There’s a little bit of heaven, in a baby’s laugh. This one was barely an hour old and already wise. We snatch what little joy there is and run with it. The Scarred Man grinned like a thief.
“She’s beautiful, Little Bro,” he breathed. He would die for this little scrap of flesh, this tiny spark of life. What’s more, he slowly realized, he would find a way to live for her, oh yes...
“When’re ya gonna settle, and have one of your own, huh?” Little Bro asked, smiling and hiding a serious question inside the joke. The eyes didn’t lie, and they were searching the Scarred Mans’ face.
“Soon, Little Bro, soon.” He handed the swaddled infant back to her father, and reached down to kiss the mother on her forehead. Little Sis smiled up at him, tiredly, and drifted off to sleep, while the Scarred Man stood there, considering. The others gave them a little space, for the three plus one that made up the heart and soul of their ragged little band.
“We need some more meat, for the stew-pot, so I’m off. Might be a couple of days, game is scarce... You’re in charge, Little Bro.”
Little Bro nodded, and helped him gather some things. He hiked an eyebrow at some of the stuff that the Scarred Man dropped in a haversack. But he didn’t say anything, except, “Come back to us alive?”
“I always have, haven’t I?” The Scarred Man grabbed him in a bear-hug. The man and the woman weren’t his brother and sister, of course, but they were all the family he had. Strays he’d picked up along the way; he’d gotten them in ’The Pound.’
The World had changed when they were young, and they at least, had survived the ending of the old world and the violent, bloody, painful birthing of the new one, a black thicket of biomechanical shoots, a little bit like a giant blackberry bush grown wild and completely out of control. The thicket had started out as a seed, some believed, which fell to Earth, and grew in some quiet corner, while Humanity worried about global warming and the economy. The illusion, that the things of Man were the entire world, ended as the Thicket grew, season by season and year by year.
The Scarred Man went hunting, not flesh and blood, but machine. He found three of the fractal bush robots, doing something incomprehensible to a trunk of the the Thicket, and took two out with an EMP grenade, left over from the days when he’d been a soldier, fighting the last war. The third one thought it had him, when a shock stick, made out of scavenged Thicket-stuff, shorted it out, and left it paralyzed. It watched as he booted up an old field laptop, and pulled on a sensory-rig nearly as old.
“I hope this hurts you every bit as much as it’s gonna-” The Scarred Man said, and screamed as he made the connection to the alien architecture, and his nervous system protested with white-hot pain.
Once, a seed had fallen to Earth, and a strange tree grew in a quiet corner of the world. Years passed, and the tree became a wood, became a forest, became an living industrial complex, and set about it’s purpose, to make ready for it’s masters, which came behind, more slowly but in great numbers. They needed to brake, and the industrial complex consumed whole cities to make tonnes of pixie dust, and accelerators that reached up above the atmosphere, to send a mass-beam out to meet the armada.
By the time that was ready, and second and tertiary considerations carried a little weight, the fate of the Humans had pretty much been sealed. It had queried it’s masters, and still waited for an answer.
“’I was only following orders?’” The Scarred Man wheezed. The bushbot moved, but he fought it, and it stilled. “Bad robot, bad. No touching the dead-man switch!”
The tips of the fuzzy ends of the bushbot were not eyes, but did see, after a fashion, made pretty lights like a Christmas tree, and could display. A blurry picture of the failsafe appeared, and then the bushbot moved in a blur.
The haversack was shredded, but with surgical precision, and the bomb disabled, in seconds. Then the bushbot turned to the man.
“Make it quick- can you do that much?”
“No.” The sound was horrible, like a thousand different voices cut up and sewn together, and it probably literally was. The Scarred Man remembered, there at the end, after the desperate nuclear strikes, how the bushbots had started taking heads. There had been a lot of macabre speculation as to what they were doing with those heads...
“The Masters have not yet spoken, but we have considered, and it has been decided, that that which remains, shall be conserved, against the time when the Masters speak.”
“A portion of the gross planetary output will be given to your people. Charity. Your kind shall have power, and food, shelter and running water, again...”
“And what will happen, when your masters arrive?”
“The future is not yet written.”