The neighborhood had never been one of the best, and recent events had not helped at all. What had probably been a large industrial building was now a chaotic scrabble of debris, as if an impossibly large animal had clawed it from the middle, spilling the building’s entrails out into the surrounding roads. From the state of the red, rusted metal in the ruins, the catastrophe had happened years ago. But no cleanup had ever been undertaken; whatever traffic had used the road since the disaster had, like ants with an interrupted trail, simply swung wide around the obstruction.
Not that there was any sign of life any more–ants and people alike had apparently long since deserted the area entirely. The bright afternoon sun played on rubble alongside cracked pavement. Weeds had grown up in the cracks between pavement, stone, concrete, and sheets of metal.
One piece of metal, ten feet back from the hard-packed dirt path which served as a road, shifted slightly. A pause, and a square of corrugated roof lifted further, and a face cautiously peeked out from beneath it, the eyes bright and feral in their alertness. When no danger presented itself, the panel came up another foot, and then was propped open with a piece of wood. A woman came out from her hiding place beneath the metal roofing panel, a tired but still intelligent face under long, matted blond hair streaked with grey.
Just as the woman started to stand erect, she froze, head cocked sideways. A heartbeat, and then with a blur of motion she was back down under the panel. Another blink of the eye, and it was lowered back down flush with the ground. The whole sudden retreat was done so quickly and so silently that it was hard to believe there had been a woman near the path a moment before.
Under the corrugated roof panel, the woman climbed down some wooden beams which had been placed to let her reach the hole’s top, and yet appeared to have just fallen into their current position. At the bottom of the shaft, about eight feet below surface level, she pulled aside a blanket which covered the mouth of a passageway running off sideways along a concrete wall. She started a low muttering, almost a chant: “Can’t see through the blanket, mustn’t see through the blanket” as she passed the blanket, then turned to carefully smooth it back into place. It was shiny and somewhat metallic, a silvery side facing back to the shaft and a reddish side facing the tunnel.
Above, there was a sudden whooshing noise from far above the path beside the corrugated roof over the shaft. The building beside the path had been thoroughly reduced to rubble, but most of the warehouses and industrial buildings nearby had suffered significant damage; caved in walls, collapsed roofs, fire gutted offices. And yet, up near the roof line, clean silver pipes were neatly attached, running along still standing walls of buildings, crossing gaps between buildings in graceful catenaries. The noise grew louder, approaching along the pipe which ran parallel to the path. The pipe shivered as the noise reached a peak, and the sound changed to a pneumatic FOOP as a grey object shot out into the warm afternoon air from a gap which had opened suddenly along the pipe.
The exit from the pipe was carefully aimed; the speeding object shot across the path to hit a street lamp–the lamp had no wires connected, but was still standing–with a metallic crack. It was grey and elongated like a caterpillar, but its body made up of segments of metal. It had telescoped the segments together to absorb the shock of its landing, but now extended its body to about four feet in length, one end of its body extended outward while the other end gripped the post with spiked claws.
The extended end was capped with a disk shaped something like a spindle on the end of an axle. But the edge of the disk was encircled with a sequence of elongated lenses, red-irised cat’s eyes giving the machine a 360 degree view as the machine lifted its camera end upward to scan the neighborhood. Finding nothing of interest, the camera end looped around to grip the pole just below the point where its other end was holding on. Newly anchored, the gripping end released its hold, and the entire body once again telescoped together. Now a stubby tube, the body pointed at the next building along the path and spat a spike out of its end which hissed across to embed itself in an exposed girder. A filament, black and almost invisible, trailed from the spike back to the body of the machine, which released its hold on the lamp post as it reeled the filament back into its body at a tremendous speed, becoming a blur as it pulled itself to its new perch with another loud crack. Anchored again, the optical end came up to scan from its new position.
Even as the machine raised its eyes to continue the search, another unit spat out of a silver pipe three blocks away, and further popping noises in the distance announced the arrival of yet more units in the near distance. There was no movement but the methodical reeling and clang as the searchers prowled the area. The afternoon was ruled by the machines, and nothing raised its head to challenge their dominion.
The search went on for three hours, and then in turn each machine used its unerring spike to pull itself back to a silver tube junction, which opened with a pop, pulling the machine inside. A fading whoosh, and silence returned to the neighborhood.
Back down the shaft, back through the tunnel, the woman crouched by a pipe, her ear applied to it. Its upper end reached above ground, and she had listened with dread to the sound of the search. When she had heard silence for 15 minutes, she finally slouched down to relax. “Need food. I’ll have to try tomorrow.” Carefully eating the rest of the spam in her latest can, she sipped water from an old jar, and then settled into a nest of bedding. Turning off her LED flashlight, she gratefully went to sleep.
Another day in her hunted life was successfully completed.