Eppie jumped from the great hulk of dead robot, nimble as a cat, and landed in the earthy crater it had made with its stamping foot. She picked up the locket glinting in the dirt. It had fallen from the behemoth’s hand when it toppled, the result of Eppie driving the car headlong into its ankle. It was one of their few known weak spots.
She turned the prize over in her hand, still eyeing the great machine nervously, disconcerted by its heat, but still confident it was dead. The locket, so often around her mother’s neck, was barely scratched.
“I found it, Mum,” she proclaimed.
This had been the one. The robot that had snatched her mother. The sleeping pill had worked a little too well, and while giant electrical eyes lit up the city, and even more enormous hands incited screaming and running in the streets, her mother had slept on. Eppie hoped she had never awoken to the horror of the grabbing robot. That would have been a kindness.
Eppie was the smallest in her gang, the youngest and smartest too, she would add. Though Nelson would never accept that. Being eleven, and a boy, he was so full of himself she wanted to smack him. But he could hunt and read a map better than anyone, and before the robots went mad, Eppie had never had to hunt or read a map.
Arguing with her mother’s sat nav, which she called Lucy Lose-us, hardly counted as map reading. On the morning the first wave of metal giants abandoned their posts at the docks, Eppie had been fuming at it. ‘Lucy’ was taking them up Euston Street, where they always got stuck in traffic. Her mother trusted the gadget implicitly, though, which riled Eppie.
Holding the locket made her feel connected to her mother again. She had tracked this robot for three weeks. Rosie, the eldest in her gang, had announced it would be another wild goose chase, forbidding anyone to assist what she called ‘Eppie’s crusade’. Eppie wasn’t sure what that meant, but had not wanted to argue, so she had tackled the robot alone. Eppie had felt certain this was the right one because of its dented left eye. It must have got damaged at the docks, or during its rampage, and looked like it was scowling.
That scowl had smashed through her mother’s bedroom wall, peered in and looked for someone to grab. Eppie had stood there, screaming at it. Its fingers had surrounded her mother and plucked her out of bed as a farm hand might pick strawberries. She could never forget that face.
What had it wanted with her mother? What had any of them wanted with the people they took?
These questions came later, of course, in front of the first campfire her new friends lit as a group. During the raids, there had only been time for hysteria and running. It was clear the robots only wanted adults, or ‘fully growns’ as they were being called now, though the reason was less clear.
Maybe, as industrial machines toiling in places they did not see children, the robots did not recognise them as people. Nobody had spied one snatching a cat, either.
The kids spilling out of broken houses and apartments that first night were largely pooling into gangs now. Some had chosen a solitary route, but Eppie did not know why. The bigger kids were sure to prey on the smaller ones soon, hadn’t school taught everyone that?
Gangs were where it was at.
She forced herself to put the locket into her torn pocket. Then braced herself for the return journey to her own tribe.
She was still distrustful of the robot, but it was unusual for one to rise once it had smashed its head open. Nobody had designed them for fighting, or falling, but mostly for lifting.
Peter told scary stories at mealtime of rogue military robots being sighted in the North. Eppie dismissed the notion. Except on nights her hungry stomach would keep her awake. Then, she would stare at the weird shapes of broken buildings in the dark, not unlike the silhouettes of kneeling military machines, and she would wonder.
Eppie decided the car was in no fit state to get her home. She’d have to boost another one. Whatever controlled their security systems was dead. They were as easy to break into as fortune cookies. Charging points were running dry, though. Wherever the power came from, and Eppie had never wondered, it was running out. The great battery of the city was dying.
The wind picked up and scooped her hair. She shivered and realised the dead robot was growing as cold as an old bone. She stole the last of its heat by curling in the crook of its great arm for a minute or two, then searched for her ride home.
She trudged through wreckage, playing her usual game of guessing what things had once been. It was tough; she had grown up surrounded by shiny new things. They had been well off, she supposed, much more so than Nelson, if his tales were to be believed. Her mother would replace anything that looked shabby.
She claimed a blue Mercedes because it looked stylish, but had to strain to reach the pedals. It was as if the company did not have kids in mind, she thought, when deciding how far the driving seat should move. Not very forward thinking, she considered, seeing as how kids were now the only drivers. She gave up on it and walked.
She made good progress. The sunset motivated her. No kid wanted to be out after dark.
The robot had consumed her thoughts for so long, but now she had the locket, and memories of her mother replaced the machine. Eppie supposed that triggering memories was the usefulness of objects.
She took the locket out again and studied it the whole way back to Nelson and the crew. Its gold reflected the sunset, like a small, bright fire in her palm. By the time its glow faded, she heard Nelson calling her name. First, in a tone of relief, then in a self-conscious voice that sounded a tad more manly. Or, at least, Nelson’s idea of what manliness sounded like.
“I told you I’d find it,” she said to him, nestling down by the fire, dangling the locket.
Everyone was quiet, roasting vegetables that were looking a little off.
“I think she left it as a clue. Hooked on a finger joint. A clue for me. One day, I’ll find her, too. The robot was coming from the east. That might be where they took ’em all. Tomorrow, we’ll head that way, ok?”
Nelson looked at her in surprise.
“Problem with that?” she asked, raring for a fight.
“No, I’m just amazed you know where east is. You’re learning.”
“Who needs ya, Lucy Lose-us,” she whispered to herself.