Updated: Aug 13, 2022
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“Look there!” echoed through the Sanctuary’s fifth floor. “I saw it behind that closet.” cried one of the guards. Two more were joining him as he was on his knees, reaching behind the file cabinet.
“Did you see what it was?” asked the second guard.
“Was it a Red Cap?” asked the third.
“Oh, you and your Red Caps,” rebuke the second.
“It's not one of Dr. Rum’s dinosaurs, is it?” the third retorted.
“Be quiet!” said the first guard peering behind the furniture. “Can you move this case, Associate?” he asked Igraine, who was watching them from the doorway to the office.
She nodded, but was more concerned about what that creature did to her doll, Anwin, than about the infiltrator itself. While the three guards surrounded the closet, she unclasped the fingerless glove that concealed the manipulator in her palm and waited.
“Alright. On three,” said the first guard.
Igraine aimed the manipulator at the cabinet.
The cabinet's drawers rattled as Igraine lifted the cabinet from a distance.
The guards jumped behind the closet when she moved the piece of furniture.
“What is that?”
“Grab its legs. It's trying to crawl away!” commented the second.
“Is that? You can’t be serious,” remarked the first.
“Just grab it, man!”
Igraine swallowed as she watched them fumble behind the closet.
“Got it! Got it. Damn, it's like a cat!”
With deliberate movements, the first guard straightened himself, clenching the struggling fugitive to his chest.
Igraine's mouth dropped as she recognized the little infiltrator trying to free itself from the guard’s hold and muttered her name. “Anwin?”
Waking up from her nap, Igraine lifted her head off the desk and wiped the drool from the corner of her mouth. In the warm light of the desk lamp, she glanced at the redacted parts of S-243’s file. Unfortunately, the archivists had become very proficient at making text illegible, even to cyborgs like her. Meanwhile, she could hear Anwin chasing the tennis ball through her playpen. Her lips could only produce a faint smile as Igraine watched her friend having fun as her conscience was clouded by self-doubt. Igraine snapped from her contemplation when Anwin was waving at her from her pen. The chair was creaking when Igraine got up as if she was recovering from a hangover.
The moment the pen’s gate was opened, Anwin came running up to her.
“Hello, Anwin,” she said to the doll clenching her clothes, and sank to her knees. “We are going out today. In the pram you go, mademoiselle,” she groaned while lifting her up.
Anwin pointed suggestively at her prettiest dress, hanging for the closet key.
“Non, Anwin. You don’t want to get your favorite dress dirty do you?”
To her surprise, Anwin shook her head. The doll had never done that before.
“Right. Oké, careful now.” Anwin was holding the pram's railing as Igraine pulled the carriage out of her room. “Good, girl,” Igraine said, petting her on the head, hoping she wasn’t making the dolls suspicious. It made her wonder if dolls could get distrustful. Igraine felt a heavy weight in her stomach, fearing she was about to find out.
Inside the elevator, Igraine waited for the door to shut. After checking to see if nobody could see her through the fence, she pressed a combination of numbers on the control console. She only recently learned about this feature and where it would lead her. Well, she had a guess.
Anwin, who had just discovered the springs inside the mattress, was jumping up and down.
“Don’t, Anwin,” Igraine corrected her while reaching into the pram. “I have to give you a toy to bring along, don’t I?” she whispered to the doll who was hugging her hand.
*Ping* With a gentle roar, the elevator door slid aside.
Increasingly nervous, Igraine carted Anwin into the basement, a high-security level that might be one of the oldest parts of Sanctuary. All Igraine knew about it was that this section had been sealed off for decades, or even a century, for unspecified reasons. It had been rediscovered by accident some years ago. Now, it contained some of Sanctuary’s closely guarded secrets and occupants.
As she walked beneath the brick undercroft, its antiquity became apparent. The ceiling had been reinforced with girders to which bundles of the wiring had been strapped, giving her the impression this was a work in progress. At the bottom, the ancient walls stopped where the floor used to be, suggesting the floor had been hollowed out to create more headroom.
In the back of the basement, in the yellow light of a lamp mounted above a vault door, Dr. Vermouth was awaiting her.
Behind a barred-off reception desk, guards were sitting in the glow of television monitors displaying the entrance elevator to Sanctuary.
“Ah, there you are,” said the doctor.
