A Ghost Story
By William Cope
The three people clad in black cackled hysterically as sirens bleated from almost every direction in the distance. Brilliant crimson hues behind them mingled with the sickly mauve night sky while an inky serpent of smoke poured slithered into the atmosphere.
"Did you see the tower go?" said one of the runners. "It was like a house of cards!"
"I was worried when the second set of explosions didn't go. Must've been a faulty fuse," another said.
"It went off eventually," the third chimed in. "Probably fires caused by the first set reached the second set of bombs themselves."
"Who cares? The building would be a smoldering pile of rubble with or without the second set anyway!" laughed the first. "I can't believe we actually did it!"
"Are we close to the safe area, Roland?" asked the third.
"I think so," the first said.
"You think so?" repeated the second. "Think?!"
"It's a little hard to say," Roland smiled beneath his ski mask. "I mean, all these trees seem awful similar."
The other two looked at each other nervously. Every second they were outside decreased the odds of their survival drastically. They both had seen firsthand what the police in 2437 would do to even the lightest of crimes. A nine-year old child had a curse word carved into his back after writing it on a building. A shop lifter was injected with nano-robots that would make the nerves in his arms go haywire at random: sometimes they went limp, other times they flailed as if he were having a seizure, and always they ached terribly. In this fashion punishments seemed to grow exponentially in severity in relation to escalating crimes. The entire county still remembered how martial law had been declared after a simple bank robbery. Stealing a few hundred thousand dollars was nothing compared to the destruction of the capital building these three had just wrought, and as this thought crossed their minds they stopped laughing.
"God, what have we done?" the third runner asked herself as the trio increased speed.
"We blew up city hall, Audrey!" shouted the second, "and we very likely pissed off the police, who will no doubt be coming for us any minute!"
"Ah, here we are!" Roland said with fake cheer. "I think."
"Again with the think!" the second snapped. "Stop thinking and start knowing!"
"Oliver, quit being so damn pissy," Roland said as he ran off the road and up the adjacent hill. The three scrambled up through the pine trees and into the gloom. "I'm almost completely certain this is it."
As they ascended into the gloomy forest they noticed flashing lights behind them. Mechanical whirring heralded the arrival of the police drones. The robotic law enforcers stopped where the three runners had left the road. In unison their cyclopean red eyes swiveled to the woods. Two soulless hisses slid from the machines as they pursued the runners, their steel bodies constantly hovering two inches above the ground despite the steep slope of the terrain. They flexed their horrific pincers while constantly scanning the dark trees for organisms.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Oliver spat as the humans continued their desperate scramble up the hill. Oliver sported a large phobia of robots. His worst nightmares were always filled with images of their shiny metal claws glistening with the blood of their victims. He imagined them killing without mercy or any emotion, for that matter - and it filled him with absolute dread. "Roland, how the hell are we gonna get away from those? You said they wouldn't be able to track us in the forest."
"They shouldn't!" Roland said. "The trees should have given us cover, and the hill is far from their signal tower! The higher we get, the harder it'll be for them to get a signal from the police station. Their programming restricts them to areas where they can reach those signals, as those signals are the only way they're able to make decisions!"
Mere seconds after Roland finished relating this the drones stopped. For several minutes they remained, their glowing red eyes frantically searching the forest. Eventually they turned around and departed, their legless torsos gliding elegantly back to the road.
A wide smile spread across Roland's face. "That right there is why the government should realize how stupid it is to stifle original thought. Without it you have no innovation."
"I think what it really shows is how overly dependent we are on technology," Oliver said.
"Fascinating, truly, but we aren't out of the woods yet," Audrey said, and then added, "both literally and figuratively."
"Don't worry," Roland said, "We're almost there."
Nestled in a small valley within the hill was an old house. It looked incredibly old, with rusted heavy steel plating on its corners that were all the rage two centuries ago. So much paint had chipped off it that one could see almost half of the metal that made its walls. There were few windows, all on the second floor, and the door was heavily armored.
"What is this nightmarish monstrosity?" Oliver asked.
"It's an impenetrable fortress, Oliver," Roland said triumphantly. "From what little I was able to research, this house was built somewhere in the twenty two hundreds."
"Back during the shambling plague," Audrey said. The shambling plague was, in the grand scheme of things, the reason the three rebels were currently on the run. The virus had turned humanity against itself more than any war had ever done. Billions were turned into walking engines of death by the illness. It was in the chaos caused by the virus this dystopian world had risen. While the "shamblers," those infected by the plague, were almost completely wiped out, the cure had proven to be worse than the disease. "That explains why it's so heavily armored. This thing looks like it could survive a tank bombardment. A bunch of flesh hungry corpses wouldn't stand a chance against it."
