She’s not disturbed by the clean, unpatterned walls in muted tones. Potted plants maintained by invisible machines do not disorient, nor does the seamless illumination of neutral toned walls and floor. No, she cannot be certain at first what puts her ill at ease.
“Mornin’ E,” chirps a fellow with whom she has shared many cups of myst. She smiles curtly and avoids eye contact. The noise just won’t stop. She hears him mutter, somewhere behind, “Well what jumped out of her crop?”
She pays him no mind, having barely heard his caustic language. The attitude won’t stay in her walk; she can’t make her heels click satisfactorily. She’s ravenous, hungrier than she’s ever been, but the cafeteria is too far away. She can’t make the noise… the voice.. the sound, it won’t stop! She loses her footing and staggers against a hard bulkhead, but doesn’t notice the dull pain in her shoulder.
Got to get away! Got to… no, get back to my room!
She puts both hands on the wall and leverages herself around, so that she faces the way she came. A gentle chime rings in her mind, and she answers it. Pleasantly, an automated voice informs her: [You’re scheduled later than usual, Euncyne. An Alliance Security Warning is being broadcast. Do you understand?]
Leaning against the wall, she knows she must respond, but falters. The last sentence of the transmission repeats. Then again. She feels the mechanisms of her face grinding in frustration as she tries to form her reply. Finally: [Understood!]
[Very well. You will be alerted in advance of your appearance.]
[You are welcome.]
The voice leaves, but the peace she anticipates is not present. There is, in its place, a flood of static. A pitch of anger lends her enough focus to scramble back to her room, a short walk that feels like it takes the rest of the morning.
Yes, E, she tells herself, be hopeful that it’s not forever.
In her room she stumbles toward the sink, turns on the water, but then backs away, unsure of what she’s trying to do. Her semi-circular couch is nearby, bright mauve and inviting. Summarily she collapses upon it, head and arms draped over the back as the noise invades every open space of her mind. It follows where she flees and despair closes in rapidly on flaming heels.
At that moment dread overwhelms her, not despair or even fear. She had 10 ticks, but she’ll have even less, now. Maybe. Oh, how can she tell?! If she were to come out of standalone mode, someone might know that she were in a terrible state, and the network would not have it! Then she remembers, in tones as muted as the walls of her bedroom, that she can download the official glyph in offline mode.
It’s normal to be in offline mode until just before the broadcast begins, so no one will be suspicious, she muses. The curved planes of her face plating twitch as she removes a pair surface mounting network filters from her temples. If this were any other day she’d be chatting Farien up and razzing him about his poor taste in romantic company. If he weren’t such a rough-welded scrat she might… no, no, mustn’t kid herself. Farien’s not her style, anyway.
The download is fast, as expected, and the broadcast long … 30 ticks. Even that long might not be enough to sort this out. If it can be sorted. She skims the automatically generated synopsis and learns that a low-lying group of hackers is terrorizing civilian communities and small-time business networks. She’s heard of such things, and a friend once said… once… said… no!
She turns off the recording and slumps forward onto a cushion, almost in tears. They paid extra for artificial tear ducts because they’d “be more convincing”, but now… what good were they if they couldn’t… couldn’t what? Help her? She doesn’t know what to do! The glyph in her external memory was marked with ten kinds of security flags. She dare not open it; a warning in her heart promises that if she does she’ll have to run and run hard.
For a while she doesn’t hear the chime of her door and the softly spoken genderless voice that proceeds it. With the other — the Alliance Security glyph — in wait, the static begins to stave off and her appetite reasserts. Feeling as automatic as the Scheduler, she plods toward the kitchenette — her kitchenette — and takes something out of a cupboard she can readily restore to an edible condition. The chime has been patient, but this time she hears it.
“Yes?” she inquires, shoving a handful of breakfast sized portion into the suffusion unit. She shuts the door and jabs a button. It makes an affirmative noise and sets to work.
“Good morning, Broadcaster Uestus. Am I interrupting your rest?”
“Are you well?”
How do I answer that? she thinks, but says, “Nothing is wrong; leave me alone.”
“As you wish.”
She stares at the witless suffusion unit and fully expects to be told to rush down to the stage, but recalls that the broadcast she skimmed was uncommonly long. It must be serious. More serious than the pretty face would say. The off-network glyph gleams and glares at her, pulsing with fascination. What could it be, that would be so frightening to cause the Crown to warn everyone against it?
Why didn’t they just block it if they knew it was here? Isn’t that what the security flags indicated?
The temperature of her room is correct for her usual preference, but she removes a layer of shirt, feeling it too humid. She does not move to adjust the environment settings, even knowing all she would have to do is speak aloud. The suffusion unit sweetly informs her of its completed task, so she removes the breakfast sized portions from it and sets them on a plate. Effortlessly, disinterestedly, she slices open the largest packet and inhales the carbohydrate rich prepared bread product.