“Oui,” Igraine said, awkwardly. “I brought Anwin as requested. Care to tell me what this is about, Doctor?”
Vermouth leaned over the doll. “Hello, Anwin. You are a curious little thing, aren’t you?” She straightened herself. “I’ll explain inside, Associate,” she said to Igraine and turned to the guards. “Let us in, please?”
One of them nodded affirmingly and walked up to a valve on the wall. A cringe-inducing buzz sounded through the basement as he started turning the valve that lifted the heavy door.
As the women passed the gate, the pram’s squeaky wheels reverberated through the ancient corridor leading to many of the Association’s most deep harbored secrets. Anwin and Igraine observed the thick cables running across the medieval walls to the various vaults inside the labyrinth. It reminded Igraine of Hades in a way. Just cleaner. “What is this place?”
“I’m sure you heard the stories,” Vermouth replied.
“I remember from years ago,” said Igraine. “We were in the common area when we were suddenly told by Mr. Butler wearing a gas mask to return to our rooms when they discovered this place.”
“Yes. It's an unknown chapter of Sanctuary’s history. Probably created by a precursor of the Association.”
“If this place shed any light on the Association’s history, I wasn’t informed. I imagine you of all people can imagine why the Chair prefers it that way.”
“Je suppose. So, what’s behind these doors then?”
“Some are still under investigation. Others have been repurposed.”
“I see. I believe the renovations were to make room for new facilities.”
“Indeed,” grumbled Vermouth.
They stopped in front of a reinforced double door. Scratches in the paint suggested there was a lot of traffic coming through.
“I assume you have acquainted yourself with C-243, Associate?”
Igraine glanced past her eyelids at Anwin, who was looking around without a care in the world. “Oui…”
“We want C-243 to meet Alpha so we can measure its reaction to her presence,” Vermouth declared. “We have failed to communicate with the Construct verbally. Therefore, we like to find other ways to provoke a reaction from the subject.”
Igraine, squeezing her hands, sighed. “I see.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Non. Of course not. Why would there be, Doctor?”
Meanwhile, Anwin was looking back and forth between the two.
“Very well then. Time for Alpha to meet her maker.”
Vermouth looked to her side. “It’s a joke, Associate,” she assured her.
Igraine rolled her eyes. “Oui. Of course.”
A loud click reverberated through the hall as Dr. Vermouth unlocked the door.
The smell of oil and brimstone emerged from the cell as the door was opened. From its interior sounded the buzzing of machinery and hissing of pistons as well as the crackling of welding tools.
The Doctor gestured for her to enter. “After you.”
Slowly, Igraine pushed the pram inside the workshop while keeping an eye on Anwin.
Standing on her toes, the doll was peering over the side at the alien environment that resembled the scrapyards Igraine had seen in Arkology. But still, the Associate was astounded by the complicated array of cables, rails, and machinery cluttering the workshop. Among them were machines that human hands couldn’t operate. “What on Earth is this?” she whispered.
“I imagined these sights would be familiar to you.”
“I mean-” Igraine caught Anwin tumbling over the pram’s railing just in time to stop her. “Anwin!” she scolded the doll while grabbing her by the neck. “What are you do-” Before she could finish, she spotted a mechanical spider disappear between a web of wires. She pressed Anwin to her chest as she activated her infravision and watched aghast at her surroundings. The entanglement of mechanisms was crawling with automated creatures skittering between its wires and moving parts.
Meanwhile, the pistons pumping to the rhythm of the gears made the doll eager to explore.
“Non, Anwin!” Igraine sneered at the rebellious doll.
“Let her go,” demanded Vermouth. “Let her visit her birthplace.”
Igraine looked at her in shock.
“All you see is what the Construct created,” whispered Vermouth.
Igraine looked around. “All of this,” she gasped. “You gave this to him?”
“Just the material needed to build it. We hoped we could ascertain its purpose. Besides, he has furnished useful items for us.”
“You use what he creates?”
“As an experiment, we took away some of the objects to measure its reaction. But it appears the Construct doesn’t mind and just moves on to its next project. Unless we touch his tools,” said Dr. Vermouth, forebodingly. “Then it becomes aggressive. We failed to identify any agency beyond its desire to create all necessary tools and work on new items. That’s why it has a Construct classification rather than a Subject.”
“Receivers. Circuits.” She looked at Anwin. “Automatons.”
