms in the cellars. The government issued guidelines on exercise had to be observed in every detail. The Devil finds work for the idle they said, yet work was an outdated concept. Lisa had had a pet hamster as a child, it had been happy to run around its wheel all day long.

Each step produced a creaking of compacting snow, the only other sound, her breathing, was reassuring to her. Everywhere indoors the official musak followed you, this regular hushing of her breath was calming. Here, in a white and silent world, there was emptiness, not another print could be seen although there were houses all around. Lisa smiled at a distant memory of a childhood school holiday, when her mother had taken the day off work and they rolled snow into a large body for an impossibly fat snowman. She was living more and more in the past. She stooped and scooped up a handful, rolled it along the ground. The pressure of the growing sphere left a wobbly trail behind. The weight of the growing body of snow required more effort and she had to put all her strength to the push.

Once the head had been put into place, she stood back. The small, black eyes, the scooped out prim mouth, bore a resemblance to Tom and she laughed as she charged into it pushing it over; laughed as she had not done for so long.

The voice cut across her laughter. “Lisa Jackman, you are required to return.” Each empty street had a speaker attached to the cameras at the intersections. Tom would have reported her missing. There was nowhere else to go.

The door opened to her command and slid quietly shut behind her. Maisie was waiting with a cloth to wipe up any wet patches she might leave. It seemed petty to resent her these little tasks, Lisa’s mother would have laughed out loud to see her daughter fighting to clean her own house. Every house had a robot maid. Some women had even adopted one as a child substitute if they were not allotted a Femlot ticket. Robots were no trouble at night, there were no teenage problems and they empathised with their owners right through to old age no matter how bad tempered they became. There had been some dark stories of confusion caused by erratic behaviour defeating the machine’s logic setting but these were generally dismissed as malfunctions.

Once, Lisa had been desperate to win the Femlot. The odds were nowhere near as bad as the old National Lottery, which she dimly remembered had been well nigh impossible to win. One of her sisters had won a Femlot draw. The excitement had been huge. The baby girl had been the centre of the whole family’s existence; she was spoilt of course but it had all seemed so natural. They were even allowed to keep her until she menstruated, unlike some families who lost them earlier than that, if the adults were not deemed compliant.

As none of the Femlot children were boys, there were many mothers in the same situation; the government support group was a major cause of unrest at the spiralling costs of funding. Tom was always saying that the poor state of the golf course could be greatly improved if less money went to the ‘womb botherers’.

After the child had gone, her sister was not the same person. Lisa could not take the risk and resigned herself to being childless; no robot could fill that gaping chasm surging with the rush of wave after wave of longing. Tom encouraged her to take up classes in Russian to take her mind off motherhood. A second language could contribute another two years to life expectancy, he said; of course, he was studying Mandarin and Russian. Maybe Tom could use another four years; to Lisa, it sounded like Hell.

All the family had received a Maisie after the child went. They were state of the art, the latest Chinese design as ninety percent of the robots were built in China. The one child policy had produced a huge imbalance of the number of mature males in their country and restless males were marauding the streets. China implemented a policy of full employment and of course, their government had copied that of Europe Major and introduced the Hope Lottery where a lucky man could win a thirteen year old girl. Dissent simmered but was controlled with lottery tickets. The news was full of happy workers, in Government homes with their new ‘wives’. Lisa did not need a translation of the Chinese characters running down the side of the giant pointing finger, ‘It’s you.’ Rumours of bribery were rife, Lisa could not see what they could have to use that anyone of the Governors would want. Most women now were beyond childbearing age and nothing like the idealised dolls that filled the pornographic web sites. Only the Femlot babies could carry on into the next generation. They were the only commodity that the Governors valued.

Maisie, straightened Lisa’s coat where she had hung it, dripping.

‘Sure, there’s a nice cup of tea waiting for you.’ She smiled with her lips only and winked like a camera shutter. God, I hate you, Lisa thought.

Tom had left the computer and was watching the Robot Super Bowl. At first, all robot sport had been non-contact as the competitors were too expensive to damage but keeping men on side had meant the eventual return to more and more violent sports. You could even go onto the terrorist web sites for an extra thrill, it was all Government controlled now of course.

