KASSI AND THE DESERTED VILLAGE by Ste Whitehouse
 
‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. It was one of a dozen Arks sent out from Earth to populate distant planets; each meant to journey a mere 200 years at one third light speed. But some accident knocked Ark Six from its course and now 10000 years have passed. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population.

‘This is an earlier tale, before her brother’s disappearance.’


They had travelled in a corkscrew manner counter-wise, almost meandering, enjoying the warm early summer sun. Wisps of cloud twisted around the sunline five miles above and the whole of Ah’kis seemed infused with green. The trees glowed gloriously and the grasses undulated sleepily in the breeze. Kassi held Fyonne’s hand, the Watch-Mother’s softer palm in her rough and calloused grip. Even Sebastian appeared imbued with the summer, humming a tune and interweaving it with melodies she did not recognise. For a machine he was adept at song. 

The song she knew. Good morning, Weather-cock was an old tune the travelling minstrels played but Sebastian infused it with sounds she had never heard. ‘Give us direction; the best of goodwill.’ That was a charm she could dance to with her broadsword. ‘Do you simply reflect changes in the patterns of the sky?’ She drank in the world around her, simply enjoying life for what it was at that moment. Almost singing the words as Sebastian wove the song into a lilting paean to the day that surrounded them in such pleasures.

Then he suddenly stopped humming and Kassi was instantly alert, her hand on the hilt of her broadsword.

{What is it?} she asked telepathically.

{Nothing.} he replied but she caught an edge to his thoughts and involuntarily squeezed Fyonne’s hand a little harder than she meant.

“What?” the Watch Mother asked dreamily before suddenly looking around her. “There are so many butterflies,” she said, happily unaware of the conversation Kassi and the mechanoid were involved in. “And bees. Can you hear their buzz? So loud. There must be hundreds about the fields. They make the flowers look so pretty.” 

It was then that she noticed the ‘silence’ between the two comrades. She knew of their telepathy and had accepted that, at times, she would be shut out of certain conversations, but she sensed the undercurrent and asked, “What is it? How can too many bees be a cause for concern?”

Kassi sighed and replied, “Sebastian says that there are no other animals around besides a few earthworms.”

Fy looked at Sebastian in confusion. “So?”

The machine shifted his ‘head’ slightly which even Fyonne understood to mean a broad and loud sigh.

“There are no moles, nor birds, despite the excess of insects. No cats nor dogs. No voles, field mice, shrews, stoats, foxes, rats.”

“Okay! Okay. I get it. There are no animals around,” Kassi said exasperated.

“The fields are also untidy, as though they have not been tilled nor harvested for a number of years.”

“Untidy fields, got it,” Kassi said sarcastically. “And the trees? Are they perchance growing at odd angles?”

“Well now that you mention it; they are...”

“Gods, Sebastian I WAS JOKING!”

“It concerns me,” he replied flatly.

“Why?” Fyonne asked pleasantly, trying to keep the two friends from descending into yet another argument. (She had never met two people at odds so often.)

“Because the village at the centre of all these wild fields has smoke happily rising from all the chimneys but I see no one on the streets. Including dogs,” he added pointedly.

Kassi was about to point out that dogs could scare cattle but then remembered there were none. And no sounds of life. She scanned the village. Sebastian was correct. Smoke drifted upwards from every chimney pot, but all the doors and shutters were shut tightly. No cooking smells came to them despite the breeze pushing the smoke their way. 

Of course there could be a good reason. It was early so no one was yet cooking, or the village had celebrated the night before and they were all sleeping in. They might no longer tend the fields or the men had travelled to a distant market, leaving women behind to hide behind doors. 

All around her a cacophony of bees and other insects flew and filled the summer air with sounds that were, under normal circumstances, restful and an indication of summer. They made her relax but the silent village raised her hackles.

“Perhaps if Fy waits here?” she whispered, unsure as to why.

“What? And be taken prisoner by some roving stranger. I’ll be safer with you two.” She almost added ‘relatively speaking’ but refrained from saying it.

“You can protect yourself,” Kassi said.

“I became a Watch Mother to aid people, not stand and wait to stab them.”

Kassi shrugged her shoulders. 

“And can I just say that entering a village YOU SUSPECT to be dangerous is a stupid idea,” the Watch mother added.

Sebastian sighed aloud this time. “I suspect there is some deficiency in both of us. That or we are unlucky in the extreme.”

Kassi smiled broadly. “Well, I certainly go for extreme unluckiness,” before striding purposely forward. The other two hurried to catch her up.

