They're not good in thunderstorms. They can't see as far, can't react as quickly. There was a time when they'd hide in the hedges, sitting it out, but they've become more reckless these days, more careless. A front-right tyre clips heavily against this particular wanderer, sending it spinning and buckling beneath the car, rattling out into the road behind. It rolls over and over three or four times before stopping dead in the rain.
The car stops, fizzing the wet road with brakelights. It swings backwards into the mud of a gated turn-off, then turns back the way it came, parking at an angle on the verge so as to face its victim. The headlights drop and dim, a pinpoint cigarette end arcs from the driver's window to vanish suddenly against a raindrop.
The litter drone pedals its ten woodlouse legs against the sky, slower and slower. It is a piecemeal twenty-sixth-generation Model Twelve-C, constructed from fragments of the refuse it has been programmed to collect; a functional copy of whichever twenty-fifth-generation Model Twelve-C assembled it. The red-white swoosh of a cola can, the corrugated midsection of a bean tin, pincers trimmed from the edges of a bottle-top. Compound stained-glass eyes, gin-bottle green and vodka white. Paperclip antennae.
It watches the half-familiar shape of the driver, silhouetted in the Mini's headlights. Watches as the world turns right-side up, and drops away. Biro-stem legs fold in on themselves as the driver carries the drone to the cover of the trees, and crinkled ferromagnetic tape whirrs back and forth inside its metal skull, recording and recollecting the simplest of structures.
The driver turns the drone back over, its neck lurching, and he examines its soup-tin thorax. The machine's tiny eyes scan the mud and the grass below, instinctively focusing on a shattered hubcap, a black-plastic sandwich container, a cigarette end. All to be collected; some to be sorted and delivered for recycling, some to be assembled into a twenty-seventh-generation Model Twelve-C litter drone. Block 1C of the drone's braintape, somewhere above the staticky remnants of Bohemian Rhapsody, records no drone sightings today. An empty landscape. Children are needed.
A muted click from the litter drone's casing; the driver is pressing his fingernail against a nodule at the base of the drone's neck, a nodule designed to release the hopper on a Model Twelve-C, but nothing is happening. Maybe it's a Model Thirteen, or Thirteen-B; they haven't had time to document either, yet. He takes out a screwdriver, and the drone watches numbly as sections of its own casing are prised away, dropping into the long, wet grass. An industrial staple, a ringpull, the corrugated midsection of a bean tin. All to be collected.
With a sudden grating of metal, the lane falls dark, the Mini's headlights extinguished. The driver spins around, blind but for afterimages, and the damaged drone falls into the grass, slips through rain and mud into the darkness of the hedge. It stares into the face of an earlier metallic roadkill, its battery still warm, but recognises only a lager can, a mobile-phone fascia, a shattered CD-rom. All to be collected. Children are needed.
The driver stands lost in the darkness, gazing into the rain with uncertainty, not sure where his car ends and the hedge begins. Metal creaks again over the hiss of the storm, and in what little moonlight the clouds allow, something moves. A drawn-out groan works its way towards an unhealthy crack, and there is a shower of broken glass as the passenger window shatters.
The driver steps forward to call out, but the lightning pre-empts him, flashing silver and recasting the whole world in black and white. The monochrome Mini glints and flashes with fresh edges, crumpled and smashed beneath a tree and a telegraph pole, bulky-grey transformer and all.
The windscreen gives out, and the tree drops away; not a tree, but a section of hedge, uprooted and dragged. It collapses into the road, and the telegraph pole hinges slowly around unseen joints, wrapping itself under the body of the car.
Driver and drone look on with blank eyes as two rusted, sharpened girders rise up and begin to punch out the Mini's remaining windows. A battered dustbin pivots around the top of the transformer, and two mismatched tractor headlights flicker, first one then the other, before blazing into full and focused life.