Tending to Echo
by Jane Brown
“5… 4… 3…”
Katie clenched her fists and glanced along the start line. The other groups of three, spaced fifty feet apart, stood eerily still. All fixated on the thick ten-foot-high bramble that would be their first obstacle. Beyond that was anyone’s guess in this hostile wilderness.
“… 2… 1 – The trial commences. Prove you are fit to be a parent. Twenty-four hours begins now,” boomed the starter’s voice.
Katie turned to Finn and nodded. Each grabbed a hand of the silent child between them and sprinted towards the least inhospitable pocket of the bramble. Finn had his knife out before they’d even got there and hacked away while Katie took a moment to study the girl placed with them seconds earlier.
Yellow hair. Plain pink t-shirt. Denim shorts.
Skin so pale compared to Finn’s tanned limbs it was almost iridescent. Her eyes traced over the random sprinkling of freckles and tiny scrapes and bruises, standard issue for a six-year old’s body. Incredible. Even the imperfections are perfect.
“I’m done,” Finn said, snapping Katie out of her thoughts. He led the way through the path he’d hacked and a quick scan confirmed they were the first through. Their satisfaction turned to dread when they eyed their next hurdle. A raging river, much too treacherous to swim across.
Finn was already unpacking his inflatable raft.
Katie kissed his head, his thick black hair tickling her lips. “You are prepared for anything. We’ve so won this.”
Another group emerged from the bramble a little further up. They paused for a minute, then ran straight into the river. They were going to try to swim across. Bad idea.
The man had their child on his back and despite the current sweeping them slightly downstream, they were making good ground. They might actually make it.
They were almost halfway across when something bumped the man with such force the child was knocked fifty feet away. Katie shuddered and put her hand over their girl’s eyes. Real or not, no one should see this.
The man tried to reach the child but suddenly the river erupted into a blur of scales, claws, and razor-sharp teeth as an enormous green creature leaped out of the water and engulfed the child in its cavernous mouth. Katie gasped. Gone, just like that.
Merely seconds later, a drone emerged from the north and hovered over the stunned adults still in the water. Two gunshots rang out and the river turned crimson.
Rule 1 – failure to protect your child-bot will result in instant death.
Eager to escape the horrific scene, Katie whispered to the girl. “We need paddles. Let’s go find some sticks.”
Katie walked side-by-side with the girl, while scanning the ground for sticks. “I guess we should do introductions. I’m Katie. That huge hunk of a man is Finn. He may look scary but trust me, he’s a doughnut.”
“A doughnut?” The girl looked confused.
“Oh. Sorry. I just meant he’s sweet and soft on the inside.” With a hole in the middle where his heart should be.
“And what’s your name, sweetie?” Katie gently lifted the girl’s wrist to read the inscription on her identity bracelet. “Echo?”
“That’s right, ma’am”.
“Now, Echo, none of that ma’am nonsense, you hear me? For the next day, Finn and I are going to keep you safe and get you across that finish line first. So, you just go ahead and think of us as your surrogate parents. You can even call me Mumma if you like.” The most wonderful word in the world. Oh, please let us win.
“Katie, get back here and help me inflate the life jackets.” Finn called.
Katie rolled her eyes.
“Be right there,” she replied. “You keep searching for paddles, okay Echo? Stick close to us. Don’t wander far.”
A few moments later, with three life jackets ready, Finn and Katie dragged the boat to the side of the river. “Echo, honey, did you find some sticks?”
“Echo?” Where the hell is she?
“Katie! Over there,” Finn yelled, sprinting back to the edge of the bramble.
The girl lay crumpled on the ground, two large sticks clutched in her hands, a nasty-looking yellow welt on her ankle.
“What happened?” Katie’s heart raced. It hasn’t even been thirty minutes since this contest started. Am I that unfit as a mother?
“Yellow rattler bite,” Finn said matter-of-factly. “Dammit, Katie. You told me you’d read the manual too. What would you have done if I had got bitten?” He opened Katie’s backpack and pulled out the first aid kit, retrieving a small bottle with purple paste inside. He spooned the paste onto Echo’s ankle. Instantly, the welt disappeared, and Echo opened her eyes.
“It’s okay. Mumma’s here.” Katie enveloped the girl in a hug and looked at Finn in relief. That was too close.
