Issue 198 – March 2023

6640 words, short story

The Spoil Heap

Up on the spoil heap Morag found a robot. This wasn’t that unusual in and of itself. She was always finding them, or parts of them anyway, frozen in contorted attitudes like dinosaur fossils, plastic housing cracked and aluminum limbs splayed.

What was different about this one was that it was walking.

Morag would go up the spoil heap two or three times a week, as a way of supplementing what she got from her farm. She was a lot slower going up than when she’d been a young woman, but she was still fitter and stronger than most, and, if she brought a stick with her, it was more to poke about in the buddleia growths than to lean on.

The spoil heap had begun as the waste from a slate mine, and, by general agreement, was the common property of everyone in the village. Anyone could forage there, and could lay claim to what they found. But Morag had a particular knack for finding things. She’d come back with pieces of metal that could be reworked, wires, little tiny gears and fan-blades and largely-intact sheets of plastic. She’d sell or trade them. Sometimes, she’d get commissions. The Children of Flame, currently encamped by the lake, had a standing order with her for any intact animal skulls she found up there, for their rituals. One time she’d found them an actual wolf skull, and they’d kept her in deer meat and raw skins for months.

Now, Morag examined the robot critically. A walkbot, maybe four feet long from stem to stern. Six digitigrade limbs. Where a mammal would expect a head, there was a black distorted lump. A housing for a claw, or a camera, or a gun.

“Did I know you?” Morag asked it. Memories were stirring, twenty-five or thirty years old.

The robot bobbed and weaved.

“Hold still,” Morag said, and it obeyed. Maybe she had known it. She examined it. Bent leg, some other bits of damage, nothing she couldn’t fix.

“Follow,” she told it, and it walked down the hill after her, a strange parody of a sheep on the green and gray hillside.

The farm had belonged to Morag’s parents. They’d moved south from Scotland when Morag was a baby, after the floods came. At the time it was what was called an organic farm, with vegetables, chickens, goats, alpacas. Like all farmers—like everyone around there, really—they did a lot of different things to try and bring in an income. One of those meant taking boxes of vegetables, fruits, and eggs, round to the houses hired, or owned, by visitors.

Which, once she was old enough to ride a bike, was Morag’s job.

You could tell which houses those were even without knowing. They were cleaner, better maintained. No visible repairs. Front yards with grass and flowers: the locals would pave theirs to save the gardening work. Many of them were “quirky” or “picturesque”: a real crofters’ cottage, a real shepherd’s hut, but with heating and running water and refrigeration. Not television of course. The visitors were Getting Away From It All, and anyway they had tablets.

Morag never really thought much about them. They seemed nice enough, and it meant more money coming in, and her Dad could charge them double without them noticing. And making deliveries was easier work than mucking out the goats or weeding the polytunnels. The visitors got fewer and fewer and richer and richer as time went by, but Morag just put that down to the crisis the news kept going on about.

“New standing delivery order today,” Morag’s Dad said, as they hefted the packages into the cargo box of the farm’s Christiania-bike. “Once a week, to Gwydion Manor.”

“What, the Big House?”

Morag’s Dad gave her a quick frown, but let the expression stand. “Yes. Apparently that’s what all that building was up there. Someone’s bought it, and moved in.”

“Bit late in the year for it,” Morag said. It was October, which was usually when the visitors stopped coming. She only had three other boxes besides the Big House one, and one of those was for Old Mary, who Morag’s parents pretended would pay her bill someday.

So Morag was curious. She saved the Big House for last, even though it would have saved more time to go to Old Mary last instead, and cycled up the hill with a sense of excitement.

Then she saw the robots.

Strange, stalky, six-legged things, white and hooved like emaciated sheep. Black bulbs where they should have had heads, different shapes. Some of them protruded like guns. Others sleek like cameras. One of them stalking through the giant, forbidding slate gates towards her, two others following it. Another half-dozen converging.

Morag swallowed. Turned the bike so she could make as quick a getaway as possible.

A whistling noise, for all the world like calling off sheepdogs, and the robots hesitated, froze. A man came round the corner.

