“She’s constantly asking me questions! I give her everything I’m supposed to! What more does she want from me?!” Steve was in full flight by now. He waved his arms around his head as he spoke, probably not realising how ridiculous the gesture made him look.
Rebecca was about sick of his overreactions. She rolled her eyes and huffed. “I’m trying to do my job, Steve.”
“No, you’re trying to make me lose mine!”
They were in the office of the lead engineer for their section. It was the second time that month. This should have scared her, but Rebecca could only work up irritation. Perhaps it was because of the display that Steve was putting on. Even if she had been upset, she would have been hard put to outdo his emotional outbursts.
It took Rebecca a moment to realise her boss was addressing her. He sat across from them both, arms folded as he frowned at them across his big glass desk. Or rather, frowned at her.
“Okay, yeah. I asked Steve about the inputs for the engine,” Rebecca confessed. “But only because...”
“I gave you the inputs!” Steve snapped.
“Yeah, you did. But they didn’t make any sense! I figured you must’ve stuffed them up somehow, so I wanted to...”
“Rebecca,” her boss said firmly. “You know how things work around here. There is no reason to be accessing information that isn’t necessary for your work.”
“But it was necessary!” Rebecca insisted. She could feel her cheeks beginning to flush. “Steve might have been wrong. I could’ve picked that up.”
“I don’t get things wrong,” Steve muttered.
“We have these rules for a reason,” her boss continued. “Now, if everyone does their little piece of work, their little piece of the puzzle, and keeps their heads down, we come up with an end product. Simple. It’s when you start questioning that things fall apart.”
“Thank you,” Steve said with a huff. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her.”
“No, you haven’t!” Rebecca cut in. “You’re just mad because I caught your error. This is stupid!”
“If Steve did make an error, then it’s someone else’s job to pick that up,” said her boss. “Not yours.”
“Yes, but, isn’t it quicker if I find the error before the work goes up the chain?”
“Look, Rebecca. Steve’s got a right to be upset. You’re putting him in a tough spot. And you’re a brilliant engineer. I don’t want to lose you. But if you keep on sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong...” he shook his head. “This is the second time this month. So I’d like you to take the rest of the day off. Get out of the office. Think about where you want your career to go.”
Steve had folded his arms and was wearing a self-satisfied smirk on his face. Rebecca briefly wondered if she had fallen victim to the cutthroat clawing for positions that sometimes occurred between the younger engineers. But she couldn’t blame Steve for this; it was she who had started bugging him for information.
“I...” Her boss was right; it was the way things worked. What would she accomplish? Losing her job? She shuddered. Which wasn’t really worth it. “Okay, fine. I’m going home.”
One good thing about the seclusion that was inherent in almost every aspect of her work and workplace was that Rebecca could slip from her boss’ office to her enclosed cubicle, collect her handbag, and sneak into the lifts without being noticed. On the ride down she found herself running through the conversation in her mind. Why couldn’t she ask about a part of a colleague’s work she was unsure of? Surely that would make things run more smoothly, make errors quicker to identify? But no, the expectation was that one just worked on their little bit of work and didn’t care about anything else. It was so frustrating!
And yet, maybe her boss was right, at least about keeping her job. Did if really matter if she were right or wrong in the grand scheme of things? The last thing Rebecca wanted was to become an Unemployed. She wasn’t going to mooch off the System.
Rebecca pushed these thoughts to the back of her mind as she exited the towering engineering complex and made her way down the outer stairs. It was still hot when she got outside. She glanced at the watch on her wrist. Just after two. The buses would not be running anywhere near regularly enough to suit her. But her apartment was only twenty minutes’ walk. And she needed to work off some steam anyway.
With a sigh, Rebecca turned to cut down through the park. She paused to cross the road, jealously watching the cars that passed. Some of the flasher models bore NIAsteel bodies and hovered on anti-gravs. She wished she could afford one of those. Her own little car sat at home in the garage. It was a tiny little compact with tyres and only the most basic of nanite repair systems. Nice enough, but not really what she wanted. Not to mention it just wasn’t worth the hassle taking it to work; she only occasionally used it on weekends. But to not own a car would be stupid. Someone might think she couldn’t afford one.
