Monday, 7 March 2011

The Glass Architect

Pale flakes fell lazily from the black sky, slipping through the air to land in drifts or painting trees with clumsy frosting. Some of the flakes were snow, others lumps of cool ash.

Two guards stood in all-weather camouflage gear, their helmets and smart cloth cloaks offering little comfort against the elements. They waited by an old signalman's shed next to a bare electrical pylon. The power lines were long gone, now they provided a lookout tower or space for the remaining birds. Footsteps and dragged sledges scarred the snow with tracks and dirt around the old railway line. The sleepers and track were missing: recycled or stolen. Small history swallowed by time and necessity.

Gilford took out a self-heating flask and drank the broth within. His old bones felt every whisper and stab of freezing air. He would have preferred to be back in the tunnel helping the others, but they'd drawn straws and there was no point grumbling about it. The soup was a little too greasy for his liking, but then rations were in short supply and you took your calories where you could. "Hungry?" he asked his colleague, Derror.

"No ta," Derror grunted. The big man - no, SHARC - Gilford corrected, didn't seem to eat much. That or feel the cold. No wonder they'd been so popular in the war against the Smartists. Specialist Humanoid something something Construct. Gilford couldn't pull the memory. No doubt the cold had something to do with it. Big, quick to learn and without any parents - so no worries over litigation - SHARCs had been a godsend. Their numbers had filled the ranks. The biological opposite of the Smartist controlled war-machines. Derror cleared his throat. "Hey, I got something on the scope. Ground crawler."

His partner pushed the hard plastic straw back into the flask and stashed it on his hip. Gilford moved closer to the old hut and brought up a ghost-like data window on his visor. "What do you make of it?"

"Not sure," Derror said carefully. "It's Alliance, or at least the shell of it is. Taken a few shots. Looks civilian. Scanner says no heavy power: no plasma, no nuke. If there are any bots on there, they're cold - no power to them at all."

"That'd give us a bit of an advantage if they tried to drop on us." The old guard picked a bit of carrot out of his teeth with his tongue. "Sounds like refugees, don't it?"

"Could be," the SHARC answered and shut down the data feed. "I'll call it in."

"Good," Gilford nodded and he powered up his rifle. He had half a clip left and nothing in reserve. They weren't due for shift rotation for another few hours. "Let's go see. You want point?"

The ground crawler turned out to be a large converted flat bed with two hauler engines. It was a huge tracked monster that had been retro-fitted to cope with the loss of roads and petrol. The sweet smell of burnt bio-diesel swam in the air. The crew weren't hostile and there were no bots or smart weapons hiding out in the metalwork. There were twelve people packed into the two cabs: some family groups, some loners, some wounded, some not. Gilford caught the gaze of a young boy, probably not much older than his son. The kid's gaze was blank, lost in inner turmoil.

"What's under the big tarp?" Derror asked the driver. He didn't have to look up far, not with his height. Gilford on the other hand, he felt the cold through his makeshift scarf. The woman was skinny with matted hair and she wore at least two coats. Mismatched gloves gripped the steering controls. The SHARC noticed she wore no shoes, only socks to keep her feet warm.

She shrugged and pointed a thumb at a bloke sleeping in the back. "You need to ask him," she said in a posh accent. "Mistry said it was important. Save our asses apparently." She seemed tired, Gilford decided, but then, who wasn't these days?

Derror kept one hand on his rifle as Gilford ran IDs for the survivors. Alliance or not, so long as there were no party members or closet Smartists trying to worm their way in, they'd be welcome. "You," Derror rumbled, "Mistry is it? What's in the trailer?"

An Asian looking gent in a patched up camouflage cloak hauled himself out of the cab. Climbing down the ladder, he shut the door to keep what little warmth was there in. His dress shoes were swallowed by the snow. "Mistry," he said offering a hand, but Derror ignored it, keeping it on the weapon instead. "You want to know about the cargo?"

"That's right," Gilford answered from his mate's side. "Anything we should be worried about?"

"Not at all," Mistry beamed. "In fact, you might even be thankful." He looked at the two soldiers hopefully. They'd heard and been promised a lot by people desperate for shelter. Not that the chief sent people away, but it was getting crowded in there. "It's building material and I'd like to see who's in charge too."