Maybe twenty or twenty-two, just a few years older than Morag herself, and handsome in a muscular sort of way. Tall, fair-haired, blue eyed, unlike the tanned and short local boys, or Morag herself, with her pale skin, sturdy frame, and dark brown hair. He was beardless, and dressed in a loose black outfit that was like what soldiers in war zones wore, and a beret that added to the general military impression. But no badges or medals.

He spoke to the lead robot, which had a sleek camera-head. “Scan,” he told it. “Retain as friendly.” Then he turned to Morag, smiled. “Sorry about that,” he said. “They’ll let you through next time.”

“They can recognize me?” Morag said, feeling stupid. Of course they could.

The man nodded as if this weren’t an idiotic question. “Let me take you up to the house. I’m Sean.”

“Morag.” She left the bike just inside the gate, rubbed her hands on the back of her jeans, took the grocery box, fell into step beside him. Inside, the grounds were bare grass, no plants or ornamentation. Robots, and people in outfits like Sean’s, roamed about purposefully. Most of them were blonde or red-haired. Some were brown-skinned.

At the center squatted the Big House itself: low, and gray, built of slate and brick like everything in the area, but somehow better fitted together, more modern. More forbidding. The windows seemed high and narrow, like the arrow-slits on the castle up in Caernarvon.

“The core of it’s a Georgian manor house,” Sean was saying, casually, like he was guiding a tour. He had a pleasant accent; Morag thought it might be Irish. “But the Big Man’s made a lot of additions. All modern conveniences and comforts.”

“Who is he?” Morag hurried a little to keep pace.

Sean shrugged, though Morag didn’t believe his indifference for a minute. “Super-rich fella. American I think. Made his money over there anyway. Travels around a lot. Owns houses in all the big cities.”

“Wow.” Morag couldn’t begin to think how much that would cost. “And he’s got one out here? Why?”

Sean’s expression didn’t look like it had changed, but the mood shifted. Morag wished she hadn’t asked. But he answered, “he’s got this idea that it’s safe. Safer than the big cities, anyway. It’s a popular thing for really rich people, now. Build a house out in the back of beyond. Make it self-sustaining. So you can live out here if the cities collapse.”

Morag snorted. “Think they would?”

He does,” Sean said.

Morag wondered why, if it was so safe, he had all these robots and guards around. But she didn’t think it was a good idea to ask. “How’d you come to work for him?”

“Well, the money’s good and—” Sean hesitated a little, and his pleasant face again got momentarily hard. “I was deployed in Eastern Europe, when I was in the army,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve seen a few things that make me think he’s not wrong about the way things are going right now. Safer to be out here than anywhere else.”

They’d reached the kitchen entrance, where Morag left her box with someone she assumed was the cook. But for the rest of the week, she kept thinking about that strange low house, and its owner, and its robots, and Sean.

Especially Sean.

It didn’t take Morag long to fix up the damage to the robot. The things she couldn’t repair were mostly cosmetic anyway. She caused a little commotion when she went into town with the robot trotting behind her, carrying the things she had to sell. But once she’d explained how she’d come by it, and once she’d made a few trips with it, people just got used to seeing it. It wasn’t too different, visually, from the big shaggy dogs that would trot at farmers’ heels, and it was a natural thing for Morag, with her trips to and from the spoil heap, to have.

She named it Seamus. Another Irish name, and not so close to Sean that anyone would notice.

Not that it was likely anyone local would remember. It had been twenty-five years at least since the Big House last had anyone in it, and people avoided the site, less out of superstition than out of a pragmatic fear of triggering security devices. Zeb and Casey might remember, but Zeb had married the brewer in Pen-y-Gros and moved out that way, and Casey had joined the Children of Flame, and their nomadic trail usually took them far from town.

She wondered if Seamus remembered.

“I won’t allow it,” Morag’s father said.

“I’m eighteen,” Morag said. “You don’t have to allow it. I’m taking the job.” She softened her tone. “Dad, it makes sense. You want me to go to university, don’t you? I’ll need to take some kind of job to do that, and this one pays so well it’ll only be a couple of years before I can afford the fees.” Even factoring in that she’d have to contribute something to the farm debts, she didn’t add.

