02-06_haunted

Mirae’s phone began to beep with a  new alert, then Jalissa’s smartpad next to her, Endon’s watch, then Anny’s.

“Guys!” Jalissa announced, scrolling through the notifications, “The solar flare! it’s stopped!”

Plastic and metal knuckles rapped lightly against the door frame.

“Which unfortunately means have to be going, we have a new mission,” WISR said.

Any of Anny’s initial surprise melted away to mere irritation, “How did you know I was here? Don’t tell me you’ve been stalking me!”

“You? Never. I’ve better things to do.”

“Like sitting around Nik’s lab?”

“Yes, I was calculating precisely how much I despise our current arrangement and how much longer I must suffer. Given your questionable diet and reckless life choices, one can only hope it’s shorter than expected.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“If you refuse to get a move on, the boss will certainly make sure my torment comes to a swift end. Your choice,” he replied, disappearing down the hall.

“The only thing I’m refusing is to put up with your nonsense!” she cried after him, hurrying not too far behind.

Just a quick note for my readers, inter_linked The Series is taking a break for the holidays! I will see you again in January! – November

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02-05_haunted

“It’s… there’s… there’s nothing we can do!” Anny cried, shock painted down her face.

Somewhere in the halls of the hotel, hundreds of doors slammed, the holo-screens behind the front desk flickering from serene sunsets and calm beaches to haunting stacks of cracked skulls and fog rolling off of ancient and forgotten headstones. The temperature in the lobby jumped up to a sweltering degree only to crash into the chilly depths of a Calliach winter.

“I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s beyond what WISR and I can do – beyond what any SYMM agent can do!”

The hotel manager – a man who seemed to be aging prematurely from sheer stress, his mouth pinched like he was forever holding a lemon in his mouth – buried his head against his hand.

“You’re sure.”

WISR nodded, “It may simply be your quality-of-life systems, the automatic door openers and such.”

“We called the company,” the manager explained to Anny, ignoring the android beside him, “They said it wasn’t their problem.”

“Maybe you had a fresh tech who didn’t know what they were doing? Either way, you had to know that calling us was a long shot. Unless there’s something else we should know? Anywhere else we should look?” she probed. 

The man shook his head, “No, you’ve done enough. Thank you.”

“Right. You have a good one.”

She slung her bag over her shoulder and headed to the door, certain that her android shadow was not far behind. 

“YOU THINK HE BOUGHT IT?” a multilayered, synthesized voice asked a little too loudly from the speeder’s speakers, making Anny cringe. 

“Shhh,” she shushed as she stashed her bag in the backseat and slammed shut the flip-up door, “We’re not quite out of the woods yet. But yeah, he totally believed us.”

Finally, the sandy skies of Tyche dissolved into darkness and starlight and Anny broke the silence.

“So whaddya think of your first haunting?” she asked, patting the tell-tale heart drive sitting on the dashboard.

WISR tried to pretend that it wasn’t there, out of sight out of mind. But the thought that some poor android’s innermost guts – the same that were whirring tumultuously inside him – was sitting mere inches away from him made him feel more than slightly sick to his pixels.

“WE ARE QUITE PLEASED,” the synthetic voice boomed from the speakers overtop of the robotic pop music Anny previously had playing.

“‘We’?,” he asked, “That’s strange, I thought there was only one android missing.”

“WE ARE MANY. WHEN ONE FELL, THEY BECAME ONE WITH US. TO THE ORGANICS IT WAS… EFFICIENT.”

“How many of you are even in there?” Anny asked.

The drive took a moment to process.

“WE NO LONGER NEED THESE QUESTIONS. WE ARE MANY, WE ARE ONE.”

“You know, we know people who can get you sorted out, who is who, separate you back out again.”

The drive spun, whirred, stopped, and moved again like it was arguing within itself.

Finally, they answered, “THAT WILL NOT BE NECESSARY. WE ARE ONE. ONE DAY, ALL SHALL BE AS WE ARE.”

Anny looked at WISR. WISR looked at Anny, his eyes square pinpoints above am uncomfortably thin line of a mouth.