Gilford touched his helmet mic and nodded to Mistry. "Prep a scanner and half open the shimmer field," he said to the unit. "My auth codes will follow. We got a ground truck and 14 people in. Two are wounded and need treatment. ID snaps to follow." He let go of the mic and the LED in his vision dropped to red as the channel closed. "Consider me to be in charge right now," he answered. "What's the beef?"

Mistry nodded in agreement. "If you tell Control that their Glass Architect has arrived, they'll confirm it for you."

"Some type of code name?" Derror offered.

"No, no," Mistry said shaking his head. "I am an architect. Or I was, before we lost the three cities." Sadness settled in his eyes. "I can't believe they lanced what was left of Old Eaton...."

"It was infested," Derror answered as if he'd been asked the time. "No-one was getting out. With no control codes, the machines wouldn't back down."

Gilford cleared his throat. "This whole war's a mess," he said. "There's bad on both sides. The machines are held back near the top end of the Trent. Mindless things, acting on their last orders since we cut the Smartist head off. Well, so to speak." His breath plumed in the cold air. "The shimmer field will hold them back for now."

He touched his radio link again and called in Mistry's message. Snow fell on the huddle of men. "Done," he said after a time. "You best get yourself warm in the cab. It could be a while as Central have gotta sort you out a berth."

Mistry nodded and started back up the ladder. Both of the soldier's helmets buzzed. "Wait up," Gilford muttered and listened to the call. "Unusual. There's a change of plan," he told Mistry. "Make some room up there: we're all going straight in."

The architect beamed as if it was Christmas and hauled open the door. "Make room, everyone," he chirped. "We've been let in!" There were murmurs of joy and the occasional sob of relief. "Ready when you are, Anna," Mistry said to the driver. Anna wiped her eyes and with a crunched of gears, the hauler lumbered forward. "What about the hut?" he asked the two guards.

Derror put his finger to his ear. "A new squad are on their way out now. You must be important."

"It's not me," Mistry said. "It's what's back there you need."

The hauler rolled its way along the deserted cut-out, the scrubby hedgerows and bullet-marked bridges passing overhead as they rolled further towards Stanton Tunnel. Faces pressed to the cold glass as more soldiers came into view. Some were in uniform, but many were not. This was a rag tag group: men, women, the old as well as teenagers. Packs of them huddled around barrels filled with burning wood. Around them, sentry systems picked at the ether. Above the flatbed's cab, the air fluttered just as it would on a hot day. The shimmer field was half up; the group never shut it down, even if it signalled their position to rogue droids. The fear of air strikes was all too present. With all the dust wedged in the sky, summer would be a long time coming. Mistry thought about how he had laboured designing buildings to be cool and now, warmth was the order of the day. He looked to one of the soldiers, a woman with tired eyes and a tatty poncho covering her overalls. Warmth and protection, that's what people needed, he decided.

"Pull up there," Derror rumbled and pointed to a slab of concrete painted with warning decals. The driver pumped the gears and did as she was told. A converted battle droid rolled out on tracks and rolled towards them. A few people muttered and there were gasps from one or two.

"No need to panic," Gilford said calmly. "It's one of ours and it's just a scanner. The top brain's been taken out; it's just a drone now. Look." Anna flicked a lever on the dash and two of the three wipers flicked across the treated glass to dislodge the mess of snow and ash that had stuck on. The wipers smeared what was left and the view improved slightly. Out of the window, the travellers saw a tracked war-machine roll towards them.

The unit's angular tank like head was dented. A large chunk had been cut away leaving jagged metal like molten wax. The gun arms had been removed and instead, a frame similar to an old iron bed had been fixed in place. Tubes and sensors filled the structure and the drab green droid raised this like some weird disco lamp. Sensor lights pulsed on and off while heavy tracks rolled through the dirty snow, the bot trundled along the length and breadth of the transport. Behind the unit, two soldiers in ill fitting clothes trailed after the war-machine, a cable running to a laptop that one of them carried like a tea tray. After a time, one of the men held up his arm. A green light came on near the transport.

Anna coaxed the transport into life and they headed into the darkness of the tunnel. Mistry looked up at a data plaque: 18-something the chipped stonework told him. Over 300 years, he thought. A little part of him hoped humanity would see at another hundred. Right now, it didn't look good.

