When I was a kiddie, I was given little jobs like feeding the goats, swabbing the barracks, and pulling weeds. As I grew older I graduated to bigger tasks. Instead of pinching potato bugs or helping tend the beehives, I’d be out with an armed team gathering firewood or wild edibles and medicines. Or instead of cleaning and combing the donkeys, I went on night watch with lives depending on me. I tolerated the chores both little and big outside the palisades the best, feeling that doing anything outside the walls was better than shuffling around inside surrounded by the constant workaday natter and clatter.
I learned how to go through the outer motions of a trusty and useful community plodder, but inside I really was a dreaming loner starved for adventure. Within the palisades or outside, under watchful eyes and close supervision or on my own, I was never happy and only rarely content. In the middle of some mindless chore, I’d find myself imagining a mighty corkscrewing wind reaching down from boiling black storm clouds to carry me through the sky in its dark guts, dropping me a thousand klicks away in the Big Woods where I’d have to use my wits to fend for myself and stay alive far, far from the suffocating safety and routine of the farm.
So you can probably imagine what I was thinking after falling into Bors’s hands. So few days out the gate, and there I was, covered with countless bug bites and scratches, dead tired and sore-footed, and all my chances hitched to a simple fish farmer, a menacing cobot, a cast-out rover, and a mean-looking dog. Not exactly what I’d had in mind when I stood all cocksure and full of myself before the farm council and declared my intention to leg it out on my own.
Bors tilted his head in a human-like way and said, “Since you boys are heading down to the power station, this job I’m going to set you on should be no great inconvenience to you at all.”
I’ll bet, I thought, but said, “Right, sir, no inconvenience at all. We’ve got nothing pegged down right now anyway.”
“As you said, and I’m glad to hear it. I’m known in these parts for discovering many a profitable site, and many of my associates have benefited from my generosity. Well, a few, anyway. And those who have crossed me in my pursuit of happiness have somehow gone…missing. Such as you will, Travis and Me Too, if it comes to that.” Bors paused a beat and then asked, “But am I not correct in saying we needn’t think of that depressing possibility?”
“No, we won’t cross you,” I answered while Dunc vigorously nodded his agreement. Of course, I’d already started making plans to put as much distance between us and Bors and his sidekick as soon as they’d turned us loose.
“About your new venture, then,” said Bors. “The wells are beginning to run dry up here, so to speak, but I have heard that somewhere near the power station there is an old hoard of…something…that I must have. It will make my mission so much easier to accomplish.” If Bors had lips, he’d be grinning, I thought. I sensed that he enjoyed the notion of having clout and being the king of the woods. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “if I were to go roaming and poking about here and there, the Meek rabble would be all over me. Bandits, too, perhaps, and others with no love for my kind as well. But if young Travis and…Dunc is it?…are wandering about, little harmless babes in the wild, why, that will raise no more than the usual predatory interest in your gear.”
“So, we go where you can’t and find what you want for you. What’s in it for us?”
“For you? What’s in it for you?” Could a cobot be amused? “Why, your lives for one…and a small cut of the pickings, of course. How does that suit you?”
A lie, of course. I figured the only cut we’d get whether we helped or not would be straight across our throats, but to get free of Bors and to have at least a chance of escape I said: “Agreed then. What kinda pickings are we talking?”
The rover started to speak, and Bors’s arm shot out as quick as a spitbug off a leaf, his strong hand squeezing the rover’s shoulder viciously and making him squirm. I could see tears spring in the corners of his eyes, but he didn’t protest. He just screwed up his face and ground his teeth. When Bors released him, he staggered back a step, rubbed his shoulder hard, and let out a deep breath.
“Now, now, Dyani,” Bors said. “All in good time. The small details need not concern us right now.” Suddenly threatening, the cobot turned to me, and I felt for the first time that whatever powers of defense I had–my fighting skills, my speed, my brains, whatever–would be completely useless against him if we went one-on-one. “You’re not really interested in the small details, are you Travis?” he whispered, peering deep into my eyes as if trying to rummage through my frightened thoughts.
Though I was shaking inside and my voice quivered a little, I did my best to sound calm. “No, I don’t need to know. Count me in and just tell me what you want.”
“Me, too,” said Dunc, causing Bors to glance quickly in his direction and breaking up the tension.