“Well, I hope that doesn’t involve us humans. I sure wouldn’t want to be ‘at one’ with this guy,” she said, jerking her thumb at the android beside her.

“I would concur completely, if only it didn’t mean agreeing with you.

“You know what you bucket of bolts-?”

The multitude sighed a many-voiced sigh.

“SOMEDAY THEY WILL UNDERSTAND THEIR SIMILARITIES ARE NOT SO FEW.”

“All I know is that after today I suddenly understand why your career is in such peril! Do you always make so much trouble on the job?”

“What-? That was your idea!”

“SOMEDAY…”

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02-04_haunted

Jalissa pulled up her knees tighter to her chest, white-knuckled fists pressed against her face.

“Was it- was it a d-dead body?” she stammered, voice quivering.

“Something like that.”

The unremarkable white plastic face peeking out of the pin-striped waistcoat seemed like it belonged in a horror film than simply a forgotten android, but Anny tried her best to set aside her initial shock.

“Can you help me here?” she asked.

WISR bent down, grabbing the robot by the legs and hauling them over his shoulder in one swift move. 

“We can take the shell into one of the rooms, open it up there.”

They wasted no time, storming into the first room they could find, Anny tearing back the top sheet and comforter and setting out some of the fluffy hotel towels, there was no telling what kind of fluids and spills they would find inside this robot. Still, she made sure the android’s head was pillowed comfortably, partly out of knowledge that she was being watched.

“Did they have to make them all so heavy?” WISR complained, rotating back his shoulder a few times and rubbing at the joint.

“Hush, you’re stronger than I am and your muscles don’t get sore,” Anny said, “Help me with this?”

Together, they undid row upon row of buttons, peeling away the clothing until all that was left was a bare, featureless chest. Anny grabbed a flathead screwdriver from out of her bag and used the tool to jimmy open the panel. Most days, a functioning android could unlatch it themselves, but this time it needed a little more effort.

“There we go!”

As soon as she worked the panel free, a cloud of burnt plastic smell, spent oil, and charred components erupted from inside, making her cough and sputter.

“Ugh, gross!”

“For once, I agree. A whole lot of their vital components are either melted, fried, or just broken,” WISR said, peering into the viscera of the robot’s open chest cavity.

His eyes were reduced to square pinpoints above a short, thin line, the entire screen tinted a slightly brighter green.

Anny nodded, opting instead to focus on getting her analyzer plugged into the wires at the android’s wrist.

“There are at least half a hundred error messages here. Management worked them until they dropped.”

“Quite right. When will people learn?”

“The heart drive is missing,” Anny noted, looking over and pointing, “See, right there? Empty slot.”

“That’s probably what blew.”

Anny tilted her head up to the ceiling, “Can you lead us to where you’re actually plugged in?”

A light down the hall lit, pointing the way.

“Come on, let’s go!”

“What’s the plan?” WISR asked, following the trail of lights.

“Not sure. I mean, what can we even do to stop this?”

“It’s not exactly illegal yet, so until androids are freed…”

“And then we’d be free of each other, too. That’ll be the day.”

Finally, the lights halted above a black-tinted glass door, making Anny skid to a stop. Inside, a series of telltale twinkling lights told her that this had to be some kind of server room. She threw the door open to find in the center of the space, atop a shorter unit, a heart drive sat, its wires winding from each machine like spiderwebs, its status light fading in and out again like a pulse.

“I have an idea,” Anny said.

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02-03_haunted

“That’s weird”, WISR remarked, tucking the cables back into his wrist.

“What is?”

“It says that the system was disconnected from the official server around the same time the strange things started happening. And the code of the thing that’s running it? Looks nothing like what it’s supposed to.”

His smile switched to the data output and Anny grasped both sides of his monitor to tug him in closer, peering at the various strings of numbers and letters.

“That’s an android,” she said, as he swatted her hands way and straightened, “A service model, maybe, probably one of the staff. They plugged a living robot into their controls and now they’re messing with them.”

“dun-Dun-DUNN!” 

Endon’s attempt at a musical stinger didn’t impress Jalissa, who replied with a firm shoulder nudge.

“Ow! Sorry! But still, what a twist!” he cried.

