The bush robot was knocking on the locked door of The King's Head again. Jack had left it some potato-peel potcheen a while back, but it hadn't been enough to satisfy the thirsty arms of the City.
"Back in Kernow the damn piskies would work for bread and milk. What does that fucking robot want? Dry roasted peanuts? Best bitter?"
The ragged folk at the bar looked round at the shimmering glass robot, and, as one, turned back to their drinks. No use thinking about the outside, not while there was a fire and rough booze. They'd have to head home soon enough.
Jack adjusted the wick on the oil lamp. There hadn't been any electricity for a month, not since the National Grid had been possessed by the Hungry Ghosts. The way things were going there probably wouldn't be any city left in another month. The robots were scavenging anything organic for fuel, and carting rubble off to the West End. Charlie claimed they were building rockets in Hyde Park.
"Concrete rockets. Moulded out of whatever those machines make from our homes."
He'd vanished last week. The note he'd left at The King's Head had said he was off looking for fuel cells. He'd have done anything to get some ice in his whisky.
Charlie'd not been the first to go. The Peabody brothers had taken an old Cortina and a couple of sawn-offs south of the river. They said it would be safer in Kent. But they never called back. They'd been followed by a handful of folk who remembered safe childhood summers in Clacton and Frinton. Their convoy of battered Transits had been swallowed up by a patch of rogue assemblers somewhere on the A12. No one had the courage to leave now - it was too dangerous out there. Out there lurked things, things that would forcibly upgrade you, or just use you as fuel and raw materials. It was hard to tell which was the worse option.
Now there were just a few people left, huddling in a maze of terraces and squares. Not long ago these streets had been the homes of artists and civil servants. Back then the roads bustled with cars, and the tube trains hummed their way in and out of the centre of the city. Now the cars were wrecks, scavenged for copper, steel and silicon by swarms of the City's bush robots, and the last tube had been delayed somewhere under Aldwych for the last three months.
Midnight, and the robot was gone at last. But that didn't mean that they could go home. Sure, Jack had his HERF gun, and the capacitors were charged and ready for whatever rogue machines might try to break through the oak doors. If it wasn't machines, Jack would still be ready, a posse of yardies had left a cache of machine pistols in a nearby lock-up, and he kept a couple under the counter. It hadn't taken long for things to fall apart in London. It was less than six months since the quantum oracle at the LSE went live, decided it was one of the Great Old Ones and ate the minds of all the traders who'd been hooked up to the new neural-interface terminals. Transhuman is as transhuman does, and the uploaded souls lived on in the many worlds of the oracle's quantum processors.
Now the streets weren't safe, the City robots were always looking for new souls to add to the eternal possibles that roiled through the heart of the hungry machine. You were unlikely to be assimilated if you kept them fuelled with organics and stayed indoors at night - or were prepared to give them a dose of home-made EMPs.
It was time for yet another lock-in at the pub.
Now to work out what happens next, and why. I suspect someone or something needs to be rescued from something in the Gigeresque heart of what used to be the Lloyds Building...