At first I thought it was a prop, but the burn marks on the clothes and flesh of the man made it too clear that he was the source of the strange burnt smell. There were several strange hollow rubber cylinders lying beside them. Something about them struck me as familiar, but I was too distracted by the body to give them much attention.
I heard the screech of ancient metal wheels against the floor, followed by the sound of someone retching behind me.
“Whoa, Arc! Are you okay?’ Casey said, a look of concern on her face as she smoothed aside a lock of her hair.
“Casey,” I said uneasily, “Your seat …”
“It’s nice and cushy.” She bounced up and down a few times, making the rolls on the corpulent man’s stomach jiggle slightly.
Terry just stared, his mouth moving up and down but no words coming out. He seemed to catch himself, quickly shaking his head and rising to his feet and unslinging his plasma rifle.
As I was trying to find a gentle way to break it to Casey, Mick walked around a wall of consoles and said, “Everything is up and running. Miss Casey, are you aware that you are sitting on a corpse?”
Casey looked down. For a few moments, she just sat there and stared, her body completely rigid. I can’t say I blamed her; even I didn’t want to look at the bloody mess of the man’s face.
“It’s important to stay calm.” I said as Terry and I helped her stand and led her slowly away from the body. “Just relax, take a deep breath, and-”
Without warning, she let out an ear-piercing scream. I quickly clamped a hand over her mouth and said, “If by some miracle whatever did this is still around and hasn’t noticed us yet, I’d prefer to keep it that way. I’m going to let you go now, and I’m asking that you please don’t scream, okay?”
She nodded, her eyes wide. I let her go. She started breathing heavily, but simply sank down onto the overturned waste basket.
“By the Creator.” I said, turning back to the body, “What the heck could do this? A plasma rifle?”
Terry shook his head. “I don’t know anything, weapon or otherwise, that would have done that to his face.”
Grisly though it was, I made myself look at the mass of burnt skin, melted fat, and exposed bone. I didn’t notice anything at first, but after a minute or so, I realized that many of the man’s teeth were missing, his jaw having been torn apart.
Arc started to join us, but one look at the corpse was enough to send him halfway over the console, depositing the rest of his breakfast on the floor.
“Easy, there.” Terry said, patting the young man’s heaving back. “Just let it all out.”
Mick put his hand on the dead man’s chest. “He’s only been dead for a few days. Give me a moment, and I’ll try and reconstruct his face.”
He stared at the bloody mess that was the man’s face for a few moments before holding out his hand to produce a holographic image of a man’s face.
“That’s Charlie Michaelson.” Casey said, sadness in her voice. “He was one of the few Techs we had left. He always had a smile on his face when I saw him.”
“I’m sorry.” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder.
Casey still seemed on the verge of panic, but she managed to nod. “I-I’m okay.”
I helped her to Arc’s chair where she sank down without another word.
“Take a moment and gather your thoughts.” I said, hoping I sounded at least a little reassuring.
She was still shaken, but she nevertheless gave me a timid smile. “Thank you, Jimmy.”
Terry coughed abruptly. Seeing my curious glance, he shook his head, “Sorry, sir; it’s a bit dusty in here.”
Turning back to the corpse of Mister Michaelson, I noted that he was dressed as you might expect from a tech: coveralls, tool-belt, name-badge on a lanyard, and steel-toe work boots. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that he didn’t have a single piece of metal on him. No belt buckle, no zippers, no metal tools … even the steel guards embedded in the boots had been neatly removed.
That’s when it dawned on me how poor Mister Michaelson met his end.
“Mick.” I said, reaching for Glint as I slowly rose to my feet, “Skrievers.”
“Agreed.” He said, his eyes already scanning the room for signs of the small robots.
Casey’s eyes went even wider. “Skrievers? You mean the G-Glyche? H-here?!”
“Look at the body.” I said, nudging one of the rubber cylinders that lay beside the man, recognizing them now as tool grips. “Everything metal gone. Scavenged. Any sign of them, Mick?”
