Marceau stirred as the intermittent banging noise continued on the bunker doors. She was phasing in her sleep again. Every morning was like waking up from anesthesia. A certain momentary awareness came and went, during which she’d feel a cold rush of air. The mattress beneath her disappeared and reappeared again in a torn state. Lights flickered on and off. Hypnagogic jerks often startled her awake at that point somewhere between the frequencies, and she could never be sure where she was. Several days of riding it out without her regulator had become torture. Once she was conscious enough to realize what was happening, she began to time the bangs on the door, counting the intervals between her phases.
“One, two, three, flash. One, two, three, four…flash. One, two, three, flash. One, two, three…now!” Marceau leaned over and reached for the injector gun on her desk before the next phase came and shot herself in the shoulder. She closed her eyes, listening for that terrible noise as she counted. Five seconds. Ten seconds. It didn’t return. “Back in Viktorium,” she sighed, propping herself up against the cold steel wall. She switched on the lights and looked at her right arm. The machine virus eating away at her flesh receded back down her bicep for now, though it had still managed to rise a little higher than the previous day. For better or worse, she was stuck with the constant reminder that her time was running out. “Fuck.”
The same infection had taken the others several weeks ago. Not that she’d been there to see it. Everyone was dead by the time she arrived. Soon enough, the great Marceau would be little more than a Machine Man herself, doomed to guard Tesla’s junkyard and protect the masses of the Metropolies from the very virus that claimed her—unless she found a cure. At this stage, it was doubtful. Still, it was nice to hope. She owed Cecile that much after lying to her. My sweet girl. I’m afraid the air is not so crisp here.
Marceau surveyed her room a moment to be sure everything was in order. Some of the frequencies she passed through during her phases had a tendency to look exactly the same, with minor variations. Even the dimensions of the room could be slightly off. She’d posted a large calendar on the wall to keep track of her flashes, as well as painting measurement tic marks across the middle of the floor. Thankfully, it remained the same seven-by-seven foot closet space she was used to. A loud bang came on the bunker door.
“Shit!” she shrieked, leaping out of bed. The floor was colder than expected on her bare feet. That meant the freezers were probably malfunctioning again, but it would have to wait. “You’d better not be an anomaly,” she sighed. She strapped a phase unit onto her wrist and headed for the door. Everything felt heavier without her regulator, and the weight of that steel behemoth was no exception. It took several tries to twist the centered wheel until she unlocked the bloody thing. “Goddamn it I’m an engineer, not a bodybuilder,” she cringed, pushing the door open just enough for her ninety-eight pound frame to fit through. She rushed up the few steps to the lab, flipped the breakers for the lights, and prayed as the holograph display booted up on her work table. A lone Machine Man flickered into view.
“Thank god,” she breathed. The robots only wandered outside the main gate of the junkyard if they detected something was amiss in the bunker. In this case, the malfunctioning freezers must have set them off, although Marceau’s presence in recent days was just as much a trigger. Another reason she needed a regulator—it scrambled her frequency enough so they wouldn’t label her an intruder. This, however, presented another problem. The parts she needed to construct a new regulator would have to be salvaged from the junkyard. That meant scaling the wall, unless…
“First thing’s first, let’s try to distract you, yeah? Freezer temperature is one degree Centigrade…damn.” She could dial it down as a temporary measure to draw the Machine Man away, but the conduits were still leaking cold air out of the coolers. She would have little time to sneak through the main gate and retrieve what she needed. If she was out too long and the temperature of the bodies rose too high, decomposition would reach a point of no return. After that, she could say goodbye to any possibility of returning to Viktorium permanently. Her own corpse had become something of a time capsule to her, a precious piece of herself she was desperate to preserve until such time she could inhabit it again. Even then, she wasn’t a hundred percent sure her plan for reintegration would work. The negative particle load on the piece of scrap metal she’d infected herself on was such that it tore across several frequencies. Committing suicide hadn’t been the solution she’d hoped for, although it saved her body and freed her to travel across other dimensions.
The girl wiped a stray tear from her cheek and focused back on the task at hand. “Lowering freezer temperatures manually,” she sniffed, jumping over the metal rail that separated the lab from the freezers. She set the dials back down and grabbed her cutoff trousers. The cold atmosphere of the bunker was something she’d grown accustomed to in recent days, so she was used to working in her underwear and a tank top. Hot oil and other mechanical parts provided enough warmth anyway. An irony that cold, unfeeling machines can give me comfort. And yet it was not the same as having Cecile with her. Soon.
The banging on the door ended abruptly as the holo grid showed the Machine Man turning away toward the main gate. Marceau snatched her goggles and head scarf off the work table, slinging a short sword over her shoulder as she rushed up the grated stairs to the bunker doors. She braced herself before pounding the button. A sandstorm was brewing outside, which meant lower visibility. She would have to fight off the Machine Man after the gate closed behind them. Phase units didn’t work on their reinforced casing. A direct blow to the back of their necks was enough to significantly disable them, but that only worked for a short period.
“Steady,” she told herself, and smashed the button. The doors slid open to a squall of whipping golden winds that nearly took her off her feet. Marceau adjusted her goggles. When paired with the regulator, she could see through almost any obstacle ahead, but the most they offered her now was protection from the elements. The dark blue hue at least showed the sandstorm in darker tones, while the Machine Man appeared lighter. Not ideal, but it worked. She would just have to stay within the gusts of wind to obscure her location.
Side-stepping into the flow of sand, she made her way forward, making sure to keep the robot in her sights. The Machine Men walked at a relatively slow pace unless they detected an immediate threat. Marceau considered kneeling down for a rock to hurl at the gate in hopes the thing would go faster, but thought better of it—their sensors could pick up on any movement coming from behind. She took to counting its steps to calm herself until it reached the door, following along in a zigzag pattern.
