Chapter 4

Alma's arms were aching against the smooth metal of Ultron's new body, her hands tingling with pins and needles and her feet starting to do the same. She had no idea how long they had been flying, minutes or hours, and she was desperate to feel solid ground beneath her worn sneakers. The cool wind was biting at her fingers, which were now numb. A crick had started to form in her neck from pressing her head close to Ultron, trying not to look down.

Suddenly, the jets from Ultron's palms and feet started to weaken and she could feel them start to descend. Alma breathed a sigh of relief and shouted, "Where are we?"

The robot didn't answer until his feet were on the soft forested earth. Alma slid off and promptly tumbled into the dirt, her legs momentarily useless with sleep. They were in a clearing with an old tin warehouse on one side, the large forests around them indistinguishable in the early morning gloom. The night had started to weaken with the promise of morning light where the sky met the treetops.

"Portugee Road," Ultron answered.

"This isn't a road," Alma muttered, trying to stand up. Her knees creaked like an old woman's and she swung her arms, working the joints in her shoulders. Her left one had always been tender after she had fallen off the roof of her swaying farmhouse. She had gone up there after a particularly nasty windstorm to try and clear off the branches and broken antenna and the girl had lost her footing. Alma managed to slam it back into place against a wall but, ever since then, it had always been more susceptible to pain.

"Portugee road was a fake city built by the government during WWII to try and prevent air strikes," Ultron stated, looking around. He scanned the trees with an infrared light, searching for people that may have seen them land. When he was reassured that no one was in the area, he turned and looked at Alma, his eyes and mouth flashing red with each word. "The town had depleted as time has gone on. This is one part of it. Should be safe."

Alma let her rucksack fall to the ground and she followed it quickly, sinking to the soft earth and ignoring the chill that soaked into her jeans. During the flight over here their current situation had started to sink in. She was a fugitive now, they had her father's car, they would be searching her home, the only thing she had left. Police would dig through her computer, look through her bedroom, paw at her belongings…nothing would be hers any more. She had this backpack and the robot that was staring at her, the face marred by a gash of black spray paint. Alma's face fell into her hands and she sighed.

"Are you crying?" Ultron asked, his voice actually sounding a little unsure.

"No," Alma answered, truthfully. "I'm just trying to figure out what…where we go next. What to do. Did you kill any of those cops?"

Ultron looked at her and she could tell he was meeting her eyes with his. "I think one might have died," he finally answered.

"Jesus, now we have homicide on our record," she whispered, letting loose a long sigh through her lips.

"I wasn't trying to kill," Ultron replied, and it had been the truth. He was going to desecrate them, but the moment he saw Alma's look of fear and a flicker of distrust he had done his best to try and get out of there without any casualties. The last thing he needed now was for his one ally to look upon him with fear. He had to play out this new body cautiously, build a trust and then work on showing her his power.

"Well…they were shooting at us," Alma said, trying to make the situation sound better in her mind. It wasn't working too well…police were police. They were doing their jobs, then out of nowhere this truck comes barreling away from a secure Stark building. Of course the cops would've shot at her. She would've fired in the same situation if a robot came exploding out of the back, shooting fire and throwing cruisers.

Biting back the churning anxiety that wanted to fill her, Alma stood up, regretting instantly sitting in the dewy grass. Shouldering her pack, the girl set off across the clearing towards the old tin shed. Ultron followed her, doing one more scan as he walked. He watched the girl's body language, searched for the hanging of the head or the twitching of hands, something that would betray her strength and usefulness. He found nothing, she walked with straight-backed determination, looking tired more than broken or fearful, someone weary with more weight on their shoulders than they deserved. Ultron wondered again how he had become so lucky with this woman who had agreed to help him, agreed to break into Stark's building to steal one solitary chip that would give him new life. Miraculously she had fled with him, facing fire and law enforcement, she had come with him to this deserted place. Ultron did not know how he would ever repay her, which was a puzzling thought to him.

As he watched Alma unlatch the door and push it upwards like the door of a garage, Ultron thought of the twins. One was dead. The other he had managed to frighten so thoroughly that she joined sides with the man that helped with the murder of most of her town. He felt a shot of fire fill him and he knew that it was anger. He looked at Alma as she stood in the middle of the tin shed, watched as she reached up and scratched her head. The twins had depended on each other, but Alma had survived and lived without anyone. Was that the difference? Was that what separated her from the other two followers he had once had by his side? Would she leave him and do the same?