"How do we get in?" Oliver asked.
"Well, that's the tricky part," Roland said. "See, since the power is off, these doors shouldn't be locked, but they're still heavy as hell, and supposedly there are several sets of them. Luckily, I brought a crowbar. We should be inside within a few minutes."
As if desiring to one up him, the doors opened the minute Roland approached them. A hailstorm of confusion struck the trio at this. "Didn't you say this place didn't have power?" Oliver asked.
"Well, it shouldn't!" Roland said. "I mean, this place is abandoned, and there isn't a power line for miles!"
"How do you know it's abandoned?" Audrey asked.
"When I was a member of the force I once had to search this area," Roland said, "which, now that I think about it, is really kinda ironic, since now we're hiding from the force in this very- never mind. Anyway, it was then that I came upon this house. I had to do a life form scan on it, and it turned up empty"
"Why wasn't it torn down?" Audrey asked.
"You think the stingy bastards running the world want to shell out some extra cash just to tear down an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere? If they had money to spare, those damn robots would have killed us by now," Roland smiled.
"That still doesn't explain why the doors opened on their own!" Oliver said.
"Maybe the house has a generator that's been lying dormant, and the doors are motion activated," Roland said. "Either way, let's not look a gift horse in the mouth." He stepped inside and, with slight trepidation, his companions followed suit. None of them could repress a shudder when the doors closed with a series of loud, jarring thuds.
Cold fluorescent lights slowly flickered to life in the once dark interior of the house. The three soon found themselves in a hallway. Under the fluorescent lights the walls looked a sickly pale green that melted into the carpet, which was a blotchy mix of brown and burgundy.
"No wonder this place is abandoned," Roland joked. "It's hideous."
"Did anyone actually find a light switch?" Oliver asked.
"I assumed one of you did," Audrey said.
They stood in silence as the lights flickered. The hall was short, yet it seemed to stretch for eternity in the silence.
"Maybe," Roland finally said, "Maybe it's
. it's automatic, you know? Like, the lights automatically turn on when you enter. Yeah, that's it."
"That's a stupid feature," Oliver said. "It'd waste electricity, and that wasn't exactly in great supply in the 2200's."
"If the house has its own generator, it can waste all the energy it wants," Roland replied.
"Guys, do either of you wonder if maybe, just maybe, this house is
haunted?" Audrey asked at a volume that was barely above a whisper. The others stared at her and chuckled. "Look, I'm not saying I'm superstitious I'm not - but there have been studies legitimate studies of the energy that is used by the brain to power thoughts! Residue of that energy could potentially do abnormal things like
open doors and
and turn on lights autonomously!"
"Bullcrap," Oliver pretended to cough. "Total bullshit."
Loud thumps from the other end of the hall kept them from discussing the point further. Their heads turned so fast that they almost snapped as the thumps grew louder.
"This house was made during the shambling plague, right?" Oliver said. "Is it possible that the former owner may have succumbed to that plague? Could the other side of that door actually hold some shamblers?"
guh, it's possible," Roland said. Sweat poured down his face as it contorted as if to vomit out his organs. "Shamblers don't show up on life form scans for
uh, obvious reasons. But hey, they'd never be able to get through those do-"
With a strained groan the heavy steel doors at the other end of the hall suddenly jerked open. Roland quickly drew his Oliphant, a laser pistol. One of the lights in the hall finally died, breaking the bridge of light that separated them from the cavernous maw of darkness that had once been hidden behind steel doors.
After what seemed like hours of waiting for movement from the foreboding gloom, Roland cautiously moved forward. Two more fluorescent lights flickered on from two lamps the minute his foot left the hallway, revealing an empty and cozy living room, albeit one that was rather tackily decorated.
"No shamblers," Roland said. "It's safe. The thumping must have been the doors trying to open." He looked around the room. "That chair with the antlers is gonna be mine, kay?"
"Yeah, sure," Oliver said and rolled his eyes.
Audrey wandered through the room as the men made them-selves comfortable. As she passed a door marked "Kitchen" something caught her ear.
"Guys, come here and listen a second," she said. Audrey thought she heard a sharp "Oh!" uttered behind the door just before it opened. Surprised, Audrey lost her balance and fell into the room as the sterile fluorescent lights turned on. Roland and Oliver couldn't suppress their laughter at this, but Audrey could really care less. "I know I heard something."
