I'd been alone in the wastes for near ten days when they found me. The building I'd holed-up in might have been a bank, might have been a church; I wasn't going to call it. But its walls were stone-built, and most of them were still standing.
Meals of tinned mystery-meat, and only-slightly irradiated water had kept me alive as I picked through the detritus. I found little more than empty, rusted tins, and kid's toys that had survived the fallout. That is, until I turned up the device; some relic that still had power. It came alive in my hands, splashing blue light across pitted grey stone and orange rust.
Of course, I was far from the only one interested in that trinket. My first warning was the quake; stones shifted beneath my feet and rusting I-beams groaned overhead. Still, that was more warning than most got, and I wasn't about to waste it. I grabbed my pack and ran.
I burst out of the shaking building, arriving at a cratered street. I didn't stop; the quake was hot on my heels. Any direction was better than none, and I vaulted fallen lamp-posts, scrambled over fox-holes.
A toppled bus got me off the ground, into a first-floor window. My foot caught on the frame and I stumbled, rolled, and struggled to get up again.
That was when the hound caught up. The machine came up through the bus, shredding the vehicle like paper.
I'd seen hounds before; immense, worm-like assemblies of metal claws and cutting discs, bathed in orange light from whatever furnace raged within them. But no-one ever mentioned the heat. So close, I could feel my hair singeing as the machine turned on me.
The hound came for me. The building's wall turned into a cloud of shattered concrete. A moment later, so did the floor. I don't know how it missed me, but I fell, tumbling down through a rain of masonry.
The landing stole the air from my lungs, and I gasped, struggling to right myself. I knew the machine was still there; still hunting.
That furnace heat was the only warning I got. I suddenly had good reason to find my feet. The machine was coiling down through the hole in the ceiling, blades growling as they span.
Even as I edged away, the hound lit up. A white beam threw the machine into stark relief. It turned, and so did I.
The dove was standing in a doorway, silver skin gleaming beneath its search-light. Heat-sinks longer than I was tall spread from each shoulder, glowing red, orange, then white. A turbine screamed, and it became a blur.
The dove and the hound collided. The impact was deafening, and it was followed by a cacophony of howling engines and screeching metal. As the machines fought, I could do little more than keep my head down and my fingers crossed.
The battle ended as suddenly as it began. Thrashing wildly, its maw twisted and broken, the hound retreated. The serpentine machine drew back into its pit, and for a moment the only sound was my own laboured breathing.
I got to my feet as the dust settled, wary eyes searching for the other machine.
The dove wasn't hard to find. It was sitting, propped against a wall, its gleaming chassis scored and scorched.
I stooped to pick up a piece of twisted pipe, though what good it would do me, I didn't know. The dove raised its head as I approached, its featureless façade tracking my movements.
I'd assumed the dove had won, but you wouldn't know it to look at the machine. Its heat sinks were twisted and gouged, its right leg missing below the knee. There was no sign of the severed limb.
I found myself standing over the machine, weapon raised. I was sure it watched me, despite the fact it had no eyes to speak of. For a few seconds, I just watched it back. And then, finally, its head dropped.
I lowered the pipe.
Chin-on-hand, I sat, watched. I wasn't entirely sure what I was waiting for. I wasn't entirely sure if I was waiting for anything. But that didn't stop me from watching.
I'd dragged what was left of the dove to somewhere I hoped was safe. It was lighter than it looked, but that wasn't saying a great deal.
Day gave way to dusk. The crumbling city became a maze of dark streets and darker buildings, the perpetually clouded sky grew heavy and oppressive.
I must have been sitting there for hours when the dove finally moved. It sat up, going from lying sprawled to sitting in the blink of an eye. I jumped, fingers groping for a weapon I'd left nearby.
Even as my hand closed on the pipe, the dove turned to look at me. The silence stretched to a lifetime, my heart drumming against my ribs.
