An Impossible Task
The workshop was awash with blue light as Evellyn sent another pulse of electricity through the probe. The corpse's right arm lifted. She adjusted the probe and tried again. This time, the metal hand grafted to flesh and bone curled into a fist. Evellyn exhaled, relieved; this one movement had taken all week to perfect.
She replaced the probe with delicate copper wires, and sat back to inspect her work thus far. The right arm was now completely mapped out. Those wires were colored red. The legs were tricky, and she was only partially satisfied with their placement. They tended to run at random, which caused damage to the gears in their augmentations. Those wires she marked with blue and green.
The face, left arm, and core muscles would come next. And, of course, the most difficult task still awaited her: connecting the various movements to the metal cap that would control the Automazomb's overall behavior. Would it walk on its own? Could it seek out the plague? Would it devour diseased flesh so the chemicals in its gut could cleanse it? So few of these questions could be answered in the workshop.
Her original design, functional metal legs for those who had been injured, had been a much-needed breakthrough. Combined with the chemists' new method for keeping deceased bodies sturdy, the Automazomb project finally had real potential. The head engineer on the floating city of Kibou had eagerly brought her ideas to the Inventors Guild board. They made copies of her designs and sent them to members across the continent. The namesake of the project and lead financier himself, Lord Thelonious Zomberat, came to her workshop to congratulate her.
Evellyn remembered being so happy about it at first. But the longer she worked on her own experiments, using the grafting technology on the dead instead of the living, the more obstacles she discovered. Her first attempts had overexcited the brain. It became as malleable as living tissue, and had somehow remapped itself, making the Automazomb's movements disjointed. The gods only knew what disaster a less attentive engineer would create. Being so young had its disadvantages; the more advanced Guild members would gladly use her ideas, but rarely heeded her warnings.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the doors bursting open.
A wide man with slick black hair strode in with a smirk on his face.
"Dear little Evellyn! Hard at work as ever, I see."
Evellyn pushed her goggles up. The historian-turned-inventor walking her way was the first to receive the replacement leg she had designed. He carried a cane, even though in the months since his surgery he had perfected walking on the metal limb. The cane was a symbol of power, a token from his noble patron, and he never went anywhere without it. She often wished that of the two historians she knew, that it might have been her friend Liridon who chose to stay on Kibou, and this oaf the one to wander the world.
"Matthias. Will you ever learn to knock?"
"An inventor goes where he pleases. How fares our grisly friend here?"
She pursed her lips. She couldn't help but think that a real inventor would have the sense to knock out of respect for dangerous experiments, if not the Guild member performing them.
The man's smirk faded.
"I don't see much progress on that brain. People are dying. You have the power to save them, yet you delay the launch."
Evellyn glared down at him. He knew precisely which buttons to press.
"You don't think I know that? My parents both gave their lives in studying a cure!" She steadied her breath and unclenched her fists. "It's delicate work. There are a dozen others attempting the same. Have you heard from them? No. Either they've had no luck, or they're being as cautious as I am. So stop pestering me."
Matthias was starting to turn red. Evellyn imagined he hated being told off by someone half his age even more than he hated being denied what he wanted.
He stood in front of her Automazomb, finger raised as if he was going to scold her. But, he must have thought better of it, because he turned around and stomped back the way he came.
He paused at the door.
"All of Eysan is relying on you, girl. Get the job done."
Then he was gone.
Evellyn wiped her forehead with her arm. She bit back her frustrated tears; crying wouldn't save anyone. Liridon would have understood her concerns. His love of knowledge was as big as hers for machines. Still, as little as she cared for Matthias, he was right. The plague was killing so many. Whole cities were being abandoned. Her parents had done everything they could to put the world back together. She wasn't about to let them down.
She adjusted the voltage on the probe, and scanned over the remaining movements needing control wires.
"Now, where was I?"
Matthias continued to pester her day in and day out.
Two weeks went by, and Evellyn barely had an hour to work before that pompous idiot interrupted. Locking the doors did nothing, since inventors were given master keys to every workshop. She managed to complete the arms and legs, and even made the mouth open and close. Next were the eyes. Since they had to determine friend from prey, she knew she had to take drastic measures for privacy.