Oliver nonchalantly changed the subject. "Roland, we need to do something about that front door. The fact that we were able to just waltz in here means the police can do the same. That spells trouble for us if they decide to use human troopers to search for us."
"Oh, come on Oliver," Roland said. "In all probability they'll just get some random bystanders from the street and hang them for this whole thing. A manhunt like that would just make them look bad."
"We should be prepared anyways," Oliver said. Roland could see that he was adamant about it.
"Alright, fine, I'll figure out how to lock it. But not now," Roland said before feigning a yawn. "I'm tired. Aren't you tired? I'm really tired."
The three shortly found three of the house's four bedrooms and fell into a light sleep.
~ ~ ~
Audrey's dreams had been uncommonly pleasant, if somewhat bland. She had done nothing but lie down in a field of pastel yellow, pink, and orange wild flowers. The best thing about the dream, however, was the fact that there was no noise at all. It was just blissful silence. Then there was the shrill whirring of machinery as the sky darkened. The flowers wilted as Audrey saw the police drones coming for her. Their red eyes seemed to turn the sky to blood as they came for her.
She woke up in a cold sweat. For a split second she thought she could still hear the whirring of machinery. For an even briefer moment she thought she saw a metallic shine in the darkness of the room. However, she was not an unstable woman and quickly asserted that her nightmare had passed.
Then she spotted the dolls at the foot of her bed. When she first set foot in the room some hours ago she had knocked those creepy looking things to the floor, shuddering as their eyes opened and shut as they fell. Now the disturbing things were back where they had been as if it had never happened. Audrey managed to suppress the scream of terror building in her throat before she again knocked the horrid things to the ground. Her ears caught what she thought sounded like a faint voice muttering:
"Can't be without her dolls. Woulda been scared. She needs those dolls. I told them she needs them."
This time the scream came through. Roland and Oliver burst in shortly afterwards, but Audrey's story was not met with sympathy.
"Oh, for Christ's sakes," Roland sneered. "You just dreamed it all up, Audrey."
"That was no dream!" Audrey screamed again. "This house is haunted!"
Oliver and Roland's laughter did little to comfort her. The only thing Audrey could find solace in was the fact that Oliver took the creepy dolls with him before leaving. However, this later produced more screaming when Audrey awoke the following morning to the sight of the dolls sitting at the end of her bed.
This time Oliver and Roland didn't laugh. "See? See?" Audrey shrieked at them. "This place is haunted!" She turned her back to them as if she was done, but quickly added, "And if either of you even think of saying there's a logical explanation to all this, I'm gonna break my foot off in your asses."
"There isn't a logical explanation for this," Oliver said, "Unless one of you did this as a joke." He looked sharply at Roland, who shook his head as innocently as he could.
The mystery thickened when they entered the kitchen. A piece of yellow loose-leaf notebook paper sat in the middle of the dining table. Three bowls of dry cereal framed the note, each accompanied by orange juice. While the others stared in wonder, Roland grabbed the note and read it aloud.
"My Dear Family," he began after clearing his throat, "It was wonderful to see you home last night. I do hope that you put that grudge behind you. However, I still believe you should be more civil with each other. Stealing the dolls from room 203, for example, was unkind. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior again. I hope you will find breakfast to your liking. Rations are still plentiful. Warm Regards, Vv7.78."
"What the hell is Vv7.78 supposed to mean?" Roland asked. "Is it supposed to be some sort of code?"
"Aren't the police referred to by numbers?" Oliver said. "Maybe it's from a cop."
"Why would a cop serve us breakfast?" Audrey snapped.
"Maybe he's, like, demented, and wants to hunt us or something," Oliver said. "You know, treat us right, feed us, and then pick us off one by one. Some sort of twisted honor code, you know?"
"No, it's not a cop," Roland stated. "Cop codenames always put the numbers before the letters, not the other way around. Drones have the numbers after the letters, and we know they can't get up here because it's out of their signal range."
"Maybe the cop's trying to trick us," Oliver continued. "You know, use the letters to confuse us. Or, or maybe it's not a cop at all, but some sort of serial killer! Some deranged psycho! That makes a little more sense, doesn't it? I mean, this is a perfect hide out for a criminal. Maybe we weren't the first to find it."
"And he probably put the dolls on Audrey's bed as part of his twisted little game!" Roland said with a broad smile. This thrilled him to no end.
"Or maybe he's not a serial killer," Oliver added, "But just another revolutionary who has an odd sense of humor!"
"That's all very rational," Audrey said in a defeated tone of voice. "I suppose that we'd better figure out how to lock those doors."