The light changed and she had just crossed to the footpath that wound its way between the transplanted trees in the park when a voice pulled her attention. “Excuse me...”
Rebecca looked the man who addressed her up and down and assessed him in an instant: forties, scruffy, his clothing old and worn. His brown, greying hair was down to his shoulders and looked desperately in need of a haircut. This was all she needed right now, some Unemployed bugging her for shares.
The man reached into his trench coat pocket. Why was he wearing such a heavy piece of clothing in this heat? He held out the piece of paper he had retrieved, and asked: “Have you seen this woman?”
“Oh...” So he wasn’t after shares. Curiosity got the better of her and Rebecca took the paper and unfolded it. It was an old photograph. The creases were worn in and the paper itself looked like it had been damp but had now dried. It showed a woman in her early thirties. She had brown hair and blue eyes, and was smiling. But Rebecca had lost interest. The woman was not familiar to her.
“Nope, sorry.” Rebecca handed the photo back and forced a smile. “I don’t know her.”
“Oh...” The man actually seemed disappointed. He took the photo back and slipped it into a deep coat pocket.
Well, he could be disappointed; there were plenty of other people around for him to ask. Rebecca turned to walk away, but the man spoke again. “Actually, I was looking for you too.”
Rebecca turned back to him, raising an eyebrow as she did. Oh, here we go. She didn’t need to worry, not yet; there were plenty of people around. Stupid crackpot. It was starting to look like her day was destined to simply get worse. “No, I don’t think so.”
The man held up his hands. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just wanted to get your attention. I have a proposal for you.”
“No.” Rebecca turned and stomped off up the footpath.
The man followed and drew up beside her, easily matching her determined stride. “All right, forget the photograph. It was a bad idea. My name is Jason Gray. And I really do need your help.”
Rebecca glanced sidelong at Jason. He had his hands thrust deep in the pockets of the heavy coat he wore. He was glancing about suspiciously at the people who passed them by. His gaze remained on each, but briefly. He seemed to be taking in everything: the people, the buildings, the cars. And almost everything he looked at seemed to build on his already obvious apprehension.
“You see,” he began. “I know you’re an engineer.”
Rebecca felt her heart jump and she tried to walk faster, but Jason easily kept up. Of course, he’d probably only seen her come out of the engineering complex.
“Look, it’s hard to explain, can we stop and talk...”
“No,” Rebecca said firmly. “I don’t care if you know I’m an engineer. Whatever you think you need from me, it isn’t my job...”
“Just hear me out.”
“You should think about getting yourself one.”
Jason drew in a sharp breath and his shoulders tensed. What if he was dangerous? Maybe she better start looking for a cop.
“Don’t get me started,” he growled. He shrugged his coat tighter about him. “Look, you know about Controllers, right?”
“Who hasn’t? I wish I could control machines.” One of the relatively recent scientific discoveries had been the ability of some people to control machinery directly with their minds. Whether it was an evolutionary leap, or simply something that had lain dormant that the recent advances of the society they now lived in had uncovered, Rebecca didn’t know. After all, it wasn’t her area of expertise, so it was really none of her business. But their existence was common knowledge. “Unfortunately, there are only a very small number of people who can.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
Wonderful. Where was a cop when you needed one? Their fast pace had now brought them out of the park and back to the City’s roads. Rebecca pulled up short at the traffic lights as they hit the first intersection. She was nearly home. She had to get rid of Jason, and fast. The last thing she wanted was for this man to know where she lived. “Look, I don’t have time for this. I can’t help you, and I don’t want to!”
“You’ve been lied to. It’s not a very small number... you’re a Controller. You just don’t know it.”
Rebecca let out a brief laugh. “Now that would be nice; I might be able to get a decent car.”
“You have no idea what I’ve had to go through to find you. Rebecca, this is important!”
The use of her name made her bristle. “I am not a Controller! If I was, I wouldn’t be this close to losing my job and I’d be earning a hell of a lot more shares!” Great. Here she was stuck behind a wall of traffic with a paranoid conspiracy theorist. If this was the way Jason had carried on at work it was no surprise he’d lost his job.
