Chapter 20: An Urban Dilemma
The eleven floors between the 60th and 70th at the Kintobor Building housed the majority of the Kintobor Company’s patents, intellectual properties, experiments and confidential files. It also held the offices of all the major departments critical to the Company’s success, including Science, Weapons Development, Peace Preservation and Urban Development.
Of those four, the president had little interest in the Urban Development department. As far as Gerald Kintobor was concerned, building up and improving the city of Megapolis for its residents, both on the Plate and in the Slums, were on the lowest of priorities compared to improving RINGTEK and Energen production, expanding the limits of biological science and bolstering his armed forces. Global dominance was all that mattered to him. The citizens, who both resided in the city and lined the company’s pockets through taxes and the purchase of Kintobor’s RINGTEK products, were but a means to an end.
These were some of the many cynical thoughts going through the mind of Christopher Thorndyke, the overworked head of the Department of Urban Development. He had shut himself in his office on the 65th floor and requested not to be disturbed unless it was urgent.
The past few days were the most he had ever worked since he took over the role from his father, the lead architect who designed the floating city of Megapolis. Chris needed no cajoling to pick this profession; he saw from his predecessor’s work that once the city was complete, work would slow down enough that he would be able to coast on the job until retirement.
‘After this week’s back-to-back terrorist attacks, I’ll be lucky if I ever have free time again,’ the Human thought, running a hand through his unkempt, reddish-brown hair. His face, while rounded and normally handsome-looking, showed evidence of exhaustion. He had bags underneath his eyes and his skin was sallow and pale due to stress and isolation. His charcoal grey suit was rumpled and there was the distinct aroma of stale coffee and body odour permeating through the air.
The large corner office he currently resided in would have been more spacious had it not been so cluttered with things. On the side closest to the window was his workstation, which was covered in piles of paper strewn around in a disorganized manner. Next to it were two large drafting tables, laid end to end. Each table had large stacks of architecture drawings on top that displayed several revisions of the city’s key plan. The topmost set of drawings showing a birds-eye-view of the city had two of the Energen Reactors crossed off with red ink. The first was the Sector 1 Reactor and the other was the Sector 5 Reactor, which was freshly marked after this morning’s attack. A plush sofa sat in the middle of the office, which Chris was currently using as a bed. Filing boxes were placed haphazardly around the room, each filled with plans, structural documents, building permits and other things related to the fields of urban development and architecture.
He was not sitting at his desk by the window, but instead at the opposite side of the room where the sofa was, which acted as a divider to the room. Another large drafting table sat against the back wall. On the desk next to it was another workstation that was larger and more powerful than the one he had on his actual desk. To his side and behind him were shelves covered with stacks of boxes. Each of these was filled with robotic parts, computer chips and electrical materials. The overall chaotic appearance of the office gave it a very cramped and confined feel, but the occupant had no real time to organize it and make it neat.
He looked towards the blank screen of his work-issued PC by the window and had a nagging feeling that he was supposed to focus on something else. ‘The President wants a report tonight for the plans to rebuild the reactors and the surrounding areas… even though we both know that he wouldn’t care about the city side of things,’ he mused darkly as he remembered his task. ‘I’ll just half-ass something – as long as he knows that reactor reconstruction takes top priority, he won’t complain too much. Meanwhile, I have other things to concern myself with…’
Putting his actual job responsibilities to the side, he glanced at the monitor in front of him and observed the readouts on the screen. ‘Everything is progressing as planned. Soon, it will be time.’ He turned away from the screen and moved back towards the drafting table.
On top of it was an unfinished robot, complete from the waist up. Its forearms consisted of dull yellow gauntlets with orange-brown trim. Its chest plate, in the same colour as the gauntlets, had three, single Emerald slots in the centre arranged in a triangle. Its head was round with two large, oval eyes and two white plates where its muzzle would have been. It had a brown crest that started from the forehead and arched back towards the top of its head. The sides of its head consisted of flat, circular orange plates with a thin slot going diagonally across its diameter. The neck, waist and upper arms were covered in a dark brown, flexible casing. Its hands were of the same colour as the casing, which was resting in a neutral position with its palms facing upward. The robot was connected to the PC Chris was working on through a long cable which was attached to a port behind an access hatch on the top of the robot’s head.
Chris eyed the monitor until the various download status bars read ‘Complete.’ He then input commands on the terminal and initiated the boot-up and activation sequences. Knowing that this process would take some time, he opened the drawer beside him, pulled out a video recorder and set it atop a nearby stack of boxes. Activating it and checking to see that both he and the robot were visible, he hit the ‘Record’ button and started to speak.