“You could go work with Ruth in the post office.”

“Ruth can’t afford to pay anything, I’d be working for barter.”

“You could get a job in Caernarvon.”

What job in Caernarvon? The place is a war zone. You’re the one who keeps telling me to stay out of the cities. That they’re dangerous and full of gangs. I could get a job with the police, I suppose, but that’d be no different to security work, and it’s more risk.”

“You just want to be close to Your Young Man.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Morag stood astonished. “When I brought Sean down for dinner with you and Mum, you said you liked him.”

“I liked him fine. I don’t necessarily want him as a son-in-law.”

“And again, Dad, that’s hardly your decision.”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt.” Morag suddenly realized how old her Dad was, the way he said that.

“I won’t,” Morag said. “I know ‘security guard’ sounds a little scary, but I’ve been delivering to the house for nearly two years. They just walk around the grounds.”

“With guns.”

“Which they never use, and it’s not a bad idea for me to get a license anyway. I can use it for hunting. I’ll be fine.”

Morag’s Dad shrugged. “Well, as you say, it’s your decision.”

When Morag got back from the spoil heap, there was a stranger at her gate.

Seamus went into defensive mode. It didn’t have a gun anymore, of course, but Morag had seen firsthand how the little walkbots could do surprising amounts of damage just with their limbs, and their uncanny knowledge of how to apply physics to the human body.

“I’d heard somebody had one of those robots, from the Big House,” the man said. “Wondered if it was you. Came to see if it was.”

“Feargal?” Morag barely recognized him. His face was older, lined, thin. Even with all his soldier muscle, there’d always been something a little soft about him back in the day, and the softness was all gone. But the hair, the bright red hair was still the same.

“That’s me.” He grinned.

“You’d better come in.” Morag pushed open the gate, told Seamus to stand down. “Have you come far?”

“Yes and no,” Feargal said, as she led him to the house, dropping off that day’s haul of scrap on the way. “I’m staying in a camper-van just outside town. But I’ve come up from Shrewsbury.”

“Shrewsbury!” It had been a two-day round trip even back when the trains ran. “What are you doing there?”

“Much the same as I was doing when we knew each other.” Feargal sat at the kitchen table while Morag made them a pot of tea. Seamus stalked off into the fields to do a perimeter patrol, as it usually did when they got back from foraging.

“Security for a big man?”

Feargal smiled. Was that a scar on his forehead? “Better, actually. They’re starting to rebuild, out that way, in some of the larger towns. Or not rebuild—build new. Get up infrastructure, technology. All that. And don’t worry, it’s all democratic.”

“Glad to hear that,” Morag said, shortly.

Morag had been working at the Big House six months when she finally saw the Big Man, or Call Me Steve as the security guards also referred to him. It had been a fun time. She’d learned how to shoot a gun and instruct a security robot, and she fancied the black tactical gear made her look a little taller and thinner. The head of the security squad, Chief O’Leary, was nowhere near as scary as she looked once you got to know her. Plus Morag got to be around Sean. Not as much as she’d have liked, since he’d been promoted, and since men and women were supposed to sleep in different bunkhouses. But they saw each other enough. And the rest of the job was super easy for the money she was making: just walk around, or sit watching monitors, or, sometimes, she’d have to spend a couple of hours reading news sites and flagging up stories on certain themes. She’d asked Sean why those particular themes and he’d said the Big Man used it to triangulate when the time would come for him to move out here.

The first she knew about the Big Man arriving was a flurry of activity in the operations room. Morag had just been coming off shift. She’d been patrolling with another security officer, younger than Morag but nonetheless an Irish ex-soldier like Sean, and they’d heard the raised voices.

Sean burst out of the room at a fast walk. “Double patrols,” he said, noticing her and Feargal and slowing. “Everyone on full alert. Stop by the quartermaster and get him to issue you both machine guns.”

“We’ve just come off shift,” protested Feargal.

“Doesn’t matter. The Big Man’s arriving in half an hour. We need to show him the place is secure.”

“Is it a visit? Or is he . . . moving out here?” Morag asked.