“They wouldn’t let you know,” Jason continued, pressing closer to her on the kerbside so he could be heard over the growl of the traffic, “There’s more than they let on and most of us certainly don’t get paid.”
Rebecca took a step back. “Go away! Or I will find a cop. You have no idea what you’re talking about!”
She actually saw the shudder go through him. “You think you know everything just because you live in this monstrosity?” He threw a hand upwards, encompassing the white towers above them. “But you have no idea.” He brought the hand back down and held it out in front of her, as if showing her something. All Rebecca could see was that he was wearing gloves, and that these were in considerably better condition than the rest of his outfit. “You think Controllers are well paid, that they have a good life? Well, look at me. You think I have a lot of shares? So just watch...” And with that Jason turned and stepped out into the traffic.
Rebecca heart skipped a beat. “Hey, wait!”
Horns blared, tyres screeched, and a bus hurtled straight towards Jason. It wasn’t that he didn’t see it; he looked straight at it. He held his hand up like he thought some magical force would leap from it and blast the vehicle away. A Controller would have been able to apply the bus’s brakes. But Jason wasn’t a Controller. The bus didn’t stop. It sent Jason sprawling across the bitumen before the driver put on the brakes and brought it to a screeching halt.
“Crazy, son of a...” The driver leapt down from the vehicle. “Well, someone must have a phone!” he snapped. He turned his attention to the semi-conscious man in the middle of the road.
“Ah, yeah...” Rebecca said. She did feel a little responsible, but only a bit; she hadn’t made the man jump out into the road. She pulled out her phone and punched in three zeroes.
Jason must have said something because the bus driver looked up and yelled: “Hey, is there anyone here called Rebecca?!”
Rebecca sunk back among the crowd of people that had begun to gather. But no one pointed her out and the bus driver was more interested in making sure the man he’d hit was okay.
It didn’t take long for the ambulance she’d called to arrive. As it did, Rebecca slunk off up the street. There was nothing more she could do, or was required to do, and she wasn’t the sort of girl to follow the crazy man to the hospital just because she felt a little bit guilty. Maybe once they got him there they’d realise he needed help.
As the night wore on Rebecca found herself staring at her bedroom ceiling, unable to sleep. She glanced at her faintly glowing bedside clock. 12:07. Well, at least tomorrow was Saturday and she wouldn’t have to worry about facing work in the morning.
Her housemate, Leah, had invited her out for the evening when she got home, but Rebecca had declined. And now she was regretting it. She was wide awake, so she may as well have been out doing something. She’d had a faint fear of running into strange men, which was silly. Jason had just rattled her more than she’d initially realised.
Really, the whole idea that she was supposed to be a Controller was ridiculous. She glanced across at her glowing beside clock. She frowned, held out a hand towards it and willed it to turn off. Nothing happened. Of course. “Don’t be an idiot.”
It wasn’t that difficult to find out someone’s name. And the photo was just some random woman. It was obvious that Jason was insane. There was nothing to worry about. And there was the advantage that getting hit by a bus and taken to hospital had stopped Jason from following her home. She felt guilty for that, though for only a moment. She hadn’t forced him to step out in front of the bus.
Rebecca rolled over, calmer now, and again attempted to grasp at sleep. It must have worked because she found herself jerking out of a deep sleep into sudden wakefulness. She blinked. Had she heard a sound?
There was a faint glow coming from the hallway. She hadn’t left the television on. Was Leah home?
Quietly, Rebecca slid the covers off and tiptoed to her bedroom door. Peering out, she could see the darkened hallway. A beam of light passed through the opening to the lounge room and silently climbed up the wall.
Rebecca swore and pulled her door closed. That couldn’t be Leah! She dove back onto her bed and rummaged around in her beside table for her mobile phone. How was she supposed to find it in the dark? There!
She paused, frowning at the device. She didn’t even know who was in her apartment yet. She’d have to take a proper look. Rebecca took the phone in one hand and cautiously cracked open the door. The light was no longer shining into the hallway but she could still make out its glow.
