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This story is a sequel to the Zone War Trilogy, picking up sixteen years after the events of Web of Extinction. A chance to revisit a few old characters and introduce some new ones. A bridge to the next series of books that will take up place between Zone Wars and the Shadows of Montshire series. It seemed to be appropriate to an anthology for the benefit of Ukraine, as the horrors those folks face and their struggle for survival are somewhat reflected in this story.
“Am I boring you, Miss Gurung?” Mr. Holden asked. “Are you already an expert on Economics of Independent Survival?”
I snapped to full awareness, eyes now open and focused on my teacher.
“No sir. Sorry sir,” I said, brushing a hand across my mouth to make sure there wasn’t any drool. The entire class was staring at me, mostly with smirks.
From the back left side of the room, I heard Ryan Peterson snicker and whisper something to Adam Copp. Massive pains in the ass, both of them.
“Then perhaps you’d like to answer my question? You know… what are the primary payment systems of the homestead or survival collective?”
I knew this one because I’d heard it from my aunts Monica and Gabby almost from birth.
“Monetary exchange, either in old-time dollars, which don’t have much value around here anymore, crypto, or bullion, either gold or silver. Barter items: primarily ammunition, foodstuffs, tools, medicine, seeds, clothing, firewood, or anything else that is in demand by the buyer. Finally, service, either specialty or general labor.”
“I’ll take service any day,” Ryan quipped from the back.
“Not bad from a dead sleep,” Mr. Holden said to me with a nod. “And Mr. Peterson, I expect that absolutely no one here is interested in your special services.”
The class laughed, their attention finally off me.
“Let me guess. Late night, Miss Gurung?” the teacher asked, swiveling back to me. Damn.
“I had a late watch over the chicken coop. We’d lost two chickens.”
“Ah, and did you get your villain?”
“Yes sir. Fisher.”
“Crossbow or trap?” he asked.
“Pellet rifle, sir.”
“Of course. The sniper’s daughter,” he said with a nod. “How was the pelt?”
“It’s offseason but it’s not horrible. Definitely better than a summer pelt.”
“So, class, Miss Gurung pulled a late-night shift guarding her collective’s resources and was not only successful but added meat and fur to the coffers. Of course, she’s gotten little sleep, a fact that I will be only too happy to pass on to the rest of the faculty.”
“Maximum, sir,” I said with a sigh. The faculty loved nothing more than pushing a tired student beyond their limits.
“But sir,” Adam asked, raising his hand. “She expended a valuable resource to gain the fisher.”
“Ah, the pellet. Well, Miss Gurung?”
“Recycled from recovered bullets. We sift the sand for expended rounds at most of the local firing ranges, melt out the lead, and cast all kinds of bullets including .177 and .22 pellets,” I answered. “They’re available for sale or trade. I recovered this one too. It was in the fisher’s skull,” I said, turning to pin Adam and Ryan with a glare.
“Your father’s idea?” Mr. Holden asked. “The range recycling that is, not the fisher skull.”
“My mother’s,” I corrected.
“Excellent. Okay, class, for homework, you are to prioritize the categories of payments.”
“What does that mean, sir?” Alicia Olden asked. I thought it was clear, but being the overachiever that she was, she wouldn’t want to take a chance.
“Simple. Do you take cash over crypto, medicine over ammo, or even among the main categories, do you take labor over money, or do you offer barter before work?” he said. “And you need to think of it from both sides of the transaction, seller and buyer. That’s it; now scurry along to your next classes.”
I gathered my stuff and headed into the halls of the old North Haven high school, which were crowded with kids of all ages. The old middle school housed children younger than ten while this building served as middle, high, and even college-level for kids ten to twenty. In today’s times, high school was over at age sixteen, and advanced classes ended by twenty.
It was the only school I’d ever known and likely the only one I’d ever attend, what with the world being what it was.
“Iris, wait up,” a voice called. My best friend, Sophia Kardian, was about three people back and I slid out of the student stream to let her catch up.