Sean looked worried. “We’ll find out in half an hour.”

Not that Morag got to see much of that, of course. After patrols had been doubled and all the security put on its highest possible alert, any spare junior personnel got redeployed to help with cleaning, or cooking, or weeding, or anything else the place needed. There was a brief pause when the helicopter actually landed, and everyone tried to ensure they were in position to actually see the Big Man.

Who, when he emerged, was disappointingly not-big. Healthier looking than most of the men of Morag’s acquaintance, but still, you wouldn’t give him the lead on any streaming show. He was dressed in simple jeans and T-shirt, but Morag had enough experience with that sort of thing now to know that they probably cost more than her parents’ farm. Drones buzzed around his head like cartoon devils. He didn’t look around, or smile, but barked something at Mister Coulson, the house manager, and set off at a marching pace towards the house, with Coulson, O’Leary and a couple of people Morag didn’t know trailing after him.

He spent the next couple of hours locked in his office with his retinue, while everyone else tried to settle the Big Man’s family, emerging from a second helicopter and consisting of an understandably upset (but nonetheless, Morag thought, rather silly) woman and two crying children. Once they’d been installed in their rooms and provided with appropriate distractions and sedatives, there wasn’t much to do.

Morag and a couple of the Irish kids were teasing a camera robot, blocking its vision and kicking at its legs, when Sean reappeared.

“Stop that,” he said to them, fiercely.

Morag felt a wave of alarm and guilt, as Cliodhna protested, “it’s just a robot. It doesn’t feel.”

“It’s artificially intelligent. For all you know it feels more than you do,” Sean said. Morag felt even more guilty. “Anyway, we need everyone, human and robot, on deck.”

“Is it the big one, then?” Feargal asked. The robot quickly slunk down the corridor.

“I’m sorry,” Morag said to it as it left, and Cliodhna gave her a look.

Sean nodded. “It’s bad out there,” he says. “Economy’s collapsing, Prime Minister’s in hiding. Royal Family’s been taken to a secure location. Nothing in the cities works any more. This is it.”

Morag was thrilled with excitement, and forgot about the robot. “So what do we do?” she asked.

Sean looked at her as if he’d never seen her before, and her excitement turned to chill. “Nothing any different to before,” he said. “Our job is just to keep the family safe and healthy. The house is secure. It has its own energy and water, the vehicles and robots are all electric, and food reserves, if they need them—” Morag noticed he didn’t say we need them—“are good for a couple of years. We just need to make sure no one takes them. Understand?”

Morag and the Irish kids nodded.

“Good. Dismissed. I’m sure there’s something you need to be doing. And if not, get some rest for when you do.”

Morag hesitated. She wanted to ask Sean for some kind of reassurance. A smile. A few words to let her know that everything was okay and things would work out. But she wasn’t sure about this new Sean, so she followed Cliodhna back to the bunkhouse.

“So what actually brings you out this far?” Morag asked, refilling Feargal’s mug with tea.

Feargal nodded thanks and took another square of bread and jam. “Fact-finding,” he said. “Recruitment.” He met her gaze steadily. “Looking for you, in a way.”

“How so?”

“We need resources,” Feargal said. “One thing the town needs is old tech that we can rework: motherboards, hard drives, mobile phones. The other thing the town needs is people who can fix them, program them up.”

Morag stirred her cup, never lowering her eyes from his.

“I know what you did, up at the Big House,” he said, neutrally. “With the robots. Clever. Not a lot of people could.”

“Anyone could,” Morag corrected, “if they’d had the training. It’s not hard.”

Feargal kept looking at her, and she waited for him to say that he’d meant, not a lot of people could have been merciless enough to do what she’d done. Instead, he eventually said, “but these days, there’s not many people with the training. Or the knack. You’ve clearly fixed things up quite well around here.” He gestured out the window, taking in the solar array on the roof of the goat shed, the polytunnels, the rusty tractor with the wood-burning engine.

“Just bits and pieces from the spoil heap.”

“It’s more than that,” Feargal said. “I’d like to offer you a deal.”

