Art Pact 150


The robots rampaged across the town for four days and four nights until the Wednesday before Nigel's birthday. On that day they were sluggish from another long night of destruction, and when the clouds failed to open to admit the sun's energising rays the robots were forced to fold up their solar panels and go into hibernation. After they had remained motionless for an hour a few of the more daring townsfolk got up the courage to crawl out of their cellars and other hiding places and approach the shiny metal boxes that stood in place of the robots.

"Are they inside?" Mr. Crookshaw asked, tapping one of the boxes gingerly.

"I think those boxes are the robots," said Ms. Temperance. She pointed out the little lines and creases where the robot's various limbs had folded into the cubic shape, and a circular slot into which she theorised that the heads had retracted. She put her shoulder to the box and pushed with her legs, trying to move it, but it was far too heavy. "We'll have to get the cart."

"You're going to move them?"

"Well we can't leave them lying around here," she said. "What happens when the sun comes out again? It's getting on for summer now, there could be months with no rain."

"Fat bloody chance," Mr. Crookshaw said cynically, staring up at the sky. "In England?"

"Nevertheless, we can't take that chance. Look what they've done to the town in just four days."

Ms. Temperance's hand swept out in an arc to encompass the extent of the destruction. It was truly grand in its scale - in the ten roads surrounding the Marshall home not a single house was left undamaged, and many had been knocked down completely to the ground. The robots had done their work thoroughly and mercilessly in those cases, dismantling the buildings to their very components which had then been arranged neatly in great stacks in the former gardens. Ms. Temperance's house was gone, one of the first to be completely sorted by the robots, and it its place were five and a half great Jenga-style stacks of bricks, a display of wooden struts arranged by length and thickness in a great fan across the lawn, and three conical piles of a white dust that might have been mortar or plaster. Ms. Temperance's belongings, including her chemistry equipment, were arranged in a crazed line around the boundary of her grounds. They might have been easily packed up except for the fact that one or more of the robots had apparently circumnavigated the unorthodox path and crushed everything on it under a metal foot.

Alison Todd, who had been listening to the conversation from a safe distance, ran off and returned with the cart and two disgruntled-looking donkeys that she claimed she had found wandering around the little car park at the entrance to the city farm. Ms. Temperance, who was well acquainted both with the inventory of the farm and with Alison's tendency to take first and ask permission later, looked at the two grumpy creatures with a suspicious eye, but the exigencies of the situation persuaded her not to question the true provenance of the animals. Alison had already hitched the donkeys to the cart, but it was of course impossible to lift the robots up so they were forced to back the cart up to the first of the silent metal boxews, tip the cart down so that its deck was touching the floor and then use the entire cart as a sort of ungainly lever which could lift the robot up onto itself. When the box was in place they tied it up with ropes with which (at the cost of much effort) they could drag it over the axle of the cart and therefore into a position in which the donkeys could pull it away. It was a great deal of work, but once Mr. Crookshaw and Misses Temperance and Todd had hauled away the first robot and so proved that the endeavour was plausible some of the other townsfolk came out to assist.

Ms. Temperance's scheme for dealing with the robots permanently was this - there was a windowless cellar beneath the church hall, and access to it via a little ramp and storage doors. By rolling the cart down the ramp the robots could be delivered into the darkness and left there. Ms. Temperance herself, borrowing a soldering iron, sealed the joints where the robots' various limbs had folded into their bodies, and big canvases covered over each individual machine so that it was triply prevented from regaining its energy and thus freedom. When all fifteen of the robots had been thus entombed beneath the hall the doors were closed, and a heavy chain put around the door handles. To top it all off, Ms. Temperance hung a heavy wooden sign on the door saying: BEWARE OF THE ROBOTS. NO LIGHTS ALLOWED.

Having dealt with the robots themselves, the townsfolks' attention turned to Johnny Marshall. No-one had seen the boy in the four days that his robots had been dismantling the town, but since they had mostly been huddling in cellars or fleeing for the outskirts none of them had been paying particular attention.

"We have to do something about him, obviously," said Mr. Lansdowne, stepping forward and tucking his fingers under his braces like an old-time mill magnate. "These shenanigans have gone on for far too long. It's time we took this matter to the police and had young Mr. Marshall locked up for his own safety."

"His own safety?" Ms. Temperance tilted her head to one side skeptically. She had a rule of thumb, which was that whenever someone claimed to be doing something for someone else's own good (or safety), she immediately assumed that it was a lie and only changed her mind when the other person provided some extraordinary proof. She was no cynic - she believed in the existence of altruism and empathy - but she had heard too many speeches from Lansdowne and his ilk to be under any illusion about what the many really wanted. "Or your own comfort?"

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