“I kept trying to hit you with pebbles, but you wouldn’t wake up,” she said, coming alongside me and plucking a tiny stone from my bun. She put it back in her pocket, where I knew she kept a supply for her wicked-deadly sling.
“I only got like two and half hours of sleep,” I said. “Military Studies is going to have a very high suck factor.”
“Who’s sucking what?” Adam asked, looming up on my right while his equally tall buddy was on Sophia’s left.
“Don’t you two have someone else to torment? Anyone else?”
“No. Besides, we were wondering how you could see enough to shoot the fisher. It was a new moon last night, and cloudy.”
“I strapped a solar flashlight to my pellet gun. The old hand crank or leave-it-in-the-sun-for-a-month kind. That’s all Dad would allow.”
“He’s so spartan,” Ryan said. Every boy in our school pretty much idolized my dad. Mom too, but for maybe different reasons.
“That’s a good term for it. Spartan. Iris, you won’t have batteries or bullets forever. You have to learn to do without and save them for truly important moments,” I said in my best Ajaya Gurung impersonation.
“Maximum,” Adam said, but without the snarky sarcasm I had used earlier. “We’re lucky to have your family here in Haven,” he said, then turned into the Animal and Fish Husbandry lab, Ryan close behind him. Sophia and I kept walking, moving past two more doors before turning into the Practical Math room. I sat down in a daze. Neither of them had ever said anything like that before. They were nature’s most horrible creation, teen boys, but they were also wicked skilled hunters, even at the ripe old age of sixteen. Weird.
Miss Leica spent the lesson explaining several methods of calculating the height of a vertical object using both the Pythagorean Theory and trigonometry. I couldn’t fall asleep, but the math was easy, as long as I had my solar calculator. We spent the period calculating tangents and squaring hypotenuses and I never had to answer a single question.
The period ended and I gathered my stuff. “Iris?” Miss Leica called.
“Mr. Holden called me to let me know you’ve had very little sleep. I chose not to call on you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
She smiled and waved me out the door.
The next class wasn’t going to be fun. Military Studies was mandatory for every student, no exceptions—ever—for every year of school they attended. Half close-quarters combat training and half tactical and strategic theory, it was important enough to have two teachers, switching in and out. Miss Jensen and Mr. Boyle—two of the biggest hardcases anywhere. And I was their favorite target.
“Ah, Little Shooter,” Miss Jensen said as I walked in. “Looking all sleepy. Time to suck it up, buttercup.”
Despite her words, she started class with a by-the-book lesson on small unit tactics, specifically fire and movement as part and parcel of bounding overwatch. She covered alternating bounds and successive bounds. The first is where one combat unit moves forward while under the watchful eyes and ranged weapons of a second unit. Then the first unit overwatches as the second unit moves up and past the first unit, like leapfrog. The units alternate as they proceed through an operational area.
The successive bounding technique puts one unit on watch, while the first unit moves forward. Then first watches while second moves up to first’s position. First then moves to the next position, followed by second. So if alternating bounding is like leapfrog, then successive bounding is more follow-the-leader.
Miss Jensen went over it patiently and carefully, using the terrain table in the front of class. My parents have talked about things called smart boards, white boards, and before those, there were black boards. We can’t waste electricity on that tech, we don’t have the special markers for white boards, and blackboards simply don’t exist anymore. Instead, we use sand tables, slate, and chalk (Vermont has lots of both in the ground), and tanned deer hide with charcoal, which we also have a regular supply of. The terrain table in Military Studies is just a sand table dressed up with tiny models and miniature trees, including tiny stick figures to represent fighters.
I thought I might have gotten lucky, but with ten minutes till the end of class, she told us to push our desks back and clear the middle of the room. Then she pretended to look for a victim, her eyes going past me three times before alighting on me with glee. “Iris, step out here in the center,” she directed. “Now, I need four or five volunteers to attack our tired trooper here. Any takers?”