“My name is Christopher Thorndyke. This is… The forty-second test of my experimental robotic assistant project: the Enhanced Mechanical Robian Lifeform or EMRL.” He paused and then looked aside. “…I’m still workshopping the name,” he muttered.
He then straightened up and turned back to the terminal command window. He spoke loudly and described the current processes to the camera. “I’ve downloaded the new programming into Emerl and initiated the start-up sequence. He should be operational right… about… now.”
As if on cue, the robot’s eyes lit up, the oval eyes going from dull grey to light blue in colour. Chris swivelled back to the robot, smiling. “Hi there Emerl, how are you doing?”
The robot turned its head and regarded the Human for a short moment. “I am doing well,” it said in a smooth, computerized male voice. “How are you, Christopher?”
“Wonderful,” Chris replied, grinning from ear to ear in elation. “Just wonderful.” ‘So far so good!’ “OK Emerl, I’ve programmed a set of laws into your core matrix. I’d like you to please recite them for me.”
“Certainly. 1: I must not harm or allow harm to come to any Human. 2. I must obey my orders given except if said order conflicts with the First Law. 3. I shall protect myself from harm as long as my protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws,” it said slowly and methodically.
Chris felt his chapped lips split painfully as his smile widened. ‘Ten years… of breaks between architecture school, of neglecting my job, shutting myself in at home and keeping myself awake, the failures, the arguments with the family… with Helen… all of those have led me to this very moment,’ He faced the camera and cleared his throat. ‘And now, the real test begins…’
“Now, we will test Emerl’s nanomachine drive and copy ability. The ability was inspired in part by the creatures known as Chao,” Chris announced, turning toward Emerl. “Chao are renowned for their adaptability – they can copy the DNA of living things and incorporate it into their own genetic structure, altering themselves as they grow. In this case, after years of research and study, I’ve been able to replicate that ability to work with non-organic objects.”
He turned to the robot. “Now Emerl, I’d like you to access your nanomachine drive,” he instructed, stepping back slightly. “I want you to replicate a ball using your nanomachines. You should already have an image of that in your memory banks-”
“Well, well, someone’s hard at work.”
Chris jumped at the sultry voice behind him. Whipping around, he stood face to face with the Head of Weapons Development, Fiona Vulpes, leaning on the wall next to his open office door. ‘When the hell did she come in?!’ he thought, cold sweat forming on his back.
Fiona was an auburn-furred fox of unnatural beauty. She wore a sleeveless black dress with a high slit and a deep, plunging neckline that went down to her navel, all of which flaunted her curves and her leggy frame. She wore an ornate, bejewelled necklace that sat at the top of her exposed cleavage. A pair of six-inch-high black stilettos lay on her dainty feet to complete the look. The dim office lighting highlighted her reddish-brown hair and striking features. Her lush, glossed lips on her petite muzzle curled up into a smirk and her caramel-brown eyes twinkled at the sight of the Human sitting stiffly in his chair.
“So, this is the reason why you’ve been ignoring your emails today,” she said, sauntering towards Chris, her sleek, auburn and cream-tipped tail swaying back and forth slowly as she walked. “I see you’ve made quite a bit of progress since I last spoke with you…” She stopped by the drafting table and eyed the robot’s hand with mild curiosity. “Interesting… did it just create something using nanotechnology?”
Chris whirled back around to face Emerl. In the robot’s left hand was the ball he requested it to make, perfectly replicated. “My… My goodness…” he whispered, his fingers trembling with excitement. “Emerl, you… you did it! You actually did it!”
Not noticing her walking towards him, Chris turned to his left to see Fiona crowding his personal space and leaning down, her ample bosom dangerously close to his face. He could feel the heat rising on his neck as he averted his gaze away from her and towards his passion project on the table. She leaned in close to his ear and the Urban Development head couldn’t help but notice the sweet perfume wafting from her fur.
“Thorndyke, be a good boy and read the email I sent to you,” she whispered, her voice as smooth as silk. “It’s very important.”
He quickly pushed off from the table and moved away from the fox, the caster wheels on his chair squeaking loudly on the floor. He fought to maintain a neutral expression on his face, despite the rising, embarrassed blush that captured his face. While Chris did consider her attractive for her species, he was disgusted at the thought of being with her in that way. Though, his revulsion couldn’t stop him from getting flustered by her overly flirtatious behaviour. ‘Like this moment, for example…’
He stood up and headed for his actual workstation. He turned it on and waited for it to awaken from sleep mode. Emerl’s head turned to look at him and Chris could hear the servos on his neck whirring.