“Such smart ones, these boys,” Bors said. “Now here’s what I think. Once you’re on the path you’re not likely to come back to me of your own free will. I expect you’ll be tempted to make tracks and put me far, far behind, yes?”
“No, never,” Dunc said, and I began to protest, but Bors raised a finger for silence. “Remember what I said about lying? I cannot abide a liar. And I cannot tolerate disloyalty among good friends such as we’ve become. I understand that it’s only natural, only human, that you’d be tempted to run away, so I’m going to have to inspire your loyalty.” He crooked his finger at us and said, “Time to report to headquarters. Pick up your bags and let’s be on our way. I’ll take those guns, and Dyani, you hang back for a bit and make sure no one’s following us.”
Dyani hoisted his shotgun, retrieved my knife from the tree trunk, relieved Dunc of his knife, and motioned us to grab our gear. We set off after Bors along a deer trail that led off deeper into the woods.
A hard slog through brambles and bugs brought us to the cobot’s camp, a hollow the other side of a natural rock wall running along through the woods. Dyani and his dog caught up with us just as Bors led us scrambling down a twisty path to the sizable hole, high enough to stand in and deep and wide enough to be cluttered with stuff of all kinds that Bors had been piling up and sorting through. There was a heap of ordinary looking gear bags and haversacks in the back of the cave, and I didn’t need much imagination to figure out that they’d not been handed over to Bors or his associates with a cheerful smile. Next to the bags were sorted piles of weapons, clothes, boots, barter trinkets, foodstuff, jewelry, tools, and so on. Near the middle of the cave floor there was a large mound of unsorted treasures. The only other things I could see right off were a bedroll and a kitbag, probably Dyani’s, next to the entrance. As I looked about Bors’s hideout, I suddenly had a chilling vision of a large number of bodies feeding the scavengers throughout the Big Woods.
“Quite a collection of goodies I have here, don’t you think?” Bors asked. “Quite useless to me personally, of course, but rather useful for buying information and alliances and paying my willing agents.” Bors walked to the rear of the cave and pulled something small out of a box. He returned to the center of the cave, and jabbed a finger at a spot directly in front of himself where he clearly wanted us to stand. Then he grabbed my right hand and Dunc’s left quick as a heron spearing a frog. I felt a sharp stab in my palm and heard Dunc give a little cry of surprise and pain. I struggled to pull loose, but Bors gave us both such a fearsome shake that our heads rocked as far forward and back as they could without our necks snapping. I stopped pulling and twisting so as not to provoke the cobot to the point of his forgetting our usefulness and slagging us on the spot.
“Now listen, young Travis and Me Too, and listen well. Something dreadful has happened to you. You’ve just had a terrible accident! “
“What do you mean ‘an accident’? What’d you do to us?”
“I, Travis? What did I do to you? You’re quite mistaken. You’ve brought this misfortune upon yourselves by disturbing my peaceful existence here. Had you been good boys and stayed on your farms, all would be going well for you. Had you been smart boys and not come snooping and stumbling around my territory, why, you wouldn’t be in this awful predicament.” Bors released our hands and said, “Go ahead. Look.”
I expected a considerable wound, but I saw only a spot no bigger than a thorn prick. I exchanged glances with Dunc, and we shrugged at each other.
“Well? What did you see, little friends?”
I shook my head. “A little red spot. What’d you do?”
“Same silly question, Travis, and here’s the answer because you need to know so that you’ll be faithful to me. You are now home to some very interesting nanobots. Nasty ones, actually. Little engines of destruction, really.”
I froze. I’d been spiked. I went all light-headed and dry-mouthed. I’d heard of this kind of little robot machine from Teacher, but I’d never had reason before to give it much mind.
“Yes, disagreeable little nanobots to be sure. Rather distant cousins of mine,” Bors went on, “and most useful in getting your cooperation. These nanobots are disassemblers, if you follow me. At one time nanobots of this kind were used to heal the body by taking apart bad tissue. Weaponized, though, they are not overly particular about what they unmake, and they are punctual to be sure. When first spiked in, they deploy themselves and wait for a set period of time before beginning their work. And then their alarms go off. I’ve set their alarms myself, and let me tell you, work these little buggers do, hi-ho! Such a bloody mess of jelly you’ll be, Travis, if you don’t return to me before then with your job done.” Bors bent close, his eyes flashing wickedly right in my face.