Half the class raised their hands. She picked four boys and two girls, handing them each a forearm-long stick of wood that had been charred on the end. Those were practice knives.
“Do I get one?” I asked.
“That depends,” she said. “Do you have a blade on you now?”
I raised my eyebrows and started pulling knives, first from my belt, then from under my clothes. She stopped me at number four, a sweet little bushcraft knife that was razor sharp.
“Our victim is prepared. In fact, I suspect she has a few more treasures hidden about her person. Therefore, yes, you get a blade,” Miss Jensen said, pulling out another charred stick. She started to hand it to me, then abruptly pulled it back and snapped the stick in half. Handing me the half with the char at one end, she effectively gave me a blade much shorter than my opponents’.
“Okay, cut her,” she said with little fanfare.
Instantly, mayhem broke out. Three rushed in, but I turned toward the smallest person, a kid named Sam Perkins, and blocked his knife swipe, slashing his inner knife arm with my charcoal blade as I spun around behind him, pushing his body toward the other two attackers. His weapon arm was disabled, and Miss Jensen called him out of the fight.
One of the three waiting kids was close to me, and she chose to jab her blade at my gut. I jumped back, shoving my butt backward and sucking in my stomach, then slashing the back of her moving arm as it slipped past. Jumping forward, I slapped her right shoulder with my left hand, partially spinning her, then cut the back of her right thigh, leaving a nice charcoal streak on her pants. She too had lost the ability to hold a knife as well as stand on both legs, so she was disqualified.
By now, the tangle of attackers in the middle was cleared and headed my way but I moved into the outer edges of the classroom and shoved desks at them, slipping in cuts to hands, arms, and torsos that got too close.
I didn’t get away unscathed though, as my left arm got covered in black slashes and I got one on my left quad muscle.
“Break!” Miss Jensen called, loud and commanding. Everyone stopped instantly. She had long ago demonstrated what happened to any student who failed to cease action on her command. It was usually exhausting, painful, and humiliating. Of the initial six, she had disqualified three on the basis of their wounds—long streaks of black charcoal.
“You, my dear, are cut to shit,” she said, looking me over before turning to the rest of the class. “However, Iris managed to keep her weapon arm safe and her vital organs and arteries unscathed. She used her terrain to her advantage and forced her opponents to attack one at a time whenever possible. Not bad. Remember, if you get into a blade fight, expect to get cut. The trick is to control the damage as best you can. Class dismissed. Iris, hold up.”
The attackers handed over their mock blades and walked past me. Ryan Peterson gave me a little salute with his left hand because he was pretending to cradle his right one, which was marked all to hell with black slashes.
“Iris, you did well, but the last three would have likely overcome you in short order,” Miss Jensen said.
“Yes. Sometimes all you can do is go down fighting. However, Aunt Kayla, in a real fight, I would be throwing some blades and darts at them, because someone taught me to always carry extra.”
“Good girl. Sit with me at the festival?”
“Of course. Like I would sit with someone else.”
She snorted. “You are always in high demand, little shooter. Now off to lunch with you.”
Just like her to beat the hell out of me in class and then want me to sit with her at the annual Harvest Festival.
I cleaned up in the girls’ room, then ran to lunch with fifteen minutes to choke down my venison sandwich, dill pickles, and an apple from the recent harvest. Sophia was there along with Grace and Katya. They too were talking about the festival, mostly about the dance.
Every fall, we celebrate a successful growing season just as our distant ancestors did long ago. A big feast, contests of skill such as ax throwing, archery, and two-person buck saw (which Ryan and Adam had won last year), music, and dancing. There was always a massive bonfire and mulled cider in the evening. It was a holiday in the middle of harvesting crops, smoking meat, preparing greenhouses and cold frames for cool weather crops, cutting wood, and every other essential job needed for the community to make it through the harsh winter. So it was a big deal, especially to the young adults.