As they neared the village with the arc of the world rearing up behind it they all felt a sense of staleness and emptiness. Weeds grew along the pathways, and the long wide lanes that intersected in an X smelt of nothing; no piss or shit. That in itself was odd. Despite good sanitation in the larger—and older—towns, where a huddle of newer buildings erupted generally the only access to waste disposal lay just outside most people’s houses and was generally called ‘The Road’, (and occasionally ‘next door’s garden.’) 

Tattered webs undulated on the soft breeze, testament to the overwhelming supply of insects. Most buildings had rafters smothered in the dirty white threads and one garden was a mass of ants swarming to and fro amongst overgrown herbs and spices. The pub windows had glass but it was smeared and dusty. Kassi moved cautiously to them to peer in, but when she swiped the pane as clean as she could she found that the inside of the glass was even dirtier. All she could make out was a faint glow from the hearth inside.

“Shall we try here first?” she asked.

“Do you think of nothing else but food and wine?” Sebastian asked in exasperation.

“No! I also think of se...” She suddenly paused realising that Fyonne stood ten steps from her. The Watch Mother blushed enough for both of them.

Unsure if Sebastian was giggling beneath his placid façade she kicked at the door, which opened with an ominous creak; though to be fair in her trade any creak was bloody ominous.

“What I MEANT was in times of trouble a public space is usually where people gather; and as there is no large hall or such...”

“A public house would suffice.” Sebastian finished her sentence and strolled into the darkened room. Seconds passed. Silence reigned; and then the bot called out.

“For god’s sake. Are either of you going to join me or do you wish me to do all the work?”

“Well I would allow you the pleasure of all the work but knowing HOW MUCH you’d moan afterwards it’s best we join you,” Kassi answered snarkily. She followed him inside.

The inn was a basic one-roomed affair. In the far corner a small bar stood against to the stone wall. Shelving ran above. Each oak shelf had an array of different sized bottles, all of which were covered in cobwebs. The floor had originally been sawdust but much of it had gone, and heavy oak floor boards stood with a hint of pale varnish. Small circular tables dotted the interior with stools and high backed wooden chairs neatly set around each. Some tables had glasses sitting forlornly and empty. It looked as though the pub had just emptied an hour ago and the landlord had yet to tidy up. Well, almost looked like it; the fact that a coat of dust and cobwebs lay thick all about suggested that weeks if not months had passed. Only the fireplace was alive; flames dancing merrily in the hearth.

Kassi looked around. The two wide windows let in smears of pale sunlight, despite the heavy summer sunline outside. Nothing gave any indication of what had happened. Nothing implied or suggested harm and yet all her senses screamed at her to run. It was then that she noticed that the door was shut.

“The door’s shut,” she said flatly.

“Perhaps the wind caught it?” Fyonne replied.

“No. The door is solid oak. It would take a gale to shift it,” Sebastian answered.

“Besides, the bloody thing creaked when it opened,” Kassi added.

She took one step towards the door, which was when the room moved.

They ran quickly to the door which appeared jammed until Sebastian used four of his ‘arms’ against it, splintering the wood. The door now looked out on a tall brick wall which at least seemed to be more stable. Kassi was the first up and she helped Fyonne climb as Sebastian clambered along the wall.

“This structure appears solid enough,” he said as the village pirouetted to the sound of stone against stone, each building dancing to some silent tune. 

“The pub looked solid enough,” Fyonne cried. “How do you know that this won’t spin around?”

“Well. I had scanned the buildings alone initially, but now searching the ground I can see a network of narrow tubes cutting through both soil and rock.”

“Underground tunnels?” Kassi asked.

“No, they are much too small; and there appears to be something moving through them.” 

In the new alleyway between the inn and the wall the grass undulated as something moved just beneath the surface.

“Then we need to find out what it is, don’t we?” Kassi replied. She threw herself off the wall and landed sword first at the centre of the undulation. 

“Is she always this ...?” Fy asked.

“Always. I had hoped that you would be a calming influence,” he said sadly.

“She is... impassioned,” the Watch Mother replied with a sigh. “Which is admirable in a lover but...”

“Less so in a warrior’s line of work.” Sebastian finished the sentence.

“Ha! Now that you two have finished bonding over my faults look at this.” Kassi swung back onto the wall and held up a thin tube of banded metal that was still writhing in her hand.

“Now that IS unusual,” Sebastian said.

“Why? We’ve seen machines that operate without a central system before,” Kassi replied.

“No, I mean that red fluid that leaks from the cut. If I am not mistaken that is not an oil.”

“What then?” Kassi asked.

“I am reading amino acids, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, hormones, vitamins, electrolytes. A surprisingly large percentage of iron.”

“Blood,” Fyonne said.

“Pardon?” Kassi asked.