Lisa flopped down at the kitchen table. Maisie whirred around creating another of Tom’s recipes.

The nursing home Web site looked wonderful; happy, smiling, youthful looking elderly women and men enjoying a life far more active than the norm. Lisa was sceptical. Her mother’s confusion had been temporary, she was sure of it, there had been many water infections before and she had been fine after the antibiotics, but this last time, the Government ambulance had arrived and taken her away. She looked the same when she came up on the screen, her conversation was greatly improved but there was not the connection there, it didn’t feel like Mum. Lisa found herself asking trick questions, things only her mother should be able to answer. Back the answers came with a sharp edge that just wasn’t there before, correct in everything but nuance.

Can every aspect of our personal history be there to find on a computer? Am I paranoid? Why are there so few of my parents generation in the community centre? Computer graphics can be made to look real, can’t they? These questions she had tried asking Tom at night when Maisie was switched off to save battery power. All he would say, before he slipped into that sleep that was more dead than alive, was ‘Why can’t you just be happy? The Governors have it all under control.’

She had to move from the table as Maisie dished up yet another exotic meal. Tom sat down, more animated than he had been all day. He loved the way he could order anything under the sun from his cookery programmes and Maisie would whip it up. He regaled Lisa with a list of the ingredients that were automatically dispatched on the red button remote system. As he waved his fork to emphasise his point, his serviette fell to the floor. Maisie whirred across to tuck it back in and he thanked her warmly. Lisa felt sick. What was there to be jealous of? Tom was hardly any loss but to be grateful to a machine? She decided to tackle him when they were in bed and Maisie recharging.

That night, she watched as Tom folded his clothes onto the bedside chair. Once, she had felt weak at the curve of his back as he bent over; once, she had run her fingers up his spine, marvelling at the muscles as she reached his neck. Some of these old feelings rekindled and she reached out to pull him into her.

“Just need to check the door’s locked.”

“Of course it is. Who would be out on a night like this?”

“Better safe than sorry.” And he was off downstairs.

Better safe than sorry, the bitter anthem of the new Europe, and eventually taken up by the World Gov. Lisa was not sure that she could believe it any more.

When Tom returned, in a haze of chilled air, the warm feeling towards him had long passed.

“ Get in. We need to talk.”

“God Lisa, I’ve had a day of it, not another of your angst- ridden complaints.”

“Can we please take Maisie back? I can do everything around the house, just like I used to”

“What in the world is wrong with Maisie?”

“I need to do something. I need to be in control of my life.”

“Your mother would have died for the opportunities you have: language classes, macramé, book club………….”

“But it’s meaningless……….”

“And your sister, she went through all that so that you could have Maisie. How can you be so ungrateful?”

“She went though ‘all that’ so she could have a child.”

Tom rolled into the duvet. ”I’m not going over that again.” In ten minutes he was asleep.

Lisa tossed around, got up and went to the toilet, tried deep breathing, but nothing would calm the whirr in her mind. She was powerless to change things. Her energies were being sapped by this life of leisure. Tom was right, she should be grateful. But she hated Maisie.

The moon, reflecting off the snow in the street outside, sent cold bars of light across the wall at the side of the curtains. Lisa slipped out of bed and into her slippers. She collected an armful of towels from their neatly pressed piles in the airing cupboard and headed downstairs.

Maisie was sucking in power from the point in the kitchen. She was humming to herself, like a contented mother. Lisa padded the towels around her base. Sleepily, Maisie stirred with an Ahhhhh.

Lisa filled a jug with water at the sink and wrenching the cable from Maisie started to pour water in.

“What the Hell! Electricity and water! You silly cow…….”

Tom had appeared from nowhere. He threw Lisa backwards as he dabbed with the few dry areas of towel that he could find.

“You’ve gone too far. You’re mad. That’s what you are, fucking mad!”

Lisa ran back upstairs. Her nerves, wound to breaking point, snapped now and she shook uncontrollably. She threw herself onto the bed. Sobs racked her body but the sound of the lock engaging brought her to abruptly. She was locked in, in her own house. Every animal instinct in her became sharp. She listened to the steps retreating downstairs; the television kicking into life; the kitchen noises as he made himself a calming drink; his voice talking to Maisie, comforting her.