After lunch, the next class of the day was Technology for Tomorrow, with Mrs. Harper Wilks-Johnson, another of my many aunts. She only taught her tech classes on Wednesdays and Fridays and only in the afternoon. The rest of her time was spent trying to keep Haven connected to the outside world through ever decreasing internet connections, as well as short-wave radio. At least the radio thing was increasing, as they were easy to put together if you could get a crystal. Since salvage was such a big thing these days (we even had an elective class on it: Salvage for Sales and Success), most of the parts could be found readily.
“Let’s talk about the future of technology,” Harper said as soon as we were seated. I’m supposed to be all formal in school, but more than half the faculty comes from our family compound, so it’s hard for me to change how I label them in my head.
“Yeah, it’s going downhill,” Charlie Nox commented, looking for a laugh and getting it.
“Correct,” Harper said, not smiling. “In fact, I predict that unless some kind of miracle happens, you will lose the internet completely during my lifetime, let alone yours.”
The class mood instantly shifted to gloomy.
“Let’s talk about why,” Harper said. “Any ideas?”
“Lack of manufacturing facilities,” Adam Copp said.
“True. We’ve been able to salvage high tech parts from abandoned homes and businesses, and there is an extremely lucrative trade in that stuff, but it will run out. And currently, no one geographically near us is making any more.”
“I heard that the Western Cooperative States have some facilities,” my friend Grace said.
“Yes, I’ve been in touch with them myself. There are several problems though.”
“The Inland Sea,” Trevor Johnson, my cousin, said.
“Yes, exactly. As you should all know by this point in your studies, when the first exchange of nuclear weapons occurred, the New Madrid fault was triggered, sinking three hundred kilometers of middle America deep enough for the Great Lakes to flood all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. And with the current state of the climate, the storms that rage across that body of water make water navigation almost impossible. That leaves transport up through Canada and the country of Quebec.”
“Too far and too many tariffs,” Sophia offered. “Miss Jarit has covered that a time or two. But maybe someday.”
“Ah, and then there’s the second part of the problem: the Luddite Party,” Aunt Harper said.
“My dad doesn’t think they’ll have an impact on us even if they make it to power,” Charlie said.
“His guess is as good as mine, but it can’t be good for us to have them spreading their propaganda everywhere they go, trying to shut advanced technology of any kind,” Harper said. “And finally, there is also the matter of the conditions out west. Storms, fires, earthquakes, drought. In many ways, our focus on agriculture here in New England, and the old ways of homesteading, have set us up to survive better than their reliance on technology.”
“Wow, Mrs. Wilks, that’s bleak,” Sophia said, pretty much speaking for the entire class.
“Right? Me, championing low technology homesteading? Crazy, but believe it or not, I see the value. Because you must live before you can innovate, create, and build. When the West is just a wasteland, this place will still be going, thanks to the old ways mixed with some new knowledge. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t work like crazy to preserve the knowledge and techniques we have. If not your kids, then maybe your grandchildren will be able to rebuild some of what we had. Anyway, enough downer thoughts. Let’s learn how to salvage as much as possible from old automobiles. Something I did a lot of as a kid inside the Manhattan Drone Zone.”
Much of the class glanced my way. My parents and Harper were once the most famous people on the planet because of the Manhattan Drone Exclusion Zone. But that was old history. This was now, sixteen years after the Zone was finally cleared and Manhattan reopened—just in time for wars and pandemics to wipe it out completely.
“We’ll start with a discussion of the various kinds of computer chips found in cars of varying years. Next class, we’ll work on recovering rare earth metals along with the gold and silver that are in vehicle systems.”
Harper had an actual computer monitor set up, one of her own, and she had a car battery to power the video she showed us. Most of us had ridden in cars a few times when we were very young, but gasoline was pretty much gone at this point, at least in upstate Vermont. The compound had some electric vehicles, but they were kept up on blocks, used only in emergencies.
