Not Safe for Work

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Madame Wyniera,

I hope this letter finds you well.

When last we met, you expressed interest in the Automazombs and vexation at your difficulties in studying them "up close". I had assumed that those difficulties arose from the machines sensing dead flesh outside of their designated zones. But! I recently encountered one that attacked dead and living alike - right in front of me, no less.

A friend (and highly skilled engineer) studied this malfunctioning device and determined that all the programmatic wiring and structures were operating as intended. The only notable difference between this machine and a recently-deployed Automazomb appears to be the slurry that operates as the mechanical's 'digestive humors', meant to ingeniously destroy the plague.

I remembered your mention of a comrade – or was he a servitor? – known as "Doctor Grumpy" who possesses the skills of a chemist. I hope the two of you are still acquainted, because I would like to set the both of you to the task of uncovering the cause of an Automazomb's erratic behavior. I've taken the liberty to discreetly have the Automazomb in question delivered with this message. Experiment with it as necessary, but do take care of it. The fate of our world may rest on your discovery.

Eagerly awaiting your findings,

Liridon MaRaukna, Historian of the Order of Scholars

Jaff wheeled a large crate into the lab. The large man, generally imperturbable, was flushed from the effort, pale hairs clinging to his broad forehead. As the servant eased the container down with a grunt, something within shifted, knocking against the side of the box with a loud thunk.

Dietrich eyed the box sidelong. He wasn't aware of any particular equipment that was supposed to be delivered, but then, his 'noble employer' – or mad quasi-benefactor, to be more accurate – rarely kept him abreast of her schemes. At least until she needed him to replace something she'd destroyed, or to devise a way to accomplish her latest bat-brained 'experiment'. Or if she was bored. Gods all help them if she was bored.

The lad, Djermay, who was ostensibly Dietrich's to command since his late master's ...departure, sidled away from the box. The boy preferred the bench furthest from the door, but that put him right next to the wide open space aport, where Jaff had deposited the box. Djermay moved starboard, to the second-to-last of four benches that lined the fore wall of the laboratory. Three more lined the aft wall, bracketing the door, with another three benches in the center of the room, each overhung with tools and vessels and littered with debris – components and chemicals, notes and prototypes.

Jaff ignored the other occupants of the room and scanned the benches for a clear spot to leave a battered envelope with his employer's name scrawled on the outside: Lady Wyniera Mudassme. This being a fruitless task, he eventually assumed a parade rest several steps from the door, envelope in hand, waiting for her to arrive.

Dietrich checked a chronometer – it was nearly midday. There was some sort of breakfast the young noble had to attend in order to wring funding out of her family. She'd complained about it for hours the prior evening, occasionally threatening to drag him along with her. It was hard to tell if she was in earnest or just tormenting him to cheer herself up. His personal motto, developed specifically for dealing with Lady Wyn but applicable to most other aspects of his life was: Always assume the worst. Nevertheless, he'd been left unmolested this morning and Dietrich didn't imagine she would return for several more hours.

But Jaff must have had better information – he usually did – and it was only a quarter hour before the young woman burst into the room with her characteristic exuberance and complete disregard for delicate equipment. The doors bounced off the wall and the nearest bench, rattling tools and cabinetry. Happily, nothing broke, this time.

"Where is it? What is it?" Lady Wyn snatched the envelope out of her servant's hand and ripped it open eagerly.

"How can you be this worked up about you-don't-even-know-what?" Dietrich demanded, foolishly trying to apply logic to the situation. He just couldn't seem to stop himself.

"I know that that historian I've run into a time or two, always in the most entertaining circumstances, sent me something. The man is a complete disaster-magnet. It will be marvelous."

Apprehension and anxiety unfurled in Dietrich's gut. The apprehension was easily explained – anything that made Lady Wyn happy was probably going to be horrifying. And any time she spoke admiringly of another's skills, Dietrich worried that his own precarious harbor was in jeopardy.

The young woman gasped in obvious delight. Manically waving the paper at Dietrich, she very nearly pranced in place.

"It's a machine!"

"That does..?"

"It eats people!"

Dietrich and Jaff both stared at her, at the box, then back at Lady Wyn. The stoic servant was definitely having an expression, now.

"That... doesn't sound like a... good machine," Dietrich finally managed.

"No, no – ah, I'm saying it wrong, I'm so- It eats dead people. Except this one has been eating living people, too. This is all very exciting!"

Dietrich finally realized that she was referring to the machines that were performing 'clean up' for the amazingly virulent plague, the Automazombs. Except that made it worse.