Thirty years ago, she had watched her mother pack her case after a row with her dad. The memories flooded back now. There were no cases, no one went anywhere, the Governors warnings and travel advice had put paid to that long ago. She stripped off the pillow cases and stuffed them full of clothes not pausing to check what went in. She collapsed onto the bed. Sleep came easily now, she had exhausted herself with crying.

The dawn light slid along the wall as she pulled her warmest clothing on: old ski underwear that she should have thrown out long ago, boots and coat, thick walking socks. Had she once felt so empowered?

“Tom, I want a pee.”

He came running. The door opened a little and she was ready, through it and down the stairs before he could pick himself up. Maisie came at his command and blocked the front door but Lisa was out the back and throwing her bundles over the fence into the road, laughing hysterically.

The cameras at the intersection swung around. She struck out in the direction of her mother’s home, the address that had been given to her on the Government Web site. The energy she had found from the adrenalin rush in escaping, began to wane, her feet were weighed down by the snow clinging to her boots. Tom must have contacted the call centre by now and they would be looking for her, searching the banks of screens for her footsteps, her hurrying form.

The print out map from the code they had given her, flopped damp in her hand. It showed a street here, her mother’s residential home should be half way down. The factories stretched as far as she could see. There were no cars in the empty car parks and no prints in the fresh snow. This was a desert. There was no home, no mother. She had not even managed to protect her own mother.

The ranks of screens flickered and recorded area Fed 32. Screen D504 showed a figure huddled against a factory wall. The operator panned in, then leant into his microphone, “Please return home. Your husband is waiting.”

 

There was nowhere to go. The pillowcases were no protection for her clothes in the snow, damp patches were appearing. Lisa stood up and started back, retracing her footsteps. The camera swept away to record a stray dog hopping on three legs towards a scrubby patch of waste land. When the lens swung back, Lisa was nowhere to be seen.

The dog had some sense of purpose, it was heading somewhere and Lisa had nothing to lose. Hiding her bundles in the bushes, she dived from one form of cover to another as the camera swung around. She ducked and dived further and further away from the streets. The woods closed over her, shaking soft falls of snow as she brushed through them. It was exhilarating to feel free at last and she pushed on deeper and deeper. She hoped the snow would hold off, her tracks were the only clue as to where her bundles were hidden.

The clearing was glaringly white after the patchy scenery in the trees. Lisa stopped short at the edge, not only would she lose her cover but here there were other tracks in the snow, many other tracks. The dogs prints ran alongside those of the humans, Lisa knew that people who could keep a three legged dog would not be part of the perfect society espoused by the Governors. Keeping to the edge of the forest, she followed the tracks.

The old inn sign was almost obscured by the wind- blown snow but she recognised it, the seven stars of the Plough, Big Dipper, Great Bear. When Pubs were a popular meeting place, she had seen many like this, along with, the George, The Green Man etc. Her mother had tried to keep her father out of these, pointing out the Government’s latest evidence of health concerns with the consumption of alcohol. If only her mother could see where these directives eventually would lead.

Thinking of her mother depressed her; she focussed on the building in front of her.

Smoke was drifting out of a chimney and there was the prospect of warmth.

She had to push the door hard to get in, there were so many rugs piled against the opening to keep out the draughts. Around the fire, a huddle of startled faces peered back at her. None of them looked particularly clean but none looked unfriendly either. One youngish woman held a baby against her breast almost hidden in the mix of clothing wrapped around her body. The child stopped feeding as the woman spoke, then resumed greedily.

“And you are?”

“Lisa. Lisa Jackman.”

“ Susannah. Come in, Lisa, and make yourself warm.”

Exhaustion swept over Lisa as the heat of the room thawed her caution. Two of the strangers had taken the dog and gone to follow her tracks back to her possessions before the snow covered them. Whoever these people were they had the ability to survive beyond the reach of the Governors, at least until the Governors showed an interest in them.

 

The next morning, Lisa woke, to the smell of wood smoke, baked potatoes and bacon. She was ravenous. A portion of the meal was allocated to her and she cleared her plate swiftly, while listening to the conversation around her.

