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Majoring in Semtex

by Sam Buckley

part 1

The wind whistled against the machine and through the grass where Keyte crouched, watching.

It was moving slowly over the field, suspended about ten feet up by its anti-gravs. It resembled a shrivelled pupa, its crown swollen and bulbous with exhaust vents and dome-shaped appendages. The tail narrowed and thinned to a few curved spines, adorned with grid-like filaments and coils of wire.

When the machine was close enough, Keyte let a helium balloon rise. A string unfurled after it, trailing a package of semtex and a mobile phone. Upwind of the machine — known, because of its shape, as a Comma — Keyte watched with a finger poised over a second phone.

Taking down these Commas was a delicate process, but in practice easy for anyone with any experience. Balloons never set off the shields or alarms and, accordingly this one sidled lazily over to do its job, drawn by the breeze and the gentle sucking of the intake grille affixed to the machine’s mysterious engines. Once close enough, it was a simple case of pushing a button, for the machines were all developed with weight in mind and not durability.

Keyte pressed the button, covering his head, and a splitting noise travelled around the hills and returned; a reel of hot smoke and steam passed overhead, singeing the trees. A formless heap of metal fell and smouldered.

He moved in to scavenge, gassing the area with a fire extinguisher. There was little that was salvageable: a couple of cylindrical components had fused together in the heat and were still too hot to touch, and about the scraps of body-shell were shattered coils and filaments. But nonetheless, he rooted.

The twists and curls of metal stung his still soft academic’s hands, and he growled with the fury of a student interrupted in his work. One-word questions flickered past: Why? How? What? Because, if he stopped to think about it, it just jarred. This was not Iain Keyte — these weren’t his smarting hands. These were hands for turning pages, for annotating margins. He was a man who did all of his work with his head. He was not a man who destroyed farming robots with semtex. He was either more or less than this, but he simply couldn’t be equal to it, to Iain Keyte the Terrorist.

But then, everyone thought that. Everyone thought, ‘I am the wrong person, in the wrong place, and this is the wrong time.’

So he carried on.

He dispatched another Comma with magnesium and thermite, after waiting for it to begin harvesting vegetation on the ground and then placing a combination bomb in its path using a toy radio-controlled car.

The procedure was straightforward: the Comma ingested the bomb and was burnt from the inside out. Keyte fist-pumped as the smoking machine fell, trailing molten metal. The thermite would keep on burning for hours. This pleased him.

He heard the echoing slams of more Commas being taken down. Easy for all concerned. The only thing Keyte feared was being ID’d and finding a spotter-drone waiting in his bedsit when he returned home.

After he came off with the rest of Shift Number Four, he crept through the shadows of trees and flyovers to the city and met Rourke to drink. First he spent three hours queuing for some bread; there had been another run on the supermarkets, and they had been voided of all but baking powder and pepper. Then with fifteen thousand pounds in his bag, he came to the bar and bought a drink with half of it.

‘Three Commas,’ Keyte said.

‘Five,’ Rourke said. Keyte ground his teeth; they clinked beakers and sipped as much of the potent brew as their constitutions permitted. For a long while they were too tired to speak, and nuzzled the dusty floor of the outside bar with their boot heels. Behind still-green trees the sun made the country glow like a huge pyre.

Then Rourke began to speak rapidly, presenting a block of words for Keyte’s consumption and consideration.

‘That kid Bryn, she’s good, but the fear gets to her. I mean you know like you know it gets to everyone you know early on but I can see fear that’s too in the way for you to be able to do it. You know it messes up your coordination, etcetera and makes you all jumpy and you can’t do anything when you’re like that... Can’t do anything, like that. Not at all, sir. You’ll get your colleagues in trouble, you know?’

The ascent of pitch at the last syllable was cue for Keyte to consider. Consider he did, but Rourke resumed speaking as suddenly as he had ceased, as if he feared rebuke.

Keyte shrugged and drank, the brew searing his throat.

‘Anxiety fades with time,’ Keyte said, stopping Rourke’s flow of words. ‘It’s like shock therapy, Rourke. Each time you go into the field, you grow less afraid of it. Reckon if she’s any good and has potential, we can work that anxiety out of her. You know, introduce her to the lads on the shift. It’ll loosen her up.’

My God, why was he saying these things? Who was this lunatic, inhabiting his body, polishing off his drink? What would he even do if he happened to corner Bryn in a field? Would he feel remorse afterwards?

As night fell the city stayed awake as much it always had, and the nightclubs opened their doors to the students, all already drunk on post-exam euphoria. These, most of all, were out of place. People stared, wondering how and why there were still students; none of them arts, granted, as Keyte had been; all practical, now, agriculture and engineering.