A mechanic friend gifted her an old lock from the Undercity. There was no way Matthias had a key for this thing. She would be the only one with a key. She spent the early hours removing the standard lock with the replacement.
Evellyn surveyed her handiwork with satisfaction.
"I'd like to see you get through that!"
After securing her workshop, Evellyn had easily the most productive day in working memory. The eyes and arms worked together flawlessly to pick up a ball while avoiding touching the woodpile she'd placed the object in.
She barely noticed the door rattling, or the muffled shouts in the hall.
The next day, Evellyn came in to find a large hole in the doors where the lock had been. She would have laughed if she hadn't been so angry. This was the day she was going to tie all the disparate parts together. If any day needed silence, it was this one.
As if on cue, Matthias strolled into the workshop.
Evellyn gripped the electric probe tight in her hand.
"Can't you give me just one day of…"
Gerald walked in behind her tormentor and task-master. The head engineer on Calespyr had always been like an uncle to her, and her mentor after her parents died. He didn't look happy.
"Greetings, my dear. Sorry to intrude like this."
"What's going on? Are you alright?"
"I've been brought in to survey your progress. We're running out of time."
Evellyn nearly dropped the probe.
"What do you mean?"
"The plague has been spotted on Caelspyr. Quarantines have been set up, but the Guild fears this is only the beginning."
Caelspyr was the biggest floating city in the world. If the plague struck there, who could be counted safe?
She shook her head.
"It's not ready, sir. It could be months…"
Matthias crossed his arms.
"You have three days."
Evellyn stared at Matthias, completely refusing to believe it could be true. This deadline had to be a cruel, poorly-timed joke.
Matthias's expression was stony, unreadable.
" Lord Zomberat will pull funding by the week's end if no results are produced. And as if you needed further motivation, The Teraltian royal family is personally holding the Guild to the deadline. "
The look of frustration and worry form Gerald stopped Evellyn from arguing further. If her mentor couldn't stall the launch, nobody could.
Satisfied with her silence, Matthias left her and Gerald alone.
Evellyn handed over a spare pair of goggles.
"Hopefully the two of us together can make this work."
The pair worked through the night and into the next day, pausing only to eat or fetch another pot of coffee.
It was impossible work; every connection seemed to unmake the previous ones. She was afraid she was doomed to repeat her original failure. But they kept at it, testing and retesting the placement of wires and how they could be applied together.
By the third day, half of the body was fully autonomous. It wasn't enough. Evellyn stormed away from the Automazomb.
Gerald looked up, concerned brows furrowed.
"Where are you off to?"
"They can't be allowed to take him. Not yet."
"We don't have a choice, Evellyn."
Evellyn smirked as she grabbed a welding torch.
She added heavy hooks to the door handles and frame, then placed several spare rods across the double doors. She tested the barrier. The doors didn't budge. Her grin remained as she returned to the workbench.
"What's the worst that will happen if I delay us by a few days?"
"We'll both be expelled from the Guild, and forbidden from scientific ventures. Also fined. Possibly jailed. Not to mention the plague could reach this city, kill the aethericists and mechanics who keep Kibou in the skies, and send the whole city crashing down."
Evellyn bit her lip. That was far worse than she imagined. But, he hadn't stopped her from barring the doors. He must know as much as she did that it was necessary.
"If they take the Automazomb now and it fails, the consequences will be far worse."
"So let's quit talking about it and create the impossible."
With one half complete, the second half came much easier. Evellyn was grateful for the help and expertise of her mentor. Perhaps if she hadn't been so stubborn about working alone, she might have been done long ago. But there were so few she worked well with. Some resented her young age, others simply had too different of methods.
Not long after they resumed working, there was a loud thud against the doors.
Matthias peered through the hole where the lock had been. His cheeks were flushed beet red.
"What do you think you're doing? Open this door immediately!"
Evellyn turned to Gerald.
"I didn't think to cover the hole."
"Nothing to be done about it now. Take this wire here?"
She held the red-painted wire while Gerald soldered the connection to the control cap. They were nearly done now, against all the odds.
Imperial guards were summoned. They called for Gerald and Evellyn to release the project before it was too late. Evellyn's hand shook. What if the punishments ahead of them were even worse than Gerald thought? What if they were killed? They were so close to finishing now.
Gerald placed his hand over hers.