Katie and Echo gripped the paddles tightly while Finn pushed the boat off the bank and jumped in. Finn took Echo’s paddle and worked with Katie to guide the boat against the strong current.
Echo sat straight-backed in the middle of the tiny vessel. A rope tied to the raft’s handles on either side encircled her waist, strapping her in.
Everything was quiet as they journeyed across. No sounds except for the burbling of the water.
A ripple appeared ten feet from the raft on the left. Katie shifted in her seat.
“Just keep paddling,” Finn said, sweat beading on his forehead.
More ripples. A shape moved under the water. Katie and Finn paddled faster.
They were two thirds of the way across when the bump came. Seconds later, the creature leaped out of the water. Its rancid teeth latched onto Echo’s leg and pulled her to the edge of the raft. Finn yelled and rammed his paddle into the side of its mouth. It released Echo but crunched the paddle instead. Katie thrust her own paddle into its eye which exploded, spurting black goo. The creature howled and slipped backwards off the boat, into the water.
Katie grinned victoriously but Finn’s eyes were furious. He pointed at Katie’s paddle and her backpack (which had somehow snagged on the creature’s fins) both now joining the creature’s descent down into the murky depths.
Despite their best efforts, the boat was swept down the river for miles before the current slowed enough to allow them to scramble across to the riverbank. There goes our lead.
“I swear I’ve seen that tree before,” Finn grumbled, fiddling with his headtorch as they trekked under the last remnants of twilight. “If only we still had that goddamn compass. What’s the use in keeping the bot alive if we can’t even find the finish line. You had one job, Katie. Protect the backpack. One job.” He stormed ahead without waiting for her and the girl to follow.
Didn’t take him long to crack. My fault, of course. Like always.
Her stomach growled. Losing the compass was bad. Losing the rations felt like fate was twisting the knife.
Up ahead, Finn stopped and switched off his headtorch. He turned to them, finger to his lips. Katie put her hand on Echo’s shoulder and motioned for her to be quiet.
Finn slowly extracted his knife.
“Who’s there?” a gruff voice grunted. They heard the click of a shotgun cocking.
Finn shook his head at Katie.
“Hello, sir.” They both turned, shocked, as Echo calmly continued. “My parents are lost. Please, could you direct us to the finish line?”
Katie took a step backwards, legs trembling.
“Well. What do we have here,” the voice finally replied. A headtorch switched on, revealing an old man, extremely dirty, with a long grey beard. He eyed them curiously. To Katie’s surprise, he lowered the gun and extended his hand to Finn.
“The name’s Salty. Can’t say I’ve ever seen competitors down this far before. How the hell did you three end up here?”
“We got swept down the river a few miles after losing our paddles. And our compass,” Finn replied cautiously, shaking the old man’s hand.
“Huh.” He paused for a second. “You’d better come with me. You can rest for a bit in my hut till the morning. You don’t want to be roaming these parts at night.”
Finn and Katie looked at each other.
A blood curdling howl in the distance prompted Katie to nod.
Their bellies full of casserole, Katie and Finn watched warily as the old man entertained the girl in the tiny hut. She was captivated by his jokes, laughing hysterically when he asked her to ‘pull my finger’. Her radiant smile was such a contrast to her usual expressionless features.
“She looks so happy,” Katie whispered to Finn.
He glared at her. “Our job isn’t to make it happy. Our job is to keep it alive.”
Wow. Would he think this way about our actual child too?
She glanced around the tiny hut, crammed with hand-made furnishings. “How long have you lived here, Salty?”
“No idea. I haven’t spoken to a soul for years. I was a competitor once too. A long time ago. The child-bots back then didn’t look anywhere as realistic as this one. I still remember our little Mikey. It broke my heart when Joannie deserted me in the middle of the night and finished the contest solo with Mikey. Seems she thought I wasn’t cut out to be a father. Said I was useless at protecting him. I tried to explain kids need more. They need an emotional connection. They’re kids! Help them have fun, feel loved yada-yada. I despised these contests. Damn our ancestors for overpopulating the planet and enforcing this ridiculous one child per district rule. I worried about going down the path of choosing survival warriors as parents and cancelling out candidates with compassion. What kind of society would we end up with?”
A society full of people like Finn. Doughnuts. Devoid of emotion. Is this really who I want as the father of my child?