He also heard a sound of amusement coming from Fiona. “Mmm… Thorndyke? Am I making you uncomfortable?” she said coyly, but the Human ignored her.
As soon as he opened the email client, Chris let out a crooked, wistful smile. ‘485 unread messages, that’s a new record,’ he thought absently as he narrowed his search to the ones sent by Fiona. She had sent several missives with the same subject in the last hour, so he looked at the first email she sent. His eyes widened and he swivelled around to face Fiona. “You want information on the Emergency Plate Release system?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Yes Thorndyke, I sent you several requests on this in the last hour alone,” she demurred, her tone husky. “Kintobor was asking if I knew something about it and I told him I’d message you for more details. If you would have read and answered my emails instead of concentrating on your little friend here, I would have had something ready for the President a half hour ago.” She flipped her hair away from her eyes, her voice lowering to a purr. “You know how he is when he doesn’t get what he wants in a timely manner. And now because of that, I may risk roboticization.” She pouted at him. “You… wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you? Especially since I know of your dirty, little secret here?” She then folded her arms and tilted her head to the side, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “Need I remind you who it was that helped you procure all of these resources at your request?”
Chris winced at the jibe. He remembered the rumours that swirled about her when he first met her after taking over from his father. It was said that she only got her position as the Head of Weapons Development by using her looks and shameless disregard for the Taboo to procure blackmail material from some of the high-ranking executives within the company. However, he found her to be quite unlike what he imagined her to be. She was intelligent, shrewd and a visionary; three qualities that made her so effective at her job. While the President created the concepts, it was Fiona who engineered and brought them to life.
So when Chris approached her several months ago to ask for her assistance with his robotics project, against his better judgement, she complied with his request. What was unusual at the time was that she had asked for nothing in return, save for the occasional visit or two to see his progress. ‘I guess something has changed… Otherwise, she wouldn’t be here now asking for my assistance with something…’ “…Of course not,” he replied as he rubbed the nape of his neck. “You know how much I enjoy our little chats.”
He heard Fiona smirk behind him. She walked towards his desk, her heels muffled underneath the soft, carpeted floors of the office. He saw the fox take a picture frame with him and a pretty, blonde-haired woman with aquamarine eyes who sat in a wheelchair. “How is that darling Helen of yours?” Fiona asked, running a well-manicured finger against the framed picture. “I surmise you haven’t seen much of her in the last few days?”
Chris snatched the frame out of the fox’s surprised hands. “…Enough,” he said curtly, setting the photo down face-first onto a stack of files. “Cut to the chase, Fiona. What do you really want this information for?”
“Simple, Thorndyke. I want to weaponize it,” Fiona said, her eyes glittering malevolently.
“Weaponize? Why?” he asked, his brows furrowing. “What reason would you need to weaponize an Emergency System? It’s only to be used in the event of -”
“Hmm… you haven’t heard the news, have you?” she interrupted. Her amused expression sent a chill down the Human’s spine. “We’ve determined the location of the terrorists. Sector 7 to be precise.”
The Human jumped out of his chair, shocked. “You found them?!” he asked.
Fiona scoffed. “Don’t act so surprised, Thorndyke,” she said, giving him a coy look. “Of course, we were going to find them. It was only a matter of time until the Chaotix finally tracked them down.” She then looked at him coldly. “Although, if you cooperated a little bit earlier by providing the detailed survey of the Slums the President requested weeks ago, we would have stamped them out well before the first explosion and we wouldn’t be dealing with this fallout. Instead,” she looked back at Emerl. “You were building this bot here. One would think that their job is more important than some silly passion project, but then again, I’m not in charge.” She looked at him accusingly. “You’re not hiding anything, are you?”
Chris looked at her darkly. ‘Are you friggin’ serious?’ “Are you saying I’m covering up for these terrorists? You do know that the Urban Development department is severely understaffed. Or, need I remind you that you personally asked Kintobor to divert the funds earmarked for Urban Development to your Weapons R&D program?! I could have used those funds to hire additional help to finish that study and prevent this whole catastrophe from happening!” He flung his hand outwards in Emerl’s direction. “My department running on a skeleton crew is one of the main reasons why I started building him in the first place!” ‘And the reason why I asked you for help, in the end…’
“Be that as it may, this doesn’t look good on you Thorndyke,” Fiona replied coolly. “Kintobor is not amused at these events. He’ll be less so once I tell him that you’ve been shirking your duties to work on your little project here. But I can help you.”