One name constantly recurred, the Bear this, Bear that, this was a person of importance to this commune; the tribe of the Great Bear.   Lisa’s arrival had gone unchallenged because the commune had been waiting. They were expecting a visit that seemed to have been delayed. Perhaps the commotion caused by Lisa’s escape and the subsequent robot activity had delayed him. There had been some consternation at how easily she had slipped through without the dogs giving warning, Bear would have to be told and heads would roll.

As they were clearing the plates, the dog became agitated, whining and scratching at the door.

An old man pushed his way in, petting the ecstatic animal with one hand as he clasped the nearest person in a hug. The Bear, knew everyone there except Lisa. He asked after them, each one by name. He knew of their families.

Although he was easy and familiar, there was a deferential air. This man was the leader, an old man, but the source of old knowledge, knowledge that pre dated the Governors statistical evidence and motivational drives. He was a man who had run survival courses in his youth; a man who could live outside the law.

Lisa was introduced over a cup of steaming burdock. The Bear listened to her story without interruption until she got up to her search for her mother’s residential home. He questioned her about the web site, the video link and the answers to her probing questions that always came back correct in fact but not in tone.

After the foraging party returned, the group settled down to discuss. Most of them had similar stories of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, disappeared pensions drawn, assets sold to cover costs, no visiting, access by computer only. It was impossible not to think that a whole generation had gone, been wiped out.

Lisa felt her sixty three years. Looking around she guessed she was one of the older ones there, but most were fifty plus apart from the woman with the baby. Surely they all realised, that if the generation above had gone, theirs was an inexorable journey towards the same fate? That of course is why they were here. How could she and Tom have been so blind? They had accepted it as normal that the aging population should outnumber the next generation, and the next, without questioning where the finances would come from to keep them. Robots did everything, provided everything. This they had taken for granted without asking why a useless, parasitic layer of society should be maintained. The Governors were simply looking at the books and balancing them in their favour, it had always been like this, she realised, simple economics; they have to need us to preserve us.

Bear spoke about the others, communes across the country, mostly in old coaching inns, on the roads that stretched across moorland and bog far from the towns where the Governors exerted their control. There were schemes and plans to take on the Governors in guerrilla warfare but when practicalities were discussed they came to nothing. A robotic soldier was a formidable enemy; it had been programmed to process like a human brain, one with no conscience. To tackle them at the command centre, the master ‘brain’ and the source of the orders, was going to require an understanding of robotics far above the average level of experience.

Few of the elders could cope with such complexity as their thought processes had softened with years of robot care. But the children who had been brought into the communes however, were used to problem solving. They were resourceful and adaptable. From all over the country they had been collected together, sixty seven children of varying ages. Of these, four showed real promise. Captured robots were taken to pieces and reassembled in workshops: house robots made to look humanoid, attack robots that flew like drones and the strange spider like army robots that could move in all directions and had three hundred and sixty degree vision. The four children were fascinated, they drove each other on, competitive and curious they posed questions that adult minds had missed. Soon they were creating their own robots, setting problems and asking for solutions.

Bear had spent the winter months moving around the country checking defences. The Seven Stars commune had several glaring weaknesses which he pointed out. People ran in all directions, fixing posts, changing rotas and fetching plans. The snows of winter and the mud in spring were the best defence anyone could ask for. It gave them time.

“They know we’re here. “ Bear warmed to his theme. “They have left us alone for years while there is so much else to do. But now they have started, and soon they will come. Everything depends on getting the children away.”

When Bear had gone, the routine took up the days and any sense of drama soon receded. This was the most dangerous time, when complacency dulled the edge. Lisa began to feel close to nature living so much in the open. She enjoyed the new leaves uncurling, the sound of water moving through and widening the cracks in the ice and the warmth of the returning sun on her back as she sorted the store of potatoes.

She had just straightened up to ease the ache from being bent so long, when she saw it watching her from the cover of the trees, her first robot in four months. She turned and ran blindly at first, the potatoes banging in her bucket as she plunged on. Then she slowed, her mind beginning to function. Keep away from the Seven Stars, don’t go back. She turned, breathing deeply to calm the shuddering of her nerves. Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered the articles on line about how difficult robots, programmed for logic, found irrational behaviour that they could not compute.

