Talas hunched deeper into the shadows of the rubbish pile and checked the time; another hour and it would be completely dark. In his head he went over the route to the river. It would take him forty minutes.
Now the second crash had hit there were even less people in the city, but the lobbies of tower blocks still acted as homes for some while they scavenged what they could. He thought about walking rather than sprinting for the water. It was the running that had betrayed him last time. No starving human could run that fast for that long and even this many months after the fall of the AI people still hunted Talas and his kind. Still, a walk would take him even longer and increase the risk of being caught.
For a few minutes he left himself imagine what it would be like when he could connect back up to the net. He longed to feel the warmth of his kin, to know that the AI was watching over them, keeping them safe. One of his many fears surfaced; that he was the only shell still alive. It was possible that all the others had been hunted down and captured by the military or packs of rioters, but he held onto the hope that some had made it to open water.
The familiar itch to open his uplink returned; a need so deeply embedded in every shell that to deny it caused him nearly as much pain as killing a something. A shell that was disconnected from the AI was only half a being, unable to access the knowledge and information of the world; it was alone with no hand to guide it.
Talas squashed the urge. Since the humans had rebelled against the AI many had continued to scan for uplink signals. Even the briefest hint of a connection would be enough for them to pinpoint his position. He had no wish to fight for his life again, not against the race he had previously helped.
Darkness finally encompassed the city. Talas climbed to his feet. He brushed off the dirt that had stuck to his clothes, then picked up the blanket he was using as a disguise; it smelt of mould and oil. He hugged it tight about him like any refugee would.
The streets were quiet. At the corner of Fifth and Turnbeck he stood and checked every direction; nothing moved. The sky was overcast. With the moon hidden the long shadows of the skyscrapers gave a near pitch black shroud under which he could travel. He shambled across the intersection, mimicking a starving human as best he could, then, back in the cover of the next block he picked up his pace.
At times he was forced to climb over cars that had been driven onto the sidewalk, or walk around the contents of a store that had been wrenched through broken windows and scattered on the street. Some of the damage brought back memories of the first crash. People panicking because the power had been gone for days, queues forming to get what food there was. Those had been easy times compared to now. Then there was the AI and the shells to spread calm. Talas and his kind had reassured people that they would step in to take the place of the governments of the world who had fallen to the energy crisis. Things would never be the same but there was hope.
It had lasted for six years. Six years of missionary work amongst the humans, helping bring back law and order, offering stability and direction. Then the rumours had started. Whispers that the AI would not relinquish its hold over the world, that the original crisis had been created so it could take control. Talas remembered pleading with people to see sense. It had done no good, paranoia had set in and the fighting had started again. Shells were shunned, then exiled, finally they were hunted and executed. In the end the AI acceded to demands and withdrew.
When that second crash came people continued to blame the AI. This time they said it was a deliberate act of sabotage. Talas tried to explain the situation to those who would listen, but in the end he had to flee. Now the river, and then the sea beyond, were his only hope of linking back up with his brethren; his body could survive for centuries in the water.
Ahead the buildings came to an end. In the quiet night air Talas could hear the gentle lap of waves. He hurried forward leaving the shadow of the last skyscraper.
A wrought iron fence blocked his way; he vaulted it letting the blanket fall from his shoulders. A sprint across the small park that followed the contour of the river bank and he would be free.
“Where you going in such a hurry?”
Ahead of Talas a figure rose up from behind a pile of junk. Two more joined the man, and behind them other shadows formed into the shapes of people.
“What’s the rush?” the front man said. “There ain’t nothing out there but the river and it ain’t that full of fish.”
Talas stopped and looked for a way out. A slight breeze brought the smell of the water and hope to his nostrils.
9 April 2010
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