What was it called? Trisen? It must smell delightful, but why doesn’t it? It steams invitingly, and she pokes it with a fork. Tender and doughy, minimal effort is required to remove a piece, which she then places into her mouth before chewing. The texture is suitable. Delectable, even. The aroma in the air is full upon her taste buds, but she swallows as though it were air.
What an unkind thought, she chides herself. What if it were I who —
“What? Who is it?” Irritable. Mannerless. She chides herself again.
Relief brushes through the tangle of nettled tension in her soul and she says, quickly, “Please, come in David.”
The door opens swiftly, and he is sure to close it on his way in, being the suspicious type. For some reason this is a comfort, and she makes an effort to smile at him. His eyes are hard and brow heavy with thought. He does not look like an unworried felor, but his outwardly stern attitude is softened with politeness when he addresses her.
“Good morning. Might I ask, Broadcaster Uestus, why you are still offline?”
This is not an accusation, though it would have been from any other individual in the building. She feels the stiffness of her face as she fails to form a vocal response greater than, “Yes, but I am I not certain I can explain.”
David is not large in stature, and his presence is not what one would call charismatic. He is moderately attractive, if one liked even features, dark eyes and a light almond-tan complexion. His straight hair is short and full, shimmering bright but never combed. He wears the purposely unstyled one piece uniform of a network technician in warm pale blues with asymmetric pockets for the minuscule tools of his trade. His muscular build and demeanour projects confidence and authority she cannot not place, but has come to trust.
He fetches a network responder from a pocket and attaches it in an obscure way to the narrow panel beside the hallway access door. When he turns it is to examine her neon-wired black pupil, red iris eyes track his movements anxiously. He frowns and enters into her personal space, and she does not rebuke him.
“You’ve got trouble. The Local Relay is alert to your delay.”
“So soon? I thought I had at least 30 ticks.”
Comprehending, his mouth scrunches into a scrutinizing flare. “That was 20 ticks ago. I see trouble may have you, than you it. May I interface with you?”
Time was failing her, but then so was everything else. Nonetheless, she him offers a minimal, but genuine smile. It is the kindest regard she has had all morning. “Yes, David. You may.”
She knows that she must return to online status so that he must, but she does so without hesitation. David uses a custom made link cable as the intermediary, and at once she can feel his gentle concern in her mind. How many did she pass in the hall this morning before Chetus made that unkind remark?
[Yes, there it is, the trouble that has you. This is a dangerous glyph, even the time stamps are false.]
[But what can it mean? Who would send me such a thing? What could I do with it?]
[It worries me that it is here at all, Euncyne. Our network protocols are rather robust.]
She feels more than sees his pensive expression, and realizes momentarily that he is not showing his emotion. He is clinical as any doctor, and she feels the juxtaposition strange.
[What does that mean?]
[It means it was snuck in by skilled coders. What could they mean? I cannot say; the contents could eradicate your mind, or they could educate you.]
Euncyne slouches for the first time in her seat and leaves the last piece of breakfast speared upon fork upon otherwise empty plate. Uncertain thoughts hurtle through her mind and all of them lead to one conclusion. She hesitates to accept it, and is interrupted by David:
[The local Relay has begun a sweep. They’ll find your unauthorized glyph.]
[It’s not mine!]
[It is in your memory, and you cannot rationally explain how it arrived. There is no excuse for it but you must ignore it. For the moment I need you to be quiet.]
Euncyne begins to fret again, thinking it might be easier just to access the glyph and be done with it. How would they know if she disposed of it? Oh, it couldn’t be that simple, could it?
[David — ]
[Stay quiet. I need to concentrate. There is no time for distractions.]
Alone but not quite alone, or quiet in her loneliness. Euncyne swallows the last of her morning repast and scrunches up the empty packet, its foil innards crinkling in a way she finds eerily foreboding. It is frustrating to sit in place while someone dives her mind to … to what?
[David, what are you doing?]
He does not answer, but she feels his steely focus and rising tension. She shuts him out and stares out a window. She always eats with a view of the city, its painted skyline inviting and comforting. Sketchline: Brilliance and Genius, were the best go to thrive and die. What prompted that thought?
[This is bad. There’s a leak. Uestsus, we need to leave.]
[Leave?! But I’m to be called any — ]
[Nonsense. Do you know what the Alliance will do when they learn you’ve been compromised?]
[I… don’t… want to think about that.]
[That is a shame, but you must. I’m disconnecting now, and I want you to go back into stand alone mode. Stay offline.]
She bows her head, ambivalent. David removes the cable and she becomes aware of the time. How has so much passed so quickly? David has something in his hand and is talking to someone, as Uestus becomes frantic.
“You must tell me what you’ve done.”
David looks impatiently at her, ends his conversation, then folds and replaces his device into a pocket. He sighs, and then says, “I’ve quarantined you. The glyph itself is an infection — of sorts — and even to be rid of it would leave you marked with its influence and consequences.”
She understands perfectly his meaning, and frantic energy transforms into the rising tide of panic. “But I’m guiltless! No one asked me — no one. Why have they sent this to me?!”