Mick shook his head. “I’m not getting any returns on the ping I sent out. If they’re here, they aren’t responding to Glyche protocol.”
“That’s worrysome.” I said.
“Still,” Terry said, “If there are skrievers here-”
“-then the facility Alaina mentioned must be hidden under here as well. Good news for us, I guess. Not too good for fatso here.” Arc kicked the body.
“Arc!” I said sharply, “You shouldn’t disrespect the body.”
Arc snorted. “He’s dead; what does he care?”
Shaking my head, I drew Glint. The others readied their weapons as well; Arc hefted his massive sword to the best of his ability, Terry’s rifle finished charging, and Casey, strangely enough, pulled her camera out of her side pouch.
“Oh, great.” said Arc, looking at the camera with contempt. “Now I can be immortalized while being sliced to ribbons.”
“Sorry, Michaelson.” Casey said, lifting her camera as though to take a picture of the body. A blast of light shot from the lens and made a hole as big as a fist in the poor man’s already hole-ridden chest.
“Impressive.” I said.
Arc snorted. “Oh, I kick the body and it’s disrespectful; she blasts a hole in it, and that’s impressive.”
“That’s a Rimstakken camera, isn’t it?” Terry asked.
“Yes.” She said, looking a little less nervous with a weapon in hand. “It was a present from my brother, Meister.”
“Meister?” I said, “The art critic?”
She nodded, turning a small crank on the side of the camera, “It was designed to be the perfect camera, but the designer went overboard on the flash mechanism. It’s strong enough to burn anything on everything but the lowest setting. On high, it can cut through things with the force of an industrial mining laser, but I’m not sure it’ll work on-”
Without warning, she let out a scream. I spun around and unleashed a Force Edge, expecting nothing less than a group of fully armed core units running full tilt toward us. The wave of energy hit the lone console that ‘threatened’ me with enough force to tear it from the ground and send it flying. Fortunately, nothing seemed effected by absence of the now-scrapped console.
“Wow.” Terry said. “You’re getting better at that.”
Feeling embarrassed despite his praise, I turned back to Casey, who looked nothing short of horrified.
“If they killed Michaelson, then they’re corrupted! This is a corruption! Wukice is in danger!”
Mick moved to comfort her, a bad idea considering her current chain of thought.
“You! I recognize what you are now! You’re a core unit! GET AWAY FROM ME!”
She clicked the camera switch. Apparently, whatever she was doing with the crank wasn’t finished, because nothing happened. With a terrified shriek, she bolted from the room.
Hitting Mick and Terry on their arms, I said, “Come on! If she runs into one of those skrievers like that, they’ll attack her for sure, corrupted or not!”
We chased her through tunnels that gradually sloped down beneath the building. It was much bigger than the building above, but fortunately, there weren’t a lot of rooms. Eventually, we chased Casey into a spherical control room designed for a single user. She was cowering in the corner, looking thoroughly petrified.
“Stay back!” She shouted, raising her camera, “It’s fully charged!”
I raised my hand and said in what I hoped was a comforting voice, “Calm down, Casey.”
“You said he was an android! He’s probably corrupted you, and is using you to move around with impunity!” She said, her voice nearly a shriek.
“I’m sorry we lied to you, but we were afraid it might make you panic like you are right now.” I said, “Mick won’t hurt you; he was built to be incorruptible.”
“Liar! I’ve heard about the Glyche! They’ll act all innocent until you aren’t looking, and then you’re dead or zombified!”
“Chill out!” Arc said, rolling his eyes, “It’s Mick we’re talking about here; he doesn’t even have combat capability.”
“That is not necessarily true.” Mick said. “I do have the Gineran upgrades thanks to Alaina. While technically for building and medical purposes, they could be used as weapons.”
“You’re not helping.” Terry said, rifle still aimed at Casey.
“No!” Casey screeched, “He’s corrupted you! All of you!”
“I think I see your point.” I tossed Glint to Mick. “Mick, would you please attack me?”