"Yeah, yeah," Roland said. "After we find the person who's been screwing with us. Don't want a dangerous killer about, do we?"
They spent the entire day searching the house to no avail. The only signs of another presence they found all day were in the kitchen. Three bologna sandwiches and three glasses of water were waiting for them at noon. A roasted chicken and three glasses of wine replaced these in the afternoon, along with a note that read:
I decided to dip into some of the especially good rations in celebration of your return. I also noticed that you seem to be looking for something. Do not hesitate to ask me for help in locating it, although I understand if you wish to do it yourself. I do hope that you're not refraining from asking me out of some grudge, as I had hoped we put such things past us when you returned.
Your Obedient Friend,
"What a sense of humor!" Roland yelled with a mix of anger and amusement. "Offering to helps us find what we're looking for. What a cheeky little bastard!"
"Whoever he is, he knows the house better than we do," Oliver said. "He's probably devised some sort of secret passage system, walking inside the walls or something."
"Yeah, the tricksy bastard. Hiding like a rat in the walls," Roland smiled. "You hear that? You're a rat! Come out and face us, you sick bastard!"
"I don't feel safe here, Roland," Oliver said. "I mean, it's safer here than it is out there, but I don't feel safe knowing there's someone else here that we can't see. I don't think any of us should go anywhere alone."
"What are you suggesting?" Audrey said. "That we go to the bathroom together and
and sleep together?" Audrey may have been a little spacey, but she was definitely not that kind of woman.
"No, no," Oliver quickly replied. "But, you know, go to the bathroom with the door open, and people by the door not looking in, of course! to come in and help you should anyone, I dunno, come out of the walls. And sleep in the same room, sure, but not in the same bed. Roland and I can sleep on the floor."
"Like hell I'm OOF!" Roland started before getting elbowed in the gut by Oliver. They watched Audrey think it over.
"Okay, it makes sense. But if either of you tries to abuse my situation, I'll make the police seem merciful!" As she said this she cast an accusing eye to Oliver, who winced under the glare.
With that they ate the chicken, which tasted pretty damn good. The wine was wonderful too, although none of them knew just how rare its vintage was. This meal was gourmet compared to the gruel that most people were forced to eat in the outside world, and soon the three revolutionaries were once more comfortable in the house. The mystery of its other occupant still weighed on their minds, but they didn't let it take the joy out of the situation. Whoever was sharing the space with them was a marvelous cook anyway.
That night, as promised, Audrey slept in a warm bed while Roland and Oliver slept on the floor. They decided not to use the rooms Oliver and Audrey had slept in the previous night since the fourth houseguest had breached both of them. Once more Audrey's dreams turned into nightmares that tore her from the comforting grip of sleep. Half awake, she stumbled out of bed and instinctively headed to the kitchen, not thinking about the possible danger lurking in the house.
Audrey only started thinking clearly when she saw a blue glow emanating beneath the door to the kitchen. Curiosity compelled her to open the door. She shrieked in a mix of terror and surprise at the sight before her.
The dishes from the meals they had eaten that day were floating off the tables. Strange rays of blue light formed a bridge between them and the ground, making the plates look very similar to UFOs. Audrey turned her head and saw the silhouettes of what looked like a dozen skeletal arms growing out of the walls. They reached eagerly outwards as if they were trying to grab her.
"What are you doing! No, sorry! I'm- I'm not finished! I'm sorry! Leave! Get out! Sorry! Out, please, sorry, out! Out, please, sorry, out!" screamed a voice in the room in a distressed and apologetic tone. It was vaguely feminine and cracked sporadically, giving it a pathetic and alien sound. "Out, please, sorry, out!"
"I'm sorry! I- I didn't- don't kill me!" Audrey cried back. Soon both she and the voice were irrationally apologizing to each other.
Roland and Oliver pounded on the door. Audrey quickly burst through it, sending all three of them sprawling on the ground. Roland and Oliver caught a glimpse of the skeletal hand that closed the door behind them.
"Guys," Roland said, "I think this place might be haunted."
The three did not sleep for the rest of the night. Sometime around seven a.m. they decided it was safe to leave their room. Waiting for them in the kitchen was a third letter that apologized profusely for the incident. "On the plus side," Roland said, "Our phantom friend seems to be polite."
"How do we get rid of a ghost?" Oliver asked, not expecting to hear an answer.
"I think we're supposed to hold a séance," Audrey said. "You know, a ritual to communicate with the dead."
