“There you are,” Dr. Peter A Moreau-Walter III (or “Alex” as he liked to be called) said as he poked his head into his eldest girl’s lab and his eyes narrowed as he saw her toss her lab coat down the laundry shoot. He was tall and his brown hair was receding which he was clearly fighting the best he could. “You’re done for the day? What about the cardiac study?”
Lilah froze. “Oh, gosh, Dad I forgot! See, Rabbit was just in here...” she said with smile which quickly fell when she saw the disappointed look on her father’s face.
“No matter. We can work on it tomorrow.”
She folded her arms nervously. “Uh, actually. I have plans tomorrow.”
“Plans?” he practically shouted in surprise. “When do you have plans? Is it with a boy?”
“Oh.” her father said, more disappointment in his voice. “Well, you can’t have plans anyway. We have work.”
He frowned and folded his arms as well. “Do you like your title, Delilah?”
“My title?” she asked, confused.
“Vice President. I know that it’s new to you, but it means that you have responsibilities.”
Lilah folded her arms tighter. “Dad, tomorrow is Saturday. Even the cleaning staff has off.”
“You are not the cleaning staff. You are my assistant.”
“I thought I was VP?” she snapped back.
“Don’t be smart with me.”
“Don’t do this to me right now.”
“What? Remind you of what you are here to do?”
“I’m going to the show tomorrow. The robots are nervous and they asked for my support.”
“The show?” Alex raised his hand and extended two fingers. “They’ll be fine and you hate crowds.”
“I know, but...”
“You care too much about them and not enough about your future, Delilah.”
She thrust out her left hand and counted off on her own fingers as she made three points. “One: they’re my friends, two: it’s a Saturday, and three: it’s just right here in San Deigo. If you want, I’ll help you when I get back, it’s not even a late show!” A fourth finger was extended for that additional point. “I think they go on at four in the afternoon for chris’sake.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “There’s no need to get defensive, Delilah.”
“Really, Dad? You always back me into a corner when you try to talk to me about anything other than work. You assume that just because I’m a loser with no real friends...” She pursed her lips tightly, stormed through the wide doorway and down the hall toward the elevator. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said tersely as she passed him. He said nothing.
Saturday, July 20th, 1991. Devore Stadium, San Diego, CA
Lilah didn’t get out much. Having been bullied by her peers in even the small, private school she had attended, she always felt more comfortable at home in the immense mansion her second great-grandfather built, especially in the subterranean laboratories and with her only real friends, three very special antique automatons. She had been raised on their music and camaraderie and when they started playing in Balboa Park, she sometimes went with them, but always sat at a safe distance from the throngs that gathered to watch their antics.
Today, she was glad that she was able to travel to the stadium with the band and enter from backstage, avoiding the masses until it was show time. The Spine loped around behind the curtain, getting his guitars in order as if this were no more special than a day in the park. The Jon danced around the drum set, annoying the band’s current drummer, Lenny Stevens, a thin brown-haired young man of twenty years, as he checked his setup. The din of hundreds of voices on the other side of the curtain grew as they approached showtime and Rabbit paced around first picking up his melodica and fiddling with it, then his accordion, then the melodica again. The sound of the crowd was getting quite loud and Lilah found it hard to keeping telling Rabbit not to be nervous when her own nerves were getting rattled thinking about having to stand among so many people. Fortunately, the band leader picked up the slack.
“Rabbit,” Patrick Reed said, putting his hands on the automaton’s shoulders. “For chris’sakes relax. It’s just a show. You are built to do this, remember?” Reed stood at just an inch or so taller than the robot and looked down on him with a sympathetic twist to his brows. He had dark brown hair and eyes and the musician and engineer’s dedication to weight-lifting showed.
“Pat’s right, Rabbit,” Lilah agreed. “This will be a piece of cake and when that audience cheers your joy receptors will peg the needle!”
Rabbit grinned and looked a little sheepish. “And you’ll be in that audience, won’t you, Miss Lilah?”
She took a deep breath. The copper plating that made up his face was twisted with worry. “I sure will.”
Rabbit puffed out his chest, nodded to Reed and scooped up his accordion. Reed plugged his headset into its receiver and gave him a couple reassuring pats on the back.
Lilah was tackled by The Jon who hugged her quickly then spun away toward his mandolin. The Spine tipped his hat to her and she hugged him anyway. Lastly, she hugged her unabashed favorite robot, Rabbit. He practically had to be pried off of her. “You’ll be fine!” she said. His green eye looked relieved and his blue one looked terrified and he nodded quickly in reply.
