The two men quickly walked down the hall, pushing the small cloth-covered cart in front of them. A sudden door slam far behind them made the older man cry out, to be quickly stifled by the younger as they picked up their pace.
“This is wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this. They are going to find out, they have eyes everywhere,” the older man looked about the ceilings, seeming to search for cameras.
“Just shut up and get it to the lab. Once we’re there, we can just say it got spat out from some test. It’s shift change, and as long as nothing hits the fan, they won’t look over hallway tapes that closely,” the younger man scratched his arm nervously, pushing the cart at just under a run. “Beside, we’d never get it up and running without this stuff. We need it, and The Foundation would never let us have it without years of testing. Just shut up, smile, and nod at the right times.”
The older man grumbled as he pushed open a heavy door, letting out a puff of very cool, well-filtered air. “I still think this is a bad idea. Dr. Valence may have told us to get this done by any means, but I really doubt he meant this,” the younger man sighed, shaking his head as he pushed the cart past the older man and into the room. “Listen, all that matters is the bottom line. It's two years of research into biomechanics, polymorphic computational components, and tons of red tape, or an hour with a screwdriver and some sterile gloves. Now shut the damn door so we can get in the clean room,” the older man complied, grumbling something about a church as the door swung shut.
Neither noticed the small drop of gray liquid that had dripped from the cart. Neither noticed it suddenly gain surface tension and roll like a washed out drop of mercury either. The blob quickly slid under the microscopic gap under the door, and rolled quickly up the outside of the older man’s pant leg, before hopping across and sliding back under the cloth covering the cart. Both men were too absorbed in the task at hand to notice the small shift under the cloth, and too focused on the robotic frame in front of them to contemplate it even if they had noticed it.
He sat in the middle of the smoke. He sat and inhaled deeply, eyelids fluttering, sweat dripping from his body to mix with the soot and ash on his skin. The smoke was strong, and smelled of machine oil, wood, coal and flesh as it billowed from four grates in the floor, pooling in a noxious cloud in the ceiling as the ash rained down. He opened his mouth, and exhaled the smoke, pouring forth the ash and soot as would the Lord. Truly he felt the touch of God, felt his body within his own, his flesh within-
A sudden knock on the unseen door broke his concentration, causing him to cough on the suddenly biting and acrid smoke. A few choking, hoarse commands caused the grates to snap shut and the ceiling to open, the smoke quickly venting away. He pulled on the heaped robe he had hung in the corner, still coughing and silently cursing whoever had broken his communion. He wrenched open the door, letting a thin yellow light spill in. “I swear to you, if this is any less then a message of the utmost end of need, I will personally head up an Inquisition on your behalf.”
The young girl kneeling in the hall trembled, wincing and trying to shrink into an even smaller heap. "I-I w-was told,” she stammered, near tears, her voice starting to waver. He sighed, crouching down and taking her chin in his hand, tilting her face up to see her green eyes nearly drowning in unwept tears. He smiled, the black ash and soot causing his teeth to shine even whiter. “Ease, my child. I was in deep communion with the Lord. Your coming scattered His Voice, it is not your fault. Calm yourself, and speak.” The girl rubbed her face with her wrist, managing a small smile before blushing slightly and looking away. “I was told to come and tell you that the Will of God had been delivered to the Jailors.”
He blinked several times, the girl shyly looking back and smiling, but his returning grin was not for her. Indeed, his eyes appeared to be miles away as he asked “Who has done this great thing? Who has delivered Salvation to the Corrupted?” “Brother Jacob,” said the girl, watching as he rose again, “he is still coming back, but I was told that the Will had been given over freely to them.” He quickly stepped around her, striding down the hall without a word, leaving her still kneeling and watching his quickly receding form. Truly, he thought as he quickly went to meet with the Faithful, God is great. Even as he is Broken, the portions of the Lord can still do his Will.
“Dr. Valence, a question: why do you call it ‘hatbot’? Isn’t there something a little more," the researcher paused for a moment, lost in thought, "appropriate?” Dr. Valence shook his head, still grinning at the assembled staff. Behind him stood a small, slightly skeletal android, with what appeared to be a top hat pulled three quarters of the way down on its “head”, leaving only a small LCD screen displayed below it. To the robot’s left stood a nervous older man with a name tag reading “Prof. Grommet”, and to its right stood a beaming young man in a suit, whose name tag declared him as “Agent Gild”.
Dr. Valence shook his finger playfully at the staff member who had asked the question. “Now now young man, didn’t anyone teach you not to question your elders?” The assembled staff chuckled, and the questioning doctor’s face started to take on a mild shade of red. “Yes, Hatbot does seem like a very silly name, however during the initial testing, the processing unit looked very similar to a top hat. We’ve moved away from that design with the now completed prototype, however the name has stuck. Also, the somewhat whimsical configuration allows for more acceptance and ease of interaction.” The good doctor continued to beam like a proud father as he gestured to Prof. Grommet, who quickly reached over and pressed a sequence of buttons on the robot’s back.
