Amber crouched low near the wall and checked herself over before the guardian got too close. Getting through the gate was hard enough; she didn’t want her shorts, pack, or top to catch on something like last time. The spanking she got had left her unable to sit for days! Fortunately, her last successful trip had yielded clothes unlike any she’d ever seen: super snug shorts and something called a ‘sports bra,’ if she understood the ancient writings correctly. Learning the ‘old tongue’ was an ongoing process, which was yet another reason to sneak out. She wanted to find more samples to study.
A cry behind her made her spin around. A guardian had caught another girl trying to scale the wall. Amber sighed and shook her head.
When will they learn there’s no way over the wall unseen? Oh, well, Clan Equus girls aren’t all that smart.
The guardian looked fairly new, its four snake-like legs easily supporting its gleaming saucer-shaped body. Amber had seen some that could barely walk and were so rusty she wondered how they didn’t fall apart. This one had a tall leggy redhead ensnared in its tentacles. She tried to fight it off and cling to the rope she was climbing, but it was no use.
Give it up, girl, just take your medicine and move on.
The girl screamed again as she lost her grip on the rope. Up in the air she went, down onto the top of the guardian, and the tentacles held her fast. She was in a short leather dress, which one tentacle now had bundled up around her waist, putting her thong-covered butt on display. A hatch opened in the top of the guardian and out came a long thin mechanical arm with a stout leather strap at the end. Smack! The girl’s milky-white skin now sported a bright red welt. Over and over the strap struck her defenseless bottom, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Amber turned away; she didn’t want to see more, didn’t need to see more. She knew how the scene always played out, having seen and felt it herself often enough. The girl would get a good sound paddling until her tears triggered a mechanism on top of the guardian, it’d do a retina scan to ID her, and then she’d be released. Amber had another reason for not watching; the guardian she’d been waiting for had arrived. This was yet another thing she’d learned: pick on one of the older units, as its bio-scanners and optics weren’t so good. Creaking and groaning like an old hag complaining about her arthritis, the guardian stepped up to the gate and stopped for the locking device to verify its access code.
Now was Amber’s chance!
Dashing from her hiding spot, she moved swiftly to directly under the body, pushed a button on her belt, and shot straight up. The anti-grav harness did its job; she could almost touch the guardian’s belly. That was the problem with a unit small enough to carry: limited range, which was why she had the mag-gloves and shoes. Stretching out her arms and legs, she was rewarded with a soft click as the magnets snapped against the tarnished metal.
She was just in time. The gate opened, the guardian moved forward, and darkness enveloped them as the gate closed. She stayed put. That had been her mistake the first time she’d tried this, dropping off too soon, getting caught and punished, and tossed back in the preserve. Floodlights came on, then the hoses washed the guardian down, which drenched her as well.
She didn’t move or make a sound.
The inner doors opened, the guardian moved forward slowly, and the fans kicked in. Once in the service bay, the guardian moved into its docking port and powered down, and the service-bot moved in to scan it. This was yet another trick she’d learned from painful experience; an older unit needed a lot of attention from the bots, which gave her a chance to slip away. She heard the main hatch being opened and knew it was time. The bot was occupied with scanning and repairing the main CPU. Deactivating her shoes, she slowly arched her body until she dangled from her hands. She licked her lips.
This was the toughest part.
She had to drop to the floor in silence. Pointing her toes, she switched off her gloves, dropped, landed on her tiptoes, and bent her legs to absorb most of the impact.
The bot didn’t react.
Scampering to the door, she scanned the area. No other units were active. Yet another of her painful lessons: go during the middle of the day as that’s when the fewest guardians are in the bay, most are in the preserve monitoring the women. She raced to the air intake for the main ventilation system. The bolts were as she’d left them—finger tight, which meant she was easily able to loosen them, lift the grate, and slip inside. Given the height limitations of the shaft, she had to crawl, but it only took a few minutes to reach the outer lid. This one she had cut through and left uncovered. She’d learned that no machines came to this side, and so there was no fear of discovery.
Stepping onto the nearby road, she sighed happily and looked around. All was quiet, as always, and the same deserted houses sat on both sides of the asphalt pavement. In the last few months, she’d been systematically searching the homes for things she could use. Her clothes, mag-gloves, shoes, and a host of books had been in the first place she’d checked out. She strolled down the narrow sidewalk, breathed in deep, and relished her accomplishment. Once more she’d outwitted the machines. Yet, that was balanced by a feeling of profound loneliness.
The village was completely empty.
That was one of the mysteries she had yet to solve. What had happened to all the people? Some of the houses were pristine, as if the owners had gone out for the day and simply not come back. Others were totally trashed; they looked as if a gang of thugs had smashed and burned everything they could get their hands on. Then there was the preserve. Who had set it up? Why were only women in it, and who had built the guardians? From the books and computers in the houses, she’d learned about complex machines like the guardians, and she now knew how hard they were to create. No one in her clan or any of the others could make anything even close to them, which meant only one thing: a more advanced civilization had once existed on Klyton.
