She was in the elevator when the screaming started.
It was eight in the morning, and she was very late. Two black coffees, a cold shower and a touch of makeup did little to conceal the purple crescents under her eyes. Even now, she didn’t have the energy to keep her shoulders straight. And heaven help the poor fool who tried to strike up a friendly chat with her. However, as only a token researcher in this new digging, Harriet’s fatigue meant nothing to the project. If she had stayed in bed, they would have carried on without her.
She glanced at her watch. The little marks blurred together every time she blinked. A sigh escaped her lips, deflating her still further, and she gave up trying to decipher the time. She knew she was late, so what did it matter anyways?
“Good morning Dr. Freeman, I trust all has gone well?” Harriet murmured to herself. In her state, rote memorization was the only thing that could save her if the directors decided to engage her in conversation. “Good morning Dr. Freeman, I trust all has gone well? Good morning Dr. Freeman…”
A piercing scream disrupted her train of thought and jarred through her foggy mind like a lightning bolt.
All had not gone well.
A puff of warm air hit her cheek in unison with a rumbling explosion. She stumbled back against the wall. One hand shot out and slammed the lever on the elevator, halting its descent. Down below, just out of sight, utter chaos ensued.
She’d never forget the screams…
A mob of people flooded out of the tiny door to the main cavern like ants escaping a ruined mound. Smoke billowed out with them, and more bloodcurdling screams. They were stumbling, uncaring of who they shoved or who they stepped on, maddened with panic. Then, like a bad horror film, the stragglers were jerked back into the darkened doorway. Harriet could just see it – the dark-armored android with long hair – grab someone and smash them into the wall like the human was just a toy.
Someone was trying to stop the android with cables, with a pocket stun weapon. They only managed to aggravate it. Another crashing noise, and a huge part of the ceiling came tumbling down in a deadly avalanche.
Harriet gasped and choked on the dust and flipped out her cell. Three buttons pushed. She pressed it to her ear. “Freeman dig site. We need help! There’s a violent android at the lowest level. It appears to be a combat type. We need help now!” She took in a breath, the words of the operator thrumming quietly in her ear, and she couldn’t understand was he was saying. All she could do was keep repeating “We need defense, rescue and medical teams in here now! Hurry!”
The message finished, she dropped the phone and lunged for a metal pole. It was heavy, but she was buzzing with adrenaline, and hefted it easily. The smaller end went under the edge of a boulder. She twisted it in, and then pulled it down. Everything faded away but the driving need to save whoever she could.
Which, as it turned out, wasn’t that many…
Dr. Cain arrived just hours after he heard the news.
They didn’t say anything for a while. Stood and watched as the authorities tried to clean things up. Abandoned that after a few minutes when bodies were still being carted past. It wasn’t until they went back to her house that any words were exchanged, and even then it felt dull and heavy like a dream.
Harriet made tea. She had to move around right now. Keep moving, maybe clear her thoughts a little. Her wrists were badly sprained, bandaged and splinted, but she didn’t let her uncle help.
They sat across from each other in the last light of the day dimmed by blinds. Steam from the tea crept into the air for quite some time before Harriet spoke.
“Fifty people went down there, and 46 never came back up.” She stared into the depths of her untouched tea. “I got Clara out, but she died in the ambulance.”
“You did everything you could, Harriet.”
“If they weren’t so overzealous, this would have—”
She stopped him. “I used to be angry about that. But, Unc, we were the same when we found X. You remember?” She met his eyes, regret dulling her own. “We were like kids on Ecksmas…opened that capsule up without thinking of the consequences.”
“Dr. Light’s files made it clear that X was safe. We did nothing wrong in trusting that.”
“Anything can happen in a hundred years. Programming can fail. We didn’t want to believe in failure…” She looked back down at her tea. “Maybe that’s what happened for that android. No way to know.” With a sigh, she finally took a drink from the cup, but it was lukewarm by now.
“They didn’t apprehend the android…” it wasn’t much of a question, though.
“That’s not officially…it…it’s under wraps. But yes, that’s the situation. That thing is at large…thought to be still in the dig site, but it might have slipped away. We don’t know.”
Dr. Cain ventured “It could have malfunctioned and shut down by now–”
“Could you stop? Just stop. With the optimism.” She bit out the words like they hurt, and her face did look pained. She bit her lip, attempting to calm down.
He put his hand over hers with a nod. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
“They used the same excuses. ‘It could have shut down, or broken, or something,’ because they’re SCARED.” She murmured, frustrated. “They’re scared to face up to a threat like that, and they’re making it impossible for anyone else to help. More people are going to die, unc, because they’re scared, and they’re in charge.” She clenched her fists, feeling pain but ignoring it. “They’d rather prevent us from helping than admit they’re in over their heads.”
Dr. Cain thought this over for a while. Then he said “I’ve been on the wrong side of the law before…I don’t mind doing it again for the sake of the world.”
She looked sharply at him. “Unc, you’re…”
“For a good cause, why not?” He smiled resolutely and added “If they won’t accept our help, then we just won’t let them know we’re helping at all.”
And finally, Harriet softened.