“To operate its factory?” asked Igraine.
“That is what we assumed. But Alpha’s creation put that into question.” She looked at Igraine. “That is why I’m asking you to let her go, Associate.”
Igraine looked at Anwin, who was still trying to get away. After some hesitation, she put her on the ground.
Anwin immediately ran in one direction until she got distracted and dashed off into another.
“Don’t get dirty,” warned Igraine as the doll was chasing a rotor-powered automaton that came buzzing by, and within moments both vanished among the foliage of machinery. “Non! Anwin?”
“Let her be, Associate,” insisted Dr. Vermouth.
“But-” Igraine took a deep breath, imagining Anwin getting caught in the gears or covered in oil.
“Come. She probably went to see S-243,” said Vermouth. Then she lifted her skirt slightly. “Please, come with me.”
Without saying a word, Igraine followed the doctor, holding up her dress to not get it stained with grease and chemicals. For a moment, she felt like she was back in Hades. But the alien critters skittering between the reefs have been replaced with drones and mechanisms performing their tasks with mechanical proficiency.
The women reached a clearing in the room surrounded by machine columns whose wiring covered the floor, serving as a highway for the many automatons.
Like ants, they moved toward and away from a curtain of wiring in the back of the workshop.
Igraine saw something behind the veil of cables, moving up and down and side to side.
Hesitantly, Igraine walked toward it. “Is that?”
“Be careful,” warned the doctor, gently. “It won’t stop if you get in its way.”
Breathing heavily, Igraine revealed her manipulator and dragged the veil of wires aside.
There, behind the curtain, stood C-243.
Igraine swallowed as she observed the android resembling a teenager, covered with brass plates, whose torso was mounted on top of a beam. Its base was turning on two wheels as C-243 worked diligently on a pocket-size clockwork array. With perfunctory motions, its body pivoted from side to side, independent of its base that was covered in skittering drones delivering newly crafted components to be part of its latest creation.
Watching it work reminded Igraine of her time on the Signalite Submarine, the Tiamat, where she had seen a factory just like this. Technological homunculi working tirelessly on mechanizing the bodies of their deluded brothers and sisters to enact the mania of their misters Lantry.
Was this thing, C-243, a remnant of the uprising now known as the Emergence? Igraine was abhorred.
Igraine turned to face the Doctor and hissed. “Is this a Signalite, Doctor?”
“What? No. We have no evidence of that.”
“You sure? The report said it was delivered by boat to Constantinople from an unknown sender. The Tiamat is still at sea!”
“Like I said. There is no evidence of this. See for yourself. C-243 is far beyond what the Signalite had developed.”
“They developed? Does that include automaton like McArthur? They have help from Outside!”
“That’s enough, Associate,” the Doctor scolded her. “These assumptions are baseless. Instead, watch your ward.”
A chill ran down Igraine’s spine, and she looked around for the doll. “Where did she go?” She froze when Anwin emerged from the machine labyrinth. Igraine sighed upon seeing the black stains covering the doll. “Anwin. Co-”
The doll wasn’t listening as she raced to join the parade of drones surrounding C-243. Her creator didn’t react as Anwin spun in place like a little ballerina as she tried to keep track of all the drones around her.
With her mouth agape, Igraine watched her soft friend indulging herself in the cold world of brass and copper wiring.
“Chilling, isn’t it?” whispered Dr. Vermouth.
Igraine analyzed what she was witnessing. “They… Those automatons are all part of him. Does he use radio signals to control them?”
“It appears to be controlled with similar technology recovered from the Signalite temple on Druid Isle.”
Her blood ran cold. “So, there is a relation!”
“Not that we can find,” insisted the Doctor.
“Is it controlling Anwin?”
Vermouth followed the doll, trying and failing to ride a brass centipede. “That’s the question.”
Igraine bit her lips as she to contain her frustration. She just wanted to get Anwin and return to her room. Looking around the foundry, she noticed a large drone moving between the columns. Igraine’s mouth dropped when another doll squeezed its oversized head through two columns. It popped free and fell flat on its face.
As it crawled to its feet, Igraine was aghast that it was a toy like Anwin. But the body was made of jute, its mouth was stitched with thick yarn, and its eyes were bolts stapled to her face.
“Ah, there she is,” Vermouth remarked. “I was wondering if she got out. Associate, meet Beta. Alpha’s sister.”
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