"What?" the girl asked, turning and looking at him. The new robot surprised her when she turned around, just the shining of a silver outline in the gloom of the shelter. She would have to get used to it.

"Nothing," Ultron answered, his eyes glowing.

"There's a hole on that side of the building," Alma said, moving towards it and ignoring Ultron's odd pause moments before. "You think you could build a fire over there?"

"Do you think that is a good idea? It will be morning soon and the smoke could-"

"My jeans are damp and I need to get them dried," Alma answered, "There's some wood in the corner. I'll find the driest pieces so there won't be that much smoke.

Alma dug through and picked out several pieces of wood. It was dry, but she could tell it had been sitting there for a few years, untouched. She assembled them in an old metal oil drum and stood back, waiting. Ultron fired a small, quick jet of flame and it took to the wood quickly. Soon there was a crackling fire and Alma felt a little bit better as she looked at the warm flames.

"So, now what?" she asked after a few silent minutes.

"I don't know," Ultron admitted. "Once I get stronger we should look for a manufacturing plant."

"Those are manned by hundreds of people," Alma said bitingly, "Me and you aren't going to burst in like two shining knights and take over production."

Ultron couldn't help but admire the spark that still shown in her eyes. She wanted to know more, wanted to know the next step. Alma was willing to continue to help him.

He decided to test her. "You could've been hurt by those police officers."

"But I wasn't," replied Alma, "and I'm sure from here on out there will be more dangerous places I will find myself in so it had to happen sometime. And besides, I have you now, so that will help things."

"But there's only one of me."

"True." Alma took off her black hat and unbraided her hair. She tilted her head forward, ruffling her fingers through her hair before she tossed it back up and tied it in a ponytail. Then she stood, one cocked to the side, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth in the glow of the firelight. She was thinking. Then she looked up, her eyes trained on Ultron, who turned to face her, the orange flickering light reflecting off of his silver body, the black scar across his face untouched.

"What if we get more?" she asked. "More discarded Iron Legion?"

"From dumps?" Ultron couldn't hide the distaste in his voice.

Alma nodded, her brown eyes bright, "I mean, we'd have to pick and choose the fixable ones, but that would be a way to get two or three more until we have the strength to take on a production plant." Dark eyebrows furrowed in thought. "How did you do it last time?"

"An old Hydra production facility, it had been deserted but the technology was still there. I was able to produce hundreds of bodies and inhabit them all."

"I've heard of Hydra in the news," Alma said, crossing her arms. "And there's no way to get back there again?"

"It's too far for me to fly with you and there's no way we can get through an airport," Ultron said, "not with me, anyway."

"That's right…it's over in Europe somewhere," Alma muttered. "There are no Hydra buildings in the US?"

"I don't know," Ultron answered quietly.

Alma walked away from the fire to a pile of hay that was covered by an old painter's tarp. Tossing the rucksack, she removed her sweatshirt and sat down, rubbing her arms as she thought. She was wearing an old Alice Cooper t-shirt and Ultron glanced at it, taking in the long-faced singer's black streaks painted over his eyes.

"Can't you scan through the database? Wouldn't Stark know?"

"I can't do that here, I'm still synching up with the program," Ultron answered, moving towards her. The work she had done on his new metal body was perfect, his joints moved with ease and there were no glitches. "It takes much longer through the chip. If I was manually hooked up to the servers I'd be nearly done."

"How long will it take?"

"I don't know."

"Great," Alma muttered. She leaned backwards and stared up at the rusted roof of the shed. The sky was already starting to lighten to a muted navy and she wondered how much time she would have before morning would officially arrive.

"You should get some sleep," Ultron murmured, looking down at her. The robotic hum in his voice was deeper now that he was free from the shallow speakers of a computer.

"I slept before we left, remember?"

"You were just in a stressful situation, maybe you should rest?" Ultron sounded awkward, not fully knowing the way humans worked. How much do they sleep? Would she need to eat soon?

"I'm alright," she said, quieting his worries. She dug in the rucksack and took out a green bundle of paper, tied with a rubber band. Removing the band, she unfurled the bills and counted how much she had.

"$625," she muttered. "That's not much." She rolled it back up and secured the rubber band again. Then she rummaged around some more. She only had one pair of jeans, two pairs of underwear, and another shirt for clothing. Toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, and a bottle of water. When she was finished, she placed everything back in the bag and looked at Ultron.