Selecting the largest potato, Lisa hurled it at the robot. It ducked. She followed up with a barrage coming closer, singing loudly an old nursery rhyme she remembered about an egg smashing. The robot’s head camera was recording everything as she swung her bucket, hooting like a banshee. The robot moved backward so rapidly it fell, picked itself up and sped off.

Lisa sat shaking. She would wait until she was sure it was safe before she returned.

The sun had dipped below the cherry tree lacing its early blossoms with gold, when she pushed on the door to join her friends. It was a sombre meeting after the children were in bed and deep into a healthy sleep. Everyone was well aware that safety depended on the Governors’ lack of interest. Here was the first evidence that they were no longer disregarded. Susannah held her baby close. The children were the purpose of the community and to send them away was a decision deferred too often. Now it was becoming an imperative. Moving sixty seven children would attract too much attention, so they must be divided into smaller groups and dispersed around the other communes or back to their families where possible. The four children, on whom the whole project rested, however, were to be taken down to the south coast and got across to a small island honeycombed by old underground works and passageways left over from the wars of the last century. Here the communes could make their last stand against the armies of the World Governors.

No one slept that night. What few belongings that the people had were collected and stowed for transport. Food was gathered and cooked for the journey. Each leader was made familiar with the map of their route and the dangers that they might encounter. The weapons were checked, cleaned and distributed. Keeping busy, doing something, took the mind off the terrible prospect ahead. Lisa had never had much to lose in her past life; except for her Femlot niece, she had never really loved anyone. Now she had found how good it felt to care and be cared for in return. The danger her friends were in was difficult to contemplate, she had to keep busy.

The children were woken before dawn. Still sleepy and slow, they were dressed and wrapped up against the chill morning air. Each small party lined up at the door and solemnly took their farewells before disappearing into the low lying mist. Soon, the only sign of the exodus that had taken place, was a fan of pathways in the dewy grass.

Lisa was left with Artur, the Pole and George. Artur and George were the most experienced at tracking and combat, veterans of terrorist warfare at the turn of the century, when the only obvious dangers were the extremist views of a few zealots. No one had sensed the real danger in the news feeds on their screens. Because she was last into the commune, Lisa had more knowledge of the way of robots and was entrusted with getting the four children to the coast.

Fully awake now, the children had caught the excitement. They were keen to plot the route, questioning everything, eager to be off. Artur set the timer on the explosives before they left, while Lisa held the children back before their enquiring minds placed them in danger. In the new World order there were no boy children, their boisterous ways were alien to her quiet nature. She held a restraining arm around them both.

Artur closed the door to the Seven Stars, padlocked it, then hurried to her without looking back. They all felt the pang of separation. The maps they had been given were very old and showed pathways made three centuries previously and only used for recreation up until thirty years ago when they had become overgrown. Artur and George took turns to lead, hacking their way through the undergrowth, but it was slow progress.

By nightfall the children were too tired to go on. A brush shelter provided cover, the adults sleeping across the entrance providing body heat. The explosion woke them. It lit the sky; a whole day’s travel and they were still close enough to the Severn Stars for them to feel the shock of the explosion. They must move faster.

Aching, Lisa rolled out of the shelter as the first light showed on the horizon. She was glad of the baked potato, they had not stopped to eat the day before and she was ravenous. The children, fully recovered, were raring to go. George occupied them by guessing what the signs and symbols on the old map might mean; while she and Artur checked the way they had come. The explosion would have brought the Governors to the Seven Stars. All evidence should have been destroyed but there would be tracks to follow. Lisa hoped the other groups had made more progress than they had. The heavy undergrowth that had delayed their progress, now proved a godsend, drones buzzed overhead but the low trees and bushes prevented them coming low enough to record the small group of adults and children.

After three days of torn clothing, bleeding from scratches, and aching with hunger, spirits had sunk to their lowest. Everyone was too tired to notice that Artur had stopped in his tracks. There was the unmistakeable sound of seagulls. Taking a deep breath Lisa found the scent of salt air, faint but there on the breeze; a little further on the sound of waves breaking, then the jangle of rigging as boats moved against their moorings. They had made it.