She taught us where to find the chips and how to get them out. The chips had been used to control doors, locks, climate systems, audio, video, emergency beacon, positional sensors, backup cameras, moon roofs, side mirrors, clocks, seat adjustments, windshield wipers, light systems, and even seat warmers. Along with the chips, there were countless other parts like LEDs that would last for decades, solenoids, fuses, circuit boards, cameras, video systems, and even GPS units for the old satellite system that had been partially destroyed by China during the first nuclear war. In short, finding an abandoned car was a salvage dream. The amount of metal, plastic, glass, and rubber that could be recovered—along with copper wiring—was mind-boggling.
“Your assignment is to pick an automotive system that we’ve discussed and tell me, with diagrams, if necessary, what you could build with it that would directly improve our lives today.”
“Ah, Mrs. Wilks, what are we supposed to write on?” Lessa Jones asked.
“Use whatever you have for the diagram, slate or deerskin, but the actual explanation, you will give in a two-to-three-minute oral presentation.”
The groaning was mild because we did a lot of oral presentations to conserve writing material. Haven had the knowledge to make paper, just not the time. Survival of the community in these times was priority number one.
“You can think it through while you do your chores,” she said, which was unnecessary in my opinion. We all had lots of chores and I, for one, spent much of the time doing homework essays in my head. A lack of paper makes for strong memory skills.
I had one of my electives after that class, blacksmithing, taught by Mr. Boyle, who… you guessed it… is one of my unofficial uncles.
Mom told me that when she and Dad went to school, they used to have clubs. All kinds of clubs for after-school activity. Extracurricular, she called it. None of us have time for anything like that.
We have chores before school and chores after school. Growing food, cutting firewood, fixing our homes, tending livestock, gathering herbs, hunting game and running traplines, fishing, smoking meat, drying fruit, drawing water, tending bees, and countless other survival necessities take up much of our time. Add to that community service requirements like fire watch, salvage missions, security patrols, and community improvement work like dam building and barn raising, and we have very little time for actual schoolwork. Of course, we learn constantly. Helping the village tech committee build and service new wind generators or being the junior person in a security patrol squad is an education all its own.
But to make up for the lack of clubs, we have lots of electives. Blacksmithing, crafting for comfort and capitalism, primitive skills, herbal medication, creative construction, food security through permaculture, music, astronomy—well, the list goes on and on. Basically, the school board pulls people with diverse talents from around the community to teach and preserve those talents. You name it and we probably can have an elective on it.
Blacksmithing is fun. Meditative, I would say. Mr. Boyle is not one for words. He’s more a man of action, so we are almost always hands-on, making useful things for our homesteads from salvaged metals. Blacksmithing is one of the electives that has multiple level classes. A total of five semesters, in fact. Finish all five and you are automatically a journeyman blacksmith. I was on semester number four.
After pounding on hot metal for fifty minutes, I was ready to sit back, let the sweat dry, and take in my final class of the day, Social Sustainability, which was taught by Sarah Jarit, who once upon a time was an attorney. My dad’s attorney, in fact. The title was a little misleading. It was more of a history class than anything else, as it delved deeply into the issues that had resulted in the current state of the world.
“Where did we leave off?” Sarah asked the class, frowning. She and her wife had recently taken in three refugee children, and she looked tired.
“Reasons for the Great Slide, as you call it,” Tanisha Sampson said.
“Yes, as I call it. I’ll say it again, as it bears repeating. Much of this class and the material we are delving into is the product of my own research. State education standards disappeared along with state governments. Therefore, it is open to challenge and debate, although you best have your ducks all in a row if you choose to debate. Now, before conjecture, let’s talk facts: First, the turn of the century found a severely divided America, a two-party system that was inefficient and rarely acted in a bipartisan manner. The first two decades of the twenty-first century took that political dysfunction to unbelievable levels. The reasons for this are many, but we’ll concentrate on three.”