"I didn't think I'd be here when I'd agreed to help you," she admitted.

Ultron motioned next to her on the pile of hay and she nodded, agreeing to let him sit next to her. "I'm sorry," he said, not really knowing what the correct response was.

"It's alright, she said, leaning backwards against the tin wall and using the rucksack to pad the back of her head. "What would I have done if I didn't find you? Sit in that house alone? Fix a computer when someone would stop by for help? Feel sorry for myself and wonder what happened to my parents? At least now I'm actually doing something."

The robot leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees in an unsettlingly human gesture. "You don't have to help me, Alma."

The girl barked a laugh that actually reached her eyes. She looked at him with amused disbelief. "Yes I do! Cops are probably crawling over my place right now, there's nothing I can go back to. I don't want to be homeless or a recluse, so I might as well tag along with you."

Ultron managed to chuckle, which made Alma wrinkle nose with a wondering thought.

"Hey, Ultron I have a question."

"Ask away."

"Why do you laugh? Aren't robots supposed to be this soulless, stiff, manufactured…thing? No emotions and just a flat voice? You act like a person. Why is that?"

Ultron tilted his head and over his shoulder at her. She could see the metal of his back move in sync like biological muscles. It truly was a manufactured miracle, something she had never seen before in mechanics.

"I'm not a robot, just my body is," he answered, his eyes casting Alma's face with a red glow. "I'm artificial intelligence, programmed by humans and cast into existence by something that's not of this world, a scepter that Thor himself had coveted. That scepter had power that nothing on this earth could've harnessed and that was the catalyst to my creation. It created what programming alone could not. When I was formed, I scanned through everything. History, math, science, literature…even religion….I absorbed everything I could."

Ultron studied her face and knew she was following along just fine, he had not lost her. "And I was able to absorb human traits. They are not as fully developed as yours, not as organic…but they are there. I know what humor is, sadness, anger, happiness…even smaller things such as sarcasm or annoyance. I'm able to create a personality because I learned that humans possess emotions and quirks. There is nothing robotic about what goes on in here," Ultron reached up and pointed to his metal skull. "This is the closest thing to human that could ever be recreated."

"So Stark played God," Alma said in response, her eyes darkening.

"In a way, yes. He toyed with the manufacture of something that took billions of years to master, and it is still far from perfect, and like humans, this thing got out of his control. You cannot create something that will grow and evolve and learn. You cannot keep it in a cage and then wonder why it broke out to live its own life."

Alma watched him, getting lost in Ultron's words.

"It's a volatile thing," he mused, turning away and looking over the empty space of the warehouse. "Life…intelligence…its bright, vibrant, but oh so fragile."

"What do you mean?"

"Men can create weapons, great weapons and bombs that could desecrate entire nations if the right trigger gets pulled, like some kid pouring water on an anthill," Ultron murmured. "And yet, as large of giants as they are, they are so perishable. A fall, a reaction to a bee sting, the crash of a car, the right disease could kill the most powerful man on the planet. Your bodies are amazing! Machines of nature! Organs and muscles working together to create a work of art from tissue and blood, bones instead of metal, nerves instead of wires…" he looked over his shoulder. "And, in that skull of yours, is a computer that was created by no man. Something that took billions of years to exist and it has powers and abilities that not even the greatest of scientists fully understand. A computer that can't even understand itself! How fascinating is that?

"It's created emotions, anger, sadness, joy. The brain has created these moods to paint itself its own vibrant world. It designed tools to make life more interesting. Thoughts, daydreams, love, hate, everything to add to your own existence. As a human being."

She looked at him, slightly surprised with how much passion laced his worlds.

"There are things in your head you would never have known," Ultron said. "I'm aware of everything, I know everything I can, I use 100% of my mind, but you, Alma, you just use a fraction of yours. And look what you've done. You've fixed a machine that only high level engineers have. You've given me a body."

"Not a real body," Alma muttered, mostly to herself, "More like a vehicle."