Lilah found her way around to the front of the stage and into the audience which was large, but as she had hoped, not yet whipped into a pushy, smelly frenzy. She was glad that she had decided to wear all black--it hid the fact that she had relatively little fashion sense and made her slightly more comfortable in the diverse crowd. She also realized that people with all sorts of differently-colored hair abounded and her own unusual coloration fit right in. Never the less, a woman with a three-inch purple Mohawk beside her stared hard at her for a while before tapping her on the shoulder.
“What do you use on your hair?” the young woman asked.
Lilah blinked up at her tried not to stare at a tattoo of flames on the shorn sides of her skull. “Use...?”
“The blue-black is really awesome. Catches the sun really cool.”
“Thanks. It’s natural, actually.”
The woman laughed. “Awesome.”
Lilah breathed a sigh of relief and Patrick Reed’s voice came over the loudspeakers, announcing the “original singing automatons” that her great-great-grandfather had built. Her attention shifted to the stage as the curtain went up and the show started. At first, the crowd did not know what to make of them. Metal gleamed in the sun. Their boilers emitted small puffs of steam in the warm California air. The Steam Man Band began a typical set starting with “Clockwork Vaudeville” which got only a smattering of applause, then picked up the pace with “Steamboat Shenanigans”. The audience stood almost motionless for the first two minutes but soon pressed in tighter and tapped their feet and swayed to the old-timey-sounding tunes. Lilah looked around and saw the most hardened, tattooed, facially-pierced attendees smiling and nodding their heads to the robot beat and she beamed with pride.
The band had decided to forgo the usual skits and get straight to the songs due to the nature of the show. After Steamboat, The Spine spoke and thanked them for coming to see them as he tuned his guitar for the next song. Lenny tapped his cymbal and Reed plucked out the first motif of “Automatonic Electronic Harmonics” when three people dressed in black wearing black gas masks leapt up onto the stage, each hurling something toward the robots as they did. Smoke bombs exploded and huge clouds of thick green smoke blocked the stage from sight.
Lilah’s heart went into her stomach then fought its way into her throat as the scene played out seemingly in slow motion. The crowd panicked and as it fled she fought her way toward the stage, swimming against the current of human bodies. The Jon’s wailing drowned out much of what anyone else said over the loudspeakers but she heard Rabbit cry out “Help! Miss Lilah! Hel-” before he was silenced. The Jon’s wailing cut out next then The Spine could be heard saying “Run, Lenny! Patrick! Run and get...” before he too went quiet behind the curtain of smoke.
“Lilah get out of here!” came Patrick Reed’s voice over the speakers. Too late. As Lilah tried to approach she was pushed to the ground and trampled.
When she regained her senses the shouting crowd was replaced with the whine of sirens. She was being barked at by a large man in a blue EMT uniform who was asking her what her name was.
“The bots! Lenny! Patrick!” she cried as she realized where she was and tried to sit up. Pain screamed from her left shoulder and she noticed that it was not at all in the position it should be. Her breathing quickened in response to a flood of adrenaline and her eyes shot to the stage. There were police talking to Patrick Reed and the forms of the three robots lay prone on the stage around him. Grasping the EMT by the shirt with her left hand, she performed a sort of self-Kocher's method to reset the joint using his bulk for balance then sprang to her feet and dashed to the stage, pulling a folded multi-tool from her pocket as she went. Security guards shouted after her but she made it to Patrick Reed who called them off. He took her right arm and pulled her up onto the surface of the stage and before she could ask, she saw them.
Their eyes were closed. They lay on their backs--probably placed that way by Reed. Lenny the drummer sat near him with his head on his folded arms over his knees. Reed started to explain that he hadn’t seen what happened and the police were being terrible--treating them like damaged property. Lilah heard him but didn’t seem to register it as she walked slowly toward the closest robot--her favorite. Dropping to her knees before him she feverishly opened his vest and started removing the copper plating with her multi-tool. Once the chest plate was off and clattered to the floor she gasped at the sight before her.
“It’s gone,” she said.
“The core?” Reed shouted.