I glanced at Sophia, waggling my brows. Sarah (who never let us call her by her last name) was supremely fond of the number three. She admitted it often, saying that people remembered three things better than four or more.
“First, political entrenchment. The two-party system primarily differed on the role of government in America. Yes, there were other differences about certain values, but essentially it came down to conservatives favoring little interference by elected officials against liberals, who saw government as a way to provide a leg up to low-income or disadvantaged citizens.
“Second, income and wealth inequality. By the end of the twentieth century, there were vast gaps between the lowest class and the upper class, while the middle class was withering away as people either ascended or descended the ladder. There were, in my opinion, three main reasons for this: lack of financial literacy across much of the population, ever increasing concentration of wealth at the top, and corporate control of legislature through powerful lobbying efforts.”
“Sarah?” Carmen Jacquis raised her hand.
“What do you mean by a lack of financial literacy?”
“Ask your parents what it was like going to school back then. We didn’t have Economics of Independent Survival taught in every grade through graduation back then. The curriculum was carefully controlled by law, with a strict focus on science, classical math, social studies, and language. It was exceedingly rare for a school to offer even an elective on personal finance. Unless they learned from their parents, most children started adult life without understanding the most basic of personal economics. Rich kids learned stuff at the dinner table that poor kids never learned their whole lives. Hard to compete equally when you don’t know the rules of the competition.”
She paused and looked back at her notes. “Ah, okay. The third reason was that the country, and in fact the world, faced a series of exigent crises. Climate change bringing massive shifts in weather and sea level, drought, famine, pandemics, and finally wars brought on by a rise in authoritarianism among nuclear-armed countries.
“All of this peaked with the event known as Drone Night, when 25,000-AI-driven war drones were released in Manhattan in a purported act of terrorism.”
“But it wasn’t terrorists. It was a conspiracy-driven false flag event,” Alicia Olden offered.
“Yes, Alicia. Which you all know very well because so many of us in Haven played a role in revealing that,” Sarah said, giving me a quick glance and smile. “Now, that attack is arguably the beginning of the actual Great Slide into oblivion. World population numbers fell significantly from Drone Night on, through the AI wars, the bioweapon pandemics, and all of the resulting famine and war that followed. At the beginning of the century, the planetary carrying capacity for human population had been met and perhaps exceeded. The systems that fed, sheltered, and watered the people of the world were balanced on the tip of a pin. The AI wars pushed us off that pin. We have no way of knowing current population numbers, but our best guess is that during your lives, somewhere between six and seven billion people have died.”
“But places that followed the old ways survived,” Grace said.
“Nobody truly followed the old ways, but enough remembered how and embraced those teachings to make a difference. How many of you weeded a garden this week?” Sarah asked, raising her hand.
The entire class raised their hands. Everyone in Haven has a garden. Food security is survival.
“But we’ll pull through and rebuild, right?” Mark DelaCrotia asked. His family was relatively new to Haven, having only arrived two years ago. Sophia turned and waggled her brows at me. I smirked back. Mark was widely regarded as one of the best-looking kids in school and perhaps more importantly, none of us had grown up with him. He was still the new kid in town.
“That’s our goal, Mark, but it won’t be easy. We face freaky weather, the odd flare-up of diseases that were created in labs, external groups that want what we have, and people who will attack us through ideas. See, here’s the problem. Most of what brought on our slide into extinction is directly attributable to human behavior. And human behavior doesn’t seem to change. In fact, that will be your homework assignment. Ask your elders about how people have changed, or if they’ve changed, since Drone Night.”
“That’s a major depress, Miss Sarah,” Mark said. He had trouble calling her just Sarah.
“Sorry, Mark. But living through it left some scars.”
“What was it like?” Sophia asked.