“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…come on, you metal hunk of shit,” she muttered under her breath. Her patience wore even thinner once she realized her counts weren’t accurate. “Fuck it.” Marceau grabbed her short sword and plowed through the gusts as the Machine Man neared the control panel. She got just close enough for it to enter the code, then waited until the gate began to open. Time to move. In a swift, calculated motion, she leapt up and allowed the wind to carry her spin, slicing through the air to land a hard blow on the back of the robot’s neck with her sword as it stepped through the gate.
“INTRUDER-!” The thing fell, bellowing in a metallic voice. Marceau somersaulted ahead and landed on her feet just in time to hear the gate crunch the machine in two behind her. A shower of electric sparks shot out, scorching her left shoulder. She winced and brushed them away. Son of a bitch. More of those ugly tin cans would be along soon enough to investigate. For what it was worth, at least the burns set off a nice bit of adrenaline. She continued on through the blur to locate her preferred pile of scrap on the west end of the junkyard.
Clangs of metal echoed in the distance as the machines went about their work, hurling heavy beams and crunching unusable parts into cubes. A large conveyor belt ran overhead on the north side, which was where most of them tended to congregate. Marceau clutched her sword tight and turned left around a tall assortment of jagged metal grates to be sure the coast was clear. Two Machine Men blocked her usual path, tearing parts from on old rusted clock. She was about to turn away and maneuver around them until something curious caught her eye. A lone skeleton lay buried beneath the clock, and a decaying foot poked out of the sand just a few feet further. The uniform on the skeleton was similar to those she had seen on the dead bodies in the freezer back at the bunker. These were not intruders, they were scientists who had worked maintenance on the machines.
“The plot thickens,” she whispered. One of the Machine Men dropped the clock and turned to face her. “Shit!”
“INTRUDER!” the robot bellowed through its casing. Marceau whirled around to see a third machine bounding toward her. She charged back, turning to the right of the screaming beast as he reached out to grab her, and sprung off the clock to the left, narrowly avoiding the one behind him. She whipped around the back of the pile and weaved right. The Machine Men were already bounding overtop of the metal heap to catch her, sending an avalanche of parts careening downward as they went. She dipped down and grabbed a handful of sand to toss in the air. It managed to throw them off her trail until she could hide behind a rusted-out Model T across the way. Marceau knelt to catch her breath.
“Fuck!” she whispered, pressing her forehead to the pommel of her sword. The scrap parts she needed were still two mountains away. She closed her eyes and listened to her own heartbeat pound in her eardrums. If she were to die out here alone, no one would ever find her. Cecile would never know what happened either. It would be as if she never existed. Not that it mattered. Marceau already felt like enough of a ghost to the outside world. Oh get a grip, she told herself. Not today.
The girl opened her eyes and rose to her feet, braving the gusts of gold until the clanging noise of the Machine Men faded far behind. She’d been walking through the dark for most of her life. This was no different, and yet the irony of color in her goggles amused her. She certainly felt just as blue in recent days. Navigating the sea of faces in Cavarice was akin to dodging the light wherever it stood, weaving in and out of intermittent periods of blinding black. But the brightest color in her world was undoubtedly Cecile. That girl was her sole reason for staying. Until they’d met, Marceau had very nearly resigned herself to death.
Mayor La Cour had hosted a birthday party some months ago for Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile. Marceau happened to be in the Metropolies at that time, observing the masses as she did whenever she got lonely. She’d stuck close to the Dispatchers when they did their rounds in the mansion. Not the most comfortable tactic, but one that proved necessary. Her regulator was not yet aligned properly, so she wanted to test whether or not they could detect her. If so, she could always duck into the nearest bedroom.
During her tour of the second story, the voice of a young girl caught her ear from behind a closed door. She seemed to be arguing with a male suitor, so Marceau had torn away from the squad of Dispatchers to listen in. When the door swung open, she learned it was not a male suitor, but her father. She was being belligerent and refused to come down for the party. The mayor let out a huff and plodded back downstairs with the Dispatchers in tow. Before the beautiful girl came to shut the door, Marceau managed to slip in and watch her from afar.
“‘It’s just a party, Cecile,’” the girl mocked, throwing off her shoes as she plopped in front of the vanity mirror. “It’s never a party when that rat bastard is here! ‘A blossoming girl like yourself should feel privileged for male attention!’ Maybe I don’t want male attention Daddy, you ever think about that? Women are supposed to be able to do whatever the bloody hell they want in Viktorium. Maybe I’d like a woman instead.”
By then, Marceau was holding back a smirk as she neared the mirror. Everything about this girl was perfect, and she was about to see just how perfect. The straps of her dress came off around her shoulders. It slipped downward over her chest exposing her cleavage, and then the tops of those two lovely, creamy breasts, almost to the nipple. That’s when the young traveler made her move with a single whisper in Cecile’s ear.
“Can I keep you?”
The girl reacted as suspected, immediately covering herself in terror.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL—”
“Shhh,” Marceau went visible and covered her mouth. “Don’t be frightened, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m a Dispatcher, I’ve been watching over you.”
Cecile giggled. “I doubt that. Besides, aren’t you a little short for a Dispatcher? What, do they recruit pervy little boys to spy on me now?”
“I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.”
“Take those stupid goggles off, they’re not helping.”
“Don’t ever call me that. Ever.”
“Then what shall I call you? Handsome?”
“You can call me Marceau,” the girl smiled.
“I’m Cecile,” she said, shaking her hand. “Marceau…that’s more of surname, isn’t it? And how the hell did you get in here?”
“It’s…a long story.”
“If you tell me, I promise not to have the Dispatchers escort you out. Besides, I’m certainly not going anywhere, trust me.