“Alright – time for a headcount!”
The Deputy was expected to arrive at any moment.
Bailey got in line with several other scouts, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for Shafer and a handful of Director Persson’s officers as they made sure everyone they needed was available and accounted for. Every scout made sure to confirm they were present when called on.
“Very well,” Shafer began after everyone was accounted for. “For those of you unaware, you will all be working in groups of two when scouring this place. The entrance is a dusty room full of documents; we will worry about the documents later. You will go deeper inside and search everything else to see what has been left behind. In case we find anyone down there, each of you are equipped with short-range and long-range weapons, with each team having one of each. You will use force when necessary and only when necessary. Do I make myself clear?”
All the scouts in line responded with a unified “Yes, sir!”
Shafer nodded. “Good. Once the Deputy arrives with his agent, we will all be heading down. Be sure to keep an eye out on each other when we do.”
Fortunately for the lot of them, it wasn’t much longer before Sam and Esther made their entrance. She was the only female in the area – and one out of a handful of adults to watch the mostly-junior scouts who were to head down.
“And there she is,” said Shafer. Esther couldn’t help notice that as he spoke, he almost seemed to go to great lengths to avoid looking her in the eye. “While the rest of you scouts spread out, our agent will show us what she had found.” Pausing for a moment, he almost shot a quick glance at the newcomer, then back at the scouts. “Remember what I said a moment ago about acting only when necessary.”
Again they came to attention. “Sir!”
“Follow Rand to the passage. I will catch up with the rest of you.” Without another word, Shafer stepped out of the way so the scouts could all start heading to their destination – at the same time he walked up to Sam and Esther. Still he refused to look Esther in the eye.
“You said the furthest we might be going is toward the generator?” he asked. “And we have no idea what that generator is connected to or where its power is going?”
“No idea at all,” Sam confirmed. “But Esther might have a better idea.”
“Not exactly,” she admitted. She was just as thirsty for more information as they were – perhaps even moreso. More than anything, she hoped to find another somewhat-functioning robot in there to answer whatever questions she had about the place, then receive a copy of the rest of the diagnostic data had tried receiving from the one that died. The garbled feedback she had obtained last time still did not make any sense with only part of the data intact – as barely intact as it was.
However, thinking about the dead robot and examining the possibility that it could be resuscitated, Esther realized it may have been in her best interests to make sure that machine did not come back to life at all. If it meant preventing the robot from recognizing her and spilling the secrets that she had told it already, she would gladly lose access to the diagnostic file which – at this point – she wasn’t sure she even needed.
That in mind, Esther slowly began to realize that she would benefit very little from this investigation.
At last Shafer looked down at Esther, gesturing her toward where the scouts were headed. “Lead the way, woman.”
Themselves not at all entertained with the idea of drowning themselves, the scouts and their leaders had provided multiple inflatable rafts – just enough for everyone to comfortably float downstream to the passage. As much as her interior weighed her down, Esther was pleased to find that the raft had no problem carrying herself Sam, Shafer, and a few others along the river’s path. Where most with Esther’s experience would have felt at least a hint of post-traumatic stress when floating down the river’s face, she couldn’t deny how relaxing it felt to tread within the calm waters of this once-violent ravine.
Last time she had come here, the weather left Esther already nearly-blind by the time she fell into this river. She could barely see, barely breathe – yet now as she traveled the expanse of this river underneath this massive pipe, the tunnels provided the same aura now as they did when she first arrived. The noise of the outside world disappeared, replaced with the light echoes of a scout’s respiration or two men bantering.
The rafts in front of hers directed themselves toward the ledge that she had crawled up the other day. One by one the scouts and their leaders stepped away from their rafts after anchoring themselves the wrung near the top of the ladder. Despite what Shafer had said about her largely leading the way through the door she had broken, Esther was the last to leave her raft. Two of the scouts were left to guard either door of the dusty room once the lot of them had shuffled their way inside.
