Putting a Ghost in the Machine
rating: +17+x

Wind howled through the city streets as two solemn figures entered into the shelter of an alleyway. Their collars turned up to the rain, it was impossible to perceive their identities even in the glare of the neon signs marking a seedy hole in the wall. They trudged on through deep puddles towards light spilling out of an open door. A third figure stood in the doorway, waiting for them. Once they entered, he pulled the door shut and slid two heavy deadbolts into place. This part of the hospital seemed relatively whole, unlike the burned out facade facing the street.

“So, um, Mister Sloane, do you mind telling me why you brought me here?” asked one of the two men. The other arrival remained quiet, his hat pulled low over his face.

“Yes yes yes, most certainly,” their host squeaked. “I found something most interesting that I thought you might be interested in. I’ve got an offer on it from Marshall’s folks, but you get priority for old time’s sake.”

“Thank you, uh, Mister Sloane. Do you mind showing it to me?”

Sloane led the way down a flight of stairs, with the more vocal guest following close behind. Neither looked back to see the quiet man slide the deadbolts back and push the door slightly open before following. The staircase took them into the middle of a long hallway lined with heavy iron doors.

Various signs hung from the ceiling, the words illegible under a thick layer of dust and grime. Nevertheless, Sloan looked up and examined them before starting off suddenly towards the right. Anderson had to quicken his pace to catch up with the shorter man, who strode with purpose towards a set of less imposing doors at the end of the hall. The third man allowed himself to fall behind, opening a few of the doors along the way to examine the empty rooms within.

“So, Mister Anderson, I remember you telling me about the ol’ Saker project and the issue that came up, what with moving minds into machines,” the host said as they drew near the double doors.

“You can call me Vincent. And yes, um, that little issue forced us to abandon the original goal of the project. It was quite, uh, quite a shame.”

Sloane threw his arms wide as they entered a large space arranged like a surgery. “Voila!”

The walls and floor bore the scars of a fire long since passed, but the equipment was pristine. Anderson walked over to a gurney and ran his gloved hand over the smooth faux leather, scraping off a thick layer of dust. It was impossible to read emotions through the silver mask, but the slump of his shoulders testified to his disappointment. He had not travelled so far to see an old disused medical facility, as odd and hidden as this one might be.

“Tell me, Mister Sloane, is this what you wanted to show me? I find myself, uh, underwhelmed,” he said as he scanned the room a second time over. “I do hope you are not wasting my time.”

“Oh heavens no!” the short man said, picking up on the hostile undercurrent of his guest's statement. He scurried over to a large piece of equipment mounted on the ceiling. A thick dustcloth was draped over it, and cables ran out from underneath and along the ceiling and walls to a large console bolted in place near the door. “I haven’t shown you the best part of this facility yet!”

With a flourish, he removed the dustcloth to reveal a large mechanical arm, more akin to those Anderson had in his assembly room than to hospital equipment. A menacing claw adorned the end of it, with a rubber hose running from the center of the it along the length of the arm and then over to the console, where it fed into some sort of strange device.

Anderson couldn’t help but admire the finely crafted piece of machinery, although he could only guess at its purpose. Whatever it might be, it bore the same wounds of fire as the room it was housed in.

“This, Vincent, is a one of a kind device that I bet you have never encountered before. It took a bit of study and experimentation, but I have finally derived its use.” Sloane’s smile beamed from across the room.

“Yes, um, but what is its use?” Anderson inquired, his patience beginning to desert him. “It looks like a fancy arm for lifting patients.”

Sloane inflated a bit more. “This device is capable of removing the consciousness, the very soul, from a human and storing it in a jar. Then, you can place it in another body, be it the original or a different one. I might hazard a guess and say that it could do what you couldn’t and fulfill the Saker project.”

Anderson walked over to the machine and ran his hand along the smooth metal with a fondness only seen between lovers. Slowly but surely, he examined every piston and bolt of the machine, searching for any flaw and finding none. It was a masterwork of machinery.

“Mister Sloane, how exactly did you, um, discern this machine’s purpose. I do hope you didn’t go experimenting.”

“No sir, not me. I read the manual!”

Anderson’s attention turned back to the short man. “And do you have the copy of this manual to go with the machine?”

“Of course, of course, it’s in a safe place. Once we finalize this sale, I can fetch it for you. I was thinking, maybe, seven hundred thousand pounds ought to cover it.”

“Thank you, Mister Sloane, for showing me this. If you’ll allow my associate a few moments to write up the check, we’ll be, um, golden.”

The third man withdrew a thick checkbook from within his coat and began writing. Sloane’s smile began to fade as he watched. He had been hoping to get the payment in cash, but he had already highballed Anderson way above his estimated profit and didn’t want to push. After all, he had correctly gauged the entrepreneurs interest in such a device, and how much acquiring it would be worth to him.

The silent man tore out the check and handed it to Anderson, who signed his name with a flourish and in turn handed it to Sloane. For his part, the short man kept a handle on his face even as he jumped for joy inside. “And you’re sure I won’t have any trouble cashing this check?”

Anderson snickered. “No trouble at all, Mister Sloane. I’ve got an arrangement with, uh, with the bank. They know to expect things like this.”

“Thank you very much, Vincent. I’ll go fetch that manual snap-quick and be back before you know it!” And, true to his word, Sloane nearly ran back into the hallway, not noticing the small silver orb that latched onto the edge of his coat as he brushed past Anderson’s associate.

“Six-two?” Anderson called, once he was sure their host had left earshot. The silent man looked up at his master. “Tell Seven-six to follow Benny and Mister Sloane and acquire the manual. And, uh, to make sure we hold onto these new trade secrets. Authorization kappa-dash-one-three-seven-six and clean up afterwards.”