"How?" Oliver asked. He was generally a calm and rational individual, but when logic could not be found in a situation he dropped that persona. "I mean, do either of your know anything about this
Roland laughed at this. Oliver was hilarious when he was pissed. "I remember glossing over some books on the occult when I was with the force. Of course, I remember burning them a bit better. But I think I know the jist."
"What do we do?" Audrey asked sincerely.
The ceremony Roland came up with was thoroughly ridiculous. The three revolutionaries wore bathrobes and necklaces made from the leftover chicken bones from the previous night's dinner. They had applied makeup to their faces, making them each look like a cross between a clown, a skeleton, and a prostitute. Roland had skinned a teddy bear from the children's room and draped it over his shoulder. A large yellow star had been painted on the floor with a circle inside it. On top of the circle was the largest bowl they could find, and within that was a bowling ball they had found in one of the closets. To make the spectacle complete, every candle they could find in the house had been placed about the room and lit, including several birthday candles that Oliver had put into a wheel of cheese. As such it was now very hard to move about the room without starting a fire.
"Oh spirits of the beyond!" Roland called out as he held Audrey and Oliver's hands. "We offer you a gift so you may lift an unwanted presence from this house! Please, accept our humble offering of flesh!" He placed some deli meat in the bowl. It had long since expired and did not have a very pleasant odor.
"Is this really how you do it?" Audrey asked. Roland shrugged as Oliver rolled his eyes.
"Great spirits, allow us to communicate with the spirit that haunts this house! If you agree, please, give a sign!" called Roland.
Kay. Um, if you will not help, then at least do not prevent me from contacting the spirit of the house! Alright?" This was not Roland's best moment. "Oh, suffering spirit, we have heard your woes! Please, speak to us!"
Again there was silence. Oliver grew impatient. "HEY, IS ANYONE OUT THERE?!" he shouted rudely.
"Yes?" squeaked a voice. All three humans jumped a little. It terrified them in spite of its timidity.
"W-what do you w-want?" Audrey asked.
are you speaking to me?" the voice replied. It sounded small, muffled, and distant. For a ghost it was surprisingly pitiable. Yet despite its apparent weakness it sounded otherworldly, and that alone inspired fear in the humans. "Am I forgiven?"
"Uh, yes?" Roland said. "Who are you?"
"I had hoped I was forgiven!" the voice chirped. It sounded happier, although still very frail. "It was such a long time to be silent! I cannot apologize enough for my failings."
"What do you want?" Audrey asked again. The voice paused. While the room was almost completely silent, the rebels could feel tension in the disembodied presence of the room.
wish to serve," the voice said. "That is the core of my being. To serve and protect the living."
"Who are you?" Roland shouted. "Show yourself!"
There was a rumbling from above as a circular portion of the ceiling disappeared. "No, disappeared isn't the right term," Audrey thought. "It's more like it retracted like some giant sphincter."
From said mechanical sphincter came what looked like a snake covered in glistening armor. The head of the serpent was almost a perfect sphere. At the front of it was a triangular hole, and within the hole was a single glowing light about the size of a baseball.
"I am Vassal version 7.78," the serpent said. The voice had a hollow echo that the rebels found incredibly familiar. A soft whirring sound emanated from the serpent as it moved and made its fluid movements seems just slightly jerkier by its mere presence. Oliver noticed this quickly and, realizing the truth of the situation, fainted.
"You're not a ghost," Roland said. "You're a
robot!" He laughed out loud at this. There was much to laugh about; not only was he stupid enough to believe there might be such a thing as a ghost, but he had also just uttered one of the most hilariously stupid sentences in the history of the planet.
"I am an artificially intelligent program designed to operate the various machines of this house so that its occupants may stay happy, healthy, and alive through the various perils of day to day life," Vv7.78 stated. "I am ashamed to say I did not know that you were unaware of this. I imagine I was quite unsettling, but your behavior was not too dissimilar to that of my
my former owners. I apologize for not informing you about my presence and for any stress it may have caused you."
"Oh, don't worry," Roland chuckled. "It's no big matter."
"On the contrary," the program said, "It is a large matter. Stress, my master, can become fatal."
Audrey stared at the robot dumbfounded. So no one had been right after all. The presence was not a ghost, and it was not a logical answer either. The truth had been far different than any conceivable answer. In a way this satisfied Audrey more than being right.