As Esther pushed forward, practically gestured forward by the scouts’ guns at her backside, Bailey and his partner, Elliot, were assigned a spot by one of the intersecting hallways. Bailey was equipped with a sawed-off shotgun while Elliot had a rifle with a wide spread.
“Find anything?” asked Elliot, shouting from his side.
By now Bailey had twisted so many locked doorknobs that he started wondering how that woman managed to break through this area in the first place. “Nothing here yet,” he shouted back, going for the next door. “I’ll let you know wh – ”
Not expecting one of the doors to actually open, Bailey nearly fell over. On further inspection, he realized the doorknob had been melted over time – but from what, he could not tell. He counted his blessings that whatever had morphed the metal in such a way wasn’t still actively doing so.
“Found one!” he called, looking over his shoulder to relay the news to his partner. “I’m going in.”
“Hey – wait a sec!” Elliot nearly dropped his rifle as he rushed on over.
Both of them activated their gun-mounted flashlights before stepping inside, relieved and slightly surprised to find that there wasn’t nearly as much dust here as there was in the first room they had to walk through to get here. Only a few steps forward revealed a rail – and on the other side: no ground.
Elliot shook a little as if cold. “Think if we jump down there, we’ll end up at the lake?” he wondered. “Cause I don’t wanna be the one to do it.”
“Do we need to jump?” asked Bailey, his words unmistakably hypothetical. As Elliot continued peering over the rail, Bailey turned his light to his left and continued investigating the area. He noticed the walls were covered in metal plates – the likes of which were all securely bolted in; of all the things he had seen in this place so far, these walls seemed the most polished. It didn’t take long for him to realize the floor he walked on was very gradually sloping downward. Meanwhile the rail continued to trace the edge of the floor beneath them as he went down.
The rail came to an end at the same time the sloping floor went flat again. It was then when Bailey noticed the large gap in front of him. Like Elliot, he wondered if there really was any water down there – as if this place was some kind of Autorian water well.
“Find anything?” shouted Elliot, his light flashing nowhere near where Bailey was.
He wished he had. “All I got is a closer look at the hole,” he said, mumbling. The metal-coated walls made his voice echo much more than he had anticipated. “And I still can’t see the end of it. Do you have something we can drop down there?”
Elliot hesitated, turning to look and see if there was anything, his light flashing in Bailey’s face as he looked back and forth. “Nothing.”
“Never mind, then!” Rubbing his eye, Bailey moved further along. Eventually the hole turned at a right angle, giving him more free reign around this unusual crevice. From there he stepped in front of the square void and started looking for anything else that might be down here – if nothing else, something to throw in and see how deep this chasm went.
What he found was even more enticing than a chunk of debris to throw down a hole; he found a lever. “Hey – check this out!” he said, pointing his light to the mechanism. “I’m gonna see what this does.”
His partner was still much higher up than him. “What what does?” he asked, now hurrying along. “What is it?”
“Some kind of lever. And it’s a really big one.” Without another word, Bailey reached and grabbed the lever with one hand, squeezing, realized that wasn’t enough, then put his gun on the down to try with both hands. It seemed rusty, squeaking as he pulled.
“STOP!” Elliot shrieked. “What if that – ”
His pleas came too late; the lever had already clicked into its alternative position. The echoes that followed seemed as if they preceded an avalanche – as if the ceiling would come crashing down on the two boys at any second. Yet once the noise subsided, the boys were greeted to the sound of silence.
After Elliot’s outburst, Bailey did not dare breathe again until he was sure the entire facility didn’t explode. “Hey – it’s fine!” he claimed.
“Don’t do that shit!” By now Elliot had come so close that they could see each other’s faces in spite of the darkness surrounding them. “What would’ve happened if –”
A loud crashing noise sounded from just behind Bailey. In a panic, Elliot shrieked again, firing a blast toward the source of the noise. Beyond the echoes his gun produced, the only further sound he could make was that of lead bouncing against steel. As quickly as the shriek and subsequent unguided bullets had come, they stopped, Elliot trembling all over.