“It was horrifying. Principles of society that you assumed inviolate were violated left and right. Politicians lying outright, getting caught, and just denying they lied even when facing video and audio proof. The breakdown of the rule of law. Authoritarian dictator-like actions by elected presidents, governors, and other officials. Retaliation against any opposing voices. Complete disregard for the Constitution, right up through open insurrection. And they got away with it, up until the drone attack. Then there was the horror of hundreds of thousands of Manhattanites dying in their homes and streets, shot down and blown up by military killing machines. When we wiped out the supposed terrorists, it felt awesome, but when Iris’s father and Harper Wilks blew the conspiracy wide open, everyone’s worldview was just utterly destroyed. Shredded. Hell, having to worry about AI attacks was almost a blessing—at least it distracted us from thinking about how low the country had fallen, how our supposed leaders had sacrificed hundreds of thousands of citizens to their scheme.”
I was quiet the whole way back to the compound, trailing the group of kids that lived there too.
“Iris? What’s wrong?” my mom asked at dinner.
I had tried to hide my discomfort, but Mom is Mom. She saw right through shit like she had drone thermal or x-ray vision.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just that Sarah’s class today has me thinking, is all.”
“About what?” my dad asked.
“Is it all futile? Fighting so hard to live… is it worth it? Are we all just going to die out anyway? Kill ourselves off if nature doesn’t do it?”
They exchanged a glance. “I asked my dad that question once… not long after Drone Night, while the military was still trying to quarantine the island,” my dad said.
“What did he say?” I asked. I only knew Grampa Gurung through stories.
“He said we fight to live and fight to protect because that’s who we are. We don’t give up just because times get hard. Everyone dies, Ajaya, he said, but giving up on living, surviving, thriving, and doing what is right, all without a fight, is weak and a dishonor to our ancestors. They fought so that we could live. It is up to us to do the same, to make the world we live in better, however we can, wherever we can.”
I stared at him for a second, the words so simple but making so much sense.
“Does that make sense, dear?” Mom asked.
“Yeah,” I said, still caught up in the words.
“Great, because now that we’ve eaten, it’s time to feed the chickens and do a sweep around; make sure no more fishers are about,” Dad said.
“I’ll take one of the dogs.”
Dad shook his head. “Take Rikki Tikki,” he said. Dad’s final drone, the one Harper Wilks made for him, unfolded its four-legged, multisegmented body from its docking station. Rikki is all black, with a wide ocular band around the sharply pointed head. Harper called the model a Mongoose, but to my knowledge, ours was the only one ever built. The Unmanned, Ground and Air Vehicle looked at me and clicked four times very fast. Actually, the sound is more like his name—a fast ticking sound.
“It’s very dark out. New moon,” Dad said. “No one will notice, and his sensors will tell you if there’s any predators about.”
“Why, Dad?” I asked. Rikki was the family’s last line of defense. A resource to be hoarded and saved. This seemed… soft. Ajaya Gurung and Astrid Johnson were never soft.
“To remind you of what we fight to achieve,” he said, “and because you’ve more than proved you can do it without him.”
“Will we ever get back to that level?” I asked, looking at arguably the most advanced combat drone ever built.
“I don’t know, Iris. No one does. But if we have taught you anything, it’s that you have to use every tool to survive. Right?”
He was right: It was maximum dark outside, no stars, no moon. I carried my crossbow, but frankly it was unnecessary with Rikki Tikki along. He was currently folded out into airborne mode, floating along on six of his eight lift fans, sensors probing the darkness around us.
We had already checked the coop. The ladies were all inside, clucking softly as I slipped past their refuge, slowing for a moment to check the wire and the brushed dirt around the perimeter. My little solar light showed only the tracks of a white-tailed mouse that had slipped through the fence to sample the hens’ feed.
We now traveled the perimeter of our little home, checking for anything hinky. The compound was an old military installation that my extended family had bought with money earned in the Zone. The main complex had been built to house as many as two hundred people—we weren’t quite that large a group, but concrete bunkers are kind of drab and claustrophobic, so many families had moved out onto homesteads in the two hundred acres of fenced-in land around the old base.