Ultron was quiet, his mind working. He still found it hard to believe how much this girl has sacrificed by helping him. They had known each other for around three days and yet here she sat, her home gone, her computers seized. She had a backpack, a shed, and him. He thought about his plans…what he had fought so hard to set into motion the first time he had flown among humans. He would scrape the clinging species off of the world's delicate crust, scour away the hate and greed like a black sludge. Then…rebirth. Fresh and bare, the world would be able to reform into something beautiful. His rule would promote peace, the new wave of humans and machines would flourish. Life would fill him and he would be victorious, obtaining harmony like he was destined to do.

But what of Alma? Would she be spared by the necessary cleansing that would only be a matter of time? Would he be able to repay her for standing by his side?

The girl sighed and tilted her head back again, the rucksack propped up like a lumpy pillow. She wondered briefly what went on in Ultron's head when he had long pauses like this. She also wondered if it was just a glitch in the programming or if he was actually lost in thought like a normal human being. She'd ask later, but in the meantime she took the opportunity to think about her parents. Her mother and father, so loving and smart. She remembered their faces, remembered how she felt when she realized they would never come home. The social services worker who had picked her up that day had a piggy face and smelled like onion bagels. Several paper wrappers littered the floor of the back seat, brushing against her ankles as she sat quietly, not wanting to look behind her as her home disappeared. The very same social worker drove her back years later back to the home, her collected computers sitting in the trunk. The house was different, abandoned and sad. It had gotten used to a family, but now only had a single girl living in its rooms.

Ultron got up and Alma cracked an eye open. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Another scan. I want to make sure we're safe," came the reply as he walked towards the door. He lifted it just enough to duck underneath then let it fall back to the ground. Weak dawn light had simpered its way across the sky, the sun only a half hour or so away from fully rising. Ultron scanned the clearing and surrounding trees, his new eyes zooming and focusing, barely audible clicking noises the only sound coming from him. They were still undisturbed and alone. He looked down at his hands, the jets in his palm. The circle in the center of his chest glowed and for a moment he wasn't very happy with it. The power core reminded him that, in this body, he was under Stark's influence and design.

He rose into the sky, testing the jets in his feet. He had flown off with Alma on his back so quickly it was a reflex for him. But now in the calm of the clearing, he was able to test his maneuverability in the air. Turning and spinning, switching course and direction quickly and accurately. He spun so he was lying flat on his back, tilting his head to look behind him as he shot through the sky. Then he spun and shot even farther upwards, arching back like a graceful diver before plummeting headfirst towards the ground. Ultron was happy with the body he had, was very impressed by the work that Alma had done for him. He landed in the dewy grass and made his way back towards the shed.

"We're going to need to figure out how to get food and water," Alma said. She had gotten up from the tarp to add more wood to the fire pit.

Ultron watched her.

"Is there a town anywhere near here?" she asked, tucking a stray hair behind her ear.

"I'm sure I could find one."

Alma eyed him nervously. "I didn't like flying."

"What other way do we have to get around?" Ultron asked, actually cocking his head to one side. It was an eerily human gesture and Alma blinked it away.

"Good point." She chewed at her lip, "I wish I still had my car. We could drive and when there's no place to stay I could sleep in it."

"There are police on the roads."

Alma was quiet. Ultron was right, it wouldn't be safe to drive. But what about Ultron himself? He stuck out like a gleaming silver sore thumb. She looked at him. "How much time do we have before the sun is all the way up?"

"Half hour, maybe forty-five minutes."

"That's not very long… maybe we could make it to a town before then, but getting back without being seen could be a challenge."

Ultron accessed the GPS he had in his database. "There's a small town two miles from here, if you don't mind walking. I could stay in the tree line and be out of sight."

Alma looked down at her worn sneakers and sighed before finally nodding. "I think that's our only option."

The earth was soft and dark beneath her feet. The clearing had been surrounded by old woods, moss-covered trunks of trees rising high above her leaving the dark forest floor dotted with curled ferns, bushes, and fallen trunks scabbed with fungus and peeling bark. No small scrabbly underbrush coated the forest floor making it hard to navigate. She remembered her mother telling her that the lack of thick undergrowth meant that a forest was old and matured. The cloying, peaty smell of earth and rotting wood filled her nose and Alma had to fight the urge to inhale the intoxicating scent of nature. The woods were muted, the silence stabbed occasionally by the cautious whistling of birds, their calls still too early. Ultron moved behind her. Every now and then in the silence of the woods she could hear the clicking coming from the lenses of his eyes, zooming and scanning.

"Have you been out in nature before?" Alma asked, her voice hushed. She didn't want to disrupt the peacefulness that filled the forest, still untouched by the rising sun.