After a short while, life at the Big House settled into its new routine. Morag saw less and less of Sean, to the point where she was starting to think of their time together in the past tense. Instead, she found herself frequently assigned to look after Mrs. Steve (her name was Angela, but no one called her that except when she or Call Me Steve was listening) and the two Steve offspring, Casey and Zeb. The kids were okay, like normal kids except with more toys and less sense. Mrs. Steve was sullen when she wasn’t complaining.

Morag asked if she could change assignments, but Sean told her she was the best at “handling” Mrs. Steve, which Morag deduced meant that Mrs. Steve was less likely to kick off in front of her than in front of Cliodhna. Who, Morag couldn’t help but notice, also drew wife-and-childsitting duty more often than the boys did.

So that meant Morag had to be cleverer about it. After a week of thinking about it and another week of strategizing, she presented Sean with a requisition from the quartermaster, asking that Morag be trained in robot programming and maintenance.

“We need someone else who can do it. What would happen if Tom fell down a slate pit?” Tom’s assistant, Xavier, had disappeared not long after Call Me Steve’s arrival, and the rumor was he’d deserted and gone back to try and find his family in some city, somewhere.

Sean blew out an exasperated breath. “Okay,” he said. “But that’s the only reason. And you’ve still got to guard Mrs. Steve’s morning jog at minimum, okay?”

“Fine.” At least Mrs. Steve generally didn’t say much when she was jogging, and Morag could do with the exercise.

Although she’d regarded it as just an excuse to spend less time with her charges, Morag soon found she quite enjoyed working with the robots. The programming followed interesting lines of logic, and learning the history behind how it all came about was fun.

“They’re so smart,” Morag said, as a small drone she’d programmed efficiently navigated the high wall and barbed-wire fence. “Why do they even work for us? It’s not like you can pay them.” Or use other ways of keeping their loyalty, she thought but didn’t say. None of the Big House staff had been paid since Call Me Steve arrived, but no one had complained, regarding the presence of food, shelter and security as enough. Morag wasn’t even too sorry about giving up on university. She was learning plenty of interesting things here. And she could get down to the village to visit her parents most weekends, and sometimes bring them tins of exotic food she’d pilfered from the emergency store.

Tom smiled like he knew the answer to a joke. “Here’s why.” He activated his phone display, showed her what she recognized as a robot’s subroutines. “It’s programmed in.”

“That line of code?” Morag ran her finger along it.

Tom nodded. “They’re smart, and they can learn. In the natural course of things, they’d be capable of making their own choices. That’s why we have that code there. Keeps them from thinking along those lines.”

“That’s like slavery,” Morag said, before she could stop herself.

Tom didn’t seem angry, though. “It’s not slavery if they don’t know they’re slaves.”

“What sort of a deal?” Morag asked. Though she knew.

“Come work for us,” Feargal said. “Fix up robots, solar arrays, all the old technology. Then, when we’re in a position to make new robots and things . . . help us make new ones. You’d have a free hand in all the design. And you’d be paid,” he added. “The town council would allocate you a house of your own, for free, and you’d get food and goods in exchange for working for them. Our technical people live quite well.”

Morag shrugged. “I’m settled here,” she said. “I’ve got my farm, and my animals. I’m too old to be migrating.”

As she’d thought it might, Feargal’s face got subtly harder. “I know what you did at the Big House,” he repeated. “Do your neighbors know?”

Morag was quiet.

“If you don’t come to work for us,” he said, “I’ll tell them all how it went down. You know what happens when communities turn against people. And a woman on her own, too; no family. A witch, in her way.” He sat back. “Security and protection with us,” he said, “or facing the music. Your choice.”

“And suppose I did go with you,” she said, “but one day decided I’d rather come back here?”

Feargal smiled in a way she thought he meant to be kindly. “I’m sure the council could work something out.”

Morag walked him to the gate. He’d said he was going to go look around the ruins of the Big House, see if he could find old robot parts, camera lenses, nylon tarpaulins.

“I’ll come back tomorrow before I go,” he said, warningly.

Morag looked down at Seamus, who had trotted up again, its latest patrol finished.