Bailey rubbed his temple. “Could you stop that?” By now Elliot’s panicky aura wasn’t frustrating or even annoying anymore – just exhausting.
Still shaking, Elliot nodded, swallowing hard.
Both boys turned toward the source of the crashing noise and kept their gun-mounted lights straight ahead. They spotted what looked like a hunk of metal sitting by, completely stationary and obviously not meant to be there.
Once close enough, they noticed what looked to be an almost bug-like body, yet one that was almost completely covered in metal – some of it painted red, but mostly scratched off. “Cover me,” Bailey said before leaning down to examine this machine – whereupon he noticed the very many scratches along its body. Some of these must have come from its crash down, as it was so close to the wall that its body must have scraped along its face. It was not certain which – if any – marks were caused by Elliot’s panicked gunblasts, but it was clear that whatever had killed this machine wasn’t a simple gun.
“What the hell is it?” asked Elliot, clearly feeling like he wasn’t getting a close enough look.
Bailey continued examining. Rather than hands, paws, or anything that would appear in that area of its body, the machine had two propane torches.
Feeling like he was getting somewhere with this, Bailey started thinking out loud. “This thing might have been trying to get out of here,” he said, murmuring. “Which explains why the doorknob was melted.” But this didn’t explain why the robot was down here in the first place or even why it couldn’t simply escape the room after melting the doorknob when Bailey had no trouble opening it himself. If this room truly was locked at one point, it didn’t make any sense that something like this – which had to have been three times his weight with less than half the height – couldn’t find a way out of here.
Pointing his own light upward, Bailey searched for where this metal creature might have come from. It wasn’t long before he noticed a large circular hole in the wall near the ceiling – just large enough for this machine to fit through if it tucked in all its parts. But this raised the question: if the machine was meant to be deployed from such a high point that would have killed a normal person to jump from, what did the manufacturers expect to happen when the machine was deployed? It looked as if maybe this height would not have mattered and that the metal pieces could take such a fall, but the fact that this machine was now completely inoperative led Bailey to believe either it was already broken or had broken once it crashed to the ground. Even the ground – made of concrete, yet showing no signs of wear – was better-equipped to handle such falls.
“Do you think there’s more where this came from?” Elliot wondered, taking a step back as his voice started to quiver. “Cause if there is, we need to get out of here!”
Bailey couldn’t argue with that. “We should tell Theo or someone about this – but yeah; let’s get out before another one drops dead on us.”
Going up the same way they came, Bailey and Elliot followed the rail back, wishing they had more light to go by than their mere flashlights. They had heard something about a potential generator or control panel – and if such a thing were to be found, it could be key to figuring this place out. However, as things currently stood, there was little either of them could figure out on their own in this chasm.
“We need to tell Shafer or somebody about it,” Elliot insisted. “They’ve gotta know what we can do with that robot.”
From the other side of the passageway, Esther faced interrogation about the android she had run into on her last visit here. For a reason she could not entirely understand, it was harder than she thought to make these men realize that the machines they had found here were so old that Esther’s knowledge about them was almost as limited as theirs. While she had already made it clear which parts were different, these differences were largely mundane and not worth looking into – except for someone like Shafer, who had some experience with the Domain’s tech. For the most part, he was the one who had to build a communication bridge between the foreign Esther and the rest of the men down here.
Still the generator squeaked like it was trying to grind itself into its grave. Despite their efforts, nobody had yet found a control panel for the device.
In the midst of their interrogation, everyone turned their heads to the nearest door, seeing two of the guard boys coming in.
Stopping them in their tracks, Shafer called Elliot and Bailey to attention. “This better be important,” he said, turning his back to Esther for the time being.
Elliot was the one who spoke. “We found something.”
After listening to the boys explain themselves, Shafer sent Rand and a few of their scouts to assess what they had found. No access to the control panel they were looking for meant no access to lighting as far as Bailey was concerned – but for the time being, that was okay.
Bailey and Elliot led the way downstairs – back to the metal body. “It’s completely dead,” Bailey explained, “Came out when I pulled the lever, but it’s dead.”