David holds a sympathetic gaze and looks into her twitching face. “It does not matter now. This is as senseless as a bomb, Uestus. We must go.”
“Go? Go where?”
There is another chime followed by a knock at the door. No one knocks on doors except when you are sure that the individual inside isn’t receiving network requests.
“Broadcaster Uestus, are you well?”
Oh the insinuation was sharp, and Euncyne bristles at the slant of it. She opens her mouth to retort but David claps his hand over it.
“She is undergoing diagnostics and is unavailable,” David explains.
“Ah, Technician Oak. Your presence is welcome and condoned. Advise the Scheduler when she is available for work.”
“Understood.” Footfalls recede and David lowers his hand. “Sorry, E, but we need time for my assistant to arrive.”
It is at this time she becomes conscious of their significant height difference. What is it what allows him to have command of this situation? Can she not make her own decisions?
“David, you’ve been very presumptive since you came here.”
Seated, he looks to her and the meaning of her words strikes sour note in his regard. “You are quite out of your depth. I’ve not come to insult your intelligence or impugn your right to choose, but there are forces in the world that do not care about how you feel when they crush your bones.”
Outrage could easily have been justified, but Uestus understood his respect for her being. The Scheduler cared not, nor did her compatriots, in truth. In fact, no one had pinged her to comment upon the peculiarity of events this morning, and why not? She had opinions, and valuable ones. Didn’t she?
Unprompted, David jumps out of his chair to open the door for an unknown party. Behind the metallic sheen door panel stands a modest looking industrial drone, and Euncyne gives it a once over. It is an old model, perhaps ten cycles in style, performance outmoded and out of manufacture for at least as long. A flat, disc-like head turns and she cannot orient upon any sensor in particular.
A robot without a face. It’s strange to look at something no one cares about. An ache of self-awareness breaches her anxiety. The very thought raises so many questions: Does having no face mean that the designers didn’t care? Do designers arrange components like a face for the comfort of others? Do…
“Will she be accompanying us, David?”
Everything seems to give Euncyne a start or jolt, and the drone’s pleasant baritone does just that. “Yes,” David replies. “We’ve no time to talk. Run up your jammers and chart us a path through building security. Alliance guards will be hot on our heels.”
“Hot on your… oh, I see. A euphemism. Very well. I am disrupting local security services. When we have escaped the compound, where do we go?”
“That is up to Euncyne.”
“Oh, I see. I am glad to meet you at last.”
Euncyne’s eyes flick about as she blushes trying to find something to look at while she talks to him. “Why… why is that?”
David hefts up hands it to her and comments, “Because he’s everyone’s best friend. Says his name his Buddy.”
“Oh, well, I suppose then it’s nice to~~aaah!” An eruption of pain in her temple streams to the base of her neck and back again. David frantically glances around, but no one has heard, or is rushing to the sound.
“C’mon Euncyne, we… scrap it. Buddy, help her. We’re going.”
Euncyne’s limbs have lost their strength, and though she can stand, she leans upon the door frame heavily. The drone takes her weight, gingerly, with his multipurpose arms. He’s gentle, and in contrast to the pain, she murmurs a phrase of gratitude.
They traverse a corridor unimpeded, and when she expects them to arrive at the first security terminal, they make a hard turn into a utility passage normally inaccessible to broadcasters and guests. Booted footfalls careen down the corridor behind them, and one pair remains to try the utility passage. It chirps in protest at the authorization code and refuses all further interactions.
The agitated electronic noises sound as fragile and anxious as she feels, but they proceed without any hesitation. David has not looked behind to see if his countermeasures have succeeded, and she does not doubt them either. David has been a friend and protector for many cycles. Almost longer than she can remember.
Eventually she is able to walk unaided, and by then they have traveled a long distance. The halls are plated with heavy metals from a bygone era, and Euncyne wonders why they were built. Who wanted to protect… someone? Everyone? As many people as they could fit into this space? David stops short in front of a panel, places his hand upon it, then guides Buddy and Euncyne in as it swivels open.
When they are sealed inside of the room on the other side, she observes that this is his workshop. A chill washes down her spine as she spies disembodied limbs of varying size, shape, colour in different states of disrepair. None of these are Alliance Standard … not one has been marked with serial codes or interlink descriptors. Euncyne thinks… he is a grey marketeer.
“I know what you must think. No, I know what someone outside of the domes would think… but Euncyne, you’ve never been outside of the domes. ‘The only news is good news’, or so the Alliance has had you report. You’ve never known anything else.”
She feels like she should be angry with him, or be reproachful, or… but he is right. She knows it. When she checks her external memory, the security tagged glyph is gone. The Alliance has been telling her what to say, and she has never questioned it. There is a pool… a memory pool… it resides comfortably in her mind and now she must decide.
In fact, David has just finished saying that very thing. She gazes at him… or tries. The panels of her face quiver slightly, and she bows her head for a moment. Euncyne’s diminutive frame trembles, then she looks up at David and in a calm definitive tone, says, “Can you remake faces?”