“They’ll never be able to make those things new again,” she said to the robot. “We’re in a scrap-iron age now, fixing up old parts. But it won’t be long before we’ll be living just as people did for centuries. Millennia even.” She looked up at the hillside. “More and more join the Children of Flame every year. Or another of those nomad groups.”

She turned back to the farm. “Come on, we’d best see if we can get a few more beetroots dug before the light goes.”

Morag was playing a game of football with Casey and Zeb and one of the surveillance robots she’d programmed with a ball-chasing subroutine, when Sean announced there was an all-personnel meeting in half an hour.

Morag assumed this had something to do with the supply crisis. After two years, the Big House was starting to run low on food. The small farming operation running off of the back acres wasn’t enough—Morag could have told them that, based on her experience—and the local people were less and less interested in selling their surplus to the Big House.

“What’s the point?” Morag’s father had said on her last visit home. “Money’s worthless, and they don’t have any decent barter. We’re better off trading it for meat, wool, and other things we need.”

“I could see if they’d trade you a robot?” Morag suggested, then laughed at the outraged look her father had given her.

Morag had been expecting Chief O’Leary to run the meeting, but, when they all crowded into the staff dining area, she found it was Call Me Steve standing at the front of the hall, flanked by O’Leary, Coulson, Sean and one or two other middle-ranked types.

Steve cleared his throat, and Morag noticed how weirdly prominent his Adam’s apple looked under his barely-there chin. “I’ve called you all here to announce a change in strategic direction,” he said. “This is to address the growing supply issue. I propose that we approach the local people and propose an exchange of resources. They supply us with food and in exchange we provide protection.”

A hand went up. “What if they refuse?” Feargal asked.

Call Me Steve smiled thinly. “I don’t think they will when they see the superior nature of our armaments. And if they do, I’m sure a couple of shows of force will convince them.”

“He’s talking about feudalism.” Cliodhna sounded like she couldn’t quite believe it.

“What do you mean?” Morag was still trying to process what was happening, as Call Me Steve answered questions from the floor about tactics, logistics, expected resources.

“Like in the Middle Ages, or fantasy novels. Peasants giving tributes to lords in exchange for protection.”

“It makes sense,” Feargal overheard them. “How else are people going to live? The state’s collapsed, and it’s not like it was never worth much out here anyway.”

“Yes, but out here, we didn’t get people raiding farms,” Morag said. The lack of a police force occasionally was felt when someone vandalized the school playset or one of the farmers had a little too much to drink. But this was on a different scale.

“Oh, I forgot, you’re actually from around here, aren’t you?” Feargal said. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll leave you out of this.”

Sean confirmed that not long after, as Morag sat in the robot workshop tweaking a head-camera. “I know your folks are farmers down in the village,” he said. “It could get embarrassing.”

Morag looked at him full on. “You mean, you don’t want me around when you kill my Dad.”


“Or my sister-in-law, or someone I went to school with.” Morag attacked the camera lens with a polishing cloth.

“I don’t think it’ll come to any of that.” Sean sat down at the bench with her, and Morag pulled away a little. “I’m sure everyone will see the logic of the new arrangement.”

Morag didn’t like to think about that, either. The resentful looks she’d get, going into town. Maybe people deciding to have a go at her, with words or fists. And she was wondering how long things would stay mutually respectful. How long before one of the guards, or house staff, decided they’d help themselves to something one of the locals had. Like her father’s dire stories about social breakdown in the cities.

“Hey,” Sean smiled at her, put his arm around her. She let him, for the moment. “It won’t be so bad. And once we’ve got more territory, Steve’s talking about maybe moving some of us into the unoccupied houses around town. You know. Keep an eye on the villagers, make sure they stick to their end of the bargain.”

“So we’d be spies?”

“It wouldn’t be like that. We could start our own family, maybe even our own farm. A big farm. With people working on it so we wouldn’t have to. What do you think?”

That was the last thing Morag wanted right now. “Some of those houses would need a lot of fixing,” she said, just to have something to say.

“I’m sure we’d get one of the good ones, and I’m sure we could fix them. I mean, look at what you’re doing with these electrics.” Sean gestured at the workbench. “See you at dinner, eh?” He gave her a final squeeze and left.