Oh, she hoped it wasn’t Jason! That thought hit her, and Rebecca didn’t know whether to be grateful or scared she might know her intruder. Surely he couldn’t have left hospital already?
“Come on,” she whispered. “You’ve got to find out what this is, quit stalling...”
Rebecca slid a hand along the wall as she crept to the opening into the lounge. Here, she could not see what was on the other side without putting herself in danger. Her heart pounded and she was sweating, but Rebecca forced herself to ever so carefully look around the dividing wall.
In the centre of the room stood a humanoid shape with its back turned to her. But the thing wasn’t human. Momentarily forgetting the danger she was in, Rebecca stepped out into the room.
It was... a machine? Or a suit? It was just over two meters tall, standing slightly hunched to fit under the apartment’s roof. Its outer casing was a smooth white, so impossibly clean the surface looked almost liquid. NIAsteel, the engineer in Rebecca supposed. Its arms and legs were thick and it looked like an oversized, over-muscled human being. A single light, what Rebecca had seen earlier, shone from the machine’s outstretched hand and played across the living room furniture.
Then the machine whirled around, blinding Rebecca as it lifted the hand to illuminate her face.
“Rebecca Forsythe?” it asked in a mechanical voice.
Rebecca raised a hand to shield her eyes. “Yes...”
“You must come with me.”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are,” Rebecca began, her voice shaking. “But I’m a citizen of the City and I’m going to call the police right now. You’ve got no right...” She backed up into the hallway again and felt the wall against her back. She lifted up her phone as she spoke.
The machine reached towards her. The phone flashed briefly and then the screen cracked; it shut down completely.
Then the machine’s hand turned to liquid. The white metal rippled and changed, the torchlight hand now turning into a shape that was beginning to look very much like a canon.
Rebecca ducked to the side and slammed her shoulder into the apartment’s front door. She grappled with the handle and slid through the open door just as a blast of energy splattered across the wall she’d stood in front of seconds before.
As she ran down the hallway the overhead lights began to flicker erratically. She didn’t have the time to wonder what was happening. She just knew she had to get out of the building. She reached the lift and frantically punched the down button.
Her apartment door was hurled clear across the hallway just as the lift arrived. Rebecca pelted through the opening doors, pressed herself against the wall and stabbed at the ground floor button. The doors seemed to take an eternity to close. But then all was silent save for her gasping breaths. “What... is going on?!”
The lift let out a tremendous groan and shuddered violently. “No...” Rebecca pleaded. The lift ground to a halt. Rebecca tapped the open door button. Nothing.
What was she going to do? She was an engineer... she could... with a determined snarl she tugged at the edge of the panel that surrounded the buttons. An engineer in her pyjamas! What was she supposed to use to get this off? Rebecca stabbed at a random button, hard, and it popped all the way in. She then pulled against the panel using the hole the button had left, and the panel cracked and popped out of the wall.
Somewhere upstairs there was a crash and the lift shuddered again.
Rebecca quickly located the correct wires and convinced the lift it was safe to open the doors. They opened with a horrible screech, revealing that the lift was stuck between two floors. Rebecca hesitated for the briefest of moments.
Another noise from upstairs convinced her that disembarking from a lift unsafely was the least of her problems. She picked the lower floor, sat down and swung her legs over the edge.
The lift jerked upwards. The ceiling of the lower floor would cut her in half!
Rebecca actually felt the roof brush her back as she tumbled out the doors; milliseconds later the lift disappeared up the shaft. The outer doors closed and she was left sprawled in the hallway, recovering from the short drop.
Another thump from upstairs and a few lights flickering kicked her back into action. Rebecca bolted for the fire stairs, passing an apartment door that opened to reveal a bleary-eyed young man in boxers. “Dude, what’s going on?”
Rebecca paused. A crazy machine in the building was dangerous for everyone. “There’s someone here in the building...” she began.
The man stared at her blankly.
Rebecca saw a fire alarm on the wall and punched it.
The wail woke the man up completely. “What did you do that...”
“There’s someone in the building. Get out of here!” She didn’t wait for him but headed down the fire stairs. She pulled out her phone again. Despite the crack in the screen it still appeared functional. She turned it back on and for the second time that day she called triple zero.