“No. The core is here. The Matter is gone,” she said, her voice tremulous. She scrambled to her feet and checked The Spine then The Jon and found the same situation. The crystal core was there, intact, sealed away inside their chests, vacant of a hint of Blue Matter. Turning to look back at Reed and Lenny, Delilah Moreau-Walter started to shake and only just made it to the edge of the stage before she vomited. When she had finished, she rocked back onto her folded legs and stared at the sky. Reed’s touch on her shoulder shocked her but she acquiesced to the hug he wanted to give her. Her wounded shoulder throbbed in agony but it hardly seemed to matter.
“They’re dead, Patrick.”
“I sent Lenny to call the manor for backup. We’ll need help. Are you ok?” he asked, passing her a bottle of water.
She grasped it with both hands but found that lifting her left arm was near impossible. “I was hurt in the press.”
“You need an ambulance.”
“No, I’ll be alright.”
“Yes, you do,” he said firmly. “There’s nothing...” Reed started. He didn’t want to say it. “There’s nothing you can do here. Go get checked on, please?” When she nodded, Reed called out for one of many EMTs on the scene helping other people who were trampled to come and help her.
The young woman stared out the scene before her. Dozens of young people were being attended to by EMTs. Police and event staff were everywhere. Emergency vehicles' lights flashed and sirens wailed and the music was decidedly silenced for the day. “Did you see them--the three who threw the smoke bombs?” she asked.
“No, did you?”
Lilah nodded. “They had green hair.”
“Green... Like the color of the smoke. Like...”
“It can only be. It can only be their work. They did this. They’ve done it again. Why, Patrick? Why kill them? Why can’t they just let this end!” she growled angrily.
“I don’t know,” he said quietly, releasing Lilah to the same EMT she had earlier used as a shoulder-reset who jumped up onto the stage and scolded her. Her eyes were not focusing on anything but still dry as shock set in. Once she was in good hands, Reed turned away and broke down.
Three robots lay on three exam tables in the largest of the robotics labs in the extensive basement of the manor house. Their empty power cores had been removed and sat next to each prone figure, but other than extensive testing, nothing else had been done to try to repair them. Alex Moreau-Walter had decided not to proceed with any course of action before his eldest returned from the hospital. His son Peter and Patrick Reed stood nearby, waiting for the prognosis.
“No good,” he said simply, shrugging. “They’re kaput.”
Eighteen-year-old Peter stared at the broken robots silently and twenty-six-year-old Reed stifled an irritated scoff and rubbed his hand over his face. He jumped a little as a sleek, silver telephone on the wall nearby rang with a loud electronic chime. Alex nodded to him and he picked it up. “Reed,” he said in greeting. “She is? Good. We’ll be right up.”
“Send her down here,” Alex said forcefully.
“Send her...? Hold on a sec.” He cupped the cordless phone to his chest. “Sir, she just go back from the hospital and we don’t know if...”
Peter’s black eyes looked from Reed to his father, but he said nothing.
“If she’s been released, she’s well enough to walk. Send her down here.”
Reed took a calming breath before putting the receiver back to his face. “Dr. Moreau-Walter would like his daughter to join us in Lab One. Yes. Yes. Thank you. She’ll be right down,” he said and pressed the ‘end’ button.
Peter slumped his wiry frame onto a stool and folded his arms. “Dad, I could have...”
“We’ve been over this, Peter. This is as much her responsibility as yours. Delilah must be included in whatever decision we make.”
They didn’t have long to wait as a soft ping sounded indicating the elevator doors had opened and quick footsteps were heard approaching the lab.
Lilah appeared disheveled, her hair sticking out in all the wrong directions. Her black tee-shirt and black jeans from the day before were visibly dirty. Her left arm rested in a sling around her neck. “News?” she asked flatly and ran her right hand through her hair. There were large circles under her blue eyes.
“No change,” Reed said softly.
“Plans?” she asked, pulling up a stool next to her younger brother.
“What?” she spat. “What about Becile?”
“What about them?” her father spat back. “What’s done is done. We were waiting for you to add your input about the robots, not about those lunatics.”
“Do you mean we’re just going to let them get away with this?” Lilah shouted. Peter hunched his shoulders as if the sound of her voice hurt him.
Alex squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as if a headache were coming on. “We cannot retaliate against...”
“Why not? They killed them, Dad!” She looked to Reed who seemed to want to agree but didn’t dare defy his employer and then to her brother who looked to the floor for sanctuary. “If we do nothing...!”