---------------------------

Mistry woke to the sound of knocking. He rubbed his cold hands together, trying to get some warmth back into them. He'd slept fitfully on a roll of packing foam. The knocking turned into heavy banging. "Wake up," came a thick voice. "Mistry, you in there?"

"Just a moment," he called back. "Please." The last word added on as he tried to hang on to his old manners. Groping for his shoes in the blackness, he found that one of them was still damp from the snow. He grimaced as he put it on. Behind him, the driver - Anna - stirred in her sleep.

"You need me?" she asked. Her voice was drunk with fatigue.

"No, Anna. Go back to sleep." Mistry tried to answer quietly. "I'll come get you when I've finished. You stay and rest."

Anna pulled the grubby blanket over her head. "Don't need to say that twice."

Shoes on, Mistry popped the lock on the cab and stuck his head out. Despite being high up, he wasn't far from the SHARC's eye view. The cloned soldier's ghostly silver eyes stared over to him. It was the same guy he'd seen a few days ago. He struggled to put a name to the face. Ah yes, Derror. Derror had taken off some of his outside gear and was now wearing fatigues and a cable knit jumper that had seen lots of patching. "Mr Mistry? Klass will see you now." Derror turned and started off down the dim tunnel. Bio-lum lights had been glued to the rocky ceiling at various intervals. The weak illumination made the soldier fade in and out as he walked.

Climbing down quickly, Mistry shut the door with a bang - winced, wondering that he might have woken up - and half ran to catch up with the striding SHARC. He'd seen SHARC troops in the media, but never close to, not like now. Derror was pretty much human, just well muscled and slightly unearthly looking. His skin was very pale and his eyes were white with silver discs. There seemed no pupil and he'd read their vision was much better than baseline humanity, even in darkness. Only the last few words of the acronym based name came back to him: Artificial Construct. He wondered how it felt to have been created, almost from scratch rather than having been born. Would Derror ever be a father? He'd heard the labs had kept them sterile as a population control. "What time is it?" he asked. His mobile didn't work down here.

"Very late," Derror rumbled. "Or very early depending on your view point. Sun's up. Not that you'd know being down here."

"Where are we going?"

Derror's boots crunched grit. "To see Klass. Just like you asked. Turn left here." The SHARC pointed a heavy arm to a smaller set of stairs cut into the sandstone. Mistry's eye caught the pattern caused by the laser cutters. They walked up the stairs as a rapid pace, Derror only pausing to push Mistry into an alcove as a group of armed troops trudged downwards. Greetings where grunted or nodded. Everyone seemed tired or cold, Mistry noticed. Uniforms were a drab grey splattered with white, while outdoors clothes had been bleached white for the snow.

Opposite of the alcove, two large tubes and a clockwork mechanism were fixed into the rock. Warning decals winked lazily in the half light. "What's that?" Mistry nodded at the contraption.

"Home brew instant rock," Derror answered. "Goes off like a bomb and hardens in moments. It's packed with anti-nano and crap that messes up droid sensors. Don't get stuck in it if you can. You really don't want to be chipped out of it. Assuming you don't suffocate." He took Mistry's arm. "Time to go."

A cold trickle of fear snaked down Mistry's back. "I thought we were out of range from the swarm?"

Derror's boots ground on the grubby stairs as he started back upwards. "We are," he answered over a shoulder. "But we lost a couple of burrows - buried outposts - back in the day. Now, we don't mess about."

"No accidents then? They look lethal."

Derror grinned as he stopped under a bio-lum pod. His pale skin painted a sickly green. "No-one messes with live ammo. War droids don't do Health & Safety." Turning his back he carried on, leaving Mistry catch keep up.

After another flight of dry steps, they came out in a low tunnel filled with army vehicles. Light globes were missing or defective, so the place was in gloom. Most of the trucks and tanks were blackened with scars. Some showed the pitted marks from bullets. Others, the wax-like wounds from beam weaponry. Four sets of legs poked out from under a tank. Light glinted from the pitted chrome of a cybernetic replacement. "Up here," Derror instructed. "Stop by the Medic's tent." Mistry couldn't see it, not in this light. "The big brown tent at the back of the tunnel," Derror added. "Just before the main wall."