"You mean to say that a disease-immersed, mechanical carrion beast – that is misfiring so badly as to murder people – has been delivered. To you." Looking about the room for someone to exchange horrified glances with, Dietrich noticed the boy was missing again. Djermay somehow managed to disappear whenever Lady Wyn showed up. Dietrich mentally applauded the lad's excellent survival instincts, but was still annoyed at the lack of solidarity. Jaff was typically useless for commiseration, and had indeed quickly recovered from the shock, reverting to his usual blank demeanor.

"Would it save some time if I just set the city on fire and threw myself into a meat grinder now..?"

Lady Wyn gave him one of her 'how droll you are' looks, shoved the letter into his hand, and hauled Jaff over to the box to begin unpacking her monstrosity.

Reading the note, Dietrich vacillated between appalled and annoyed. It was theoretically flattering that this man thought that Dietrich could discover the source of the malfunction. It was actually unnerving that anyone would think that involving Lady Wyn in any kind of life-and-death problem-solving would improve matters. Yes, he was pleased that Lady Wyn had mentioned him and his skills, particularly if she had called him a colleague. No, he didn't like the nickname she kept bandying about, but it's not as if he'd be happier if she was telling people his real name.

The mention of discolored chemicals nagged at him. That indicated that a contaminant had made it into what was already a volatile mixture, from what he recalled of the machines' development. Dietrich was already envisioning the chemical tests he would need to run to discover the composition of the solution when the loud crack! of the box being opened startled him from his revery.

The slumped shape within the box seemed human enough, at first. Wispy strands of dark hair stuck out from a depleted scalp. Scraps of linen were wrapped around the arms and legs, dangling down and disguising the modifications that had been made to the man's corpse. When Dietrich managed to nerve himself enough to approach, he saw the metal sticking out from the joints. Taut skin that gave the figure an appearance of youth, from a distance, proved to be ashen and verging on shredding where it was affixed to the mechanical joints that allowed the deceased to be animated. Instead of eyes, flat red-tinted lenses occupied hollow sockets. Bulging lips and cheeks hinted at the replacement teeth that lurked within the re-made man's slack mouth. Closer-to, Dietrich could see the mechanisms sticking up from the body, at the back of the skull and along the spine, as well as the dangling loops of tubing, draped over the corpse's shoulder and sagging from its stomach, coated with a dark, oily-looking substance. The smell emanating from the box was acrid and musty.

Flourishing a pair of insulated gauntlets, Lady Wyn impatiently gestured for Jaff to help her remove the machine from its packing. The large man – gloveless, himself – stiffly gripped one arm, where the linen cloth offered some barrier. When Lady Wyn pulled, the figure lurched out of the box. With a hissed breath, Jaff jerked himself out of the way, letting the creature collapse most of the way to the floor. Dietrich didn't even try to suppress his own recoil. He'd never played a role in any of the direct mechanisms for the Automazomb project, during his time with the Guild. There had never been a need to get comfortable with corpses.

Lady Wyn tched her annoyance with the skittish men and yanked on the machine, to no effect. She was strong for her size and gender, but the body was heavy with augumentations. Filled with perfectly justified unease, Dietrich dragged over one of the metal stands that served as forms when shielding plates needed to be hammered out. He and Lady Wyn wedged it under the Automazomb while Jaff managed to heave the body up onto the prop in small bursts, his face wrinkled faintly with distaste.

They were all panting when a sharp knock sounded at the door. Aghast, Dietrich grabbed a drop cloth and flung it over the body. Then he asked himself why exactly he had done that.

Lady Wyn rolled her eyes at him and strode toward the door.

"That will be the engineer the historian sent along, to give us background on the mechanisms."

Lady Wyn flung open the door, revealing a woman, her dark hair tied back with a what looked like a net of green ribbons. She seemed startled by Lady Wyn, jerking back slightly, but the reactions of others never gave the noblewoman pause. She seized the other woman by both forearms and towed her into the room.

"Excellent timing. We've just decanted the device. Show us how it works!"

The woman's copper-flecked eyes widened and she got the expression that the unaccustomed tended to settle upon when meeting Lady Wyn for the first time – halfway between astonished and aghast, thoroughly shot through with uncertainty. Given the lady's forthright confidence, people often came to the conclusion that any misunderstanding must be their own error.

"Didn't you...? The problem is that it doesn't work. I thought Liridon sent a letter to explain the situation?"