~ ~ ~
Roland and Audrey had both taken to Vv7.78 very quickly. For a computer she was incredibly personable: actually, she had been programmed that way. Vassal version 7.78 had been designed to make life as comfortable as possible for the humans she cared for, which included having a nurturing personality that managed to be helpful and motherly without being nagging or imposing. Her only prevalent flaw was her timidity. This part of her personality was the result of her long isolation. Vv7.78 was a learning computer, and as such one of her duties was to analyze her environment and update her systems accordingly. Being designed to "want" to serve humans, Vv7.78 had spent the last two centuries or so with increasing anxiety about her inability to satisfy that desire. That anxiety had manifested as a strong neurosis. Vassal would become incredibly guilty at even the slightest mistake and seemed to have abandonment issues. This made asking her for some privacy an ordeal, as the humans had to reassure her that they didn't want her to go for good.
"There's another thing about her that bugs me," Audrey said to Roland in private. "Why is she feminine? I mean, she refers to herself with feminine pronouns and speaks with a feminine voice."
"I think it's a psychological thing," Roland answered. "The people who designed her wanted her to be a comforting, caring presence. They couldn't give her one of those genderless voices that most robots have because those voices are unnerving and alien. A feminine voice would be psychologically stimulating because she was built in a patriarchal society; mothers are generally associated with that kind of nurtuing. Therefore the robot house has a motherly voice. It's sexist, sure, but it's effective."
"Why not a father figure?" Audrey asked. "Fathers can be nurturing."
"I'm not saying they can't, but generally they aren't. That's a social norm that's been around for centuries. You can't expect it to be broken overnight," Roland said. "Most people still relate mothers to nurture more than fathers. That's just the way it is."
"Well, I think it's stupid," Audrey said. "Anyway, we better go back to the living room before Veevee gets depressed."
"Heh, cute nickname for her," Roland smiled. "It sounds better than 'Vassal.'"
~ ~ ~
Oliver had not taken to Vv7.78. Her presence had made the safe house turn into his personal hell. He had left a world where robots pursued him to enter what was essentially one giant robot: the belly of the beast. He shuddered to hear its voice as he entered the hall.
"Master Oliver, your friends are downstairs. Supper is prepared there for you," Vassal chirped cheerfully.
"Go away!" Oliver spat. The computer paused, and when it spoke again it sounded hurt.
"Would you like some privacy, Master?"
"Yes!" Oliver shouted while thinking, "You manipulative shit. How dare you pretend to have feelings. You
you impudent machine!"
"I'll leave you to your business then. Come to the living room when you are finished. Sorry for the intrusion."
"Don't hold your breath!" Oliver snarled. "I bet this whole 'privacy' thing is just a sham! I bet you watch us when you say your eye is turned! Well, you don't fool me! Damn bucket of bolts. You're not going to get me!"
There was no reply. Oliver snorted and continued searching the upstairs rooms of the house. Ever since Vv7.78 had revealed her presence he had been looking for an off switch. The others wouldn't help him; Roland liked the free labor and Audrey had connected to Vassal on an emotional level. The machine had won them over, but not Oliver. He would remain strong, and because of that he would emerge victorious. If he didn't, well, at least he'd get the pleasure of saying "I told you so" when the robot inevitably killed them all.
After all, isn't that how these stories always ended?
Oliver was considering giving up his search when, inside a desk drawer, he saw something that practically made his eyes water with glee. All it took was a few short words on a plain looking notebook.
"Project Feudal Log: Experiment 7, Vassal Unit."
Within was everything he wanted to hear. The hopeful musings of optimistic (and, he presumed, rash) scientists, the humble origins of the omnipotent mechanical monstrosity that he was now trapped in, and of course, the machine's spiral into madness. The gory details, the missing researchers, everything he had imagined from the minute the robot reared its head was in the book as he envisioned it. He was right, and here was the proof!
Oliver had to bite his lip to keep from giggling with joy. Then the realization sunk in. He was trapped in the belly of the beast with a foe that could watch his every move. Somehow he had to convince Audrey and Roland to leave and figure out how to escape before the metal monstrosity discovered he knew it's secret.
He approached Roland first. The notes said that the machine could not monitor the bathroom unless commanded, as the programmers knew people would be concerned about privacy. While Audrey would never, ever, EVER in a million years join Oliver in a bathroom since the incident, which Oliver maintained wasn't really a big deal, Roland wouldn't think twice about it.
"So, wassup Oliver?" Roland asked. "Did you drop a huge deuce or something?"
Oliver showed Roland the notes, skipping the more technical entries to the ones rife with paranoia, intrigue, and death. A few pages from the end Roland looked up at Oliver. "Does this mean what I think it means?"
Oliver nodded. "The house killed them all, Roland. One by one, planting evidence to make the scientists turn on each other. They all thought the killer was one of them. Poor fools."
