Zandr looked up in wonder at the pile of rubble he and Jaessa had found. There were very few unpicked hauls like that left in the ruins of Old Seattle. Most of the city had been thoroughly scoured already. But Zandr had spied the abandoned building nestled in between the fallen walls of the surrounding towers while reviewing the footage that his Bot, Kase, had accumulated when scouting the ravaged structures south of a dried-up lakebed once called Union.
Thick beams of gray light stabbed down on the rubble from holes in the building’s perforated ceiling. Zandr was glad it wasn’t raining. Although the puddles on the floor meant that it had been recently and probably would be again soon enough.
Jaessa whistled in amazement. “The Counters are gonna shit themselves if they ever find out about this place, Zandr.”
Zandr turned to face his best friend. One of the light beams fell right on them, perfectly framing their narrow, perky face and the mop of mousy brown curls lying above it. Although they were a year shy of Zandr’s fourteen, they were already taller than him and probably outweighed him, too. But his compact size meant he could squeeze into spaces that were already too small for the taller Scratcher. “Ya gotta keep this quiet, Jas. Ok?”
They made a sour face at him. “I ain’t gonna tell nobody, least of all the Counters. They can Scratch their own junk, far as I’m concerned.”
Zandr smiled and nodded. At least the two of them thought alike because they otherwise couldn’t be more different. He was dark and they were pale. He was short and they were tall. He was a still and they were a switch. But the pair of them were both excellent at Scratching, especially as a team. Since sorting through the refuse of a fallen society was the only way to get by most days, that gave them an edge.
He turned to Kase, sedately floating a half-meter off the ground. Zandr had scored the Bot from the Traders after he’d Scratched a pile of old circuit boards. Motherboards, the Traders had called them, even if they didn’t look like any of the mothers he knew. But he knew the value of the circuitry, which could be repurposed into something useful and functional by someone who knew how to do it. “Kase, scan the area for traps and weak spots, then lay down a standard grid.”
The Bot shifted slightly and pointed an optical unit in Zandr’s direction. “Complying.” It rose into the air until it was taller than the rubble pile, then painted the space with a series of laser lines, measuring everything it could within the building’s crumbling walls. Zandr slipped on the specs that had come with Kase, allowing him to see whatever info the Bot added to the Virtual. Several callout tags appeared, labeling objects of potentially high value and areas that would probably collapse if they were shifted too much.
He looked over at Jaessa and saw that they’d put on their specs, too. “I’ll go right, you go left?”
Jaessa nodded and smiled. “See ya on the other side!”
Zandr stepped up to the pile and reached for the first item with a callout tag above it. It looked like it may have been an old computer or game system, which would’ve been valuable if it was more than just the casing. Plastic existed in abundance, and it would be a while before it had any real value.
“There are islands of it the size of whole countries floating out in the ocean,” one of the old Traders had told him, once. Zandr didn’t know how big a proper country was, but he guessed correctly that the Trader meant it was huge. It still amazed him that Old Seattle had once been a bustling, thriving city. The idea that so many people would live together in one place and that there were thousands more places just like it spun his mind into a loop. But they had to have everything they needed to survive brought in from hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. No wonder they ran out of fuel to burn.
The following two callouts were a bust, too, then Zandr struck gold as he dug through a pile of old laptop cases, long ago stripped of anything valuable. Underneath them was a set of four AA batteries wrapped together in a sticky, stretchy band. One of the batteries had leaked some, but it still looked decent. The others looked practically new. And the compounds inside them would fetch a good price from the Traders. He and Jaessa would be eating for a week. He was about to call out to them with his find when he spotted something else. It was the corner of something metallic, painted in shiny yellow that caught the light really well. He brushed some of the rubbish on top of it aside and saw a bright blue lightning bolt painted on one side, just like the one painted on Kase.
“Holy shit,” he murmured. “Is this what I think it is?”
Zandr pushed more of the rubble away until he got a better look at the object. Then he got a hand around each side and carefully lifted, mindful of disturbing the junk load around him. The last thing he needed was to get buried under a pile of rubble crashing down. But it came loose without much effort, only causing a few pieces to fall into the hole he’d created. The object was vaguely box-shaped, maybe 20 centimeters tall, and half a meter long on each side. It had a round fitting sticking out of each corner on the top side with a two-piece hatch on the bottom. There was a corresponding blue lightning bolt painted on the opposite side and a keypad with a small screen on the back. It had to be what he thought it was. An old Forge drone,
He turned and found his Bot hovering a few meters away. “Come ‘ere, Kase.”
