I snapped. I didn’t care if Bors had ten times my strength. I drove myself into him, knocking him over on his back. I grabbed his head and had it twisted nearly halfway to the ground before Bors reacted. His arms shot up through mine and splayed out, flinging my arms to the sides. One of his hands grabbed my throat and the other the back of my head. As Bors rose up, I was hoisted in his grip and hung there dangling till just the tips of my boots touched the ground. As I strained to support my weight on my tiptoes, I heard something in my neck popping and grinding, and I knew that all Bors had to do was give a little shake and my neck would be broken. “Are you going to listen, now, Travis? Just blink when you’re ready to behave.” I blinked.
He let me down until my feet were flat on the ground but didn’t loosen his grasp on me. “Foolish, Travis, quite foolish. I wonder if you can be useful to me at all, such an impetuous nipper you are with such a bad temper. You are the walking dead now, Travis, and I alone can turn off the little bots in you just like that–if I’ve a mind to. Should I have a mind to, Travis?” He gave the back of my head such a crunching squeeze that I saw little sparks swimming about in the edges of my vision. I grunted out a pained yes.
“Listen to me, then, Travis and Me Too. Out here in the Big Woods we are all of no more consequence than birds. We fly about singly for the most part and once in a while we come together to pick apart a carcass, or drink at a stream, or some such thing. Do you see where I’m going with this?” That’s just what I needed–philosophical twaddle and stupid questions from a murderous cobot. I gasped out another yes even though I didn’t see, and Bors relaxed his grip.
“Short-lived birds, Travis and Dunc, that’s what you are. Dead birds, really. You fly and die quick as a wink. It’s true that even I will die someday, although the wink I’ll be around for is a lot longer than that of any humans crawling around on the face of this fouled planet. But, even though I was made to function mostly on my own–oh, I was quite independent even in my early days–I’ve discovered that family is good.”
The word “family” sounded strange coming from a cobot who could never have known a family unless having an executive was somehow like having a parent. I began to be interested in what Bors was saying in spite of my situation.
“I’m going to let go of you now, Travis,” Bors said, “but don’t try to rush me again or try to run.” It released me completely, and I sat down hard, partly to show submission and partly to stop myself from keeling over.
“This family business,” he went on. “As a machine, I was puzzled by it at first. Intellectually it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Ants, bees, herding animals, humans–all programmed to multiply so that their genes might continue mixing on and on down the centuries, creating ever more durable organic offspring. But could I, a cobot with no genetic underpinnings at all, could I ever really understand the idea of family in any real way? No, not really. I’m just a clockwork bird, as it were, just a system of intermeshing physical parts and processes, with about as much meaning as anything else here in the woods, on the farms, or, for that matter, in all the universe. But, Travis, I’m a bird with a difference, you see. I’m not your standard model, wind-up, clockwork sparrow, oh, no.” To me ‘family’ means ‘useful association.’ And that’s the kind of family we are now.”
If anything were less like a sparrow, I’d like to have seen it. Bors was more the carrion picker type, a shadow-in-the-sky type like a turkey vulture. I didn’t understand what he meant exactly by ‘clockwork bird,’ but I sure got the gist of what he was going on about. My little reverie was interrupted by Bors flicking my ear painfully. I gasped, gave a bit of a start, and snapped to.
“Now pay attention, Travis, and don’t drift off like that again. It annoys me. Are you attending? Yes? You, too, Dunc? This is going to be on the test, so you’d better be. Soon my friend Dyani and her little doggie will walk you back to the path, and you’ll be on your way to a merry old land. I hope you’ll hold no grudge against me. It was the two of you, after all, who came poking your noses where they do not belong. And now you’ll need to find me again pretty quickly or become a puddle of gelatinous muck. Not a pleasant prospect, is it?”
I didn’t understand “gelatinous,” but “muck” I did. Most definitely not pleasant, I thought.
“I know I’m setting you boys a hard task,” Bors said, “but I have faith in that basic drive to survive you all seem to have. Just look at your kind. A couple million years foraging the planet, a few thousand years planting in its dirt, a few hundred years laying waste to it, and now everything undone–almost overnight in the long view and grand scheme. But at least now you can’t tell yourselves happy lies about how the planet belongs to you because there’s nothing left to lie about. You stubborn creatures really do cling to your vaporous little bits of the life spark, I’ve noticed. I hope that stubbornness serves you well in the days to come. Now gear up. You, too, Dyani.” Bors motioned for all of us to gather around and continued. “Dyani, you and Stashi are going to accompany these new associates of mine, help and protect them on their errand, and bring them safely home. Yes?”
I figured that the rover had as little choice as we had. He grunted an unenthusiastic assent and scowled hard at Dunc and me.
“Oh, that’s excellent, my friend,” Bors continued. “I know I can count on you, and I know how much safer the boys must feel now. Hand them their knives, will you, and hand me their guns.” Bors looked squarely at us. “Now, I’m going to return your guns to you because I believe that you’ll not try something stupid. After all, without me there is no way to deactivate the nanobots in you. Also, if Dyani, one of my very best associates, does not return with you, you will pay a terrible price. Therefore, it is in your best interest, all three of you, to behave–and protect one another at all times. Understood?”
Dunc and I looked at each other and nodded gloomily.
“Well, then, I see no reason for delay,” Bors said. “It’s time for you to depart, so let’s see you on your way.”
Dunc and I hoisted our packs and guns and followed Bors back to the path through the woods that crowned the West Rock. A crow started cawing from maybe twenty-five meters up in the treetops along the cliff’s edge. Another flew in and then another, and the three of them joined together to rag us. Bors glanced up at them and said, “Choose one” to Dunc, who looked a little bewildered at that. Bors repeated, “Choose one of those noisy little birdies up there.”
Dunc peered up at them and said, “The one in the middle?”
Bors picked up a fist-sized chunk of limestone and tossed it lightly in his hand. He then hauled back and flung the rock at the middle crow, knocking it off its high perch and sending it arcing and fluttering down over the edge of the cliff. The other two shut up and flapped quickly up and away above the canopy to safety.
“I’d say ‘good luck’ to all of you, but really, there’s no such thing, is there? Not that crow’s lucky day, was it?” Bors asked. “One wonders what brought it to that particular branch of that particular tree at this particular time, doesn’t one? And where did that hand that threw that rock come from? What a chain of circumstance! What a linking together! Ah, well. So it goes–and so do you. Dyani will tell you all you need to know about your errand in due course.”