Still they were baffled. What was their purpose now? Did some Vichy-types farm for the machines, while others were spirited away to work on shady resistance projects? Would these pissed innocents build new weapons, synthesise new drugs to calm the populace? Keyte knew one thing, though: none would be writing theses on poetry.

I was the last of the old academic gentlemen, Keyte thought. This pleased him.

Meanwhile, shops closed; managers cashed up; addicts shot up. Keyte stumbled into his bedsit and slept the fitful sleep of the drunk.

* * *

But old academic gentlemen were redundant, Keyte thought, waking covered in hooch-sweat. Wasn’t he better this way? Before he’d thought himself magnificent, but then everyone thought themselves magnificent. He’d been so convinced of his own glory that he hadn’t seen that. He’d been deluded, imprisoned even; the Commas had freed him.

Yes, he was better for it. He’d become a man, and a man was better than a gentleman.

Sure enough, a series of low reports came close to daybreak. There had been a reprisal, or a skirmish of some sort: nothing but city lights from his window, and silhouetted antennae. He emerged, first from the bedsit and then the block, and in his slippers saw a fire of some size burning. Direction of that controversial bypass. There were sirens but no further reports to suggest an exchange. He put on his clothes over his nightwear and wandered towards the scene.

A confluence of roads was peppered by indefinable pieces of metal and lit by scattered fires. Blown-out street lamps and unmarked dead suggested an explosion of some size. A lorry further up the road had been cut completely in half. Over in the distance, against the sky, moved a cuboidal craft. He peered, and yes, it was a Tetris, a row of boxes conjoined by pipes and frameworks. A series of strobes galloped up and down the length of the machine.

The intensity of the charring and molten metal about the area implied an attack on a convoy of munitions. They had likely deployed Commas adapted for interception as opposed to agri-work from the Tetris and then withdrawn rapidly. Guerrilla on guerrilla: these things were beginning to learn, it seemed.

He searched the figures in reflective clothing for people he knew, but these were mostly blue-light responders, protecting themselves with ungainly suits and masks with eyelets and tubes.

The strobes were still galloping back and forth in the distance, and he thought he could hear the low hum of the machine.

‘Kitey,’ a voice in the night.

‘Brycke,’ Keyte said, giving the man a quick sweaty handshake. ‘I was about to get in touch.’

‘Follow me, mate.’

They moved, circumventing the cops on the motorway and heading into plantations of trees and shrubs. They followed the sound of the Tetris, Brycke galloping ahead. Meanwhile the machine manoeuvred in the sky, visible as a greater darkness against lesser. It moved upon a central axis, swinging around so that Keyte and Brycke approached its side. Brycke spoke into his radio.

‘What we doing?’ Keyte said. ‘How?’

‘Helium method.’

Sure enough, when Keyte borrowed Brycke’s binoculars, he could see a balloon floating towards the base of the Tetris, with a little package trailing underneath it like the basket of some leisurely hot air balloon.

He pulled his binoculars away and narrowly avoided being blinded by the flashburst.

The explosion rang out and drowned Brycke’s whooping. The tree trunk next to Keyte’s hiding place swung back with the shockwave, hit him hard in the arm, and peppered him with leaves and twigs. Brycke still whooped and was quite improbably still standing.

The two halves of the Tetris nosed down on either side, scissoring and thudding into the woods.

Brycke, face already reddening with burns and eyes glazed, dragged Keyte to his feet and into a mad canter through thickest part of the plantation. They crossed a muddy river via an ancient bridge and, Keyte, stumbling, was left behind as Brycke ran blindly on toward the smoke.

Collecting himself, Keyte looked at a sign, greened and worn, that proclaimed the unique beauty of the area, once a nature reserve, now fuel for the Commas’ strange operations. All would be scythed down, infused with chemicals that promoted some sort of inanimate metabolism, then burned in compressed cylinders that had appeared in remote fields. Soon there would only be the signs expounding upon the beauty of the mud.

The halves of the Tetris formed two mountains appearing vaguely volcanic, touched with flame and smoke. He found Brycke with some others, who’d cracked open beers and leant their guns against a nearby oak. He could hear the crackle of nearby fires. Brycke’s face was swollen and red and locked into a pained half-smile.

Then spates of echoing gunfire. Perhaps some of the crew had escaped. He was aware, now, of how his body had shifted to a more primal mode, with the stings of awareness moving from chest to fingers to churning stomach.

‘We’re splitting,’ someone called, and Keyte ran as much as possible back toward the motorway. Punishing thunderclaps sounded. Butterflies in his stomach complementing the birds and shouts in his ears. Drones of machines, unmistakeable in all of their dullness. Smoke everywhere.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Sam Buckley

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