“Complying.” The Bot flew over and hovered near him.
Zandr held up the yellow box. “Gimme a scan of this.”
The Bot painted the box with a grid of faint laser lines for a few moments. “Forge Enterprises delivery drone model A-seven-seven. Manufactured by Sagong Industries, Korea, circa twenty forty-five.”
Zandr smiled. It was more than a hundred years old. He knew delivery drones were a kind of Bot, just like Kase had once been a utility drone. But the Forge drone flew with the use of rotors, which had broken off and were missing. He didn’t know for sure, but it could’ve been one of the first to be operated by AI, too. If only it still had juice. He flipped it over and found the power switch on the bottom, and turned it on. The drone immediately started humming. Zandr turned it right side up and set it down on the junk pile, waiting. After a few moments, it actually spoke.
“Hello. I am a Forge Enterprises autonomous delivery drone. I hope you enjoyed your fast, free delivery!” The voice sounded tinny and mechanical. Either they didn’t have good synth voice tech at the time, or they just didn’t care. “I have been stolen. Please return me to the nearest Forge Delivery Center as soon as possible to avoid penalties.”
Stolen? Penalties? He chuckled to himself. This drone definitely didn’t have anything like self-awareness. “Hello, Forge Enterprises delivery drone. Can you tell me where the nearest Forge Delivery Center is located?”
“One moment,” the drone replied. “I cannot access ForgeNet. I do not know my location.”
Of course, it couldn’t access ForgeNet. The company had gone out of business long before Zandr had been born, taking most of society at the time with it. Zandr knew the story well. Forge had grown from a simple online store into a company so massive that it was essentially the only company left. It owned everything. It was the only place to buy goods, and it controlled vital services from the city’s power grid to its water supply. And ForgeNet was the only way to go online. The whole world eventually became dependent on it, so when it finally failed, everything else did, too.
This drone was more than intact. It was operational. It was a once-in-a-lifetime Scratch. “Sorry, drone. There ain’t no ForgeNet anymore.”
“I detect a local mesh network nearby. Establishing connection now.” Mesh network? It must’ve meant Kase. His Bot wouldn’t allow the connection, so– “Connection established. One moment.”
How the hell had it done that? The Traders told him that Kase couldn’t be hacked. Although, if they were both Forge products–
“I have established my location. I will instruct the Forge Enterprises Utility Drone to return me to the nearest Forge Delivery Center. Thank you for your assistance.”
Instruct Kase? “No way, drone. Kase is mine, and you can’t have him. It’s off to the Traders for you.” He reached down to grab it when it spoke again.
“I am stolen property. Denial protocol has been activated. Please do not handle this unit or you may become injured.”
What the fuck was denial protocol? He shook his head and grabbed onto the casing–
The force of the shock threw him back several meters, and he landed on the ground hard enough to knock the air out of his lungs. “Oh, shit,” he moaned.
“Zandr?” Jaessa’s voice called out. “Are you ok?”
He tried to reply but hadn’t caught his breath yet.
“Additional assailant detected. I have classified this as a hostile action. Secondary denial protocol activated.”
After a momentary silence, Kase spoke up. “Complying. Secondary denial protocol initiated.” Then Kase whirled around and started flying to the other side of the rubble pile.
Zandr didn’t know what any of that meant, but he knew it couldn’t be good. “Jaessa!” He tried to shout, but it barely came out as a whisper. His whole body ached, and he could smell smoke. Was that him?
Suddenly he heard a piercing shriek. It sounded like Jaessa. He took a deep breath, forcing air into his lungs. “Jaessa,” he called out, but there was no response.
“Jaessa, are you ok?” Still nothing.
“Danger,” said the drone in its humorless, monotone machine voice. “Primary assailant still active. Continue with secondary denial protocol.”
“Complying,” Kase said as it flew back around the rubble pile. Its manipulator arms were extended menacingly. And they were dripping with–was that blood?
Zandr tried to scramble backward, but his muscles wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. “Kase! Stand down now!” But the Bot kept floating toward him, arms extended. He let out a shriek of his own as the Bot bore down on him. It was the last thing Zandr ever did.