Finally, the machine looked away. It turned to its own damaged leg, its hands closing on its thigh, fingers gently probing the stump.
For just a moment, I wondered if the machine felt any pain.
It seemed to accept what it found, and pulled itself clumsily upright, using a wall for support. It paused, before turning to me once again.
I was surprised by the gesture that followed; the machine instructed me to back away, recommending caution. I spent a moment in silent debate, and then did as it suggested.
The machine's heat-sinks flared, and with a whine, its turbine started up. The whine gave way to a rattle and a stutter as the engine failed to ignite.
The dove powered-down, tipping its head and flexing its fingers.
"So," I said at last. "How does a dove get home if it can't fly?"
The machine turned to face me, apparently considering the question. Finally, it extended an arm, pointing to the horizon.
The mountain loomed over the city, punching up, through the cloud banks. For a moment, I simply stared.
"Can you make it?" I asked, turning back.
The machine cocked its head.
"You don't know."
"But you're going to try anyway."
I wet my lips, looking between the dove and mountain.
"What do you need?" I asked, at last.
After half a day of scouring the rubble and jumping at my own shadow, I returned to the dove's resting place and dropped an armful of materials at its side.
The machine studied the scrap for a moment, before selecting a piece of twisted steel. It turned the bar over in its hands, tipped its head, then took a firmer grip.
It folded the steel as if it were paper, bending, twisting, tweaking. Finally, it stopped to examine its efforts. Apparently it was satisfied.
The machine pressed the bar against the stump of its leg. There was a crack, the smell of ozone. When the dove raised its hand, the join was glowing a cherry red.
I stepped back as the dove rose. Its new prosthetic groaned and complained, but held the machine's weight.
It took an experimental step. The peg-leg turned beneath it, and the machine stumbled.
Without really thinking, I moved to catch it. The dove's weight landed across my shoulders and my knees buckled. A moment later, we both managed to find our balance. Again, I stepped away.
The dove raised a hand; an apology.
I waved it off. "Not your fault."
It paused, tipped its head. Then nodded.
It squared its shoulders, nodded again.
I took what I could carry, scattered the rest, and followed the dove towards the city's limits. I wasn't counting the hours, but the sun - barely visible behind the rolling clouds - was climbing towards its apex when the crumbling buildings finally gave way to what had once been the countryside.
The dove still didn't show any inclination to start a conversation. I followed its example. The only sounds were the slap of my boots and the irregular clanks of the machine's laboured gait.
"So," I began, when the silence became wearisome. The dove turned its head, but didn't break its stride. "Do you have a name?" I asked.
The dove paused, placed its hands on its hips, tipped its head. I got the message.
"Right, stupid question."
It nodded, and set off once more.
Unfortunately, that question still bothered me. I was having a difficult time simply thinking of the dove as 'it'; 'the machine'.
I looked the dove up and down. The machine was short - the top of its head level with my shoulder - and slender. Even with its androgynous form, I suppose I'd already made up my mind.
"Well, I've never seen a guy with hips like that," I said.
The dove looked at me sidelong, and shrugged.
"Never seen a girl with hips like that either," I added. "But that's not the point."
It - she just offered me a shake of her head.
The day was coming to a close when we reached the first gentle incline; the foot of the mountain. The dove looked to the slope, and made to carry on. Then she paused, and turned to face me.
She pointed to me, to the mountain, cocked her head. A question.
I wet my lips, paused to think. But I knew I'd already made my decision. I'd already followed her that far.
"Yeah," I replied. "I'm coming with you."
The dove nodded. She didn't query any further. To be honest, she couldn't have asked anything I hadn't already asked myself.
Why was I following a machine on some insane attempt to scale a mountain? My only answer was that she was the first person - for lack of any more appropriate term - I'd met who seemed to have any idea what she was doing. A direction to head in.
It was certainly more than I had.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?"
I turned at the question, shrugged my pack to get it sitting comfortably.
It was Karin, of course. Freckles and sun-bleached hair fighting with an expression harder than steel.