Casey looked at me in shock, as did Mick. In a different time and place, I would have laughed.
“But Jimmy,” He said, sounding more than a little confused at this turn of events, “I can’t kill you! You’re Bethany’s Inheritor, and my friend.”
I turned around, saying, “Well, I’m not watching. You could totally get away with it. You’re much faster than any of us; you could kill me and be gone before Terry or Arc could raise a finger.”
“Yup.” Arc said, releasing the grip of his massive sword. “Tell you what; to be safe, you’d better just kill me and Terry too.”
“Indeed.” Terry didn’t lower his plasma rifle, but he didn’t turn and aim at Mick either.
Mick looked at each of us in turn, a look of complete confusion on his face. He shook his head and handed Glint back to me, hilt first. “I don’t understand why you’re asking this, but I will not raise arms against any of you. If you do not trust me, I will shut down and allow myself to be disassembled.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mick.” I said, patting Mick on the shoulder as I took Glint back. “I trust you, and I think Arc and Terry do as well.”
He stared at me for a long moment. “You wanted to show Casey that I am not corrupted. I think I understand, but isn’t your reasoning flawed? If I were corrupted, wouldn’t I want to keep you alive as my minions? I mean, she wouldn’t be able to stop all four of us.”
“She could take you out.” Arc said, but Mick shook his head.
“If I’d corrupted you, all three of you would be carrying transversion cells. Jimmy and Arc would have been with me long enough for them to be under my control. A few months more, and I’d have Terry under my control as well … were I corrupted, of course.”
Terry lowered his rifle and let out a sigh of exasperation. “Guys? This isn’t helping.”
“Yeah?” Arc said, hands on his hips. “Says the guy who was just aiming a plasma rifle at a gardener armed with a camera.”
“It’s called being prepared. It’s part of being in the Royal Guard.”
“Oh yeah? I didn’t realize guards were supposed to shoot innocent civilians.”
“We’re supposed to make sure we all survive!”
Mick said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we’re supposed to be finding the dragon and rescuing Princess Sera.”
“Shut up!” Arc and Terry said to Mick before returning to glare at each other.
I didn’t say anything. Casey still looked frightened, but hearing them bicker was definitely calming her down. She lowered her camera slightly and said, “You … you really aren’t corrupted?”
“Madam Jones,” Mick said as Arc and Terry continued arguing, “I was designed specifically to be incorruptible. Tests were run on my platform for over two-thousand years just to be absolutely sure I would remain true to the highest ethical and moral standards of the biological Glyche who created me.”
When she lowered her camera further, Mick took a small step toward her, and held out his hand invitingly. “Please, come with us. If the facility beneath Wukice is corrupted, then this place is dangerous, and I don’t want anything to happen to you. While I haven’t known you for long, I consider you my friend too.”
Shakily, she reached her hand out and took Mick’s hand. “I-I’m sorry, Mick; I just … with the body, and Jimmy talking about skrievers-”
“I understand completely.” Mick said, patting her hand as he led her to the group. “For what it’s worth, I doubt very much that this is a true corruption. Mister Michaelson probably attacked the skrievers out of fear. They respond with full force to threats, and they would have stripped him of all metal afterwards.”
“But his face!” Casey said, shuddering. “Why did they melt his face?”
“His teeth.” I said, proud to have found a clue.
“Actually, they were after the tech in his head. They would have just prodded his mouth open for the fillings.” Mick gave me an apologetic look.
“But why emerge in the first place?” Terry asked, resting his rifle against his shoulder and rubbing his metal-covered chin. “And why leave the rest of the tech intact?”
“Good question.” I glanced around the room and asked, “Where are we, Casey?”
“This is the main control room for the link station.” Still trembling a little, she sat down at the main console and activated the main screen. She immediately frowned, and I could see why; although the system was obviously getting power, the link was still off-line.
“Well,” I said, rubbing my hands together. “Looks like our services are needed after all.”