The Saker unit nodded, already relaying the orders to the third unit up above in the streets of the city. Anderson turned away, running his hand back along the metal arm. “And tell, um, tell Phineas to get excited. We finally have what we need for the Saker project to blossom.”

Special Agent Rikhart wiped sweat off of his brow as the elevator descended into the depths of Anderson’s facility. He had only been here a few times, and never before without an invitation. The man next to him stared blankly at the wall. Or was it another one of Anderson’s robots? He could never tell which was which.

After what felt like an eternity, the compartment ground to a halt and the doors creaked open. A plain lobby appeared on the other side, complete with a bored looking receptionist and several dying shrubs in metallic pots arranged around the room. Rikhart stepped out of the elevator and turned back, expecting his companion to join him. When the man didn’t, he shrugged and headed over to the receptionist’s desk.

“May I help you?” the slim girl asked, barely glancing up from her computer screen. Her hand moved the mouse in a pattern that Rikhart had come to recognize as online solitaire, a trademark of bored office peons everywhere. This one was human, at least.

“Yes, I was hoping to speak to Vincent about some urgent matters. Is he in, or should I come back at another time?”

The girl shifted her gaze to piece of paper taped next to the screen. “Mister Anderson is currently in a meeting, but if you would like to wait for him, it should be over soon. You can sit over there.” A nod towards a row of chairs across the room felt more like a command than a suggestion, and he took a seat close to the door to the stairs.

As time dragged on, Rikhart became more and more aware of the awkward feeling of an empty holster in the small of his back. The guards up at the surface entrance had been very thorough, catching all of his holdouts, even the thumb knife he had up his sleeve. The last few times he had been here, they hadn’t bothered with that, but there was always a difference between an invited guest and a visitor.

Several people came and went through the lobby while the agent waited. Some were obviously guests, as evidenced by their cautious manner and the glances the receptionist gave them. Others strode confidently past her desk and through one of a number of doors behind her. About an hour into his wait, a trio of men exited the largest of these doors, accompanied by none other than Anderson himself. He walked with them to the elevator, where Rikhart could just barely pick up their conversation.

“I understand the, uh, need for an answer soon, Mister Marshall. But some new developments have, um, have come up, and I need time to reconsider your offer,” Anderson said to the tallest of the three men. The agent perked up at the name, racking his memory for where he had heard it before.

“That’s all well and good, Mister Anderson, but if you wait too long we may turn to other prospects, and this isn’t an offer you discard out of hand.” With that, the tall man entered the elevator flanked by his two companions. The doors closed, leaving Anderson standing alone. He turned and scanned the reception, his mask glimmering in the harsh fluorescent lighting. After a few moments, his eyes settled on Rikhart.

“Oh, Agent Rikhart, it’s a, uh, a pleasure to see you.” The businessman moved over to the chairs before the agent could shake himself out of his thoughts and stand. Anderson offered a gloved hand, which Rikhart awkwardly shook. He always found the mask unnerving, and the lighting made it even more so than usual.

"Likewise, Vincent. I was wondering if you and I could have a word about some stuff that's come across my desk regarding your little operation in the past few days."

"Of course we can. Please follow me back to my, um, office."

He led the uneasy agent back through the door he had emerged from moments earlier and down a long hallway to a nondescript door. Inside was a similarly nondescript office. The spartan decor gave no hint that its inhabitant was the founder of such an unusual company.

Anderson moved behind the desk but remained standing, while Rikhart chose to edge himself into a chair. The two stared at each other for a few seconds before Rikhart realized he should probably start talking.

"Vincent, I got a report that a known associate of yours, one Daniel Sloane, has gone missing some time in the past few days. We had a sting going to track down his inventory, and a team ready to bring him in, and now the whole investigation is high and dry."

"A failed investigation sounds par for the, uh, course for the Unusual Incidents Unit, Agent Rikhart. Although it sounds like your people were getting close to accomplishing something. Congratulations."

Rikhart fought the urge to cringe at the backhanded compliment. Anderson must not be in a good mood, or else he didn't realize how crass his words sounded. "I'll pass that along to them, I guess. But what worries me is a report I got that you've got your hands on some serious equipment. Look, Vincent, I know that you're looking to expand your business, but I can only run so much interference. There's a new head shed and he's already looking to stir things up."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, you see, he's been cracking down on some of our more unsuccessful operations, and he doesn't seem satisfied with just keeping tabs on operations like yours. If you push too much, I can't keep you out of his crosshair."

"Are you saying you won't be able to, uh, uphold your end of the agreement?" It was impossible to read any emotion from Anderson, but the agent swore that the temperature in the room had dropped a few degrees all of a sudden. He squirmed slightly in his seat.

"Not exactly. You see, I…I haven't been on any other cases since I'm still the head of the investigation into you and your business, being the only one still on it at all. So I don't have a lot of chips on the table. As long as you don't do anything big, I can cover you. But if not…" Rikhart trailed off as Anderson moved around the table to stand next to him.

"I'm sorry if I'm causing you trouble, Agent Rikhart. But you must understand that, um, as a small business owner, I can't discard opportunities. We're marketing a new product, and I've already, uh, started looking at future expansion." A cold gloved hand came to rest on Rikhart's shoulder, and he couldn't suppress an involuntary flinch. If Anderson noticed, he didn't show it. "So is Charles Ogden Geirs going to be an issue?"

"How do you know who-" The agent's sentence was interrupted by a sharp pain in his neck. He slumped back into the chair as small spider-like robot scurried off his shoulder and into his lap. It emitted a rapid stream of high pitched noises, to which Anderson nodded.

"I agree, Benny. It's, uh, about time we got control of our own man, er… man, yes, inside the UIU. I'll have someone fetch our former friend here and get one of the Sakers outfitted properly."

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