Short Story: Vulnerable (Part I)

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[Vulnerable by Kyt Dotson is a short story in the Black Hat Magick series. It is the second-in-sequence after Invincible, published earlier on this blog.]

The Machine Bay beneath the basement of the Engineering Center sat in a state of potent silence. Its various machines and workbenches waited in sepulchral quiet until a single command from the Enoch roused them from their torpor into vivid life. The lights came on with an orderly march; they stepped from one end of the room to the other, buzzed first, then crackled as they illuminated the chilled air. Computers and workstations on the workbenches came to life next, clicking and whirring as they talked to themselves about their diagnostics and what dreams had come during their deep slumber.

Across the workspace, the machines sounded off their readiness, blue and red lights turned green.

A clattering sound echoed down the corridor, and a light sped down the darkened passage towards the loading bay doors. If any of the machines and workbenches in the Bay had ears or eyes they would have watched those doors with expectation.

The MachineBay doors swung open with a pneumatic hiss, and moments after Elaine and Frog rushed through them with all the urgency of a medical team racing into an OR. Elaine took one hand from the makeshift gurney—a palate load-lifter they’d repurposed from the ASU Physical Plant to carry Hadaly’s inactive chassis—and corded commands into a virtual keyboard visualized through her goggles. Tesla generators lining the walls began to electrify, their surfaces suffusing with the nebulous blue-golden glow of St. Elmo’s Fire.

“I am arming the quarantine protocol,” Elaine said to Frog and pointed to the silver, vacuum-rated door recessed into the far wall. “I need you in the observation room.”

Elaine could already feel the hairs on her arms start to stand up as the magickal runes etched into the generators drank up the capacitance. The expression of their spellcode began to manifest as wavering lines of force in the air around the angles of the room. The rippling lines of white-gold light undulated and shifted through uncanny waveforms and sometimes appeared to form almost-readable cursive text but just as quickly dissolved into alien jumbles of symbols.

“I’d rather stay in here, with you and Hadaly,” Frog said. The knuckles of her hands on the loader’s handrails turned white and the muscles in her arms bulged from strain as she held onto it as if letting go meant the ultimate loss. Concern writ heavy lines across her friend’s face and Elaine wanted badly to console her, but she couldn’t—not without understanding the problem.

Next to her, Hadaly lay on the loader. With her chassis in full shutdown she looked as if she were caught in a deep sleep. Her hair framed her face in a gentle fan and her closed eyes looked as if they could flutter open with vitality once again at any moment. Except that her chest did not move in the regular motions expected of a living person, although her facsimile skin maintained its healthy human pallor. The illusion was only skin deep on both counts; the actual Hadaly existed in a suspended state deep within the chassis itself—her thoughts shelved in a rigidified halt-state. She drifted somewhere, comatose, between thoughts.

“I can’t risk it,” Elaine said as she unhooked Hadaly’s chassis from the straps that held her down and began to hook naked cables to various points on her extremities. Her hands moved with mechanical precision across the android’s broken body. “The Enoch’s immune systems will protect me in the event of an outbreak.” And they may not protect you, she didn’t need to add. With Frog, Elaine didn’t feel the need to artificially frame her facial expressions or body language. She didn’t need to. As friends they’d found the same wavelength. Frog understood.

“I’ll be right there,” her friend said. Frog reached over and squeezed her arm gently—with that simple gesture Elaine felt a thrill pass through her body, like a spike of adrenaline. Frog was one of the few people in the world whom did not cause Elaine discomfort at her touch. “Save her. Alright?”

Elaine unclipped the Enoch handset from her belt and plugged it into a Firewire port on a nearby diagnostic station. A line of red characters appeared on the screen reading, “QUARANTINE ARMED. SEAL BROKEN.” She could only barely see Frog out of the limited peripheral vision afforded by her goggles and she nodded to her friend.

“Check the seal on the door after it closes,” Elaine said. “After I active quarantine, the firewall will cut everything from electromagnetic to strong force interactions with this room. We will have to communicate using the Cathedral effect. There is a Cathedral device in the observation room, just look in the drawer under the workstation at the window.”

“Okay,” Frog said. “Good lu—well, never mind, look who I’m talking to.” She grabbed the inner seal and hoisted herself out of the room. After she pulled the paired-door closed behind her, she turned the hatch wheel until it locked in place.

The readout on the computer changed a moment later: “SEAL CONTIGUOUS.”

The quarantine protocol activated a moment later as Elaine sent the command to enable. The walls themselves seemed to vanish for a moment as the entire room shuddered. The observation window became a glassy black as photons could not translate across the transition barrier mere millimeters of space outside the walls of the MachineBay. The room now became utterly separate from the outside except for a certain level of quantum leakage statistically accounted for by the very tapestry of Space-Time.

As Frog moved about the observation gallery, Elaine set herself to work finishing up the diagnostic connections to the chassis. The cables started their lives as ordinary CAT5e with modified platinum-plated terminators, but after years of use, they’d become almost living conduits of eldritch energies. Elaine could feel them pulsing as she set the connections along Hadaly’s nervous system analog, the nerves in her fingers reacted with sympathy to the life-mimicking waveforms.

An indicator icon lit up in her HUD and she tapped it. Link established.

“Can you hear me?”

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