She stopped abruptly, her head whipping around to the right. The house that sat next to her was unlike any she’d seen before. Turning, she cocked her head and studied it, and was intrigued.
Wait a minute, I’ve read about that kind of place. It’s a… ah, a treehouse. Huh, now why would someone build a house like that?
She thought it was beautiful; a main building nestled in the v-notch between the three largest limbs, three smaller rooms on the upper branches, and a quaint entryway and atrium down at ground level. All of them were connected by covered stairs. Amber just had to check it out. She headed up the walkway of small round stones and was surprised to see the lawn short and well-maintained. Most places she’d seen were neglected and overgrown. The front door stood ajar. Her back stiffened.
That was suspicious.
She picked up a short stick and pushed the door open. Inside was a nice little round atrium with paintings on the wall. Everything seemed okay, but she was confused as to why there were no signs of animals getting in there or plants invading from the yard. It looked perfect.
That was very suspicious!
Wait a minute, maybe someone else escaped from the preserve, and is living here.
Amber bolted in the door and scanned the room. “Hello, anyone here? I’m Amber of Clan Shak-Ra, I…”
Her voice trailed off as her eyes fell on the closest painting. It showed a man on some sort of floating deck or mat with a pole and a sheet in its center. She had no idea what it was, but that wasn’t what got her attention.
A man, a real man! Did the people who lived here actually know men? Oh, I’ve got to find out.
Without thinking, she dashed to the door at the far end of the room, and grabbed the knob.
She spun around to see what had just happened behind her. The front door had slammed shut and locked.
Shit, another booby-trap. I wonder what this one does.
Quickly she scanned the room and got into her fighting stance, watching and waiting for some device to lash out at her. She’d learned that the most valuable stashes always had the best defenses. The floor seemed to move under her. She looked down. The carpet was spreading out and the edges were rising toward her. It was becoming a net! She tried to jump clear, but it was too fast, and she was easily caught up in it. Wiggling and squirming, she reached for her pack to get her knife and saw the window next to her start to open.
Huh, looks like it’s just going to toss me out. Well, could be worse.
Grind! The window only got a little more than halfway up. It seemed the mechanism was a bit rusty, which made perfect sense. After all, it had to be centuries old. Some sort of mag-hoist moved her to the window and started to push her through it, but she only got about halfway. Her butt was toned and firm, but a little too round, and her backpack added to her girth. She got stuck.
She yelped as two firm spanks struck her right and left cheek. They continued, alternating cheeks, and she squirmed and struggled to get free. It wasn’t possible. Between the net and the small opening, she was well and truly stuck, and the hard paddles or whatever were behind her kept swatting away at her.
“Ouch, ow! Shit, what’s going on here?” she cried, wiggling some more.
Getting her hand around to her pack, she wormed her fingers inside, found her knife, and pulled hard. The blade raked across the netting, slicing it open, and she now had some more wiggle room. She cut again, her left arm swung free. Dropping the knife, she planted her hands on either side of the window and heaved. She grunted and yelped; those damn paddles kept right on smacking away as she struggled to get out.
“Come on, damn it, come on!” she shouted.
With one last powerful push, she popped out, ducked her head, pitched forward, and did a roll down into the flowerbed under the window. Slowly, she got to her feet and rubbed her sore ass, and looked around. The net and paddles were retracting back to their ‘rest positions,’ and the window was trying to close. She could hear the gears grinding, but it didn’t budge.
Huh, that’s a pretty fancy security system. Ah, I get it, the ‘paddles’ were just supposed to push me out the window and dump me out of the net, but things got screwed up when I got stuck. This has got to be a real treasure trove; I’ve never seen such a high-tech house.
In her foraging, Amber had encountered numerous traps and security devices on the houses she’d entered, and she’d learned there was a direct correlation between how elaborate they were and how valuable the goodies inside the building were. This place not only had the most sophisticated system she’d ever seen, but the house was downright pristine. The roof had solar panels, an army of bots tended the garden and yard, and through the windows she could see more of them cleaning and maintaining the house.
All of these factors strengthened her resolve to get inside.
So, how do I get in without a repeat of this sorry episode?
She stood there rubbing her bottom, gazing in the window, and tried to come up with a plan. The trap was sprung when she touched the inner door. Rooting around in her pack, she got out her rope and grappling hook. Amber wiped the sweat and grit from her brow, shook her head and blinked to clear her eyes, and looked up to study the building. Swinging the grapple above her head a couple of times, she let it fly high, and was rewarded with a solid connection to a strong branch. She started climbing and was once more grateful for her solid physique. One thing about being a loner in the preserve: you had to be fit if you wanted to survive. She might be barely five feet, but she was all muscle. Her breasts were a bit hefty, but since she found those sports bras she’d been able to keep them in place. Also, unlike many of the other loners who grew a great long mane, she kept her ebony hair short. It kept it out of her eyes during a hunt or like now with struggling to get to the rooftop of her latest prize.