They all agreed that bringing this machine back to camp was the right thing to do – and with that, they attempted to hoist it away. The first part of this tricky process was figuring out which parts they could grab and trust that a piece didn’t break under the machine’s weight. After that came the struggle of moving back up the slope as one unit, completely aware that there was a hole that any of them could fall into if one of them tripped or flipped over the railing. One of the most difficult parts of this process was keeping the machine from touching the floor again, as even with their combined strength it still took a lot to thoroughly lift it – and with no obvious places to grab, some of them nearly ended up bleeding from the way the metal plates cut into the skin on their fingers.
Once again they made it out of the dark room and into the relatively well-lit hallway. After only being able to look at it through a flashlight, Bailey couldn’t have been more relieved to set it down. The machine’s impressive build caught the attention of nearby scouts, as well – who remained mostly vigilant to their own positions, but couldn’t help glimpsing at the machine for themselves. If it wasn’t the ingenuity on display that distracted their from their duties, it was all the chattering on the other scouts’ end.
“Step back, you guys,” Rand said, struggling to keep the others under control. Anybody he could hold out at arm’s length away from him, he did. Shafer’s assistant opened his mouth to speak again, yet couldn’t seem to find the right words to say. “God, I’ve never seen anything like this. Can one of you get Esther?”
As one of the scouts agreed to do so, Rand examined the machine closer, bringing out a flashlight of his own to closely analyze each part. Bailey, standing close behind, kept an eye on him as he attempted to stand the machine up on its four pointy legs, but failed to get it upright. In addition to the four legs, two further appendages stuck out from either side and led up to the torches Bailey had noticed earlier. A series of scales covered a large chunk of its body, surrounded by a few spots on the front that seemed to be light and motion sensors.
At some point Rand grabbed a hold of one of the plates and started tugging on it, worried he might break it until it finally came undone with a loud snap, nearly elbowing Bailey in the process. From there, the large plate swiveled on an axis just above the supposed sensors, squeaking open.
A rancid smell from behind the plate made Bailey gag; it was as if an animal had used the machine as its burial place, yet nobody nearby could tell why that was, as the spot beneath the plate was completely empty despite looking as if something was meant to be settled inside.
The red paint on its body and all the scratches it had undergone was much more noticeable under this light, begging the question: when was this machine last painted? Why was there a need for paint in the first place? Bailey wondered out loud: “Have any guesses what this thing was used for, Rand?”
Rand shrugged, just as lost as he was. “Welding, maybe. I’m going to hope that’s what it was for because it’s a better use than arson, but I have no idea.”
In the midst of their conversation, the scout Rand had sent to fetch Esther came back with Shafer, Esher, and Sam. At this point it was becoming noticeably difficult to fit this many people into the hallway at once.
“Have you seen anything like this before?” Shafer asked, nudging Esther as he continued peering down at its body.
Her eyes locked on the mechanical remains, Esther searched her memory for something, anything that reminded her even remotely of what she had been given now, but nothing came. She thought for a moment that maybe it was something the Domain had developed early in its corporate days, but even that was not clear to her.
Peering down, none of the ports along the machine’s body were familiar to her – and even then, the only port she could find was one that had been used for inserting a power supply. If there was any I/O on its body at all, she couldn’t see it. At least if there were any flesh on its body, she could guess it had a misajour port hidden somewhere.
After hesitating for what felt like an entire minute, Esther shook her head. “No – not like this. It’s nothing like what the Domain has.” From just behind her, she thought she could hear one of the scouts say, “This dumbass doesn’t know anything.”
Sam stepped in. “Well, whatever it is, we’ll be able to find out once we get it home.” Turning his gaze to Shafer, he continued. “You told me some of the scouts potentially found another way out of these tunnels; where is it?”
It’s here! Happy late Halloween and good luck to my friends participating in NaNoWriMo ’20. Wish this were a better year for in-person sprints, but what are you gonna do?
Discord is open for all, as always!