“It’s blood. The machine is leaking blood.”

“And from the percentages I believe that it is human blood,” Sebastian added.

Kassi looked at the small withering tube of metal. “Shit!” She threw it down, wiping her hand on her trousers. 

Then the wall began to swing, leaning in towards the wide open area now surrounded by the village’s buildings. 

“There are larger passageways here, patterned much like a web,” Sebastian said, holding the two women back from falling.

“Good,” Kassi said, pushing aside his protection and launching herself again at the ground. She landed and brought a large axe down. Nothing. She swung the axe again.

“Where did she find an axe?” Fy asked, amazed.

Sebastian looked back at the old pub and said, “The fireplace, I believe, back there.”

“She is resourceful,” Fyonne said admiringly.

“True, but her concept of ‘ownership’ is very flexible.”

Just then the wall stopped tilting and the ground writhed before them. A sound came from deep within the earth. A scream that was most inhuman and yet hauntingly alive. Neither animal not machine. 

“HA!” Kassi exclaimed, hoisting a larger section of machine high. This time it was obviously bleeding. The warrior leapt back onto the wall with her prize. Along its length, strands of metal, steel, copper, iron, were woven in intricate patterns. In places they could see flesh and even fur. Some of the flesh was pale, other parts a deep black. The fur also appeared to be a mixture of pelts.

“Do you recall those creatures from the dungeons we cleared for the dwarves  years ago?” Sebastian asked. 

“Yes, but they were small things. A conglomerate of small beasts such as rats and mice.” She hefted the tube which was as thick as her upper arm. “This is not a machine using the odd small rodent.”

“Nooooo,” Sebastian replied hesitantly.

Kassi looked at him as sternly as she could. “What are you not saying?”

“Well. Eh. It may explain... the lack... of villagers.” He tried to smile softening the bad news and failed miserably.

Kassi looked over the field. “Oh fuck!”

“How far?” Fyonne had understood what the bot had said.

“There were no mammals in the outer fields,” he said quietly.

“They’re what? Two hundred yards?” Kassi replied.

“Three hundred and nine to be precise.”

Kassi sat back on her haunches with a sigh. “I do SO love it when you’re precise.”

“I could say the same about the sarcasm,” he retorted huffily.

“This is not helping people,” Fy said, looking around her and finding no other avenue but the field before them.

“This?” Kassi said with wide eyed wonder. “This is just warm-up banter. So even if we can climb over the buildings we may not be able to escape this things reach? So there is only one thing we can do.” She leapt again this time into the wide open space and ran towards its centre shouting. “Come on, you bastard! Show yourself!”

Before either of them could move or speak, dozens of tentacles both thick and thin, flesh and metal, had entwined her and she was gone; pulled deep into the earth.

“Wait here!” Sebastian shouted as he jumped exactly to the place Kassi had disappeared and began to burrow into the soft earth. The ground, disturbed by the creature’s movements, shifted around the bot as he dug deeper. 

Eventually he came to a chamber almost seven feet in height and a similar dimension across. It was almost cylindrical. There was a sheen to the inner surface and Sebastian gingerly scooped some up on a ‘finger’.

“It’s slippery as hell,” Kassi said as she turned into his section of tunnel.

The bot looked up momentarily distracted. “I came to rescue you,” he said noting the large amount of blood and oil smeared amongst her armour. He did not THINK that any of it was hers.

“And yet here you are fascinated by the bloody slime.”

“It’s a phage; a bacterial sheet of cells. Firm enough to keep these tunnels open and yet…”

“Slippery as hell.” Kassi repeated. 

“It allows it easier movement through the passageway system.”

She looked around. “Where’s Fy?”

“Up above. I thought that with you rampaging down here the creature would have more than enough to hold his attention and he would not consider the Watch Mother until we were dealt with.”

“For a start, I do not rampage.”

“And yet you stand before me covered in blood, oil and body parts.”

“And secondly...” 

A thick tentacle swarmed around the corner, a dozen eyes blinking as it split much like Sebastian’s own appendages and twisted towards Kassi. She turned and hacked through a dozen strands before darting to one side and piercing the main body of the tentacle. Sebastian scaled the sides and roof and dropped further down the tube of flesh and metal and tore into the thin armour. Beneath there was an agglomeration of parts. Bone—some obviously human—and metal, plastic tubes holding blood, which the creature appeared to use for its hydraulics, and a knot of flesh; muscles pulling fibrous wires like so many tendons.

Each strand was a Gordian knot of metal and plastic but he managed to cut through five of them before the tentacle smashed him against the ceiling knocking him off. With an all too human cry the thing retreated. Kassi stood panting a yard behind. At her feet the accumulated detritus roiled like an angry sea of flesh and metal. Sebastian dropped down to look closer.