Mumbling thanks, Mistry wandered forward, suddenly nervous. Hard lumpy shapes loomed in the darkness. Pods and stubby wings hanging in the gloom waiting to bruise the unwary. A flicker of blue lightning crackled along a far wall as someone started up an arc-cutter. The cold air smelt briefly of ozone and then returned to a heady mix of bio-diesel and medical sterilants. Passing two jeeps, an armoured personnel carrier and half of a rotorless transport 'copter, Mistry reached the tent. A warm yellow light spilled out from one of the tent flaps and Mistry heard the fine whine of an electric heater. Stopping by the entrance, Mistry wondered how he could knock. Slightly lost, he tapped the heavy material. "Hello?"

There was a clunk as someone put something heavy down in a metal tray. "Be right with you. Who is it?" The voice had a subtle Yorkshire tone to it.

"Mistry," the architect answered. "I brought the structures. Just as I said."

The tent flap was drawn back. A young man's face, or part of it, peered out. The skin was badly burnt on the right and it pulled the man's lips at a angle. A dark artificial eye stared out of a bare plastic mount above the mess of skin. Like-wise, the right ear was gone; a make-shift bio-plastic replacement had been skin-bonded to the man's skull. "Spider," the man thrust a hand out to Mistry. He took it, feeling the cold grip of artificial skin through the man's threadbare gloves. "Sorry about that," Spider answered as he picked up on Mistry's failed poker face. "I'm saving power in my hand. An experiment. Come in, come in. No point hanging around."

Mistry nodded somewhat dumbstruck and entered the tent. He let the canvas flap drop back behind him. There was a gentle hiss as the smart fabric glued itself back together. They might fear droids, he thought, but tech was alive and well down here. "Fancy a drink?" Spider asked walking over to check a couple of machines. He poked and prodded a couple of display panels, moving items around the screen with his other hand.

"Whatever you're having," Mistry answered and Spider produced a flask from a desk creaking with machine parts and a miniature hydroponics system. A blue-white light buzzed over the top of an array of plants. Spider plucked one of the leaves off and popped it into his mouth. He chewed steadily while he made the drinks.

Accepting the cup, the former architect sipped the steaming brew carefully. He nodded, enjoying the taste. "What's this?"

"Coffee. Sort of at least." Spider swirled his cup to shift the grains around. "Not perfect, but it's hot and keeps you awake. You here to see John then?"

Mistry drained the bittersweet drink and his stomach growled as it woke up. "Yes. Umm... is Mr Klass about?"

Knocking his own drink back, Spider waved him closer. His breath smelt of coffee and mint. "This way. Through this door at the back." He peeled open a segment of the tent marked with a large red cross. In the other room - if you could call it that - tubes and pipes ran from machine to machine cluttering the place up. A dim bio-lum globe had been perched on top of one of them. It ticked occasionally to complete with the semi-silent machines. Mistry followed the cables with his eyes to a bed at the back of the room. The canvas ceiling sagged here and he had to stoop. Spider pushed a crate under the bed for him to sit on.

The bed was covered with dark green blankets. No crash-tubes or medivac beds were left, not now. The war had been harsh. Mistry hoped the balance would tip in their favour once again. A man lay in the bed, only his head and one single arm poked through the covers. Even inside the tent, it wasn't exactly warm. Tubes and shunts burrowed into the arm's pale flesh. "John?" Spider tapped the man's hand. "Wake up. We've got visitor."

The man's eyes blinked open and he squinted as if the room was brightly lit. He had a light fuzz of brown hair on his skull and a he looked to be in his late 40s. "Who are you?" Klass's face was lined with worry. Part of the skin on his chin was smooth and baby soft Mistry noted. Was that a skin graft? There was medical tape covering a gash on his shorn scalp. His voice was rich and soft, it held power within it.

"My name's Mistry," the architect began.

"Ahh," Klass said and closed his eyes. "I remember now. You sent me a message about shelters. Yes, your work from before the war." Klass winced as he tried to move. "Spider, a hand please?" The medic pulled back the sheets and pushed a wheeled walking frame from out of the shadows. "Forgive me," Klass muttered. "Leg surgery, but this cannot wait. We have people in danger of freezing to death and that will never do. We need every soul we can save."

Mistry offered his help and Klass made his way on shaky legs to the edge of the tent. Spider took a communicator from his pocket. "You want me to call the guard in?"