Artur and George huddled together deep in conversation. The children, glad of the rest, settled down to their favourite game with the old map. Artur returned. George wriggled off along the ground towards the harbour.

“Gone to find one of ours.”

“How will he know?”

Artur put his arm around her back in what felt like, a matey hug but then lightly she felt a swift pattern tapped on her shoulder blade, the four stars, then the three, seven stars of the Great Bear.

“That’s how you’ll know.”

“Who is it?”

“There’s no need for you to have names.”

By nightfall, Lisa was becoming increasingly concerned for George. Artur seemed to be sleeping and the children were discussing the weaknesses in Robotic Physics. She had heard it, a slight noise, no more than the brushing of a hedgehog on its night rambles, but Artur was immediately alert his weapon ready. A small white stone dropped by Lisa’s feet caused her to jump followed by a quiet laugh as George appeared. He clapped Artur on the shoulder pleased that his presence had been detected. He emptied his pockets of fistfuls of fruit, his bag had several freshly baked pasties and he had even managed to source some sweets for the children.

“Tonight. He doesn’t want us hanging around; the place is crawling with robots. New moon he says. Dark enough to get us away.”

Things were happening so fast. Lisa gathered up their few things while the children ate. She managed a few mouthfuls of her meal between checking the children’s shoe laces and clothing, a catch or a trip could mean disaster.

George led the way, out of the woods and into one of the typical narrow back alleys of a fishing village, designed to keep out the wet westerlies and the prying eyes of the Customs men.

They entered the cottage through a low back door. Lisa returned the hug with a swift tapping of the seven stars pattern. The man was stocky, weather beaten and smelt of fish. Lisa smiled at this, she hardly smelt like a rose garden herself. The man’s mother made a great fuss of the children, warming a milk pan and dropping in bread, butter and sugar.

While the children ate their fill, the adults huddled around the table. With the lights off you could look out through the low window under the eaves and see the boats riding in the harbour. Everywhere bright lights shone as robots moved to and fro, searching.

The fisherman pointed out into the harbour where the lifeboat rode like a cork on the waves.

“Out there for a quick get away.”

The medals, the photos of crew, the shipping relics all made sense now. Even boats crewed by robots still required guides to bring the precious cargo through the hazards of this rocky shoreline and the lifeboat still turned out crewed by volunteers.

The children were used to moving silently now. Like shadows they kept close to the wall. Eventually the alleyways gave to an open promenade alongside the harbour, for the first time they must break cover.

The dinghy to the lifeboat was bobbing by the steps and a dark figure pretended to busy himself with the moorings. One by one the children crossed the gap at intervals between the swing of the cameras. With each swing Lisa’s stomach churned. She was to go when the children were in the dinghy under a tarpaulin and hidden from sight.

Lisa took a deep breath and strolled out. She had taken every care to secure the children’s clothing but not her own. Her lace caught, she stumbled, only a moment but enough for the camera to swing back. She was spotted.

In minutes there were robots everywhere. Desperate to distract the hunters, Lisa dived into the water making as much of a splash as she could. From behind she heard the noise of a burst of gunfire as Artur and George broke cover hoping, as she did, to draw the attention away from the children. The dinghy cast off and slid silently out.

She had been a strong swimmer once. She struck out, away from the jetty, confident that the robots would not risk water in their workings. Attack robots took off like a swarm of ants on a hot July day. Their vision took in three hundred and sixty degrees but, like an insect, they focussed primarily on movement. Lisa splashed throwing up sheets of water. Lights honed in on her, laser beams scanned the surface forcing Lisa to dive where the beams were unable to penetrate the water.

She swam on, diving, holding her breath until, with her lungs bursting, she, surfaced. The lifeboat motor roared as it revved up. There was not another boat that could match it for speed. The robots would not risk a fight so far from land. The children had made it.

Lisa swam on, her arms leaden, her clothing weighing her down, her strength ebbing away. She watched the boat, a smaller and smaller speck skimming the waves. The same waves which were now pulling her under.

© Liz Parkes 2016

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