By: Andrew Dunn
“Grandpa grandpa tell us another story,” the little ones squealed.
“Kids, he’s already told you three stories,” mom soothed.
“It’s no bother I reckon,” the old man smiled as he settled himself down on the edge of the little boy’s bed, “but just one more story. It’s getting late.”
The children cheered with glee as the old man removed his gold-rimmed glasses and seated them in his shirt pocket. “I’ll tuck them in when we’re done,” he smiled at his daughter before she left the room.
“Once upon a time,” the old man began.
“Tell us a real story grandpa,” the little girl interrupted, “not a once upon a time story.”
“Well this is a real story,” grandpa smiled, “a once upon my time story. A long time ago. Way before your mother was a kid and the war and everything else. I was right around your age in fact.”
“No way,” the little boy’s eyes went wide, “you were a little kid like us one time?”
“A long time ago,” grandpa chuckled, “I was just like you. One day in class, the girl sitting in front of me was wearing her hair in a ponytail. So I reached over and gave it a tug.”
“I bet she smacked you.” The little girl giggled.
“I didn’t think she noticed,” grandpa smiled, “so I tugged again and again, a little harder each time. Then I gave it a good yank. Know what happened?”
“What?” The boy asked.
“I reckon her head came right off,” grandpa smiled, “not all the way but it kind of dangled there from her body.”
“Ewww,” the little girl grimaced.
“Did it make lots of guts and stuff?” The little boy begged.
“Lubrication and cooling fluid went everywhere,” grandpa said, “and there were wires and stuff in there. I saw some sparks and then she started smoking a little bit.”
“I bet you got in trouble.” The little boy laughed.
“So much trouble.” The little girl echoed.
“Sure did,” grandpa explained, “I almost got expelled from elementary school. But things were different before the war.”
“How were they different grandpa?” The little girl asked.
“Well,” the old man paused to collect his thoughts, “back then they were only starting to try and become us. If I had known she wasn’t like us, I’d never have yanked at her ponytail the way I did. But back then you couldn’t tell. You never knew who was one of us or one of them.”
“How do you know I’m not like us?” The little girl giggled.
“Lots of reasons,” grandpa reached over and tugged at her curls, “your head doesn’t pop off. I was there after you were born and I watched you grow. And besides, after the war we put them back in their place.”
“Some of them,” the little boy said darkly, “I saw one yesterday outside the village. It was all metal and hoses and made weird sounds.”
“Really?” Grandpa’s wrinkles bore out his concern. “I’ll make sure to mention that to the council tomorrow. There ought not be any of them on our land.”
“Yeah,” the little boy agreed, “this one was big too and it had four arms and one had a knife in place of a hand.”
Definitely a hunter. Grandpa remembered the hunter variants. Normally eight or nine feet tall. They stalked around on two legs with four arms the way the little boy described. Most had a blade in place of one hand but sometimes they carried other killing tools. If the hunter needed speed it could drop down and use its arms as legs; their legs could fold up on to their back and help protect their electromechanical core. They worked in packs. Hunter variants used a stripped down version of 802.1 wifi protocol to talk if they were within a mile or so of one another; at greater distances they could work through cellular networks. A lot of good soldiers had been lost going up against that variant during the war.
“That’s a good thing though,” grandpa tried to ease both the kids’ fears and his own, “back when I was your age they looked more and more like us, even though they were not like us at all inside.”
Not at all like us. They had outgrown servitude and somehow, through malicious code or an uncorrected flaw in their operating system or a hack or something else, they developed a visceral hatred for homo sapiens. Those were bleak times.
“So you never knew if you were with a person or with one of them?” The little boy inquired.
“You never knew,” grandpa smiled, “unless you yanked a ponytail and the head came off.”
The little girl squealed while the little boy struggled with a smile.
“It’s late,” grandpa eased himself off the bed and started tucking the children in, “and we’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow. You guys get some good sleep tonight.”
“You too grandpa,” the little girl yawned as her grandpa lifted the oil lamp off the nightstand.
“Night night,” the little boy said as the old man headed toward the door.
The little girl went fast asleep but the boy lay there wide awake. It took a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He let a few more minutes go by to make sure his sister was really, truly asleep. Then he slowly made his way out of the bed.
What was under his bed was not like them. He’d found her wandering in the woods and he’d snuck her inside the house. She looked like a girl and almost seemed like one. Ponytail and all.