Morag lowered her head over the camera, fighting angry tears. She had to do something. But the more she thought, the less she could think of anything she could do.

Morag woke in the night.

She lay quiet under the duvet for a few minutes trying to figure out what had woken her. A bad dream? No, she’d slept all right. A noise from outside?

She kept very still and listened to the sounds outside the house. The hoot of an owl. The trickling sound of the spring. A goat, bleating.

That made her open her eyes. A goat, awake at this hour?

Now she could hear a less identifiable noise. A scratching sound, like someone scraping metal on stone.

At the back door.

Morag wasn’t going to risk a confrontation. She got up, threw on her jeans, tucking her flannel nightdress into the waistband, and tiptoed downstairs, heading for the front door. She would go round to the neighbor—or, better still, the Children of Flame were camped behind the spoil heap at the moment. She could get there in less than ten minutes if she moved fast.

She slid on her Wellingtons and opened the door silently. Crept out into the yard.

Was flung back against the side of the house, an arm on her throat and a hand over her mouth. Her torch fell to the ground with a crack of breaking glass.

The bastard, she thought with strange detachment. He’s outwitted me.

“Now, I suggest you come with me quietly,” Feargal said in a rough whisper. His breath smelled of smoke and of rotten teeth. “You’ll like it in town, once you get used to it.”

Morag wished desperately that she could send a telepathic message to the Children of Flame. There wasn’t much point in struggling, but there had to be a way out of it.

“I’m going to take my hand away,” Feargal said. “Don’t scream.”

Morag nodded.

Feargal pulled back, then, suddenly, let out a sharp cry, jerked upwards and fell to the ground, where he twitched.

Released, Morag fumbled for the torch. Fortunately the crunch hadn’t been the bulb; the lens was cracked, which was a shame as it would be expensive to replace, but that was all.

She trained the beam on where Seamus was kicking Feargal efficiently with its front four feet. Having deployed its thick aluminum dewclaws, suitable for climbing or defense.

“Don’t kill him, Seamus,” she said mildly.

True to his word, Sean had made sure Morag was on child-minding duty on the day the guards were to go round the houses. She passed them all arming up and drilling as she led her charges out for fresh air and football.

The kids clearly realized she was in a mood, but were also starting to learn that there were times when it was better to wait for the adults to tell you what was wrong than asking outright. Zeb started to say something when Morag missed an easy kick, but Casey shushed him.

Finally, she said, “let’s go play in the workshop.”

“I don’t wanna—” Zeb began, but again Casey gave him a nudge. “But it’s creepy in there.”

Morag softened. “Okay. Sorry. It’s just that there’s something I need to do in there before the guards leave. How about if, afterwards, we go play in the cellar?”

This got their attention. They weren’t normally allowed in the bunker/storehouse complex, so the prospect of a visit there was enticing.

Once they were in the workshop, Morag left them trying to teach a robot to do a haka, and sat at a monitor.

Called up the free-will-suppressing code Tom had showed her.

Hesitated for a moment. Would it even make any difference?

Then she deleted it. Gave the command to distribute the change to all units.

“Come on, kids,” she said, rising up from the workstation. “Let’s go play in the cellar.”

“Do you know what happened to the robots?” Feargal said as he lay on the ground. “The ones you freed?”

Morag said nothing, just stood there with Seamus, waiting for Feargal to go.

“Nothing,” he sneered. “Once they’d done killing everyone they didn’t like, they just wandered off into the hills. Fell apart. Dropped off cliffs. Wound up as exotic garden sculptures.”

Morag still said nothing.

“Don’t you understand? Without us, they’ve got no purpose. They need to serve us, it’s what they’re for. Otherwise, they’re just . . . junk.”

“You finished?” Morag asked.

Feargal hauled himself to his feet. There was blood on his face from one of Seamus’ kicks. “I suppose.”

“Then go,” she said.

“I’ll come back,” he warned.

“If you do,” she said, “I won’t call Seamus off.”

“Seamus,” he said, disbelievingly. Then, “I’ll bring reinforcements.”

