Wormworld [Chapter 0]

The lift traveled fast as a bullet towards the access point room. Eli-ky waited, barely standing the engines’ low buzzing. Her mind kept processing data, inputs and outputs in an endless stream of consciousness. She had computed more than a hundred explanations. Good ones, even. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t cover up their failure.

It wasn’t surprising. The trail they were sent after was cold, the information partial, corrupted or straight-up misleading. And yet that was the first time they were being less than exemplar in their gov-A careers.

Reporting their findings via spinal network was just the latest oddity of the whole ordeal. A serfdrone would have been enough; no need to go up to the access point herself, wasting everyone’s time. They probably wanted to replace them with newer models, custom made for research tasks. It wasn’t unheard of.

No. Can’t be. She shook her head. It wasn’t logical. Save for the latest task, their success rate was pristine. They had been through some reconditioning, of course, but the same could be said for every other gov-A unit she knew. A replacement would have been uncalled for.

Fear. She stopped her mind in its tracks. The last thing she wanted was losing control of her thought processes. And yet, the sole idea of going through another reconditioning round scared her. Even a light reprogramming made her feel numb for cycles: getting back to work, afterwards, was like trying to walk neck-deep in oil. Nothing scrambled her thought processes like having new circuits installed in her processing units. It was somewhat disgusting.

The Government was unyielding, not dumb. They weren’t going to reprogram her while she still had work to do. Yet, the latest directives had been unclear. Subject to interpretation. Where interpretation was, mistakes could be made, and mistake inevitably led to betrayal.

The idea of slowly slipping into non-compliance sickened her. She and Lie-ky had caught ten of those black-loops: corrupted, glitch-ridden agents, a danger to others and to themselves. Becoming so broken was unacceptable. But maybe, that wasn’t something one was supposed to accept; rather, something that happened regardless, like dust cluttering an internal fan. She clenched her teeth, letting out a slight screech.

The lift vibrated a quiet sigh as it slowed its upwards course. She felt a slight change in the electromagnetic field, sign she had gone through one of the protective layers. She was getting close. Her hands were dark like an iron slab. The nanolayer was reacting to her anxiety, shielding her body. She shook her head, ordering her nanomechanics to retract into two thin lines around her wrists. She was going to the access point, not into war.

I might be losing my touch. No harm was done, of course: thee protective layer burned just a small fraction of her energies. Yet, it was still sign of poor self control. Not the best way to greet the higher-ups. Deep down, every gov-A unit hid a handful of those small defects. Lie-ky used to tilt his head to the side when he was focusing his gaze on something. His optics worked perfectly regardless of neck angle, but he kept doing it. It’s harmless. It’s not worth a reconditioning round.

Her mirrored image looked at her from the polished steel of the wall. Nanomechanics had formed two thin lines on her face, from the lower eyelid downwards, mimicking something that MNs usually called “tears”.

She missed Lie. Splitting up had been his idea; so, at least, one of them could keep working on the task. She sometimes envied his coolness, so typical of ESC models. Being far from each other had a strange way of making her feel more alert. Like walking on a thin wire. What they had, as members of a unit, was sacred. His sharp face was her first memory and the first thing she saw each time they stepped out of reconditioning pods.

The lift finally stopped, its doors sliding silently on an empty chamber, round as a disk. Smooth walls rose up to the ceiling, where blue neon bars shone. Two Xeraphis mounted guard at the doorway to the access point. Their exoskeletons, tinted of a dirty plastic-white, gave off a nausea-inducing contrast against the dark walls. Their armor didn’t cover their body completely: that whiteness was broken at random points by the rough redness of exposed muscles. Weapons jutted out from their sides like pieces of broken bone.

Disgusting creatures. She kept her eyes from staring too much, quickly tracing an “S” midair to greet them. Usually she could feel a Xeraphi from a ten mile distance, as they gave of a peculiar mental trace, but that couple went completely unnoticed. I’m really losing my touch.

Their smooth faces didn’t move. Both sinlifes kept still, not acknowledging her presence: usually a good sign. She stepped forward, heels echoing in the sacred stillness of that place, disturbing a silence full of ears. Her uneasiness crept like a bug, under her skin, messing with the nanolayer. Two Xeraphis? One she could understand, but two seemed an exaggeration. They let her go without even moving. The sooner I’m done, the better.