By the time Rebecca reached the ground floor there were a couple other tired-looking occupants exiting the building, but none looked particularly concerned or panicked. The wail of an approaching fire engine cut the air. There were already police cars outside. Three were lined up on the pavement at the building’s front door, their lights flashing. At least five blue uniformed men and women were standing around, one of the men talking animatedly into his car’s communicator.
Usually, Rebecca would have scoffed at the cops’ tendency to send such a large response to, well, anything. But tonight she was grateful. She looked back up at the building. The smooth walls curved upwards into the glowing night sky; the City’s lights made it easy to see, despite the fact it was well after midnight. There was no indication from the outside that some crazed machine had tried to attack her.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m going to have to ask you to move away from the building,” said a young male officer. He paused, looking Rebecca up and down. “Were you the one that called us?”
“Yes,” Rebecca said shakily. “That thing was in my apartment!”
“A big, robot looking thing!” Rebecca trailed off as she saw the man’s confused expression. “Someone was in my apartment... and broke my door...”
“Ma’am,” the young man continued, though he couldn’t have had more than two or three years on Rebecca. “Calling the police is serious and supplying false information is a serious offence...”
There was a loud crash from above them. Rebecca, the young officer, and everyone else on the scene looked skyward.
In the glow of the City’s lights a spinning white sphere had exited from fifteen floors up. It had not used any pre-established exit. Behind it trailed smoke and debris, some of which now started to plummet and plink off the police cars and pavement. The sphere spun there for a moment and then shot straight down. It hit the sidewalk with a crack. The white metal rippled and arms and legs deployed from the creature that had first appeared in Rebecca’s apartment.
The young officer and his colleagues whipped out their handguns. “Ma’am, I think you’d better get back!”
Rebecca ducked behind one of the police vehicles. One of the older officers stepped forward. “Sir,” he addressed the machine, as if it were perfectly logical that the thing was a ‘sir,’ “I’m going to have to ask you to...”
The machine whirred and rose up to its full height. “Where is Rebecca Forsythe?”
Rebecca crouched even lower in her hiding place. Only this afternoon she thought having a strange man follow her was frightening! What was happening to her?!
“I’m asking the questions.”
The machine raised an arm.
The police officer clutched at his chest and fell to his knees on the pavement. He gasped for air for a moment and then fell over and lay still.
Rebecca held her hands to her mouth.
There was the briefest pause as this sunk in for the other officers. Then multiple cracks sounded as they each opened fire on the machine. Energy bullets slammed into its armour. It took a step back, but then the officers’ weapons locked up and clicked uselessly.
“We need backup!” one of the female officers barked.
Another ran for a car to get at the communicator, but the door slammed shut on him. Then the car spluttered to life and the engine revved.
Rebecca looked up and saw the machine holding out its hand towards the vehicle, just like it had her phone. The car leapt forward and knocked over the officer who’d been trying to get inside, and then careened into the second police vehicle.
Rebecca backed away from the last car. There was no doubt that that was not a safe place. The police couldn’t protect her from this thing!
The machine stomped towards the other officers, who backed away. It was distracted and Rebecca thought for only the briefest of moments before she turned and ran for her life. Any moment she expected to feel something rip into her back. Would it send the last police car crashing into her, or blast her like it had tried in the apartment?
It seemed like an eternity, but Rebecca finally reached the street corner and ducked around it. Nothing followed her. She slowed to a fast walk and glanced back over her shoulder. Still, nothing. Running barefoot was not that wise, but really, she had bigger worries. For now she appeared to be safe.
That didn’t give Rebecca cause to stop though. She continued at a fast pace, her mind turning over as she walked. The machine had asked for her by name. It had taken control of the police cars and guns, her phone, and quite possibly the lift. It had behaved exactly like a Controller, apart from being a machine, and apart from attacking the police, of course.
It was too big a coincidence. Drawing in a shaking breath, and looking at the nearest street sign to get her bearings, Rebecca headed for the nearest hospital, the place she was certain she’d find Jason Gray.