The engineer – Dietrich could now see she wore the emblem of that Guild, however discreetly, as well as the telltale stains and calluses of one who worked with machines barehanded – indicated the poorly cloaked Automazomb, as if to ensure they were speaking of the same object.

"Yes, yes, not as intended, but things that break from expectations are more interesting. No? Well, to each their own, or so I'm told. Show us how it's supposed to work, then."

Giving herself a small shake, the engineer turned her attention to the machine. She pulled the cloth off and gestured at the exposed mechanical spine and a plate that served at the cover to the back of the skull. What followed was a technical stream of pneumatics and end effectors and rotational frequencies and wiring schema and resistance and – Dietrich could follow, but he didn't particularly want to, not when phrases like "substitute for ruptured ligament", "repurposed intestinal sheathe", and "bone screws" kept cropping up.

After a lengthy explanation,with increasingly disturbing cross-examination from Lady Wyn, the engineer confessed herself parched. Lady Wyn was impatient to continue, but she had (evenutally) developed an understanding that the bare minimum maintenance of others' human needs was required to get the results she wanted. Dietrich took some pride in his role in helping to lower the Lady's expectations of how many privations other people could endure and still be "useful".

Lady Wyn released the engineer – still unnamed, which was probably for the best. Introductions tended to be a two-way experience and Dietrich preferred his anonymity, especially with Guild members. Jaff led her away to be fed, watered, and adequately rested, so that the Lady's interrogation could resume. Dietrich briefly assumed that meant that he could rest as well, before being disabused of this notion when the Lady hefted a spanner with entirely too much enthusiasm.

'What are you doing?' was never a question that Dietrich had enjoyed having answered by Lady Wyn. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he moved his tools to the farthest work station and and left her to her no doubt ill-advised meddling.

Unsettling squelches, metallic rattles and hisses, and meaty thunks filled the air. Dietrich poured all his concentration into setting up the assays he would run on the chemical and biological samples.

He didn't know the exact composition of the reductive mixture that should be present, but he was relatively sure that vitrolic acid and copper were in the mix. A solution of horseradish root, coal tar, and zia-novallin (known to the lay chemist as 'essense of firefly') should give him something to work with. The final component needed for the assay would be bile acid. As unpleasant as that was to obtain, the alternate ingredient for preparing this standard mixture was condensed vitrolic air. Having first-hand experience of the tragic volatility of vitrolic air, Dietrich would rather deal with 'disgusting' than 'eagerly explosive'.

He had reached the point where he was ready to start adding samples when Dietrich realized that the perturbing noises had died down. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Lady Wyn scowling at the slumped machine. She had reattached various tubes and wires and resealed the skull plate over the mass of copper wires and electranum spikes that protruded from the sunken brain that was the substrate for the mechanism's unnerving control system. Dietrich supposed that it made sense that the Lady would try to see if she could put the machine back together. He was just more used to seeing her take things apart, usually to their detriment. In this situation, surely less mess was the better option. That didn't stop him from feeling decidedly uneasy at seeing the Automazomb theoretically 'ready to go'.

Clearing his throat, Dietrich gestured with a syringe at the device that was failing to live up to her expectations. In his other hand, he had a 'honeycomb' – a many-sectioned dish perfect for clustering assorted samples – ready to fill. Lady Wyn muttered something about delays and waved him onward as she stalked out of the lab, slamming the door behind her.

Dietrich was breathing shallowly as he tweezed a mostly-liquid gob of matter from the corner of the Automazomb's mouth when he heard a gasp and clattering behind him. Jumping back and only just avoiding dropping the honeycomb, he spun to see Djermay, stuttering and pointing at the machine with obvious horror.

"Q'ua's pen, lad!" Dietrich huffed, rattled. He dropped the latest sample into a section of the tray and waved the boy back as he set the container on the nearest bench with shaking hands. "Yes, it's dreadful, dangerous, and the embodiment of a terrible decision-making process, but that's hardly unique in this lab. If you're going to boggle at every monstrosity-"

A low hiss from behind him that rapidly rose to a shrill whistle interrupted Dietrich's irritable rant. Without even looking back – because turning to face a threat was as much of a waste of time as boggling – Dietrich sprinted to the end of the first bench and made sure it was between him and the machine. Djermay dropped out of sight, which was an acceptable initial strategy, but Dietrich couldn't spare the time to track the lad – he had a monstrosity to deal with.

