Image by Crispin Semmens via Wikimedia Commons
At his old job, Bay 11's generator, an old methane-powered unit with a dodgy compressor, would have served perfectly. However, that had been scrapped during the plant's retirement. He had a smaller unit in the apartment, a hobbyist's model that just couldn't provide the amperage he needed. The museums had generators, but he doubted he could sneak past the watchmen guarding the mummies, dinosaur bones, and other exhibits. Then he thought of a place with industrial-grade power with next to no security: the zoo.
The city zoo held all manner of mundane animals for citizens to gawk at and marvel over. They would point and laugh, or shake their heads over the human-caused environmental damage such that only in zoos would the elephant, giraffe, and lion have a chance to escape extinction. The Earth's native children were no longer able to compete with their thaumaturgically modified cousins, experimental escapees, and deliberate cast-offs. Though there was some debate over whether this would have happened anyway with the invasive species slipping into Earth's dimension at places like Stonehenge during solstices. Man-made or not, only humans could adapt to the new reality, the creatures could not.
The irony, of course, was that unmodified creatures could not be held back with thaumaturgic fencing like livestock, the exposure to the trans-dimensional radiation would eventually corrupt their DNA. Prohibited from using thaumaturgic devices and power systems, zoos had to rely on the old-fashioned method of electricity for their needs.
Marco didn't visit the zoo proper. His invention filled a backpack, making it appear as if he were preparing for a week's journey. As lax as the zoo's security was, this would not make it past the front gate. Fortunately, the zoo's method of generating power required placing the equipment a few kilometers away from the buildings. As the moon rose, Marco smiled to himself as he made his way to the the fence surrounding the zoo's power and a field of Tesla trees.
The Tesla trees were spindly metallic columns twenty feet tall with smaller silvered branches and filigree drooping to the ground like weeping willows. Blue-white flashes erupted with sharp popping sounds where the trees brushed against each other. The trees swayed not only in the wind but also to magnetic variations, approaching electrical storms, or solar flares. Cables ran from the base of each tree to a small shack set into the corner of the field, just on the other side of the fence. As Marco approached, the hairs on his arms rose and the air held the dry tang of ozone. Signs featuring a stick figure being attacked by red lightning bolts warned him of danger. Marco thought the sign unnecessary. Running through the Tesla trees was like running though a storm cloud waving a ten foot metal pipe while wearing aluminum foil underwear.
Scaling the fence with the awkward bundle on his back had left him winded. Fortunately, the barbed wire on the fence top fell easily to his insulated cutters, and there was a narrow cleared area between the trees and the fence line. The shack was locked, with a numeric keypad entry. Marco pulled a screwdriver from his pocket, ready to pull the unit from the wall and rewire the door lock, but hesitated. On a hunch, he reached out and tapped 1-2-3-4. The door opened.
“Factory defaults,” he said shaking his head, “Amateurs.”
Inside, he found a desk set into the wall with a functional transformer and outlet. He unpacked his box and reassembled the unit. It surely didn't look like much, just an oblong chitin box with a fist-sized opening at one end and a plug at the other. Through the opening, concentric rows of glinting metal points ran like the maw of a lamprey.
Marco plugged in his invention, let out a puff of air, and reached for the switch. Despite checking his design for mistakes and testing all the connections over the past days, he had a flutter in his stomach. Putting power to a device for the first time was known as the smoke test: if it smoked, you failed.
He pushed the switch. The unit hummed without any visible wisps of smoke..
“Good boy,” Marco said, turning the unit off and giving it a pat. “Now let's see if you can actually do anything.”
He reached into a sack and brought out his coffee maker.
“This shouldn't hurt a bit,” he said to it. The coffee maker blinked at him and gurgled. “Really, I wouldn't risk you if I didn't think this would work.” And even if it went spectacularly wrong, the coffee maker's brain was too simple to feel pain anyway. He placed the coffee maker in the metal maw of his invention and flipped the switch.
The coffee maker made a few gurgling sounds before shuddering and collapsing. Marco looked at his diagnostic meter. Total brain shutdown, but still alive, readings perfectly matching up with a state of hibernation.
“Yes!” His heart swelled. This would get him back in the company. Normally, if someone wanted to put a cryptological unit into hibernation to effect repairs, it took a large amounts of drugs or lengthy incantations. On the rare occasions the old beast had been taken down, it had taken days to put the factory to sleep, with great care taken not to accidentally wound or damage with an overdose. But he had just put his coffeemaker to sleep with the flick of a switch. A kill switch that wouldn't kill the unit? It would save thousands of production hours.
Then another thought: why go back to the company? He could patent the device, and find someone willing to reverse-engineer the precious, obsolete components. He would sell the design across the world and then retire with honor. And if a bit of extra cash went along with that honor, well ...
A sizzle brought him out of his thoughts. A thin stream of coffee leaked out from his coffee maker. Marco was half-way to the switch when there came a loud snap followed by a plume of brown smoke.
“Crap!” He yanked the plug and upended the unit. The blackened remains of the coffee maker thumped onto the desk. Loss of muscle control, of course. He should have foreseen that problem. His next iteration would make the internals waterproof. Depending on what was damaged, he might have to take on a partner to finance the replacement components.
