Ayon Research Facility, Eastern District, Skala City.
She hit the glass again with the ball of her hand and this time it cracked. Ignoring the pain, Myra smashed at the emergency panel until the painted floor was scattered with bloody shards. Fighting hyperventilation, she picked out the larger remnants with her fingertips, not caring if she cut herself, then slammed down onto the alarm button. Abruptly the faint echoes of the starkly illuminated corridor were drowned in a cacophony of sound. Over the piercing siren she heard the explosive discharge of Freon gas as it dowsed the inside of the chamber behind her. The white lights blinked out, replaced by a violent confusion of spinning amber that flared from high on the walls. Pawls of the sweet smelling vapour were caught in the light as they rolled past the armoured door and over the debris at her feet before stretching into taught wisps that rushed up into an extractor grate above her.
Myra staggered to the wall, pulled towards it as if by gravity. As her temple hit the cold surface with a dull thud she slapped an anguished hand against the white brickwork leaving a dark, bloodied ark as it dropped. Her eyes stung and she became aware her face had involuntarily contorted. She forced herself to focus, looking down the long passage to the door at the far end. Externally mounted pneumatic locks were slid hard into their keepers telling her the hermetic seal was still inflated and that the room beyond remained secure. She let her eyes close momentarily and on opening them found her view obscured by the dark form of a woman running towards her. In the strobing light she saw both resolve and disbelief writ clear across her face. Myra began to crumple as the figure reached her, breaking her fall as the world faded from the maelstrom of confusion and panic. Time passed.
“Myra? Myra? Can you hear me?” the voice was distant at first but it rushed in to give her a degree of focus. She felt groggy and unsure of time or place. Blinking, she realised she was back in Vault security, the curved glass wall of the entrance in front of her.
“What happened?” Myra managed, and hunched forward on her chair.
“You set off the alarm Myra,” Constance Hatch asserted in her familiar stern manner. “You purged HEX’s chamber. What made you do that?”
Myra winced, the memory flooding back as the mental fog of confusion receded. The fingers of her right hand were sore and bleeding into a cloth. She realised she was very cold, a sensation that grounded her, the Freon must have chilled her badly. With a rush, an overwhelming panic rose from somewhere deep in her gut.
“HEX is gone, Connie,” she said wretchedly. “He’s gone. I did the six hour check for both IDC’s as I always do. ROOT was fine…” Her voice trailed off, barely believing what she had seen herself. “I didn’t notice at first. I must have been in HEX’s chamber for more than a minute. The telemetry looked normal but when I turned to leave, the podium was empty, just the wires and pipes strewn over the floor.”
Hatch assessed her evenly for a moment. “No-one’s been past here in hours Myra.”
“Then look for yourself,” she snarled, an anger flaring in her.
Hatch narrowed her stare, then reached for a telephone receiver.
“It’s Hatch,” she said in a clear, subjective tone. “The alarm’s been set off. I’m with Myra Cena, she’s pretty shook up. She says HEX is not in his chamber.”
There was a momentary silence in which Myra looked expectantly into Hatch’s unreadable blue eyes. Getting no response she looked at the floor and scratched distractedly at a shallow scar that ran down her left cheek, an involuntary tick she couldn’t shake off.
“That’s what she said Ma’am,” continued Hatch after what seemed like a lifetime. “If she’s right, no one’s going in there until someone in authority comes down here. It’s been left exactly as it was, I’ve not been in there myself.”
She replaced the receiver and looked back to Myra with calm intent.
“I’m to keep you here. I don’t know what’s going to happen but for now we wait.”
Myra nodded her understanding and took a deep breath. She forced her mind back to the start of her shift and tried to recall it in as much detail as she could. In contrast to the ceaseless activity above ground as preparations were made for the move from Skala to Aya, the Vault was almost tranquil during the working hours and became deserted after them when her shift started. The last visitors had left on schedule or just about. Kyra Devin, who had been consulting HEX, had waved a cheerful goodbye dead on the end of her allotted slot. A few minutes later the Special Vehicles designer, John Orchard, had departed from a session with ROOT. Characteristically he was lost in thought and wholly unaware he had overrun leaving Myra extra paperwork to contend with.
Four hours into her shift, Myra, who reluctantly admitted diligence was an excuse to alleviate her boredom, had left her station and made her way down the short corridor to check on the physical condition of her wards. The corridor, like all the sub basements in the building, was stark, white walled and unusually free of pipework or electrical conduit. The floor was smooth having been recently re-painted in a shade of pale yellow that only its creator could have loved.
Originally the Vault had been built around a single occupant, an ornate looking cube that referred to itself as ROOT. More recently, an additional vault had been constructed upon the discovery of a second IDC, a polyhedron with no recognisable identification. After some deliberation and in deference to its shape, it had settled on HEX as its alias. The chambers in which the IDC’s resided were connected via a second corridor for human access but crucially, they were not networked or connected electrically, visually or otherwise. Upon HEX’s recent discovery, both he and ROOT had been emphatic that any connection between the two would likely result in the loss of both. Neither would expand on their reasoning for such stringent separation and as such the only interaction permitted between them was strictly via human relay. Playing messenger was a task that the humans found simultaneously fascinating and onerous.