“If we do anything, this will keep going forever!” Alex shouted. “When I was a baby, my aunt Katie was kidnapped and drowned. They lost one of their own at the same time. In the 1950 incident we lost my grandfather and they lost another one of theirs. This time we were lucky it was just the robots.”
Lilah gasped and gripped the lip of her stool as if to keep from falling off of it. “What did you say? It was just the robots? Wh-what does that mean! They are our family!”
“I mean that no Beciles were killed and none of our flesh-and-blood family was killed so perhaps, daughter of mine who was present when this went down, perhaps, this ridiculous tit-for-tat will end here!” Alex took a deep calming breath and smoothed back his comb-over which had gone a bit wild. “We have never retaliated against Becile. They have always come for us and they’ve come back because they’ve lost lives on their side. It could be done, now. We could be safe, forever.”
Lilah was enraged but it was clear that his words reached her. She stewed in her seat, her face flushed, eyes focused on her father’s feet.
“And so, your brother, Mr. Reed and I have come to the conclusion that we should insert new power cores into the robots and get them operational to further show Becile that we are resilient and that the war is over. What do you think?”
Lilah lifted her head with a perplexed look. “New cores? In their bodies? No. You can’t.”
“Delilah,” Alex began. “I know how attached you were to them, but...”
“It doesn’t matter about how I feel,” she said, shaking. “Their cores are their souls. You can’t expect them to be themselves with new ones.”
“I didn’t say that I did.”
“That’s even worse, Dad! Don’t you get it?” she shouted hysterically, spit flying from her mouth as she gestured to her brother. “Imagine if Pete died and you found a new soul for his body. The new soul would have to deal with your sorrow every time you saw him and missed your son. The new soul would be constantly reminded that it was supposed to be someone else. That’s not fair; not fair to the new souls, not fair to the robots’ memory and not fair to us, either!”
An awkward silence fell over the room. Patrick Reed startled them as he suggested “what if you’re wrong?”
Lilah raised a brow. “What?”
“What if, now, bear with me, I’m a scientist, not a magician. What if when we install the new Blue Matter cores they somehow link up to the robots’ memories and they come back to us? We’ve never done this before so you can’t rule something like that out.”
The young woman looked as if she wanted to tear his head off. “Damn it, Patrick! No! You can’t have hope!”
“I do, though, Lilah! They were my friends! I want to believe that we have a chance to get them back!”
She turned on her father next. “You put this idea in his head, didn’t you? Shame! Shame on you! It’s not possible!”
“I didn’t,” Alex said quietly. “Peter did.”
The young man folded his arms tighter and seemed to sink closer to the floor as attention was turned on him. “I’m sorry, Lilah. I didn’t mean to...”
They were all shocked that rather than start screaming again, Lilah clapped a hand to her mouth and tears flowed over it. “Damn it. I can’t have any hope. It’s not going to work. It’s not going to be them and if we bring them online and it’s not them... I feel like I might just die!”
Her father, not one for sentimentality, stood where he was. “Then what do you propose we do?”
It took a moment for her to compose herself. “Well, according to Peter Walter, when you bring a matter core into wakefulness, it impresses immediately, like a baby duck.”
“So if it’s not them (and it won’t be), they’ll begin sentience from the point of wakefulness,” she stated, remembering her great-great-grandfather’s notes. “If you offline them for any length of time, you run risk of deviation and madness should you try a reinstallation years later, as was the case with the Butler incident.”
“Correct,” Alex agreed, pressing his index finger to his lips in thought. “So, here’s a thing. If you are correct and the new cores do not bring their consciousness back, do you think that if we had permanent bodies prepared ahead of time into which we could switch the cores in a matter of moments after wakefulness, that a bad impression would be avoided?”
She thought for a second, eyes flicking back and forth a little as if reading notes no one else could see. “Yes.”
Alex clapped his hands once, his brilliant mind spinning into action. “Good. Reed, Peter, see to the new medi-bots we’ve been working on. Get them ready for Blue Matter insertion as soon as possible.”
Peter leapt off the stool and quickly headed to medical robot lab, making no eye contact with anyone on his way out. Patrick Reed nodded.
“Delilah, you and I shall work on a third robot. Perhaps an assistive? Shouldn’t be too much trouble if it doesn’t need the bells and whistles that medi-bots One and Two have.”
“Ok,” she said softly.
Reed put a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at him through tired eyes. “You remember to take care of yourself, too,” he advised and she nodded almost imperceptibly.