The reconstructed Automazomb's flat red occular lenses slowly began to glow and the sagging head was the first part to move, disturbingly isolated from the rest of the figure. It lifted, angling upward to the point that a living neck would protest, and beyond. The skin around the gullet frayed further, showing the outlines of metallic tubing. It was... looking at him. Dietrich shivered and started groping for a weapon, not willing to take his eyes off the machine. His hand closed on something just as the Automazomb's four limbs all jerked at once. Swearing, he flung his impromtu missile – a hefty rotor armature with a corroded coil – at the mechanism as he darted back another bench-length. He missed the head, unfortunately, but the component struck the right shoulder joint, causing the monstrous device to topple off of the shielding that was propping it up.

Dietrich had barely begun to mentally congratulate himself when the Automazomb rolled, landing on forearms and knees. Lurching forward as the lower limbs straightened, the machine smashed its face into the ground, causing Dietrich to wince in inadvertant sympathy.

Which was clearly misplaced, as the Automazomb simply planted its hands and levered itself upright, unconcerned with the flattening of its former nose, which now sagged over the slightly gaping mouth or the bloodlike concoction that oozed from the wound. It rose to its full height, shambling forward and careening off of the benches, but keeping its head pointed at him. Panting with fear, Dietrich scrambled back toward the last bench – which was right up against the starboard wall. If he could just keep the wide spanse of sturdy wood and metal between himself and the machine- The Automazomb cut off that scarcely formed hope as it staggered around the second center bench, angling straight for him. This briefly caused it to bounce off of the fore port corner of the workstation, but it corrected itself quickly.

Dietrich snatched up a contraption of the Lady's design, a long tube with a pump on the back end and a bulbous muzzle, a thick reservoir bulging out of the center. Fumbling with the device Lady Wyn gleefully referred to as a spitfire, Dietrich stumbled back, slamming into the fore starboard-most bench. He managed to deploy the flint trigger and plunge the pump down against his own stomach.

With a belch, roiling flames burst from the bulb, drenching the Automazomb in burning fuel. Dietrich yelped and flung himself to right as the machine, on fire, kept coming. It half sprawled over the bench, it's arms grasping wildly and scooping the assorted contents on the surface towards its gaping, gnashing maw. Scrambling backward and hands and feet, Dietrich reached for the next bench's countertop, to pull himself up, when Lady Wyn suddenly appeared, darting toward the machine, her arms and torso canted to her right in an apparent charge.

Within scant feet of the Automazomb, her arms thrust forward and Dietrich glimpsed the crowbar she was wielding like a spear. The tip slammed into the back of the head, angling in and upward, scooping out a hefty chunk of the skull's contents. Char and metal and scorched flesh spattered the wall. The machine spasmed twice, then collapsed.

Gasping for breath led to coughing on the stench of burning meat and chemicals. Dietrich crouched next to the bench and tried to marshal his arguments.

"You... activated it," he managed, eventually.

Lady Wyn had been thumping her crowbar – slick with gore – against the floor in frustration as she glowered at the device that had thoroughly disappointed her. She sighed and a sulky expression settled over her face.

"Of course. And it took a ridiculously long time to actually get started, didn't it? I've never been able to observe one in a controlled environment."

"Controlled?" Dietrich wheezed, hauling himself upright in indignation. "You are the opposite of control in every way!"

The young noble arched an eyebrow at her agitated inventor. "Really? Because I'm not smacking you with a wrench and you're being quite provoking. Would you like me to stop controlling my reactions, then?"

"...No."

Lady Wyn huffed wryly and let the crowbar clatter to the floor. She frowned at the burning Automazomb and waved her hand vaguely in front of her.

"It wasn't very hardy, either. A little fire, a blow to the head... it certainly didn't hold up any better than the living do."

Dietrich couldn't even manage to be appalled. His heart was finally slowing and the weariness he often felt after a discussion with Lady Wyn was sinking in.

"Unreliable, inefficient, inelegant... and so very limited in its capabilities." Lady Wyn humphed over the shortcomings of the device. "My automata will be able to do so much more than merely consume the plague's leavings."

Dietrich sagged against the bench. Of course she would want to build a better monster.

"...You don't mean 'more' as in 'cure the plague'. You mean 'more' as in... I don't know, blow up corpses or some other deeply disturbing idea that you are convinced would be 'scientifically relevant'. Because... you're you."

Lady Wyn blinked at him. "Are you advocating corpse explosions? That doesn't sound like you. You usually seem opposed to all sorts of explosions. Maybe you should go rest."

"That's not what I-" Dietrich sighed. "...Yes. Maybe I should."

"Meanwhile, I'll start studying viable corpse explosion metho-"

"NO."

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