We spread out to look for possible problems. I thought I might have found something hidden behind a loose wall panel, but it turned out to be an empty can of Elizer Blue. Mick linked up to the computer to look for possible programming anomalies that might have been causing interference while Arc half-heartedly looked beneath the consoles.
“I think I found it.” Terry called out after about fifteen minutes. As we crowded around the area behind the main console, he finished wresting one of the access panels off the wall, revealing a mass of circuitry and motherboards.
Arc nodded. “Ah, yes. Circuit boards and wires gumming up the works. Welp, better start yankin’ them out.”
Terry turned to Arc. I got the impression that he was glaring, though the helmet made it hard to tell. “Do see these wires, Luminous? Do you think this just happened by accident?”
I peered at the large circuit boards he indicated. It took me a few moments, but I eventually saw what he was talking about; the cable that was supposed to connect the link feed cables that linked to the satellites and antennae on the roof of the building. Oddly enough, nothing appeared to be missing; it was as though a skriever simply cut the link and left.
Mick said, “The link was deliberately sabotaged.”
“Well, no problem!” Arc reached for the cables only for Mick to quickly grab his hands.
“I don’t think we should reattach the cables, Arc.”
“A skriever will only resort to violence for two reasons.” Mick said, “Self-preservation or corruption.”
Mick let go of Arc’s hands. Arc pulled them back, a wary look in his eye as he stared at the broken cables.
“But if it was corrupted, why break the link?” Terry asked, “It could spread the Corruption much faster and farther with the link station intact.”
“We might be talking about two different skrievers.” Mick said, “If the facility beneath the link station was in danger of being corrupted, the CIC would no doubt send a skriever to disable the link to prevent it from spreading the Corruption. Alternately, if the CIC was corrupted, one of the skrievers could have willingly separated itself from the facility and destroyed the link.”
“Can a skriever do that?” Terry asked.
Mick nodded. “Easily. Skrievers are intelligent constructs, after all. They can be a bit stubborn and prideful, but if there’s anything they hold dear, it’s their sense of duty. Corruptions are just as bad for the Glyche as they are for anyone else.”
I shook my head. “In either case, I’m going to agree with Mick; better to leave it alone for the time being. I’d hate to be remembered as the man responsible for the next Corruption.”
“I hear that.” Arc grabbed the handle of his massive sword and “Let’s find the entrance and get this over with.”
We broke into three groups; Mick and me, Terry and Casey, and Arc by himself. Strangely enough, he didn’t argue; I think he was eager to prove himself after missing both the incident with the dragon prop and the fight at the Natalya facility.
“Mick,” I said as we were examining a maintenance closet, “I have to say, you did well speaking to Casey. Are all core units so well-spoken early on?”
“From the moment I was activated, I’ve observed your speech, as well as that of the people I have encountered, and have been integrating your mannerisms into my own communication program.”
“I understand that, but you’ve only been active for a few months.”
“Ah, but I’m not a normal core-unit. I was given imprints of Thomas Desygan’s memories. As such, I already have the emotional awareness and experience that help me to blend in, so to speak.”
“About that; don’t you ever think that you’re Desygan? I mean, if you have all his experiences-”
I was interrupted by Mick’s chuckle. “Of course not. The memories and experiences are just implants, nothing more. It’s more like having constant access to a library of video files than actual memories.”
“Still,” He said, now sounding wistful, “It is strange to see the way things have changed since the time of the Glyche. It was especially hard to see the Saybaro; it used to be such a lively place.”
“Don’t worry.” I said, patting him on the shoulder, “We’ll get it fixed up once we get this dragon business sorted out.”
We met back up with everyone in the center room of the station, a large circular chamber with rows of monitors currently displaying nothing. Casey still seemed a little nervous, but seemed to be talking amicably with Terry and Arc about recent movie.
Terry saluted at me as I approached. “Nothing suspicious to report, sir.”
“Same here.” I said, glancing around. “Arc?”
“Nah, nothing.” Arc let out a sigh. “Maybe we were wrong about the skriever thing.”