Myra remembered briefly deliberating which IDC to check on first. She found ROOT the more cordial of the two and consequently made a left at the corridors’ intersection. ROOT’s chamber lay only twenty yards beyond with its twin, occupied by HEX, a similar distance behind her. Both chambers were more or less of the same cylindrical design. Each was sealed by a heavy door fitted with a pneumatically operated seal and locks, the operation of which gave Myra a childish sense of satisfaction. She recalled clearly the hiss as the air pressure bled off and the three locks retracted into their housings.
Of average height but athletic in stature, Myra still had to exert some effort to swing the heavy door open to reveal a plain, curved section of wall behind it. This wall was a feature of both chambers, spanning only three metres it ensured the CCTV cameras positioned to monitor the doors could not see directly inside. This measure, insisted upon by both AI’s, was not a consideration of privacy but designed to ensure no communication was possible even if one succeeded in hacking into the cameras.
The Vault’s twin chambers were dark places, their occupants had no need for light. What little illumination prevailed was provided only for the benefit of guards, technicians and the visiting engineers the permanent staff referred to as ‘customers’. The same was true of the temperature which, unlike the city above, was cool, ostensibly to keep the IDC’s in their optimum operating window. In reality, as they had pointed out many times, both IDC’s functionality was consistent throughout a wide temperature range. The same, however, could not be said of humans whose nature it was to bend the facts to suit their inclinations.
Closing and re-sealing the door she had stepped around the ‘courtesy shield’ as it had, somewhat tongue in cheek, become known. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light which with the muted hiss of cooling air fans, gave the place a soporific quality. Banks of screens, dimmed since the day’s visitors had left, adorned the curved walls. Seemingly static lines of monitoring telemetry scrolled from left to right. Unlike the output of a human with a constant pulsing heart and variable electric signals, the IDC’s output while dormant was simply flat making Myra’s work tedious.
In the centre of the chamber stood a squat podium on which, swamped in a snake’s nest of cables and umbilicals, sat the unassuming cubic form. In her mind’s eye Myra saw unsheathed optic fibres emitting a gently defused glow that pulsed occasionally as something, who knew what, was processed somewhere deep inside the core.
Without warning, the fibres had glowed with radiance and several of the monitored channels spiked as the smooth honeyed voice of ROOT’s vocal synthesiser inquired, “Myra, that’s you isn’t it?”
This was a game ROOT played with all the monitoring staff, guessing which was on duty. He had become remarkably good at it.
“Hi ROOT, yes just checking on you.”
“Can you tell me how I knew it was you?” the Intercessor had replied in a creamy, melodious tone he occasionally put on to amuse her.
Myra had turned to the monitors, belatedly grateful for some mental stimulation. She had said something about trying to figure it out again and looked over the telemetry, scrolling back to her time of entry.
“It’s simply science. The answer is always in the data.” This was his favourite refrain.
She tried to remember what she had seen in the data, wondering if it was in any way relevant to what had happened not five minutes later. There was a negative air pressure spike as the door opened, then a small change in ambient temperature. Moments later the air pressure climbed again as the door re-sealed.
She had puzzled for a few moments, no longer than that and made some flippant comment about ROOT being a genius to which he responded in kind.
“Sarcasm will not provide you with the answer, Myra. You need to look a little harder, the answer is right there in front of you.”
As she left, ROOT asked her to pass on some unfathomable message to HEX she took to be an insult. Reaching HEX’s chamber, she retracted the door locks, as before, the seal depressurised with a satisfying hiss. HEX’s chamber was actually the one ROOT had occupied for his first twenty six years before HEX had to be accommodated. It was largely a mirror image of the one she had just left, only slightly smaller. Some of the systems were older and more antiquated but Myra had never minded that. Somehow it gave the chamber a more friendly feel, a stark contrast to its somewhat prickly occupant.
She focused now, straining to remember every move she had made. She had rounded the courtesy shield and walked habitually straight to the telemetry monitors. She knew it was petty to ignore HEX but she refused to show any deference toward him. Unlike his counterpart who was courteous, amusing and helpful, Myra found HEX to be abrupt and at times down right obnoxious. He seemed to harbour an unexplained resentment towards people in general and women specifically, although there were exceptions. Myra was not one of these.
Again she tried to remember exactly what she had seen in the telemetry - the chamber’s pressure and temperature traces had given her the initial feeling of unease. Neither had deviated at all when the chamber opened. She recalled scrolling back in confusion, checking the time stamp. The values fluctuated very slightly but the amount was negligible. It was as if she had never entered.
She had begun to speak before turning to HEX but her words died in her throat. For a split second, Myra had not been able to put her finger on what was missing in the picture before her. Then a wave of panic hit her full force, a sensation that returned to her now. She remembered the cool of the room retreat as a hot nausea broke within her and her chest tightened. She felt sick and disorientated, staggering a moment before bolting for the door and the alarm beyond.
“Myra?” It was Hatch who was watching her relive the events with obvious concern. “You Okay, you’ve gone very pale? Do you want a doctor or some water?”
“No,” said Myra and shook her head as the memories retreated. “No, I’m okay, thank you.”
Hatch looked up, her attention arrested by the sound of voices from the other side of the glass panel. People were approaching, a lot of people, fronted by two men Myra didn’t recognise. She sensed the command of shared urgency in the words and realised these were officials.
Hatch rose to approach the window. Before she got there Myra said, “Connie? I think we should call Katherine Kane.”
Hatch paused a moment and regarded her closely. Then she nodded her agreement. “I’ll do that as soon as I’ve dealt with these gentlemen.”