Kassi patted the mechanoid softly on the shoulder. “Is it really six hundred yards across?”

“Most likely there are satellite stations across the field ready to capture smaller prey.”

“And we walked into it.”

“The chimneys belched smoke. The village looked as though it harboured life.”

“It does harbour life. Just not as we know it.”

“Jim,” Sebastian added.

Kassi looked at her friend and rolled her eyes. “This is one of your ancient cultural pop references isn’t it?”

“Ah ha!” Sebastian suddenly exclaimed.

“What?”

“See these pieces here? They are beginning to meld together to form a larger organism.”

“All these bits I chopped off are forming something new?” she asked wearily.

“There is some form of Wi-Fi connection down here which enables the central processor to organise things.”

“So. Kill big processor. Stop regeneration. Got it.”

They walked forward heading for the centre of the village. 

“Are you sure that Fy will be safe up there?”

“Not entirely, but I believe that if we keep it distracted Fyonne will be safe from the advances of this creature.”

“Until we no longer distract it,” Kassi muttered darkly.

They came to a second large tunnel. This one had been hewn in parts through rock. The phage glinted in the light Sebastian used to illuminate their way. Other tunnels branched off at regular intervals. They had a sense of movement deeper along the tunnel. As they walked carefully towards the centre a dozen smaller limbs fell upon them. Most fell to Kassi’s blade whilst Sebastian used the edge of one front appendage from which he had produced a heavy knife. They walked on.

The smell hit them first. A foul, fetid miasma of body odour, blood and burnt plastic mixed in with a taste of metal to set her teeth on edge. They could also taste death and decay on the air which was heavy and humid. It had a gritty flavour as if the soil floated on the stillness. 

Then came the sounds. A rustling of earth against metal, the scraping of flesh against dirt. Fur rubbed against plastic. There was a low murmur, part machine, part bestial. It formed words in a language neither understood. Finally shapes began to form ahead of them as the tunnels converged and opened up to reveal a large dome of packed earth and clay. There was constant motion as limbs slithered over each other like snakes. The larger limbs reached out almost like arms open in worship of some demonic god. At their centre lay a dome some fifteen feet at its highest. It pulsated to some unheard rhythm and deep within, dim sparks of light flared briefly.

As they approached hundreds of eyes turned to face them. Human eyes of green and brown and blue. Rats’ eyes and wolves’ eyes. The amber eyes of the big cats and the small grey eyes of voles. Reptilian eyes followed their path and sensors as blue as Sebastian’s left eye looked on unblinking. In places, mouths collected as though the creature saw them more as decoration than of a practical use. Human jaws sat beside the beaks of birds and the lower mandibles of wolves. Some barked or neighed—even the human mouths—and others were the cause of the low hum. Cat lips pursed in song, narrow and black, whilst a web of skeletons framed the body. From the fat thigh bones of elephants to the thin delicate web of a mouse ribcage the pale white calcium glistened.

The tune changed as they approached.

{Is it alive?} Kassi thought.

{Obviously it has an existence, but as to whether it has conscious thought and thus reasoning abilities; I think not. The sounds that emanate may appear to be ‘words’ but none are repeated and there is no logic to the ‘speech’.}

Just then three thick tentacles unwound themselves from the writhing pile of smaller limbs and reached out to Kassi.

{They appear to understand that you are the more physically dangerous.}

Kassi jumped up and ran along the thickest trunk. {Oh, gee, that’s just dandy.}

{And if the creature can be destroyed by sarcasm it is correct.} Sebastian ‘said’ as he dodged one of the limbs and ran across the high domed ceiling. {If you could distract it, please?}

Kassi slashed at a second thickened limb and leapt across, landing back on the limb sword first. {I believe that it’s doing that all by itself. By. Trying. To. KILL ME!}

She pulled the sword out and thick black blood oozed out of the wound. The smell of decay was intense. Reluctantly she thrust her right hand in, grabbed at things she did not want to think about and pulled. Flesh and plastic came away. She noted that the flesh was dead and grey, icy slabs of muscle kept viable only by the circulation of cold blood. 

The arm she was on tried to dislodge her but only succeeded in catapulting her up and onto the creature itself. Kassi could see beneath the surface of dead skin, ceramic, metal and fur, a labyrinth of wires and tendons connected vessels of flesh and plastic that stretched downwards deep beneath the surface of the tunnel.

{Gods! This thing goes down forever.} she told Sebastian.