"Nearly there, child. Just a few more connections now."
She nodded. The voices from the hall pounded against her ears, but she couldn't let them get to her. She couldn't make a mistake now. Not in these last critical moments.
The two carefully soldered the last of the wires. The cap was finally complete. They lowered it over the open portion of the Automazomb's skull. The skin was replaced, as much as it could be, and the edges of the plate were secured with small rivets.
Evellyn stepped back to look over the completed Automazomb. It looked perfect, or as much as a metal-grafted, plague-eating corpse contraption possibly could. Still, there was a nagging fear at the back of her mind. No others had succeeded.
"We need to test it before we unbar the door. I would take another week if we could. Until we're sure everything went how we expected."
Gerald didn't respond.
Evellyn looked over. Her mentor was staring at the doors. The guards, the inventors, Matthias, they were gone.
"Did they give up?"
Gerald gave her a worrying look.
"Cooped up in my lab, I was the last to hear when--"
Just then, a siren blared. Then another, closer to the building. Evellyn thought she heard shouting in the streets.
Gerald flew into a panic. He raced to the doors and pulled the barrier free.
"It's exactly the same as Caelspyr. I knew it was only a matter of time. The plague has come!"
"But you said they dealt with the plague there. The city isn't crashing. The authorities will put up a quarantine and all will go back to normal in a day or two."
"And what if this is the area infected? The Guild needs us. Every member should be heading toward the nearest airship. Where do you think Matthias went?"
Evellyn hurried after her mentor, who was running down the abandoned hallway.
"You're sure? But the Automazomb! My notes! They're all scattered. We have to--"
"No time! We need to escape before we are trapped here."
When they got outside, they were swept up in the crowd. A voice called out instructions through a speaking trumpet. Everyone was talking, everyone was scared, but that commanding voice echoed through the streets, guiding them.
"This is an evacuation. All citizens of the northern quarter, head to the warehouse airship docks."
Evellyn kept close to Gerald. It wasn't until they reached the docks that the truth was revealed. A woman in an official uniform held the speaking trumpet everyone had been following. She was smiling. She stood on a platform at the entrance to the docks.
"A hearty thanks to the Inventors Guild for organizing this first plague drill in Kibou's northern quarter. Such drills will be conducted periodically to ensure our safety."
The crowd was livid about the scare. They shouted insults as the official insisted that true preparation meant the drills had to be unscheduled.
Evellyn knew better. The timing was too perfect. She grabbed Gerald's sleeve.
"Matthias made this happen. We have to get back!"
The two raced back to the Guild complex. Evellyn pushed a pair of aethericists aside, desperate to reach her workshop before Matthias or anyone else got there. Without additional tests for safety and accuracy, what good was any of it?
Up ahead, she could see the doors to her workshop thrust wide. Had she left them that way? Please, anyone, say that she had!
Evellyn's heart dropped as she reached the doorway.
It was all gone.
The Automazomb. Her notes - even the ones that had nothing to do with this project. All of it.
Even as tears filled her eyes, she strengthened her resolve. The others had to be warned. Gerald would help her. Even if they wouldn't listen to her, they had to listen to him. He was a head engineer!
By that evening, they were given an audience with the Guild heads of Kibou. It was determined that nothing could be done. There was no evidence that the Automazomb had been stolen. The head inventor went so far as to claim it walked away on its own, taking her notes with it. Everyone laughed while Evellyn quietly fumed.
Frustrated and humiliated, Evellyn and Gerald were forced to give up. She was assigned to a different project, and he was sent home to Caelspyr in disgrace.
Within a week, word came in from all over Eysan. Guild members everywhere had stumbled upon the breakthrough that allowed for the completion of the first wave of Automazombs. A test launch would begin in the old capital shortly. Gerald confirmed what Evellyn suspected: her notes had been copied and sent to every corner of the continent.
To make matters worse, while Evellyn was given some credit, Matthias was listed as the project's lead. Lord Zomberat held a ceremony, praising the Guild for completing this work months ahead of the proposed deadline. Matthias was to be given an advanced rank within the inventors for making this acceleration possible.
Evellyn knew then that she had been used. All she could do was hope the other engineers would have the resolve to insist on further testing before any Automazombs set foot on the ground.