We had an acre to ourselves, but in case of disaster, we could grab our most essential gear and head back into the main building. But this was open and airy and let us grow food and raise chickens. Food security, you know. Have I mentioned that?
We were on the property line when Rikki clicked once and spun around on his fans, his primary weapon systems humming with power as he focused on the land next to ours—the DelaCrotia’s.
“Hello?” a voice called out. I recognized it.
“Mark?” I called back.
I heard him walking before I saw him, and he had to get within three meters before I could make out his form.
“Oh, Iris. Thank God it’s you. I heard something and… what the hell is that?” he asked, moving close enough for me to see his face. “Holy shit! That’s a war drone!”
“Quiet,” I snapped. He spun to look at me and I could see he was confused.
“It’s Rikki,” I hissed, as our family guardian hovered forward, weapons still armed and aimed at Mark. “Stand down, Rikki.”
“That’s Rikki Tikki? Your father’s drone? But that’s not a Russian Berkut and it’s not a Decimator either? And didn’t Rikki go into the internet?”
“There was more than one copy of Rikki’s software. This version was a gift to my parents. He was kind of my babysitter when I was little, or maybe bodyguard is a better term.”
“Is that an electro mag rifle?” he asked, clearly fascinated, almost looking down the barrel of a weapon that was certainly loaded.
“Multi-caliber. Four millimeter up to twenty millimeter in diameter. He also has a high efficiency fiber optic laser.”
“We’ve been here two years, living right next door, and I’ve never heard of it?”
“And you still haven’t,” I said. “Seriously, you can’t talk about him.”
“He’s a secret?”
“More of a mystery. A few people know, but we keep him under wraps.”
“Because people freak out around war drones, with mostly good reason. We don’t want anyone to get scared.”
“Iris, the whole world, or what’s left of it, knows how your dad had a drone that fought for him. Why would anyone be scared? I mean, he’s armed like a mini-flying tank but if there’s one drone that is solid, it’s your dad’s. What’s the real reason?”
“Think about it. You already said it when you first saw him. He’s a war drone.”
“Rikki has enough firepower and combat capability to take out a platoon of soldiers.”
“Probably two platoons.”
“Exactly. He’s a serious weapon. Some people want to use weapons to advance their own agenda. If everyone was aware of him and what he could do, they’d want us to use him. That’s not what he’s for. He’s supposed to protect us, not murder people for our gain.”
“You really think that poorly of people?” he asked. He had a nice voice, deep and warm.
“Don’t you? Your dad is already on the council. You must know some of the ambitious ones in our little community, some of the hotheads?”
He paused, thinking about my question. “Yeah, I kind of get your meaning. Not sure they’d be as bad as that, but maybe caution is warranted.”
“So you’ll keep quiet.”
“Yeah, for you, I will keep quiet. Nice job in Military Studies today, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said, suddenly oddly shy.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Will you dance with me at the Harvest Festival?”
“Can you even dance?” I asked. Hell, yes, I would dance with him, but it was better if I kept my cool. Mom said it was good to intimidate boys a little.
“Not great, but I won’t maim you,” he said, his white teeth gleaming in the dark.
A female voice called from the direction of his house. “Mark, get in here. Mom wants you.”
“My little sister,” he said.
“Yeah. She’s alright.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes, she’s alright?”
“No. Yes I will dance with you,” I corrected.
“Oh, maximum,” he said, then suddenly seemed a little shy himself.
“Good night, Mark,” I said with a smile.
“Good night, Iris.”
Sophia was going to flip out when I told her about this. Then I thought about Dad’s words, and his father’s words. Yeah. I got it. You fight for a better life, you fight to protect others, and you don’t give up. Because that was the right way. And an AI like my hovering guardian was about the best tool or weapon or what have you that you could get.
“Subject Mark DelaCrotia turned to look back this way, Iris. I judge it is too dark for human vision to see you. That behavior is not rational.”
“We are not always rational, Rikki.”