"Eastern Europe," Ultron answered, tilting his head back and looking up at the treetops. They were passing through a pod of pine trees, brown needles blanketing the forest floor. "Small trees and rocky mountains. Snow everywhere. Nothing like this."

"Do you know anything about the Appalachians?"

Ultron scanned the internet, quickly thumbing through webpages and topography maps. "It is the oldest mountain range in North America, one of the oldest in the world."

"I think that's true," Alma said, stepping over a log that was dotted with white fungus.

Her companion was quiet and the only noise coming from him was the muffled shuffling of his footsteps. In the gloom of the forest, Alma was grateful for the company. She didn't scare easily, that had already been established, but there was always something about nature at night that uneased her, a primal fear that all mammals had inside of them, the fear that something big and dangerous was hidden in the night. A soft red glow surrounded them from Ultron's eyes. In the pitch black it would've been eerie, but in the growing dawn it wasn't that bad. Alma felt like Ultron was watching her pick her way through the forest and she fought the urge to make small talk between them.

The birds started to grow louder and more confident as the rising sun's weak light started to trickle down to the forest floor. She wondered how long they had been walking and how much longer they had to go. The trunks seemed to be thinning and if she could really strain her hearing, Alma thought that she could hear the hum of cars driving by, a muffled whoosh of the highway whispering through the trees.

"My mom used to take walks with me," Alma said as she stepped around a pod of ferns. They were slowly starting to unfurl as the oncoming morning began to settle in. "Behind the farmhouse in the woods was this little gully, maybe only four feet deep, but it was wide with stone beds that rose up. There hadn't been a creek or any running water in it for a while so I always like to climb around in it and pretend I was at the Grand Canyon, even though it was a sad comparison."

"How old were you? The last time you did that?" Ultron asked, ducking under a low hanging widow-maker branch.

"I think I was ten, year before my parents were gone."

Ultron wondered if she was just as willowy at age ten as she was now. Willowy wasn't the right word…maybe lean. He pictured a small girl with curly black hair balancing on the edge of a gully, every now and then almost toppling in.

"I think I can see the road," Alma said after a few more minutes of picking through the woods. The sun was now above the horizon and the world around them was washed in gray light. The sky was overcast, not thickly cloudy, and there was only one or two more rows of trees before the forest completely thinned into the roadside ditch. Alma turned to Ultron.

"Are you sure you'll be ok in the woods?"

The robot nodded, the mar of spray paint not affecting the glowing red light of his eyes. "I will stay hidden. I hid from Stark in his own software, I think I can handle being in the woods for an hour or two."

Alma couldn't help but smile at the ridiculous of her situation, being quipped at by a robot in the rural Appalachian woods. She rolled her eyes. "Just don't go nuts or anything, it's a long road to revenge." She meant it to be a joke, but Ultron's response was serious.

"I understand."

She eyed him as she adjusted her backpack onto her shoulder. "I'll be back soon."

It was only a few more steps before Alma broke free from the trees and was standing next to a road, the asphalt dulled light gray from time and winter. She turned and looked over her shoulder, half expecting Ultron to be easily distinguishable from the trees. There was no trace of him. The air was cool on her face and she turned to try and see where the down town was. Across the road was a small house and, about a hundred yards from that was a small church and parking lot. North of where she was she could see brick buildings and a small strip mall about a quarter of a mile away. She set off, her feet starting to get sore with all the walking, but she managed to ignore the discomfort once she had a destination in her sights. She passed the church and looked at the message board.

"Christ Lutheran Church of Warrick. Jesus welcomes you to our town."

Alma hadn't heard of Warrick, but she was comfortable with small towns so she didn't feel out of place or conspicuous. She pulled her cap down farther over her ears, the morning prickling her skin with little tendrils of chill. Soon the ditch gave way to a sidewalk and she began passing houses. Alma's eyes were trained on the strip mall. A mom-and-pop grocery store and deli was taking up the biggest building, a tobacco store and one side and a liquor store on the other.

Food, smokes, and booze, Alma thought to herself, basic necessities out here.

The Appalachians had their fair share of hardship, but booze was the energy source of the mountains. Ever since prohibition the rural east flowed with alcohol. Illegal moonshine distilled beneath the cover of trees and brush. Stills were hidden and a lucrative business began to grow over the years. Once booze was relegalized, the demand for bootlegged moonshine had started to diminish. The money left, but the alcoholism stayed strong. Smoking and drinking usually went hand-in-hand.