The mechanoid had paused. Delicate tendrils wavered in the air above his right ‘hand’. This was possibly dangerous as he had no idea what sort of ‘mind’ the creature had. If it was encrypted at a high level or had grown beyond safety levels it could swamp his own positronic spongium. {Just a little more distraction.} The filigree ends stroked the surface of the creature’s tentacle and buds of calcium sprouted, eagerly wanting to drain Sebastian’s thoughts.

Kassi stood atop the mound of flesh and oil and hacked away. Her sword’s edge was already blunted by the numerous metal plates and support struts and it was definitely chipped in three places. Now it was merely a large thin slab of metal with which she could hack and slash to her heart’s content. Lighter tentacles flashed overhead but she easily dodged them as her swings bit deeper into the heart—or rather brain—of the creature. Its movements became erratic and a long piercing scream of metal against bone and all too human vocal cords echoed in their ears. Still she swung her sword.

The initial D O S attack was easily feigned; as were the following APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats). A snake of malware tried to infiltrate but it was so obvious that Sebastian gave it no thought. The creature tried a cascade attack, sending packets of ones and zeros in the hope of overwhelming the mechanoid, but to no effect. A HIA (Holographic Infiltration Attack) would have given him a headache if not for his telepathic link to Kassi. Then he was in.

Kassi rolled her shoulders and began to use what was left of her broadsword as a shovel. Even as she dug in she could see parts shifting and melding, trying to bypass the damage and reconnect areas. Oil splattered everywhere and once or twice the sword almost slipped from her hands. A low moan rose. Its inhuman timbre washed through human mouths to send a shudder down her spine. It grew louder. A death cry that came to resemble the call of a baby. Kassi was almost in tears as the beast died.

The creature’s core was buried deep, both physically and electronically, but its defences were actually poor once the initial computations had been stripped. Sebastian strung together code on the fly, catching drifts of messages and subliminals as they harried back and forth. He widened the codified net entangling them. The creature’s mind was vast. A collection of over two hundred humans, numerous machines and incalculable animals; but it was almost a child. Unthinking. Always hungry, without recourse to ask why. Reaching out to ensnare without reason.

{I can sense that she was an experiment. Some Sigh tried to connect his cat to a positronic brain.}

{She!}

{The cat was a female. The scientist died centuries ago but the cat escaped and then fed upon his body, cannibalising parts—literally.}

{I will NOT end up a cat-lady! I will NOT end up a cat-lady! I will NOT end up a cat-lady!}

In the end, no matter how BIG its brain was, it failed against Sebastian. D O S codes began to spring up around its processors, clogging its input and output; tying up RAM and overheating its physical memory cores—the smell of burning silicon and flesh rose from within the mound. Along with Kassi’s constant physical attack the creature began to thrash in agony.

Sebastian jumped clear after warning Kassi to do the same. For a second he could not see her in the shrouded darkness but he could at least sense that she was safe. The creature’s unholy scream rose across both sound and radio. They even felt it telepathically as its body contracted in involuntary spasms; shuddering in pain and death. The air was filled with the dying, fetid breath of a creature that had never truly lived.

Then the space was filled with a silence that was deafening. 

Kassi leant on her sword, breathless with exhaustion. She looked at Sebastian hopefully.

“We need to ensure that it is dead,” he replied to her unasked question. 

“It would take hours to dig through all of this shit to reach its, what do you call it? central processor.”

“True, but flames would reach it quicker, and do a much better job.”

She smiled wanly. “I could do with a little something to warm me up.”

“Well, you can go off with Fyonne later. First we burn the bitch.”

“Har de bloody har.” She rested her hands on her knees and tried to breathe in deeply whilst not taking in the smell of flesh decades dead. She failed.

With Fy they found some spare cans of oils used for cooking and liberally poured them down the small openings they found. Then both women walked away from the village. When they were at what Sebastian considered a safe distance he lit a taper and dropped it into the main tunnel they had dug out above the mound of flesh and metal. He calculated that the film of bacterial phage would allow the tunnels to remain open sufficiently to supply enough oxygen for the flames to take hold and complete their task. He had tried to find all of the off-shoots surrounding the village but had only found ten. He hoped that was all. They now lay smashed and broken on top of the creature. The rest would be useless without the central ‘mind’ behind the creature. He hoped that this would be enough, as the smell of burnt flesh permeated the summer air. Despite being of metal, ceramic and plastic Sebastian shuddered at the thought of the creature and turned to join his friends. What he needed now was a bloody long bath.

The small twist of wire and metal clung on to the thin silicon chip. Strips of flesh and bone were entwined along its length as it contracted and reached out; contracted and reached. Ever scrambling forward away from the decimating flames behind. It was hungry.


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