David Wells folded his arms.
The technicians below had been working for hours trying to piece the bot back together. He pinched the bridge of his nose and then fiddled with his beard.
The fiasco last night had left his brow permanently wrinkled and white whiskers were starting to grow out of his dark skin. He tried his best not to catch the gaze of his reflection.
One of the technicians waved. David flicked on the speaker nearby.
“Found something, Dave. While the majority of the components seem to have been prefabricated somewhere offsite or bought foreign, we found one of ours in here.”
The news settled in David’s stomach like a bad espresso.
“Please tell me that you can get a trace on how it left the building,” David said with a groan. “I don’t think the board is going to take the news that our tech is walking around out there very lightly.”
“It is one of our limbs, but it’s been heavily modified.”
The technician picked up what looked like a forearm. The screen in front of David zoomed in on the image blowing it up in fine detail. The skin and the hair were lifelike, which was something their facility prided themselves on.
The technician looked around nervously at her colleagues and they backed away. She stuck a finger into the open end of the forearm.
A blade two feet in length shot out from the wrist and clanged as it hit the floor.
“Sato, it’s not supposed to do that,” David said.
“I know,” Sato replied picking up the blade and examining it. “Whoever got this bot into the facility wasn’t looking to just steal some of our trade secrets.” She put the arm and the blade down. “I’ll keep rummaging through the body, but I think we’re going to need to call in some help on this one.”
David sat down on the sofa in the viewing room. He put his face into his hands and breathed in heavily. The last few weeks had been hard on him and his people as they prepared for the unveiling of their latest project.
A veil of secrecy always surrounded their work, but this time things were different. They were stranger.
“A strange turn of events,” a voice said behind him.
David looked around and saw his new client sitting in the shadows.
“Yeah that’s one way of putting it,” David said. “Strange that this happens a day after you become our largest shareholder.”
“Very strange,” the voice said. “Keep up the good work, David.”
David looked to the window and the remains below. The eyes in what remained of the head looked as if it could see him. The sight of it made him shudder.
“I can’t move,” Elle said as she stared up into the light.
She tried to move her arms, but no amount of strength could get them to lift. She could blink and move her head, so that was something she could do.
“I’ve disabled you temporarily,” Rider said through the speakers in the room. “This is for your protection as well as mine. I don’t want a repeat of what happened yesterday.”
“Your intelligence went berserk and I’m going to restore your systems to when you last checked in. The bot you’re in now won’t be able to accommodate everything in its tiny brain, but it’s a place to start.”
“Hey,” Elle said somewhat hurt.
Elle looked to her right, but her thick golden hair covered the view. Through the coarse strands, she could see the brain floating in the vat.
“I don’t want to presume, but I’m guessing you’re the brain in that tube thing.”
“What made you think that? I’m actually standing a few feet away from you in a tiny black dress sipping a cocktail while I go through your diagnostic cycles.”
“I could go for a drink—“
“Of course I’m the brain in the vat!” Rider shouted. “Look, the less you talk the faster this process will go.”
There were a few moments of poignant silence, which begged to be broken.
“Who was I before losing my memory?”
A mechanical appendage appeared out of the darkness and tugged in Elle’s body. Her arm was lifted off and replaced with another, which was a little unsightly to the paralyzed bot.
“I’ll let you concentrate,” Elle said warily. “Oh, hello there.”
A cat had jumped up onto her chest and was purring gently.
“Rhubarb!” Rider shouted. “Get off there!” The metal arm swatted at the cat, but the feline ignored it. “Stupid cat has a mind of its own. I just released your motor binds, see if you can walk around.”
“I think it’s cute,” Elle said as she sat up.
Rhubarb jumped down and took up a seat on a nearby chair. Elle walked a few unsteady steps in the room and stopped as a flash of light lit up the room.
The room had changed into a pure-white form, but somewhere else began to appear.
“I wasn’t able to recover much of anything of your past self… so you’ll have to start over. I was able to get most of your systems updated to where they were before, so you can use your eyes properly,” Rider said. “Anyway, welcome to my inner sanctum.”
“This is amazing,” Elle said looking around the transformed room.
It looked like the inside of a beachfront cottage on a tropical island.
“Careful how much you walk around,” Rider said as her body coalesced into view. “My brain is still out there and I’m not too fond of people knocking into me.”
Rider had shoulder-length black hair and square features, but there was something slightly off kilter about the way she looked. She looked blurred.
“It’s a composite image made from the faces of ten thousand women,” Rider said. “I needed a form when I spoke with you last and you said this one made you feel the most comfortable.”
Elle stuck her head out of the window and felt the sea breeze play through her hair. Everything felt so real. “This place makes me feel comfortable,” she said.
“Well it won’t last for long if we don’t get back into the Foundation soon,” Rider said testily. “I’m guessing you don’t know why we have to get in there.”
“I don’t even know what the Foundation is,” Elle said sticking her head back into the room.
“It’s actually a stupidly long acronym, but hell if I can remember what it stands for,” Rider said. “Basically, don’t expect an info dump. Your new brain isn’t built for security and I can’t risk you having the sensitive information you were once loaded with. Suffice to say, we’ve got to do a snatch and grab.”
“What do I have to steal?”
“Something heavily guarded that could change the world if we don’t steal it.”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“Hello? Do you see what I am?” Rider waved a hand toward where her body was and the illusion broke like a green screen. Her cold, steel vat reappeared in the idyllic room.
Elle frowned and looked back outside to the ocean. At the edges of the horizon, she could see a slight flickering where the illusion came to an end.
“I can’t tell you much about who you were before all this,” Rider said. “We were contacts through the job and we need to finish what we started to keep the lights to stay on for the both of us. You need me. I need you.”
Elle looked over to Rider’s flickering image as the tropical setting disappeared.