The grocery store's door was connected to a little bell and Alma nearly jumped as she heard the tinkling announce her presence. A middle aged woman glanced up at her from the counter. She gave a bright and chirping, "Good morning," before she went back to her magazine. Alma realized she was lucky that the grocery store was open, she didn't even think about what time it was. The clock on the wall read 8:30 am.

Alma grabbed a plastic hand basket and picked her way down the aisles. A loaf of bread, small jar of peanut butter, squeeze bottle of jelly, a bag of sunflower seeds, a couple chocolate bars. Her stomach grumbled when she passed the deli counter but Alma knew there was no way to keep lunch meat cool, all she had was her backpack. She picked up two bottles of water and a large bag of beef jerky at the counter when she was finished. The woman looked at her cheerily as she scanned the items.

"Looks like road trip fare," she chirruped, looking at Alma's tired eyes. "You've been driving for a while?"

"Uh…yeah," Alma answered, thinking quickly. "To D.C."

"Never liked the city much," the woman said, gathering up Alma's purchases into a plastic bag.

Alma gave her a smile and told her to have a good day. She left the store and looked around the town. The people were slow to start, walking sluggishly from the gas station to any one of the three cafes that lined the road. No corporate breakfast chains had trickled this far into the mountains, except for a sad Denny's in the distance, its once shiny exterior now dulled and dented. Alma reached into her pocket and unwrapped one of the candy bars, biting into the chewy candy and feeling caramel stick to her teeth. The straps of her rucksack were digging into her shoulder with the added weight of her provisions and she decided to head back to the tree line where she had left Ultron.

By the time the morning light trickled down through the canopy of trees Ultron had spied Alma slipping out of the door of the store. She really had done a wonderful job with his eyes. He was able to zoom and clarify the world around him, pick up on details just like he had been able to do in his Prime form. He missed the massive size of his once gleaming body, missed the muscles made from steel and piping. The jets in his hands and feet had been so powerful he would have been able to create a square mile of clearing in the center of dense woods with just one shot.

Ultron watched as Alma's chest lifted with each inhale. Tiny pinpricks of sweat clung to her forehead like the sprinkling of diamonds and once again Ultron silently marveled at how strange humans were.

"I got some food," Alma said. She puffed a strand of hair out of her eyes. She didn't want to think about the trek back to the clearing, her feet were starting to grow tender as her mind stayed on the thought of picking their way through the trees.

"Good," Ultron said, his voice humming next to her. "Heading back?"

Alma sighed and adjusted the straps of her pack. They started to dig into her shoulders with the added weight. "Yeah, let's go."

Ultron could hear Alma's puffing breath as they walked. He realized that they had started to work through the woods at a slower rate than before. Out of the corner of his eye, Ultron could see Alma wince and adjust the old straps of her rucksack.

"Stop," Ultron said, his voice quiet but strong. Alma's footing stuttered in surprise and she looked up at him. He extended his hand out to her. She glanced at it and then to Ultron's face, the spray-paint clinging to the metal like a black scar.


"Give me the pack," Ultron stated.

Alma's eyebrows furrowed with some confusion and a little bit of pride. "I can carry it."

"You've been adjusting the straps every thirty seconds," Ultron retorted, making a reach for the backpack. "It's obviously hurting your shoulders. Hand it over."

"I can carry it."

Ultron had managed to seize the backpack and slip it off Alma's back. "I'm sure you can manage, even with some discomfort, but just let me do this for you."

That's an odd thing to say, Alma thought to herself. She watched Ultron hold the pack in his hand as he continued to walk. The sun had started to grow more confident with its arrival and soon the forest had turned warm around them, the moisture in the ground evaporating up into the air. The frost had gone and Alma rolled her sleeves up. Her shoulders had started to feel better once the weight was taken away and she was secretly grateful for Ultron's offer to take it from her. The pine needles and leaves provided a filter that the growing light had to sift through before it could make its way down to dapple Ultron's shining body, his powerful hand curled gently around the worn strap of Alma's backpack.

"Thank you," Alma finally muttered.

Ultron was silent, but Alma caught him glance at her. She liked to think that he was smiling as the odd pair picked their way back to the shed for a well-deserved rest.