Chapter 17:

The Robot

Badass (8-4D-455)

Location: Wild woods
Health: 100%
Energy reserves: -3%

Badass ran crashing through the dark forest, as if chased by ten swarms of glowing killer insects. He didn’t take any chances - he doubted the robot had come for a friendly chat. The faster and further he ran, the safer he would be. The forest floor was littered with ancient craters, turned into hills and hollows by ice, erosion and plant life. The night was pitch black, the sky full of clouds and it was only thanks to the bug swarms shining here and there in the undergrowth and the trees with the glowing bark that Badass could avoid breaking his neck as he trudged down one hill and up the next. These had to be the same craters he had seen through the time door, but how much time had passed since the catastrophe? Impossible to guess for the moment.

He stopped at a higher point, listened and looked around intently. The time door had disappeared into the thicket, not the slightest rumble or crack of wood came from that direction. The war machine hadn’t followed, even the glowing insects had stayed behind. Badass wiped sweat from his brow, exhausted. Maybe thanks to the absence of the insectoid glimmer, he now noticed a distant copse of oaks adorned in gleaming acorns. Badass had only seen these trees in two places, both by the side of the small trail between the badger cave and Sprucetop. Badass no longer cared whether he had found Sprucetop or somehow circled back to the badger den in the dark, he just wanted to get somewhere. He dove back into the trees, decisively.

Indeed, he at last reached a trail. Everything seemed so alien in the darkness and he wasn’t sure whether he was near the badgers or Sprucetop. He broke off an oak branch to light the way with its acorns. The path looked longer and more winding than he remembered and, after a while, he started suspecting he had happened upon another trail, made by animals. Only when he ran face first into a spider-rat web, and saw the littered forest floor around it, did he finally know for sure he was near Sprucetop. He tore the web off and soon found the right path to the giant spruce. He was overcome with joy when he finally arrived and the night watchman helped him up to the houses on the lower branches. Upon seeing the happy surprise on Tooler’s face, he felt he had returned to safety, arrived at home.

“Where did you wander off to?” Tooler asked. “We were sure some critter had eaten you.”

“Hard to say, I’m not exactly sure where I was,” Badass replied. “I stayed out too late, got lost in the dark forest.”

“But you managed to bring some materials for your shack,” approved Tooler. Badass patted his rolls of fiber, exhausted. “Yeah, I dragged them here. Lost them in the woods for a while, but I found them again and here they are.” A few dark shapes, curled up near the walls of the shack, stirred as they spoke.

“We got a bunch of new faces in the village,” Tooler said. “Some have been planetside for a while, wandering around, but a few are brand new.” Badass nodded a greeting to the newcomers. They gathered shivering around the fire that Tooler was coaxing from the coals. Only now did Badass notice that the night was cool. He hadn’t felt it so far, running around, scared for his life. But now, sitting still, he felt cold and sweaty and elbowed into the circle. He told them about his odyssey, leaving out his visit to the badgers and exaggerating the time he had spent climbing on the field of concrete, roaming the forest. When Badass mentioned going to the past, the others exchanged strange glances.

“A time door?” Tooler grinned. “You sure you didn’t eat any poisonous berries?”

“Absolutely! Listen to my stomach growl, I haven’t eaten anything at all.” That wasn’t totally true, but Badass avoided mentioning the gull eggs, just in case. It would have been hard to explain how he strayed to the lakeside.

“Hunger hallucinations, maybe,” someone suggested and they all smirked.

“It’s not your stomach that’s growling,” Tooler observed, growing watchful. “It’s some strange buzz, coming from the woods.” Badass got up, Tooler followed, and they both stared into the grim circle of forest around the giant spruce. The others stayed near the fire. They were too tired and exhausted from their ordeal to care about anything. But Badass felt the cold and the fatigue wash away. He immediately recognised the sound coming from the woods.

“It’s the machine I saw behind the time door! Seems it’s coming this way.”

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