The robot suddenly sprang up in a slight hop, before landing several inches forward of its original position, causing many of the staff to abruptly retreat several steps, a few of them even producing weapons. The LCD screen below the top hat suddenly lit up, and the robot raised one skeletal, wire-wrapped arm and waved to the staff, while a small animated cartoon mouth appeared on the LCD and a voice emanated from it. “Hello, I am Hatbot! Hatbot I am. Hello!”
Silence dominated the room for several seconds. Dr. Valence’s smile faltered a moment as he observed none of the staff to be abandoning their position of retreat. Or their firearms. “Hatbot, don’t be rude,” he said, keeping the nervousness from his voice with a small effort, “Let the nice people know what you are.” The robot suddenly snapped to attention, and rattled off the lines not unlike a new army recruit. “Hatbot is a speech recognition, interpretation, and deciphering system! Hatbot’s polymorphic computational matrix is able to adapt, interpret, and utilize any form of vocal or written communication!”
Dr. Valence was suddenly bombarded with questions as the staff overcame their initial concern with the desire to know more. Several began to test Hatbot’s speech capabilities, watching as it not only parroted back words, but then use them in new sentences. Dr. Valence described various technical details, and laid out his proposal to use it to decipher some of the unreadable texts and untranslatable languages that The Foundation had been unable to crack.
“Doctor, how did you develop a processor capable of such advanced communication recognition in such a short time? You’ve only had this project a few months, it seems almost impossible.” Everyone was too engrossed in Dr. Valence’s reply about “late night 914 work” and Hatbot’s slightly confusing responses to notice the sudden cold sweat break out on Professor Grommet’s face, and the harsh, silencing look from Agent Gild. The staff started to slowly filter out as Dr. Valence stated his need to run more tests. Two lingered, however, watching Hatbot and the two men who stood slightly behind them.
“What’s wrong boy? Got the scent? Did Timmy fall down the well?” the short woman asked, using a tone better reserved for a small, over-eager puppy.
The tall man in the outlandish hat to whom this statement was addressed continued to stare and grin at the small robot. “That is the most evil thing I've seen in years," he said, continuing to smile cheerfully. "I think there’s a world-destroying demon in it.”
The woman laughed, swatting his arm. “Oh would you lay off the ‘I’m The Devil, booga booga!’ crap? It’s a weird little socially awkward robot who has issues communicating normally. Basically someone made a fun-size Dr. Gears."
"I shouldn't leave. Every time I do, things go to pot. I don't know why I let Glass convince me to do this," the tall man muttered. The pom-poms on the rim of his hat swayed gently. "Maybe I should cancel. Tell the others I'm staying here, just to be sure."
"Don't be such a stick-up the ass. Try to relax, you're on vacation. Now, can we please go?” She grabbed his arm, starting to tug him away, and he reluctantly followed, craning his neck to try and still see the robot.
Had he hesitated a few seconds more before being pulled through the doorway, he would have noticed the sudden flicker in the mouth screen. It was quickly back to its normal, smiling mouth, but for a moment, it displayed a roiling, bubbling mass of grey strings, wavering against an oily, black background.
“I am the best!”
“I am the best!”
“No, no…me, I and the best!”
The security guard sighed, rubbing his forehead. The little goofy robot was neat, but it was about as smart as a bag of doorknobs. After getting it to repeat a bunch of swear words, the game was starting to get old. He stood, looking down at the little robot. The top hat tilted up, the screen flicking on to the animated mouth.
“…What did you say?”
“Damn me, and damn you.”
“Whatever, just shut up.”
The guard was a little nervous. He probably wasn’t supposed to be playing with this thing, but being alone on-site at night was probably the worst thing ever in his opinion. Another voice helped ease things a bit, even if it was only from a weird little robot. Now, however, he was getting worried about what might happen if people found out he’d been screwing around with this thing. He hurriedly picked up his rifle from the floor and looked over the bot.
“Everything looks ok, I think…”
“Everything is just fine. Come to me.”
“Listen; don’t tell anyone those things I taught you, ok?”
“The hate pours hard in the eyes of you, you must join in.”
The robot’s ever-smiling mouth was starting to get a little creepy, along with the weird shit it was saying. He backed away a bit, looking it over to see if there were any obvious issues. Then he saw the leak. He felt the blood drain from his face as he watched a slow drip of grayish goo drip from a seam in the back of the “head”, slowly slipping down its back.
“Shit your pain.”