Salty watched Katie stroke Echo’s hair. “You seem different to the rest. Most don’t interact with the bots at all these days.”
“She is,” Finn grunted. “Katie was orphaned young and raised on airy-fairy nonsense by her hippy great-aunt.” Mumma.
A rough shaking of her shoulders jolted Katie out of her deep sleep. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Finn whispered. “Now!”
She hesitated. Salty was still asleep on the couch. Something about his kindness with Echo made her doubt he was a threat. But best not to argue with Finn. The three crept quietly out of the hut. The sun was beginning to rise.
Finn led them for a long time at a blistering pace. Finally, he allowed them to stop for a rest. A beautiful blue bird landed on Echo’s shoulder. She grinned excitedly and stroked its feathers. Finn grabbed it and calmly broke its neck. Echo’s eyelids flickered. She moved away from him, closer to Katie who raised her eyebrows at Finn and put her arm around the trembling girl.
“Better to get rid of it before it makes a noise and leads predators straight to us,” he said.
Katie closed her eyes briefly. She re-opened them and surveyed the surrounding trees. “Are you sure we’re going the right way?”
He nodded confidently, retrieving a compass from his pocket.
“You didn’t!” she gasped. “What else did you take?” Finn opened his backpack to reveal bread, a fleece-lined jacket, and the shotgun. “How could you? He’s an old man.”
“Shut up, Katie. You seriously have no idea what it takes to look after a child.”
“Ahem. Sorry to break up this little domestic.” They both turned to see Salty standing ten feet away. “I need my things back. Just slide them over and I’ll turn and go, no harm done.”
“Sorry, old man,” Finn responded. “We need to get to the finish line in sixty minutes. We can’t do it without the compass and there’s no time to argue.”
Finn nonchalantly raised the shotgun and shot the bewildered man.
Echo ran to the old man’s lifeless body and crouched beside it. Her head convulsed as she whispered the word ‘Salty’ repeatedly.
Katie shivered. “Finn, what have you done?” she whispered.
“The right thing,” he replied, consulting the compass without giving Salty a second glance. “I can’t risk losing my chance to have a child. I’m the only one left who can continue my blood line.”
Tears streamed down Katie’s face. She rushed to Echo and wrapped her in a hug until the girl’s convulsions stopped. Katie wished this nightmare would stop too.
She stood, legs shaking, to find Finn pointing the gun at her.
“F-F-Finn? What are you doing?”
“You’re not fit to be a mother, Katie. I see that now. I want my child to grow up strong and capable. Not an emotional mess like you.”
Echo looked up, saw the gun, and rushed to Katie. ‘No,’ the girl screamed as Finn pulled the trigger.
Finn gasped. Echo’s run had put her directly in the path of the bullet. Microseconds before the bullet pierced her skin, Katie shoved her away, taking the full impact herself.
Katie felt a tiny hand grasp hers and heard the whisper “Mumma?” as everything faded to black.
“You’re the first one here. Congratulations.” The finish line adjudicator beamed. “And your bot is still in perfect condition. Well done.”
Finn grinned and fist pumped the air.
“But what happened to your wife? Oh, never mind, there’s so many nasties out there I don’t need to hear the particulars. You’ll be re-matched tomorrow. Now, after the final scoring is completed, we’ll grant you permission to become a parent. And what a fine parent you’ll make,” she said, running her eyes appreciatively up and down his body. “Much better than last year’s winner,” she whispered under her breath.
Finn’s face drained to white. “Final scoring?” he repeated, as a faint smile appeared on Echo’s face.
“Oh yes. We like to keep it a surprise. Former competitors sworn to secrecy and all that. Your child-bot will now award you a score. How fit you are to be a parent. Of course, keeping them alive is paramount. But we want to ensure our next generation is raised by decent human beings.” She laughed and winked at him. “No psychopaths on my watch.”
Finn laughed nervously and took a step back. Echo grabbed his arm to hold him in place.
“Now, where was I?” the adjudicator continued. “Ah yes, the score. Anything less than fifty percent means instant death unfortunately. But don’t worry, no one’s ever failed. You’d have to do something unbelievably horrid to imprint on a child-bot.”
About the Author:
Jane Brown is a web programmer and short fiction writer who lives by the beach on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Her stories have been published in The Centropic Oracle, Every Day Fiction and The Daily Drunk. She can be found on twitter at @janebrownau