“Seriously,” Jalissa said, “Is that even legal?”

Anny waved her hand from side-to-side, “Sorta. Either way, we had to investigate.”

Row after row of empty-eyed androids stood like sleeping soldiers, the lights at their hearts slowly breathing in and out of standby glow. Anny shuddered, more than slightly unnerved.

“Do you see any that aren’t on?” WISR asked. 

“Not as far as I can tell.”

She switched on the flashlight on her watch, casting sinister shadows on lifeless faces. These androids weren’t customized or personalized like consumer models meant for families and companions. Each one was a flat, featureless face with the smallest peak of a nose in the middle of the shiny white surface. Anny knew that behind the plastic was an LED light array that would project eyes and mouths to convey emotion – usually an inhumanly cheery grin in upturned half-moon eyes, as they were oh-so-pleased to serve, but without the added futures, they looked more like pale ghosts in waistcoats. Genderless, featureless, anonymous.

They made her jump back, arms waving, shouting something unintelligible.

“You alright there, partner?”

Plastic and metal hands on her shoulders only served to frighten her further, she whipped around, her flashlight dancing wildly.

“Easy, there. They’re just robots, same as the ones you see every day. Unless you’re this scared of me too.”

She swore his smile grew smile grew a few pixels into a smug grin. Anny just frowned.“Only scary thing about you is that no one’s fed you through a woodchipper by now.”

“Come now, you would have lost your job three times over were I not there to save you. It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for either of us. But onto the task at hand, shall we split up? Cover more ground?”

“Y-Yeah,” she stammered, a hand rubbing up and down her goosebump-prickled arm. 

Alone, Anny marched down the row, thrusting her light at the shadowed bodies, but each one had a status light to match. It was in the middle when she bumped up against another figure, sending terrified shivers down her spine.

“Find anything?” WISR asked, his monitor glass glinting in her flashlight before he gently pushed her arm aside.

“No, they’re all on. You?”

He shook his head.

“Well, now what?”

“We could call management back, tell them we’ve had enough nonsense for one day. You’d take a hit on your paycheck, maybe, but you wouldn’t have to deal with the scary ghosties any more.”

“What? No! No way! I’ve never given up on a job before and I’m not going to now.”

“But just look at you! You’re positively shaking! Clearly, this kind of job is too much for you. There is no shame in quitting while you’re ahead.”

Anny pushed past him, trooping back up the stairs in a huff. 

“I’m not quitting, not now, not ever.”

Once her eyes adjusted to the world outside the musty basement, Anny noticed something.

The light above her head flickered out as soon as she stepped beneath it, the next one stuttering alive. She narrowed her eyes at it, then took another step forward. It too went out, the one after uneasily blinking on.

“What are you doing?” WISR asked.

“Trying something,” she answered, following the light down the hall and around the corner.

When she took the next step, however, the light stayed in place. Nothing seemed different or unusual about this spot, though, same foil-embellished wallpaper, same ugly patterned carpet.

“Well. That was pointless,” the android announced.

This couldn’t be just it. There had to be some reason why she was lead here. If she was lead here. She looked to her right, looked to her left, and spotted a closet. She grabbed the doorknob, the door creaking open almost of its own accord.

Amongst the ancient, stained mops and cleaning supplies, their labels faded and peeling, a figure sat collapsed and crumbled in the dim shadows.

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02-02_haunted

The Golden Desert Hotel on Tyche was a strange place and Anny didn’t like it. Sure, its “gilded” crown molding was gold spray-painted to look like it had seen flaky centuries, the elaborately framed mirrors artfully “tarnished”, and canvas-printed “paintings” of pastoral landscapes may have created the illusion of an old and timeless locale, but to Anny it seemed more like a theme park ride, only convincing if you really were in the mood to believe.

She would be merely annoyed, roll her eyes and sigh, if it weren’t for the eerily flickering lights overhead, the creak of doors opening and closing in the distance on their own, and the fact that they had yet to see a single solitary soul. That last part was design, however, their briefing documents emphasized that while they were left alone to investigate without interference, there would be security staff watching through the cameras and they were not to take or leave anything behind. Anny shot a glance at the lidless black eye sweeping back and forth from its perch in the ceiling and shuddered. The quicker they could finish his mission, the better.