He quickly looked around for a cloth or anything to wipe it up with, but found nothing. Cursing again, he reached out as tried to scoop up as much as he could with his hands. He wiped the oily substance on to the back of his pants, thankful that it didn’t appear to stain. Pulling down his sleeves, he used them to rub off the rest of the residue. Watching for a little bit, to make sure nothing else was coming out, he nodded, some color coming back to his face.
“Oh, thank God…must have gotten something on you”
“I have gotten.”
“Yeah, I guess. Gotta be hopping little guy!”
“Be seeing you soon.”
He quickly walked out of the room, making his way to the closed offices for his rounds, ignoring the mild tingling in his hands. Probably some kind of chemical or something in it, have to hit the bathroom and wash up. As he turned down the hall, he had the sudden compulsion to go to the break room, or the main entry. He almost made a wrong turn, but shook his head and headed in to the bathroom. Stupid robot must have scared him worse then he’d thought. Although, he had made only one sweep of the entry way…another wouldn’t hurt. He hurriedly left the bathroom without washing, leaving his gun on the counter. Had anyone been watching, they might have had concern over the glassiness of his eyes, or his oddly uncoordinated walk.
No one was, however, and he quickly walked through the double doors in to the main entry. The door closed behind him, and silence ruled the hall for half an hour. A sudden, loud shouting broke this calm, but was quickly stifled, the cool darkness of the site once again unbroken and total.
The word processor’s animated paper clip assistant waves and winks at you. Your colleagues have told you multiple times that the thing is just a pain in the ass, but personally you think he’s kinda cute. Besides, he does help keep you awake at night, especially during long shifts such as this one. You blink hard and refocus on the task at hand. Before you rests a seemingly bottomless pile of notes to be transcribed into digital format for storage, which you’ve been working at all night. However, even though there’s no end in sight to the paperwork, you can’t say that it’s not interesting. Hatbot is one hell of a piece of engineering, you think to yourself.
More papers, more notes, more time spent. You look at the clock and realize it’s nearly one in the A.M., then groan in annoyance. You always told yourself that you would never end up being one of the graveyard shift paper pushers, not while working in this place. Never.
So much for that, eh.
Eyelids droop across your vision and you decide a strong mug of coffee is just what you need. It’s hot and full of caffeine, but you notice some odd greasy residue on your hands when you replace the pot on the burner. Thinking nothing of it, you wipe it on your clothes and return to work. The coffee helps; you immediately feel a bit more alert, and your productivity increases markedly. Maybe you’ll finish after all.
Then again, maybe not. You blink and stare at the screen in disbelief; this entire page is full of angry red scribbles and Clippy is yelling at you for being so careless. Thank god he takes the liberty of fixing most of your errors, but the damage to your pride is done. Another page and yet more typos crop up, slowing you down even further. You wonder what the hell was in that coffee because this is simply ridiculous. You make a mental note to send Mavis Beacon an angry letter, should you ever get time to do so. Clippy, meanwhile, dutifully goes about cleaning up your ham-handed mistakes.
Blink again, look at the screen. No, Look at it closer. Your simple misspellings are beginning to translate into completely erroneous phrases. Phrases spill into complete sentences, and soon you have entire paragraphs of gibberish. Mash the backspace key sluggishly, you’re so tired that you have to force yourself to do even that. The cursor stops, seemingly on its own, bracketing your attention around a peculiar piece of writing.
"So, we started to come to the blackness that yawns beneath the layers of thought, of reality itself."
“…Did I write this?” You hear yourself ask. At the same time you notice your palms moisten and you draw in a sharp, fearful breath. Or at least you try to, instead managing to wheeze ineffectually. “…Try again. Keep trying, finish up and go to sleep.” Your hands manipulate the keys, but what you think is not what you type.
“Blackness awaits you. In your thoughts and in your dreams, there is only blackness. It awaits us all.”
Another hard blink. “Turn it off. Turn the computer off, you’re done here,” you panic to yourself, but your hands continue to type on a whim of their own. You don’t give up so easily though, you’re a tough girl, and it took you a lot of hard work to get here. You power through the mental barrier and stand, trembling, staggering towards the doorway. Unconsciously your hands move to your eyes; when you hold them before you, they are covered in black oil.
“Get help. Get out of here.” The airlock opens with a hiss as you lurch into the hall and collide with one of the posted guards. Your mind screams at you to speak to him, but no words come from your mouth. Your actions are not your own anymore; you swing at the man, startling him, but he quickly subdues you and knocks you to the ground.
“Help! Help me!” you scream to yourself.
“You, too, will contribute to the black. The empty. The abyss,” is what you manage to croak. Your heart races and you sweat profusely, only it's not sweat: it’s that same oily mess. Your mind contorts in agony as the realization strikes home that you are not yourself anymore, this body is no longer yours. Your mind is all that’s left of you, and nobody will ever see the real you again. You lost the battle for control of yourself long ago.
You are trapped, in this body. And all that awaits you is the blackness.