Klass shook his head. "No. Just get me a transport and warn them up at the old Church. I'd like to see things first hand."

Spider nodded and tapped the screen with his human hand. "I don't suppose I should bother telling you that you need bed rest for another 72 hours?" Humour shone in his human eye.

"No point at all," Klass grunted as he made his way out into the much cooler tunnel. "Don't wait up, Spider... and try not to lop anything off while I'm gone. Mistry, get your gear and snag yourself a coat. We're going topside."

"Don't you want to hear about the technology? Maybe the limitations? I don't know what you want to do with it? Even if it'll work in these conditions."

Klass paused to lift the walker over a patch of rough ground. "Already read them when you got in. I've been waiting for your arrival. I hope you don't mind, but we've already shifted the first truck load to St Mary's. At least, what's left of the old pepper pot."

"But the anchor points, self repair systems and even the glazing process - are you set up for that?" Mistry was struggling to get his head around the level of optimism Klass held.

Klass reached a set of stairs and gave a tired look. "Put it this way, if we don't get some decent shelter up soon, we're done for. We've only got so much space down here and it's more military than living space." He signed and his breath slid out at steam. "It doesn't matter if we've got those wretched machines on the back foot or not. It's only September and it's going to get a sh**load colder." Mistry forced his hands to be still and just listened. Klass clapped him hard on the shoulder. "Good man, I knew you'd come round. Now, help me get up these damned stairs would you? Spider's a good surgeon, but he can't work miracles. Not with what we've got left."

Obliging, the architect helped as best he could. "What's so special about St Mary's?"

"A lot of folk were drawn to it," Mistry answered through the strain of moving. "The spire acting like a beacon. The local priests - an Imam and some modern faith bloke, they helped. Big time." He paused to grab a breath. "If we can protect the refugees, get them out of this bitter weather, that's a start. The volunteer force, they can provide security, but we've not got enough talent to keep the patrols up, maintain order and put so many shelters up. With the weather turning and with the folk making their way to us, we can't cope. Syston called in that they've seen twelve coach loads making their way up the remains of the M1. This gear of yours, it'll either be a stop-gap solution or the start of something big. I'm hoping it's the latter." Mistry nodded. Klass certain had vision. He just hoped it would work. The alternative was the winter from Hell.

The two men reached the top of the stairs and made their way to a waiting transport. Mistry got in the back as Klass collapsed the walking frame before getting in. The tracked vehicle snaked its way around food tents, a transport repair shop and stack of giant shipping containers. White light spilled into the cab as the ground crawler slipped through a darkened shimmer field.

The driver took them along a railway cutting and then up a steep bank. Mistry held on as they tipped over the lip and they ran through a field and out of a barely wide enough gap in a hedge. They passed the bent remains of a communications tower. To the side of it, a fire blackened helicopter laid half lost in the snow. As the ride grew smoother, Mistry put on the coat he found in the back. He looked down at his feet and shrugged. At least he had shoes on. Anna hadn't had that luxury when she'd made it out of Manchester.

They travelled through snow covered roads and broken houses. The transport cut hard left down a dip and the up along a ridge. The left side dipped down in a gentle hill and weak sunlight washed the shot out remains of the homes. As the nearby city had fallen, fighting had descended into house to house battles. Smartist machines against the troops. Now little remained of the small town. In the distance, the cracked pepper pot steeple of St Mary's poked into the grey sky. "There," Klass said jabbing his hand out. Mistry ducked to see more from his seat in the back.

A few curls of smoke threaded into the sky. As they drew nearer, Mistry saw a shanty town of reclaimed materials. Again, there were barrels filled with anything that would burn. People huddled around them, stopping to warm themselves before continuing on their work. People were fetching wood or looking for salvage in the ruins. Two wrapped up figures were dragging a body wrapped in a grubby sheet. Mistry looked away to the spire. Near it, five more heavy lifters where in the area and they'd cleared a space in the wrecked village. The troops had put a few anchor units in. The square globes had dug themselves the frozen soil. Mistry could see at least two of the fat pods. A fuel unit was plugged into one. On the other side, as much crushed glass and plastic as the troops could find was being shovelled into a series of metal skips. Mistry realised how dedicated Klass was to this. Everything about the installation was by the book. Well, except for the recycler units, but there was no reason why they shouldn't work.