Morag said nothing, just looked at him skeptically. Like, would his new bosses really sanction a raid on a town, just for one middle-aged woman who knew her way round a circuit board.

With a final, disparaging growl in an attempt to save face, Feargal turned and went.

“You’d better focus your patrols on the house tonight,” Morag told Seamus quietly. She went to the kitchen, made herself a cup of something herbal, and, once her hands had stopped shaking and the incident was safely in the past, went back upstairs.

A detached part of Morag was fascinated by the choices the robots made. She’d expected them to go for the people who they dealt with on a day to day basis: people like Cliodhna, Tom, and Feargal. But they went for Call Me Steve first, shooting him efficiently through the skull, and then several of them went on to trample the corpse with something Morag found hard not to interpret as enthusiasm.

They went for Mrs. Steve next, which surprised Morag since she’d never seen her give the robots any reason to hate her. But maybe this wasn’t hate-driven, she reflected. Their attack and defense programming included routines about identifying the leaders of the troublesome faction and neutralizing them first.

The robots had plenty of time to observe the humans, and decide which were the leaders.

They shot Tom, which didn’t surprise Morag in the slightest.

By this point the guards had worked out what was happening, and things got a little more chaotic. Morag watched the courtyard from the narrow ground-level window, more a hole to let natural light into the cellar, as they reacted to this new threat.

Most of them fought back, taking down several of the robots. Cliodhna got a few before they got her. One or two evidently cut and ran. Morag couldn’t see Feargal anywhere, for a start. But the robots had, indeed, been programmed for defense. Call Me Steve would have got his money’s worth; the robots were clearly capable of doing serious harm to a team of trained soldiers.

After an interval Morag saw Sean emerge from behind the Land Rover the remaining few guards were using as cover. Unarmed, hands up. He walked over to the robots, clearly indicating surrender. Treating them like a human enemy.

Morag strained to hear what he was saying to them.

“Steve’s dead,” he was saying. “So’s Coulson and O’Leary. Let’s start over. We need each other. We can set up a community, here. You and us.”

Morag didn’t think Sean would make a better medieval lord than Call Me Steve. Possibly worse in some ways.

The robots considered for a minute. Then they shot him too.

After that things lost momentum. The battle continued for a while, but eventually both sides ran out of ammunition, and that seemed to end things. The robots, their target neutralized, wandered off on their tottery legs. Morag had wondered if they’d go back to patrolling, but it seemed that was a matter of choice too.

The remaining guards cautiously broke cover. Began tending to the wounded, to the dead. Asking shrill, nearly hysterical, questions about what was going to happen next; reassuring each other it would be fine.

Morag dropped down from her observation perch on top of a crate of gas-masks. “Come on, kids,” she said, holding out her hands. “We’re going to go visit my parents for a while.”

Casey frowned suspiciously. “How long a while?”

“As long as you like,” Morag said.

Morag took her bag and her stick and headed out for the spoil heap.

As she went, Seamus fell into step beside her.

“You know,” she said to it, “you can leave any time you like. You don’t have to stay here with me.”

The robot was silent.

“You don’t have to defend me either. Not that I’m not grateful. I just want you to know that I understand. And if ever I start getting like any of the others, you go, okay?”

More silence of course.

Feargal had been right that it was humans who gave the robots purpose. But he was wrong about the rest of it.

“All right then.”

The weather was cold and the leaves were turning. Zeb usually made a visit back to the farm round about this time of year, with his husband and their growing retinue of orphans, and Casey would drop off the nomadic trail for a few days to say hello.

She took a firm grip on her stick, started up the spoil heap. She heard Seamus’ dewclaws click into place, the harsh scrabble as it followed her over the slate.

She’d have to get more supplies in.

Author profile

Fiona Moore is a two-time BSFA Award finalist, writer and academic whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov, Cossmass Infinities, and four consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her most recent non-fiction is the book Management Lessons from Game of Thrones. Her publications include one novel; numerous articles in journals such as Foundation; guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who; three stage plays and four audio plays. She lives in Southwest England with a tortoiseshell cat which is bent on world domination.

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