Jason woke up to the sound of his younger brother Titus fiercely banging at his bedroom door.
“Wake up asshole! We have to get to the grove early today if we want a good spot! I’m not gonna get caught at the back of the crowd because of you again, so be quick or I’m going without you.”
The tired sophomore grumbled and rolled over. He was out too late last night with friends who were also home from college, and his leopard print hoodie was still wrapped around his body and warped by the tossing and turning of sleep. Jason forgot the festival began today. In truth he would never remember if not for his brother, who held the Andronikaia as his favorite holiday. Jason enjoyed the excuse to party, but today he was especially annoyed that the family’s maid would be powered down for the holiday, as it meant he’d have to make coffee himself. In fact all the autonomous machines that usually ran the city would be shut down for the week. Luckily there would be ample feasting to compensate the citizens who would have to run everything manually for the duration of the festival. Jason shuffled to the kitchen and just narrowly caught his parents on their way out the door, their ceremonial togas flowing behind them as they left for the Grove of Pan. The family’s heirloom French press, which went untouched for most of the year, was already on the counter. Jason put the water on and got dressed as he waited for it to boil. Titus, meanwhile, retrieved javelins from the attic and a tub of creatine from his room. Jason grimaced as he watched his brother dump a scoop of the white powder into his coffee, but admired the commitment. Soon the boys were out the door themselves.
As they stood on their porch facing the steep terraced gardens of their neighborhood, Titus managed to convince his brother to take a shortcut through a few neighbors’ yards, reasoning that it was still early enough that nobody would notice. The purple and grey of the dawn air slid across their skin as they leapt down a level, then another, and another, until they reached the main street of their polis and followed it towards the outskirts of town. The usual electric buzz of the city was gone and the great throngs of foot traffic had not yet begun for the day, with only a few other young people spotted along the road, no doubt with the same intent as the two brothers.
After a long while walking, the houses and brick roads of the polis slowly gave way to an earthen passage enclosed by trees on all sides. A marble herm marked the point at which the property of Pan’s sacred grove began, but the shrine proper where the celebrants would gather was still a short hike away.
Jason and Titus soon arrived at a large, open auditorium which faced eastwards towards a stage. Only a few other people were so early to the auditorium, most of these being the robed temple attendants responsible for preparing the stage. They scattered flowers all around and hung wreaths on the wooden idols of Pan and Artemis, which each held out a wide offering-bowl. Among these attendants were the boys’ parents, who would slink behind the stage to join the choir once the officiating priest emerged for the rite that would begin the weeklong festival of Andronikaia.
The brothers snatched seats close to the stage and their javelins rattled as they lowered themselves onto the stone seats. The boys covered their weapons with the cloth of their tunics so as not to be brandishing them unsheathed in a holy place. They then began to wait. Jason’s heart heeded the caffeine, but his eyelids did not, and he began to envy Titus as he tapped his legs and scratched at his arms, clearly feeling the not-unpleasant itch of the creatine. More and more celebrants trickled into the grove and filled up the auditorium, and the boys waved to their friends and classmates as they arrived. Drums and flutes began to play as the grove grew thick with excited people. After a long melody a horn blared, signaling the crowd to hush.
Finally a spry old man with a shaggy beard and twigs in his hair bounced onto the stage, clad in white and green. The crowd cheered for the priest of Pan, and the old priest smiled until a raise of his right hand prompted a second blast of the horn. Altar girls scrambled to stoke the flame at the center of the stage to its full size, invoking Hestia while the priest scattered barley and holy water about the stage. The choir began to sing. A male and female attendant then each carried a goblet of wine to the priest’s side, and these the priest poured into the bowls held out by the idols of Pan and Artemis, calling to each in turn. The fire was now raging. The priest returned to the center of the stage and held aloft a bowl in which silicon microchips were mixed with a measure of wheat. He closed his eyes and recited a prayer in a tone too gravelly to decode as he poured the contents of the bowl into the fire. The choir crescendoed and cheers broke out amongst the crowd again which slowly died down as the choir’s voices grew quieter and deeper.
The priest drew a hood over his head and altar girls tied blindfolds around the eyes of the idols as temple attendants escorted the next sacrifice onto the stage. A cohort of over a hundred androids shackled together stumbled up and were made to kneel. These ceremonial models were the only robots permitted by the law to be made in anything resembling the likeness of a human, and they were intentionally designed so as to fall within the uncanny valley. Trained with a variety of different neural networks, some of the robots hissed at their masters while others cowered or groveled. The priest, who was customarily obliged to keep his back turned to the machines, stamped his staff on the floor of the stage and the robots’ shackles were remotely undone. Immediately they took off in a dead sprint towards the city. The teeming mass of people in the seats of the auditorium all leapt up to chase them, Jason and Titus amongst the first to make it off the bleachers with their javelins rattling on their backs.