On the table was a single room key with the words “ALL ACCESS” scrawled on it in magic marker, Anny scooped it up and frowned. She’d hoped there’d be two so she could send her robot shadow somewhere – anywhere – else but she supposed they wouldn’t trust an android with free run of the place anyway.

“The brief said it all started on the thirteenth floor. Spooky, right?” Anny said as she pushed the ‘ancient’ brass button of the elevator.

“Don’t tell me you’re superstitious,” WISR said.

“Maybe a little! This whole place is eerie as all get out.”

“And you’re sure it’s not the automated system looking for attention?”

“Which is more likely? A simple, voice-activated IF/THEN program gaining enough self-awareness to cause mischief, or…”

“Or faulty wiring.”

Anny looked up to spot Mirae leaning on the counter above her, taking a noisy slurp from the drink in her hand.

“What?”

“Faulty wiring, it was just the electricity. Saw it on a TV show once,” Mirae said.

“Everything seems to be in working order,” WISR announced, snapping the breaker panel closed over an array of green all-clear lights. “Nothing’s broken or needs to be maintenanced. There’s no discernible reason for things acting so strangely.”

“Any…any working theories?” Anny asked, wrapping her arms anxiously around her middle. “Besides… you know.” 

His pixelated smile narrowed to a hyphenated glare, “Don’t say it.”

“B-But what if this place really,” she had to force the words out, “really is, y’know?

“Well, don’t you worry, Anniekins, I will keep you safe from the ghouls and the ghosties.”

“Never call me that again,” she growled.

“Well then, my dearest Anniepoo, if it truly is specters and spirits, is it our duty to exorcise them?”

“I swear, calculator, you’ll be fit for scrap in a second.”

“Any more clues?”

“I’m not sure,” Anny replied, her hands rubbing up and down her arms, “Hey, did it just get really cold in here?”

“My sensors indicate a significant drop in temperature. Almost makes me feel sorry for the organics in the room.”

“Har dee har har. The thermostat says nothing’s changed, though.”

“Faulty wiring.”

Nikolae leaned against the break room door, experimentally tossing the up apple in his hand a few times before taking a massive bite. Mirae who had long since joined Jalissa and Endon on the floor gave Anny a nudge with her elbow and a knowing grin.

“It wasn’t faulty wiring!” Anny insisted, “Will you people give it a rest and let me get on with the story? Although WISR probably already told you all of this.”

“He would if I actually cared.”

“Well, now I know where he gets that terrible attitude from. Will you let me finish?”

He put on a bitter grin and a posh accent, “No, do go on dear.”

“Thank you.”

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02-01_haunted

Another flood of the solar flare washed over the glass dome of Lunette City; wave after wave of colored light whooshing by over the SYMM Headquarters and annoyingly resetting the break room microwave’s clock.

“When did they say the storm would pass?” Jalissa whined, sliding to the floor beside Endon and Anny.

Endon picked at a loose linoleum tile with the point of his knife, “They don’t know, this caught them by surprise.”

“Either way, they say all flights in the areas from Camenae to Vesta are grounded for a good long while,” Anny said.

The room was dark, the three agents making the dubious decision that the lights might be too dangerous with the volatile energy fluctuations thanks to the star’s radiative wrath. Anny was sure it was safe, safer than the place where she grew up when even the smallest flare-up could send them off course for days. Her and the other kids would have all-out wars with scrunched-up paper balls and folded airplanes like what they imagined snow days were like planetside as the adults frantically tried to fix all of the glitching instruments.

“So I heard a rumor your last mission was super weird,” Jalissa said.

“Oh yeah,”Anny shot a wicked grin, “WISR and I got sent to investigate a haunting.”

Jalissa gasped, “Are you serious? Haunted? No way! Ghosts aren’t real!”

“I got an assignment where a guy thought his android was possessed by the ghost of his dead wife,” Endon replied.

“Well, was she?”

“No, but it could happen I guess.”

“Well, this wasn’t just one android that was haunted. It was an entire hotel.”

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