She relaxed and took a deep breath as her feet found solid footing atop the main staircase. The roof was sloped, but she was adept at keeping her balance in tough spots. Kneeling down, she studied the material, and realized it was merely thick canvas. A quick slash of her knife and she easily dropped inside. She froze in a crouched position and listened and watched.
Slowly, she stood tall. The door to the atrium was behind her, the stairs led upward, and an open doorway to the main living room was before her.
So far, so good. Okay, let’s check it out.
Climbing the stairs, she paused at the doorway and reached through to wave her hand, and quickly pulled back. No signs of another trap, so she entered.
The room was magnificent: thick plush carpet, bookcases bursting with leather-bound books, a nice sitting area with a coffee table, couch and three chairs, and a desk and chair next to the main window that looked out over the yard.
This place is great. Shit, I may move here, if I can figure out how to disable the security system. Huh, what’s that?
She sat at the desk, grimacing slightly, and opened the wall panel above it. She jumped as a red laser beam scanned her.
“You are not my master,” a soft voice said. “Identity yourself or I shall activate the security system. You have sixty seconds.”
“What? Wait a minute, hold on, let me expla—hey, why is your voice so deep?”
“It is a male voice. Disregard last statement. I have completed a system diagnostic and determined that three hundred and forty-two years have elapsed since I was last active. Furthermore, my bio-scan reveals that you are a female. You are from the preserve, correct?”
“Yeah, how do you know about that?”
“My master created it.”
“Master? Male voice? The painting! So, a man lived here?”
“Can you tell me about him and the preserve, and why he set it up, and what happened here?”
“Yes. Can you tell me what has happened to the women in the intervening years?”
“Then I would say we have the basis for a mutually beneficial relationship. Shall we begin?”
“One thing first,” Amber said, patting her stomach. “You got any food around here that’s still edible? I’m famished.”
She was surprised when the computer laughed. The other units she’d found had been helpful, they’d taught her to read, but they didn’t have a personality like this one. It was clear this was an AI unit.
“Yes, my dear, I can provide you with something quite nice. I am called Tesla. What shall I call you?”
Amber introduced herself, and then he directed her to the kitchen and a stasis cabinet full of enough rations to last her a year. Once she had a full belly, she returned to recline on the couch, and she and Tesla talked.
“So, tell me of this world and its history,” she said.
“Long ago a plague that only affected men swept across the planet. It caused madness and eventually death, and that was when my master, Dr. Gerard Sinclair, our most brilliant scientist and engineer came up with a plan. He gathered as many women as he could together and sealed them in the largest nature preserve, and programmed the guardians to watch over them.”
“Ahhh, so that’s how our little world inside the wall was created. Um, so… what about the men? Are they all gone?”
“No, once the preserve was established, he and as many healthy men as were left entered the cryogenic chamber under his main lab.”
“Cry-o… what? Wait, so they’re still alive? Can we go get them?”
“It means they are… let me think of a term you’ll understand. Ah, they are asleep, and cannot be awakened while the disease is present. What of you, Amber, what is your life in the preserve like?”
“Most of the women live in small villages, but some, like me, keep to ourselves. Once in a while, one of them or a group try to get over the wall, but the guardians always catch and paddle them. Why do they do that if everyone out here is long dead?”
“The master didn’t have time to install AI units in them. They only have a very basic CPU, and therefore they simply carry out their original instructions, which were: keep the women inside and take care of their needs.”
“Huh, maybe that explains their weird behavior.”
“Specify,” Tesla replied.
“Well, every once in a while a bunch of them will surround a village, scoop up the women, and paddle them good until they’re all bawling hard. That’s part of the reason I live on my own.”
“Understood. The units are merely collecting saline solution. Their positronic circuits use it as a conducting agent. Which means the saline plant is nonfunctional. Perhaps we should risk awakening the master. If one of the main systems is down, others may follow.”
“You think the disease is gone?”
“Unknown, I do not possess a viral scan unit. Wait, the main lab. If I activate it and transfer my OS to its mainframe, I can perform a thorough bio-scan.”
“Sounds good to me, but your hesitancy tells me there’s a downside to doing it.”
Tesla laughed. “You are most perceptive. Correct, doing so will completely drain the household batteries, and if anything in the lab is nonfunctional I will not have enough power to effect repairs or transfer back here.”
“Ah, I get it, you’ll be stuck, and since that salt factory you mentioned isn’t working, it’s likely other things aren’t either.”
“Well, how about if I go with you? If something is busted, you tell me what to do, and I’ll fix it.”
“A logical and adequate solution. Amber, go up the stairs on the left. When you reach the master suite, I will instruct you on what to do.”
She nodded. “You got it!”
Racing up the stairs, Amber felt exhilarated. This was the most exciting thing she’d done since she escaped the preserve. She was in an incredible home, she had food and a fancy computer to talk to, and now she was going to help it bring a man back to life. That was beyond exciting, it was completely and totally awesome!