But first thing first: he would need a new coffeemaker before morning.
Outside the shack, electrical arcs hopscotched from tree to tree and ozone tickled at the back of Marco's throat. The conditions had changed and now the trees and their pretty little arc flashes strayed closer to the fence line where he had entered. He'd have to work his way around to the windward side of the forest and climb the fence there instead. He hitched his backpack up a bit higher and set off, forcing his way into the gusts, blinking back tears as the wind scoured his eyeballs. He watched for signs that a discharge was imminent: hairs raising on end, a tugging at his skin, even gut reactions that would make him pause until the wind died down. Marco was keenly aware that his puny human body generated a magnetic field that might just give the massing electrons the stepping stone they needed to cross the gap between two rival Teslas.
Marco wiped the sweat from brow on the back of his sleeve as he came up to the fence. He cinched the straps of the backpack tighter and began climbing the chain links. He thought about how to present his invention to the corporate investors. They wouldn't go for the prototype as it was; the next version would have to look cutting-edge – that is, organic – to even have a chance. He had hoped by this time in his life to be past appearances, past the corporate politics, and into a comfortable little niche, but that would have to wait a bit longer. His father had often joked about spending his retirement on a park bench, tripping passing joggers with a cane. Marco thought it ridiculously funny at the time, but now he realized that Dad's idea had a more practical appeal every day.
A gust buffeted him, threatening to blow him to the ground, or worse, into a Tesla discharge. Marco clenched with all his strength, chain links digging into his skin, feeling as if they would sever his fingers entirely. Wind howled in his ears, electricity popped behind him. Marco waited for what seemed like minutes before the gust abruptly stopped, slamming his body forward. He unclenched his numb fingers and concentrated on reaching the top. A moment later, the wind picked up and Marco held as hard as he could, with muscles straining and eyes screwed shut. When the gust passed, he wasted no time opening his fingers and reaching for the next link. The backpack seemed heavier, almost trying to pull him down. He eyed the top of the fence, and grunted.
"Just a couple more feet to go. You can rest on the other side," he said to himself.
His hands found the top of the fence, and slipped. Marco threw himself forward, gaining a few precious seconds of balance while he scrabbled for a hold. As he felt himself drift back, his left hand managed to re-grip and steady him. His tingling right hand followed, and soon Marco had managed to throw a leg over the top and rest as his body straddled the fence.
The wind on his face warned him of an approaching gust. Marco pulled his other leg over and started down. Let the gusts come, they could only help his grip from now on. He smiled as he took his first step, only to feel his stomach lurch as his backpack tugged at his shoulders. He looked back to see his pack caught on a twist of metal at the top of the fence.
He was in no condition to slide out of the straps, climb up and release the pack. Neither would he leave it there. He doubted he would be able to move in the morning and besides, someone might see and confiscate his prototype. No, he'd have to force it. He pulled at the straps, with no luck. He leaned and jerked, but couldn't dislodge the pack from its skewer. His shoulders burned, his hands had gone completely numb. He was pretty sure he was going to have a rotten day tomorrow, waking up with an abused body and no coffee maker.
"You dirty son of a..."
Marco threw all his weight behind his shoulder and the backpack ripped free. He enjoyed his accomplishment for a full half second before he realized his numbed hands were no longer holding onto the fence. The crackling and popping of the Tesla trees were only a little louder than the sound of the prototype shattering as Marco crashed.
Marco scowled at the doctor's back as he left the ward. He would have to lie in the bed for another hour until the exoskeleton cast around his leg was strong to support his weight while injected symbiotes re-knit the bone. He must have said something out loud because a small wiry lady in the bed next to him turned and spoke.
"You're lucky your company pays for rejuve. All the army gives us are the spares left over from the last war," she held up a scratched and battered metal arm.
Marco sighed. "Gotta stick it to the bastards while I can, I guess. I only have coverage for the next thirty days." He nodded at the arm. "That an IYK-200 model?"
"Yeah. After the amputation, I was hoping they could fit me with something from Preston or Dynapar line, but all they had in my size were these."
"You're better off," Marco said, "the ickies were never flashy, but they're the most reliable I've ever seen."
"You see many?"
"The larger models. I was an industrial cyberneticist."
"Was? What are you now?"
Marco grinned. "Just an old coot with a broken leg, I guess. You?"
She grinned back. “An old soldier trying to make do with what she's got.” She turned, showing a blue bandage at her shoulder where the metal arm met flesh. Faded scars crisscrossed from under the bandage to her tank top. “The arm has never been strong, but it's gotten worse over the last year.”
“You ever get it overhauled?” Marco said.
“Sure, but the VA techs can only download the standard software or do a simple replacement. They've re-downloaded five times now, but it hasn't done anything.”
“Can you get a new one?”
She laughed. “You kidding? The bean counters say it's not broken, so everything is fine – not that any of them have to ever do any heavy lifting for a living. So I tried uploading a mod to the arm's software so I could get more power. It worked fine for a while, then today the damn thing nearly tore out of my shoulder socket.”