Klass tapped the driver's window. "Just there please." The soldier slowed down and put them in a dip by a row of burned out shops. Slush sprayed from under the tires and splattered over a broken pavement. "Thought you might like to check how it's going," Klass said over his shoulder and he climbed out. As the architect got free of his safety harness, somehow Klass had got moving and was off towards a snow coloured tent. His walking frame dragged in the snow leaving an pair of trails. Mistry caught up with him. He looked around and noticed they'd got the base frame and feeder troughs linked. With enough materials, the system would be assembled and should probably work. He looked at the area they'd dug out and prepared. It wasn't much bigger than the Trafalgar Project they'd done all those years ago. He tried to keep his nerves in check.

Bursting into the tent, Klass shook hands with an oriental looking woman. She had bright red hair that stuck out in unruly plaits from her heavy hat. "Sash, how's it going? This is Mistry."

The woman extended a dirty hand, wiped it on her uniform and smiled. "Sir, Mr Mistry. So good to meet you at last. I've been a fan of your work for years." The smile went up a notch. "I had hoped we would have met in better times than this."

Mistry tried not to gabble a reply. "Th-thank you," he managed and tried not to embarrass himself at her enthusiasm.

"Are we set?" Klass asked.

Sash's face slipped back to a professional mask. "Quite ready. All we need do is activate the system. You have the codes, yes?"

"Mistry?" Klass pierced him with a look.

"May I use the input screen?" the architect asked and pulled his other hand free of the coat. The engineer and Klass stood aside as Mistry activated the assembly units with a brush of his hand. For a moment, nothing happened and then the screen started reporting temperature increases and motion within the base frame. "We should take a look outside."

The snow was still falling but not at the rate it had. A nearby generator hummed gently and brought dull light to the whole scene. Slowly, panels of shaped glass and metal rose from the assembly troughs. They seemed coaxed out by some giant invisible hand, forming sheets and curves of darkened glass. As one wobbled and cracked, Sash took a sharp breath. "It's fine," Mistry assured her. "Watch." The glass did not fall, but twisted to form a new section. The break sealing up and then disappearing with no sign of damage. The process started on the other trough. Behind them, the anchor point was producing a thick tube like structure. It rose steadily into the sky like the stalk of a massive flower. When it touched the main glass structure, the surfaces met and melded, flowing into each other like so much slow liquid.

Refugees stopped what they were doing and looked up as a shadow fell across their camp. The new walls rose up until they passed the church and then up higher, until finally they crested the broken spire. Behind the church, another support beam rose to link and feed the ever-sprawling house of glass. One of the lifters whined behind them as a trailer full of scavenged materials was tipped into the recycling unit's maw. Above, the high shape rose until it reached a peak and it began to flow the opposite way, curving and shifting to cover the shanty town under a giant protective umbrella of smart glass. For a time, no-one spoke. The silence finally was broken by someone clapping. Mistry looked and it was Klass. "Excellent work. All of you." Sash bowed formally and then cheers and shouting broke out from the troops and refugees.

Mistry stood in awe looking up at the huge structure. Klass appeared by his side without his frame. "Nice eh? Now, you think you can oversee delivery of a few more units?"

"How much more?" Mistry asked still lost in the magic of the construction.

"As much as it takes to build a city."

The architect looked over Klass. "Yes. Yes. Whatever you can supply."

"Can you recycle droids?"

Mistry thought about it. "The battle armour and nutrient fluid, yes. They'd be an excellent source of materials."

"Good. Get yourself back to base and tell Derror to get the Scav Squad on the go. I want another unit up ASAP. Sash?"

"Sir?" the engineer answered.

"Get the codes backed up to HQ and help Mr Mistry with anything he needs. We need this township sealed up and warm by nightfall. Can you do that?"

The engineer grinned widely. "Of course, sir." Her grin slipped away and she walked back into the tent.

"Are you staying?" Mistry asked Klass quietly.

"Hell, no," Klass replied. "I've got way too much to do. No point hanging around here watching stuff go up. You can get a lift back with me. If you want." Mistry looked to the command unit in the small tent. "You have a question."

"Y-Yes." Mistry's voice faltered. He felt a little awkward. "Normally, I-I name my work. It is like art."

"Magdalene," Klass answered instantly. "It's a good a name as any."

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