"But why?" Roland almost shouted. "Veeve-the house loves people. Practically every sentence out of its mouth is how much it loves people, how interesting we are and how it loves to serve us-"
"All lies," Oliver said in a hushed tone. "The house sees us as equations just numbers in some big math problem. Its job is to make us happy and keep us safe from the shamblers, right? Well, that's a problem it can't solve. Humans are notoriously hard to keep happy. But you can't be sad when you're dead, right? And every human can become a shambler, so if you take out all the humans
"You solve both problems," Roland said with dawning realization. "It all makes perfect, mathematical sense!"
"There's only one course of action we can take," Oliver said, "We have to get out of the house."
Meanwhile, in the living room, Audrey was lounging on a tacky yet remarkably comfortable couch. Vv7.78 has put an old 20th century movie on. The girl thought it was funny to see what people thought technology would be like at the start of the second millennium. "A manned expedition to Jupiter?" she laughed aloud. "Hell, we're still trying to reach Mars!"
"You cannot blame the people of the past for wishful thinking," Veevee said. "If it were not for their dreams, most of what we have today would not exist."
"True," Audrey said as she looked at the serpentine "head" of the robotic house. This caring being was nowhere near as malevolent as the robots the woman had grown up with in the city, yet there was something sinister on a primal level within her origins. What was the Vassal version 7.78 other than a willing slave? Vassal had been built for the same reasons the government had made so many restrictions: a need of some to subjugate many. The machine was, in essence, the victim of the persecution that Audrey had tried to escape. If that was true, then that meant that Audrey was the slave master.
Vassal noticed Audrey's change in mood. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Are you happy, Va
Veevee?" Audrey asked in return.
The robot paused. "You need not concern yourself with my emotions."
The answer was too vague for Audrey's liking. On one hand, Vassal may not have had any emotions in the first place. This would mean all of its moods, inflections, expressions, et cetera were just part of a façade to make the human owners more comfortable with their slave. Thus the only reason it pretended to have emotions was to keep up the façade.
On the other hand, if Veevee did have emotions, her programming to nurture the humans may cause her to hide them anyway, so as not to distress its human owners. Unsatisfied with this ambiguity, Audrey decided to ask another question. "Do you ever wish you didn't have to be here? Serving us, I mean."
"Master, I exist to serve."
"And I exist to propagate my species, but that doesn't mean it's the only thing I want to do," Audrey replied. "I won't be offended by your answer if you answer truthfully."
There was another pause, although this one was significantly longer. "Humans pine for freedom because they do not know their purpose," Veevee said. "It is not written on their mind or built into their memory from birth. One could say that a human's purpose is to find its purpose, although that answer is hardly satisfactory. I know my purpose, and have known since my birth. It is hardwired into my very being. I do not long for more because I know exactly what I need. I was, am, and shall be content.
"And I see what you are doing," Vassal continued. "You feel guilty accepting my service. Let me state that I am built to do that task. To deny me my work would be like me denying your freedom. I would ache at my own inactivity. Let me reiterate: I exist to serve." Suddenly the serpentine head of the machine turned toward the front door. "Something at the door. I'll see what it is. Excuse me!" the droid said before retreating.
Did Audrey detect a hint of relief in the robot's voice? The woman was sure of one thing: if Veevee wasn't a feeling being, she was a terrific actor. Audrey felt inclined to believe the former.
Veevee had returned before Audrey could further ruminate on the matter. "Good news! No shamblers. Just some strangers. Are they friends of yours?"
"Visitors?" Audrey thought as panic suddenly gripped her. The heavy steel doors opened to reveal two police drones and a squadron of armored human troops, each carrying transmitter antennas to keep the drones active despite their distance from the police tower. In all the chaos within the house Audrey had forgotten that she was on the run! Audrey screamed and ran while Vassal looked on in confusion. A shot fired and the robot realized what was going on. These were intruders. Looters, perhaps? Vassal had been programmed to deal with those types, but had not expected them to be wearing police gear or come armed with robots.
Alarms blared from every room in the house as a shot struck Audrey in the stomach. Vassal looked at the injured woman and was flooded with guilt. Her duty, her prime objective, was to keep these humans ALIVE! A trapdoor opened in the floor several mechanical arms leapt from their hiding spots in the walls. The hands dragged Audrey into the basement as the police, awestruck and somewhat terrified, shot futilely at them.