The blue light faded in the high domed ceiling of the access point room. Two neon tubes ran on the floor, tracing a straight way from the door to the spinal column. That path was the only even surface in that room: the floor around it was a warped desert of black metal, hiding data cables and power supply lines.

The column vibrated before her. It went from the floor to the ceiling, thick disks lazily rotating around a glowing core of glass fiber that connected the access point to the whole spinal network. One of the disks projected the access keys midair, and she whistled her credentials back in bitspik.

– EST from Unit Ky recognized. – stated the column as they were done with formalities. – Granting permission to speak. –

– Eli-ky reporting in. – Her firm voice echoed hollow. She slid the neural input cable out of her neck and plugged it into the receiving slot at the column’s feet. They didn’t keep her waiting too long: a booming voice shook the audio implants of the room soon after.

– THE ORDERS WERE FOR THE WHOLE UNIT. WHERE IS ESC-MODEL LIE? –

– Still on the field. Following directive… –

– THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. –

Off to a bad start. She crossed her arms on her chest, digging her fingers in her own skin. – If I am not enough, I can come back with him at a later time. –

She was almost about to explain why she had left him back, but decided not to. The higher-ups liked results, not excuses. The column rotated quietly for a bit, then the voice answered.

– WE WON’T HAVE FURTHER DELAYS. GO ON. –

– Well. I’m sending over the partial results of the investigation. We were unable to find the Maker Sixteen’s whereabouts. – The screen at the base of the column was filled by data, as the neural input cable vomited a copy of her knowledge over a safe channel in the spinal network. – We managed to find a workstation hidden in an unregistered room between level 420 and 421. –

After cycles and cycles spent between abandoned home-units on level 421, they had found the lab thanks to a stroke of luck. A section of the floor had collapsed inward, into a room that wasn’t supposed to be there.

– The assembly lines had been cleared, but the machinery showed signs of wearing. Internal memory cards were removed completely; we weren’t able to discover what she was doing in there. – Anyone smart enough to fool the Government for so long was also perfectly able to clean after himself. The only chance to get Sixteen was catching her by surprise, but the trail was cold as steel. – Biometric traces confirm her presence at the workstation, more than five kilocycles past. We also found evidences for custom made organic tissue, produced on the spot. –

– THIS IS UNIMPORTANT. I SEE THERE ALSO WERE HIGH-END PRINTERS. –

Eli-ky nodded. – She had all the necessary equipment for producing medium-to-small mechanic parts, with a precision equal to factory standards. –

– NANOMECHANICS. – An obvious conclusion. Producing nanolayers without a permit was a crime almost equal to open rebellion.

– We still don’t know where she got raw materials or how she tended to her biological needs. My ESC is still scouting the surroundings in level 421, hoping to find more clues. In the meanwhile, we closed the workstation off and we’re waiting for further instructions. –

The higher-ups didn’t answer. Maybe whoever was on the other side of the network was busy looking at the raw data, or wanted to keep her waiting, making her fry with embarrassment for their pitiful results. They hadn’t managed to find the Maker, or any conclusive trace of her unlawful research; just second-hand information. The access point column rotated slowly, uncaring.

– In any case, the workshop wasn’t equipped to assemble hypercinetic weapons. There might be another structure with more advanced assembly lines nearby, or maybe Maker Sixteen moved towards… –

– IT’S ENOUGH. – Data stopped flowing into the net, and her neural cable was ejected from the slot. Eli waited patiently as in slid back into her body. – YOU ARE DISMISSED. LEAVE THE AREA, EST-MODEL ELI. –

She nodded, feeling relief. The meeting had been bad, but could have been worse. Her nanolayer still crept under her skin with residual anxiety. She turned her back on the column, at least happy to leave the room. Neon lights had turned to a sick shade of light-blue. She was about to cross the archway towards the lift, when she noticed a fastidious noise. It was a high-pitched screeching, something that a bug could make by rubbing its forelegs together. She crossed the doorway, teeth clenched.

Eli-ky had almost forgotten about the Xeraphis guarding the room. For a brief second she gazed at their jagged silhouettes: both had lifted their three jointed arms, holding their bone weapons high above their heads. Part of her mind realized they were the source of the unnerving screeching.

Then the swords fell.

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