Chris paled, the colour rapidly draining from his face. The shock quickly turned to anger and he gritted his teeth. ‘That’s why she never asked for anything in return for helping me,’ he realized angrily. ‘She was playing me from the start, waiting for the moment that she could wrap me around her fingers… The rumours about gathering blackmail from other executives were partially true after all, I suppose?’
Noticing the look of horror on the Human’s face, Fiona folded her arms and gave Chris a smug smile. “If you hand over the original coding for the Emergency Plate Release system, I’ll continue to help you and I’ll keep my mouth shut about your little project here. If you don’t,” she looked towards Emerl and smiled wickedly at him. “Well, I could always say I was coerced into helping you build your little friend here as an act of insurrection against the company? I doubt the President would like that, though? And while you rot in a cell for the rest of your life, I could have my way with this little bugger’s nanomachine drive! Kya-ha-ha-ha!” she cackled loudly. “Just imagine the practical applications this technology can bring to warfare!?”
‘Ugh, damnit! She’s got me cornered,’“Fine,” he conceded, his head hanging low as Fiona laughed at his misery. “You win.”
Chris stood and rummaged around his office, checking the labels on each of the boxes until he found the one he was searching for. A box labelled, “Dad’s Stuff” sat next to the desk by the window. Kneeling down, he opened the box, stuck his hand in and searched the contents. Half a minute later, he pulled out a data stick. He stood up and handed it to Fiona, scowling. “Take it and get out of my office,” he said to her, his teeth clenched.
Fiona gave Chris a jubilant smile. “Thank you so much,” she said, her voice cloyingly sweet. As she turned to leave, just before she left the office, she turned her head back around. She gave Chris a predatory glare. “Oh, one last thing,” she said venomously. “I’d get rid of that recording if I were you. Should anyone find and watch it, well… I don’t think I need to remind you of the consequences pertaining to our little… moment.”
‘Ah yes, if anyone saw this footage, they’d think we’d be in an intimate relationship.’ Chris ruminated hotly. ‘And whether implied or not, we’d both be put to death based on the laws barring any Human-Mobian coital relations. The Taboo. So sure, we’ll call it a ‘moment’,’ He walked to the camcorder and deleted the recording, showing her the empty device. ‘Probably better anyways… Helen doesn’t need to know about this…’ “Done, see? No footage,” he said, shutting the unit off and tossing it onto the couch.
Fiona smiled brightly. “Thanks for being such a sweetheart about this,” she said, walking back up to him and patting his cheek. She turned to leave but stopped in front of Emerl. She pouted. “Oh, I’m so sorry I can’t stay, my little friend,” she said to him in a saccharine, infantilizing tone. “But maybe next time I come to visit, I might get a chance to play with you. Until then, ta ta for now!” Cackling once more, she took her leave, the automated office door sliding closed with a thump.
Chris waited as he heard the clacking of her heels on the polished floor outside. The moment he heard the elevator doors open and close, he slid down against the wall, placed his hand on his face and groaned loudly.
From beneath his fingers, Chris saw Emerl swivel his head around towards him. “Are you alright, Master Chris?” he asked,
‘No.’ “Yes Emerl, I’ll be fine,” he said, running his hands through his hair. ‘Except that I gave Fiona the worst means possible to wipe out the terrorists…‘ Pushing himself off the wall, he walked back to the computer by Emerl and sat down on the chair. “Let’s continue testing shall we? We won’t re-record what we’ve lost, but we can still complete the rest of the diagnostics on your AI and systems and then I can get started on installing your legs.”
Chris imagined if Emerl could smile, he’d have the biggest one yet. “Fantastic, I cannot wait to be able to walk around,” he said, his computerized voice sounding chipper.
Chris allowed himself to smile as he monitored the readouts on the screen. Inwardly, he was conflicted. ‘How could I have been so stupid… And selfish! I did the opposite of what I should have done! I sacrificed the many to save the few.’ He turned to watch Emerl. The robot was now observing the movements of his hands with wanton curiosity, as though it was a little child. Chris smiled at the action. ‘But if my creation here can end up saving the many, then the sacrifice… Well… It just might be worth it.’
‘I just hope that… my family and my friends will forgive me for what I’ve done…’