"We've had this conversation," I replied, and pointed over my shoulder, away from the makeshift camp.
"So that's it?" she asked. "You grab your bag and go? Sod the rest of us."
I wet my lips, looked around. A couple of dozen men and women, wearing dirty clothes and dismal expressions, gathered around stuttering fires. They shared scraps of food, sips of water, and the occasional quiet word.
"What is there here for me?" I asked. "What is there here for you?"
Karin made to answer, but I shook my head. She closed her mouth.
"So we sit and waste away? No plan? No prospects?"
"And what about out there?" Karin asked. "Just what do you expect to find?"
"I don't know," I said.
"You don't know," she repeated. "And you really expect it to be better than what you have here?"
"So that's it - better the devil you know?" I shook my head. "No."
I found Karin in my thoughts again as we climbed. Ten days after I'd left, and I'd found nothing but rubble and danger. Ten days believing I would be better off alone.
And yet, I found myself following a machine up a mountain on a fool's errand. I'd already done more for the dove than I'd ever done for Karin's people.
The machine crested a rise and came to a sudden stop. I hauled myself up behind her, gasping for breath. It was a moment before I wondered what had brought the dove to a halt.
The answer was right in front of me and it was bearing its teeth. A mountain cat, all muscle and hunger, bigger than a man. The dove cocked her head. But the cat wasn't looking at her.
The cat leapt. So did the dove. But the machine was clumsy, unsteady on her patchwork leg, and the ground was uneven. A stone shifted, a boulder rolled, the dove fell.
I scrambled towards her, my eyes on the cat. The machine was trapped, her torso pinned by a fallen rock. The cat was wary now, unsettled by the dove, but it didn't want to pass up a meal.
I pushed, pulled at the boulder as the cat circled. The dove waved me away, but she wasn't going to get out alone. I glanced to the cat, then back to the slope. I was quick enough - I might be able to outrun it. But that meant leaving the dove.
So I put my back into it, palms sweating and torn, pressed to the rock.
The cat growled, came forward. The boulder shifted.
There was a blur of movement and instinct took over. I hit the ground. When I looked up, the dove was standing. The cat was at her feet. It wasn't moving.
Unsteadily, I stood up. The dove looked me up and down, satisfied herself I was uninjured. Then she touched a hand to my shoulder.
It was another day before we broke the cloud bank, passing through the choking smog, before emerging.
I tried to remember the last time I'd seen the sun. I couldn't. Blue sky and daylight. It might have been the altitude, but I felt euphoric, basking in the clear air, the cut of wind against my skin.
Finally I turned to the dove.
"So what now?" I asked.
The response was simple enough; we wait. I had no problem with the idea. As it happened, that wait was over all too soon.
I heard the doves before I saw them, and scanned the sky until my eyes found them. Three machines descending amidst a roar of turbines, all gleaming chrome and glowing heatsinks.
Their landing was delicate, touching down as their turbines slowed to a whisper, heatsinks folding back. Each machine was unique. One stood a head taller than me. Another was no bigger than my companion. But an obvious interest in me was shared.
My companion looked to me. It was a moment before I found my voice.
"We made it," I said.
The dove nodded, and held out her hand. I paused, and then took it. The metal was surprisingly warm against my palm, the grip gentle. A moment later, the contact was broken.
Finally, the dove gestured to my pack. It was a few seconds before the meaning dawned.
The device that had started it all, a small trinket found in the city wastes. I took it from my bag, and passed it over.
And that was it. She was gone, borne away by the other three machines.
I couldn't help but think of the device, wonder whether that was the only reason she had allowed me to follow her. I didn't know what it meant to her. What I meant to her.
And once again, I found Karin in my thoughts. What did I mean to her? What did her and her group mean to me? It was true; they had no plan, no purpose beyond surviving the next night. And instead of doing anything about it, I had walked out.
That was something I did understand. And something I could change.