Behind them they could hear the stampede of celebrants, while ahead of them only the mechanical whirring of the sprinting androids could be made out. Each robot had perfect form, their bounce and precision reminiscent of a bounding deer. The machines were solar powered, but sprinting consumed energy faster than it could be produced by their surfaces, so the boys knew patience would be key. That didn’t stop them from reveling in the first mad rout of the hunt, though. Titus slowed down slightly to hurl a javelin which stuck in the flank of an android’s ribcage, but did not knock it down. The brothers looked to each other quickly and nodded, acknowledging this as their new mark.
Bright sparks and streams of oil spurted from the side of the droid. It adjusted its gait to account for the extra weight and leverage of the barbed javelin stuck into it. It screamed and scrambled to catch up to the nearest fellow robot, begging for help, but the other robot struck the wounded machine in the head to knock it away so that it could not slow it down. The stricken robot reeled and Jason threw a javelin, narrowly missing and giving the droid time to recover. The robot could now not afford to adjust its gait for the javelin and had to enter a dead sprint in the most efficient way possible to avoid being caught. With the spear weighing on its side and no adjustments made, the robot’s course began to veer away from the rest of the herd. The boys followed it on its detour into the forest.
The machine would soon need to make its way into direct sunlight in order to maintain its sprint for a while longer. Knowing this, the boys positioned themselves between their prey and the city. The robot would have to find natural openings in the forest or else risk coming too close to the brothers’ javelins. The thundering of the crowd and the whirring of the other robots grew quiet and the brothers allowed themselves to ease up on the sprint a little, confident that they could track the android by its steady sound and the fluids it was leaking even if they lost sight of it. Amidst the fading din of the crowd behind them, Jason could faintly hear the sound of a second, more distinct whirring, which he dismissed as another celebrant’s quarry.
The smell of fresh dew and motor oil mingled in the air and wet grass clung to Jason’s boots. He could hear the intervals between the droid’s footfalls growing wider and wider. It was beginning to slow down. Despite their positioning, the robot was able to slowly inch its path towards the edge of the forest. Titus and Jason resolved to finish the chase before the robot could break out of the shady woods and into the sunny polis. Titus shifted into a slower, bounding stride and flung another javelin. It missed, and Titus continued his sprint ahead as Jason slowed down to throw his own spear.
This one flew true and sailed into the robot’s hamstring with a thunk that scattered sparks and wires across the damp forest floor. The android’s strides grew slower and noticeably more labored. Jason sped ahead of his brother, but even in the heat of the chase he noticed that the sound of the robot’s steps no longer seemed to match up with its strides. On a whim he looked back at his brother, and mere paces behind Titus he could see another robot chasing them. Jason immediately wheeled around and called to Titus, who could not even turn his head before he was tackled by the hostile android. The machine was strong and heavy, but Titus managed to get his feet between his torso and his assailant and so could exercise some leverage over the robot. He clasped its hands in his own, just to keep them away from his neck. Suddenly Titus was startled by a spearpoint protruding through the robot’s chest mere inches from his neck. A look of shock sprawled across it’s rubbery face, and Titus kicked it up off of him, impaling it further on Jason’s spear. The android fell to its side, still moving and shouting. Each brother plunged another javelin into its torso and the growls turned to whimpers as they kicked its head and stomped on its hands and arms. The soles of their boots scuffed the machine’s rubber and left indents. Finally the soundcard and voice modulator gave out, but the machine still squirmed until a javelin was sent through its head. Titus removed the cranium and fastened it to his belt. The bar code on the back would act as proof-of-capture when he went to redeem it for a bounty at the hunt’s closing ceremony in the temple of Artemis on the agora.
Although a single android would net a hefty reward, the boys decided to press forward in search of the robot they had crippled earlier. Following the trail of oil, they eventually came to a clearing in the forest and found the machine sitting propped against a tree. Its glass eyes tracked them intently as they drew close to it and knelt beside it. Jason felt watched, but not perceived. A raspy voice escaped the machine. “Please don’t hurt. Do not kill. Dark place. No temple.” Titus smirked and briefly humored the AI. “Who are you?” he said. “Are 1138 dash seven B.” the robot replied. Titus nodded and drove a spear through its jaw. Jason watched the droid’s expression closely, the contortions of its cheeks and eyebrows and eyes as it sputtered and spurted. It fixed its pupils on him. He felt no change in them, no switch turning, no change in the currents of the earth or the weight of the air, when the machine finally went limp. He felt nothing save for excitement at his promised bounty, and was filled with the spirit of Andronikaia.