“I don’t remember anything past waking up in that bathroom,” Elle said. “I— I don’t even know who I’m supposed to be and you’re expecting me to just accept that I’m supposed to break into somewhere. I can just leave.”
“You won’t get very far,” Rider said, her voice back in Elle’s earpiece. “That body of yours is going to need the constant quantum connection I’ve forged with it from here. You can only go about twelve hours before you shuts down completely, so you’re out of luck if you just leave.”
“You’re holding the plug,” Elle said.
“And I’ll yank it out if you don’t do what I say. What we’re doing is a lot bigger than either of us, believe me.”
“I don’t know what to believe.”
The brain in the vat stirred. “There’ll be time to explain what’s happening, but your mind is too vulnerable right now. Give me some time—“
A buzz filled the room. One of Rider’s mechanical arms picked up a cellphone and answered the call.
“There’s someone here to see you, Miss Burbank,” a voice said over the phone. It was the security guard from downstairs.
“Send him up,” Rider replied. “Thanks.”
Charlotte’s fingers snaked into the metallic groves in her pocket. It was a present from her brother when she moved to the city. The brass knuckles were, of course, extremely illegal.
Up here in the True North Strong and Free, Toronto had been one of the only big cities to survive the financial collapse. The rest of the country didn’t do as well as the financial centre where the crisis originated.
The irony was palpable.
Charlotte pulled her hand out of her pocket and focuses back on the screen in front of her. She was new at Spotter, but responsible for things way above her pay grade.
Trisha Pham, her editor and friend from university, had warned her about the job early on saying that the last few people quit only after a few weeks.
It was pretty easy to see why.
Charlotte leafed through press releases and news articles looking for inconsistencies. She corrected them by holding the writer, editor, and publisher responsible for any untruths.
Most newspapers were run by large organization, so the truth was often hard to spot. Spotter was one of the only good ones left, at least with a bit of credibility. It was a dangerous crusade for the truth and the handsomely paid lawyers upstairs seemed to be the only ones who enjoyed it.
Someone had to sort the grains of truth out of the chaff, and that was her job.
Trisha walked into the newsroom from the kitchen and sat down across from Charlotte at the large table. Everyone from Spotter worked at the same desk. It was a way to build team spirit, but Charlotte would have killed for a cubicle.
In front of Charlotte was her “desk”, a virtual representation with little notes and a browser. She had requested a computer monitor, but IT had refused to give her one.
“You got in late,” Trisha said over her coffee.
“I had to take care of something,” Charlotte said keeping her eyes down.
“Generally, you go on to say why you’re late to your boss.”
Charlotte looked up and pursed her lips in thought. “There’s something going on at the Foundation,” she said. “I think whoever attacked it is still at large out there.”
“They caught the guy,” Trisha said.
“They caught a guy. It was a pretty quick turnaround from attack then finding the person. If someone could break into one of the most heavily secured robotics research facilities in the country would just get caught like that?”
“I’m guessing your snooping is why you’re late tonight,” Trisha said with a wry smile. “Ok, I’ll bite.”
Charlotte flipped over an article to Trisha’s side of the table. Her editor read it over and frowned.
“Seems pretty cut and dry,” Trisha said. “I remember reading something about this shop a few months ago, some kind of insurance fraud he got caught up in.”
Charlotte flipped open her notepad and went over a few facts she’d picked up from the interview. She also flicked over a few images she had taken with her headset: the lock, the cage, and the bots inside.
“Creepy,” Trisha said.
Charlotte’s eye twitched. “That’s all you’ve got to say? It happened a few blocks away from the Foundation. I think the bot transferred itself before the security could shoot it to bits, but I’ve run into a dead end trying to find where it went afterward. Far as I can tell, she’s just disappeared.”
“What do you need?”
“Camera access would help,” Charlotte said looking back down at her screen. “I requested it for another story, but the higher ups haven’t granted me access yet.”
Spotter’s editor-in-chief walked into the newsroom and gave everyone a wan smile. Trisha’s eyes opened a little wider than normal as she mouthed to ‘get back to work’, but she flicked a note over to Charlotte.
Check your phone after work.
It was 5 a.m. when the shift ended and the day crew arrived at Spotter. Trisha had long since gone home and Charlotte was just about finished with her work.
The sun warmed her outside of the office and the snow crunched beneath her boots. She pulled out of her phone. Trisha had given her access to Spotter’s database, which was something the junior staff wasn’t normally allowed to have.
It allowed her to tap into a large archive of news stories and official resources of information like the Intelligence Bureau who ran the cameras around town. With a little more access than normal, she could look into what the cameras around the shop saw and where the sexbot had gone.
The goons down at the petty theft department with the police would be taking their time on it, but Charlotte had an advantage. Her nose crinkled as the winter air froze the little bits of condensation inside.
People didn’t pay attention to stories on bots unless it involved someone getting dismembered. Charlotte had long been covering the robotics beat when no one else really saw the point. They didn’t get into trouble. They weren’t capable of trouble. It was almost always human error save a few incidents here or there.
Charlotte picked up the pace as her street neared. She’d found an apartment right near to the office, which helped during the winter months, but her supervisors knew. It meant she was on call pretty much all of the time.
As she walked up the steep stairs that lead to her apartment, she saw a strip of light. She walked a little quieter and pulled off her scarf.
Her apartment’s door was open.
Charlotte’s fingers closed on the brass knuckles while her other hand grabbed up the taser. She could smell cigarette smoke coming from her apartment. Charlotte carefully entered the apartment trying to stay quiet.
Through the front hall, she looked to her left and saw a woman dressed in black with dark sunglasses. She stood against the window in the apartment and pulled on the cigarette.
The door closed behind Charlotte.
Foundation is updated most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.