“So why are you here and not at the VA?”
“Technically what I did was tampering with government property.”
“Ah. So if it's officially not broken, don't try fixing it?”
She was about to say something when the doctor walked into the ward, wheeling a cart behind him with a portable generator and a cybernetic interface.
"Okay, Miss Julian, now that the muscle is repaired, we can see to the other item. If you're all ready?" The doctor said, pulling a curtain in Marco's face without waiting for a response from the woman.
Marco sat back against the bed, trying not to think about the fact that a thousand worm-like symbiotes were inside him right now, writhing around the broken bone like so many maggots. In a thousand years, they'd dig up his bones and find a black scar around the break, the ossified remains of the creepy-crawlies. Would they wonder at what leechcraft was used on him? Maybe by then his body would be considered primitive. The crypto-geneticists promised eternal youth in the future, a symbiote for every ailment, a cure for aging.
A high-pitched whine erupted from behind the curtain, sending Marco's ears ringing.
"There appears to be a malfunction in the ... prosthetic, Miss Julian," the doctor said.
The woman snorted "You've made it worse, doc."
“Tell you what, let me download the standard software for you and we can see what happens.”
“No, doc, I don't want that. Just undo whatever it is you did.”
"Miss Julian –"
"You've got the integral gain set too high," Marco called over the curtain.
"Thank you, Mister Danosky, that will do," the doctor said.
"Maybe you should listen to him," the woman said.
"I assure you, Miss Julian, I am fully qualified."
"Maybe," the woman said. The curtain swept back to reveal the woman sitting on the bed with her left arm hanging limp in a tangle of wires leading to the doctor's cart. She narrowed her eyes and pointed at the doctor. "How long have you studied cybernetics?"
The doctor sighed and folded his arms. "It was one of my rotations out of med school. I studied for over a year. Now look here, these are you arm's standard parameters from the literature. They should work fine."
Miss Julian looked at Marco and cocked an eyebrow.
"A whole year?" Marco said. "You must be smarter than me. I studied for six years and never got my doctorate in cybernetics, just a master's. Then I wasted thirty years of my life working in the damn field." He shrugged. "I may not know much, but I know an integration whine when I hear it."
The doctor glared at him, perhaps annoyed enough to kick him out of the ER before bollixing the arm. Marco held up his hands. “Look, what they don't teach you in school is that the tuning parameters are more of an educated guess for a generic application, and are more of a starting point for fine-tuning in the field. I'll bet her arm is smaller than the standard the designer had in mind.” He waved at the cart. “Let me see those numbers.”
“I can't let you treat a patient,” the doctor said. “Besides, this is personal medical information.”
“I don't mind,” Miss Julian said, “let the guy look.”
“I don't know,” the doctor said.
“I won't change anything,” Marco said, “You can do all the treating and number entering. I'll just give you a professional opinion on the mechanics.”
“Oh all right,” said the doctor.
Within five minutes, the doctor stopped questioning Marco on the numbers he called out as Miss Julian carefully flexed her shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers. Within fifteen minutes, the doctor pushed the cart closer to Marco's bed and let him enter the numbers directly.
"Well, that's a rough first pass," Marco said.
Miss Julian stood and waved her arm as if it were floating in the breeze.
"It's great," she said, "almost like new."
"Give me another hour, and it'll be even better."
The doctor began coiling up the terminal's wires.
"So, doc, do think your outfit could use someone like me?"
"Your leg's exo-skel has set, Mister Danosky," the doctor said. "We can discharge you any time."
"Great," Miss Julian said, "You can sign me out while you're at it."
"I'd recommend staying a while longer while we run some independent tests."
She planted her feet and shook her head. "Nope, everything's fine. I have things to do."
She met the doctor's gaze until he turned away. "Very well." He left, pushing his cart.
Outside the hospital pod, Miss Julian shook his hand. "Thanks for the tune-up."
"You know, a few buddies of mine could really use your help."
"I don't have the equipment," Marco said, "and I doubt the hospital will let me borrow theirs."
"Yeah," she said with a little head bobble, "But maybe if you applied down at the VA, you could use theirs. It looks like a museum down there, but it's got the same stuff the hospital here does, plus a few more toys I'd expect."
His backpack clanked and tinkled as he shrugged into it. All those components, so much scrap now.
"What's in the bag?" Miss Julian asked.
Marco paused for a moment before answering. "Just scrap and spare parts. You think they'd take me at the VA?"
"In a heartbeat. If they don't, let me know. They think I'm a pain in the ass now, and I'm not even trying that hard."
In the end, it hadn't taken a personal intervention from Master Sargent Louise Jillian, though Marco's future boss considered it a plus that Marco had placated the staff's personal boogeyman. They set him up in a basement lab, surrounded by racks of robotic prosthesis, electrical generators, scopes, terminals, and bins of unidentified components and wiring. His prototype sat on a bench, awaiting future tinkering. Marco looked at his coffee maker, and gave it a pat on the head.
“It's a comfortable little niche, isn't it?” he said to the unit. The coffeemaker gurgled and let out an espresso-laced burp.