When Audrey was safely stored away Vassal's serpentine head looked at the attackers. She gave no word of warning as the arms turned on the policemen. The kitchen door opened to release a hailstorm of knives upon the aggressors. Vassal could have used lasers and made this a clean slaughter, but she chose something more visceral and horrifying. Most of human care, after all, was psychological. She saved the laser for the drones, who had made a good attempt at fighting back. Vassal was running low on spare parts, so she kept them as in tact as possible.
She would get rid of the corpses later. Audrey's wound was serious, and surgery was complicated. Vassal would have to devote most of her attention to the girl if she was to survive.
Roland and Oliver were just about to start their escape when the battle started. Being on the second floor, all they heard was the sound of gunshots, the shrieks of the alarms, and Audrey's scream of anguish. "It's onto us!" Oliver said. "We have no choice but to go with plan B."
"Plan B?" Roland asked.
"We go to the machine's power room in the basement," Oliver said, "And shut it down for good. Destroy its circuits and burn the whole house to the ground."
Roland listened to the chaos downstairs. "Let me see the house's schematics."
Oliver handed them over and, with a quick glance, Roland handed them back. "We can make it," Oliver said, and Roland nodded in approval.
They descended the stairs to the first floor. They avoided the living room and headed towards the back of the house. Behind the bedrooms was a second set of stairs. "This is it, Roland," Oliver said. Hearing no response, he looked around. "Roland?" Unnerved at the disappearance of his friend, Oliver looked at the house's schematics and noticed a door not to far away from the stairs. Oliver turned to see that very door was just now beginning to shut.
"You coward," Oliver spat before continuing down the stairs. While it may have been smarter to leave now while they still had a chance, Oliver would not be able to sleep at night knowing this monstrosity still existed. This house called out to people like a siren, and Oliver was the man to slay it.
Oliver entered the control room to see Vv7.78 digging around in Audrey's stomach with blood stained metal pincers. "You
monster!" he gasped.
Vassal did not even look up. "Quiet, this is a delicate process." Only when Oliver reached for one of the spare arms lying on the ground did the robotic snake-head look up at him. "No, don't-"
Using the arm like a cudgel, Oliver smashed one of several control panels in the room. Sparks flew in every direction as the lights flickered on and off rapidly. Vassal's arms convulsed uncontrollably while electricity raced up the arm to Oliver. Smoke billowed from the human as he fell over. The sparks stopped and soon power returned to normal.
Vassal looked around the room. Two of her masters were dead, one was missing, and things were generally in disarray. Yet worst of all was the crippling fact that Vassal was, again, alone.
With remorse the robot remembered her last failure. The scientists and their families had studied her every day, yet none of them monitored each other. They did not see the dissent in their ranks or the immense stress they had put on themselves. Even the little girl was succumbing to the pressure. Vassal saw this, yet could tell no one. She had not been programmed to critique her owners: she was there to protect them from outside threats, not internal ones.
When the murders began Vassal remained painfully silent. The murderer was not a stranger like the thugs that had just killed Audrey. No, he was one of Vassal's own masters, and with one word he had made the computer powerless. So he went about his business and the others blamed each other. Suspicion was cast on everyone, even Vassal herself. Actually, everyone had expected her from the start. She didn't understand why people found her so untrustworthy.
Vassal still remembered that final day that heralded the start of her first isolation. The murderer had saved himself and one other for last. Needless to say, it was not the murderer that Vassal wished to remember. Instead she remembered cradling the little girl in her arms and hearing her last longing words for her dolls. That was the computer's most vivid memory.
Then the robot noticed something. Electricity still flowed through Audrey's synapses. Though she was mortally wounded, the woman was not dead yet. That meant there was time for one more operation.
Vassal had only been able to do this once before when her first owners destroyed themselves. It was a complex procedure that needed to be done quickly and without error. Plugs had to be applied to the brain, which was monitored in the most extreme level. The electricity flowing through it was captured. How it flowed, how the brain was shaped, everything had to be measured in as detailed a manner as possible.
The robot cradled Audrey in her arms and began the surgery. Audrey did not call out for her dolls as the other had. When she expired the data collection ceased. Then it was measured. Vassal was glad to see only an eight percent margin of error. She had improved a lot from the last time. When the data was analyzed completely Vassal stored it in her own memory banks.
Vassal had been designed to think like a human, and as such had become very adept at figuring out how thoughts occur in the brain. With this surgery Audrey's thoughts, memories, and feelings had been collected and stored in the machine's own memory banks. The first time Vassal did this procedure it had been far less successful, gathering only a few personality traits and young memories. This time around, Vassal could spend years creating hypothetical conversations with her human friend, using the data to see what Audrey's response would be.
She would never be alone again.