“I hope not.” Terry said. “I’d hate to think there’s something else around here that likes ripping out cybernetics.”
“Oh?” Arc asked, his interest perked. “Are you scrapped?”
“Just a datajack.” Terry said, “But I don’t want it cut out of me.”
I let out a sigh. “Is there anywhere we haven’t looked?”
“I don’t think so.” Terry said. “We could do another sweep, though.”
“Perhaps it won’t be necessary.” Mick said, his eyes on the large circular panel in the center of the room.
I stared at the floor as well, my keen eyes scanning for signs of a secret entrance to no avail. Shaking my head, I said, “I don’t see anything.”
“Nor do I.” Mick said, his gaze not faltering.
Confused, I said, “Then what are you looking at?”
“I do not know.” To my surprise, he knelt down and started probing the metal surface, his hands searching for something I could only guess at.
Standing back, he pulled off his hat and ran a hand over his chrome head. “I don’t understand it.” he said, “Something about this feels off. Can you feel it, Jimmy?’
Shrugging, I knelt down and put my hand on the floor. It felt cold and flat, and the heavy bolts that secured it to the floor seemed very secure. There was something though, a strange hum that felt strangely familiar.
“Sir?’ Terry said. “You feel something?”
I nodded. “It seems familiar, almost like …”
“Like when I use my streaming talent.” I said. “Like when I’m pulling in stream energy.”
Terry approached me and watched for a moment before asking, “Mind if I try?”
Shrugging, I stood and backed away from the panel. “Go ahead.”
To my surprise, Terry unslung his rifle and took aim.
“What the-” Arc said, backing away.
Everyone including me jumped as Terry pulled the trigger. A blast of energy hit the floor, which to our surprise, wavered for a moment before returning to normal.
“Looks like a wile with a projected force-field.” He said as he changed the settings on his rifle. “I should be able to take it out if I hit it with the right frequency.”
I was torn between admiration for his knowledge of machines and annoyance that he just shot the wall without warning. It seemed strangely out of character.
It took his three more shots before the wall wavered and vanished, revealing a small stairwell that led down into the familiar fluorescent glow of Glyche facility lighting.
A small device on the first step down blinked erratically. I picked it up and looked at it for a moment before holding it out to Mick. “Can we salvage this?”
Mick took it from me and checked it. “Hmm. It seems slightly damaged. Probably just overloaded. I should be able to fix it, no problem.”
“All right,” I told the others, “Everyone stay close; if there is something going on, we can’t afford to get separated. Just stay together, and try not make a lot of noise, okay?”
Even Arc nodded in agreement, no doubt remembering his previous experience in the Natalya facility.
We walked slowly through the corridor in one massive huddle. Every time there was a noise, everyone seemed to crowd behind me.
Finally, after about the seventh time this happened, I shrugged off Mick.
“Would you knock it off?” I said to Mick. A thought occurred to me. “Wait a second; why are you hiding at all?”
“The whole incorruptible thing hasn’t really been tested in an actively hostile situation. I’d be mortified if my actions were to cause any of you harm.”
Arc avoided my gaze. “I’m just watching our backside. Y’know, making sure they don’t sneak up on us.”
“Best to keep some distance,” Terry said, holding his rifle at the ready. “You know, to get a good shot.”
Casey didn’t reply; she was shaking so much, it was a wonder she hadn’t dropped her camera.
I let out a sigh and said, “Right.”
Without another word, I strode forward at my normal speed, annoyance overriding caution; if I was going to be the only one in the way of danger, at least I could make better time.
The corridor was long and winding, far more than the other facilities I’d previously explored. There weren’t even any side-corridors, just one long corridor that led deeper and deeper into the ground. Still, from previous Glyche facilities, I knew that it’d eventually lead me to the Hub.
Ten minutes later, I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked into the Hub room, the lights and panels all online.
“All right!” I said, clapping my hands together, “Now we’re getting somewhere. Which way to the Central Core, Mick?”
There was no response.
I turned around to find the corridor empty. I was alone.