FORTIFICATION: a science fantasy adventure from The Other Worlds
Our story begins in Odisiris, a planet within the Andromeda Galaxy and home to the race of super-humans known as Citizens…
My name is Skelos Dorm. I have an aptitude for neuroscience. The Establishment is impressed with my work in neurorobotics. Anything to do with droids and cyborgs is always welcome.
However, they do not have the same enthusiasm when it comes to understanding the Citizen psyche, reading thoughts, interpreting minds. I understand their caution. Many Citizens have plenty to hide. They do not want their indiscretions made known to anyone but their closest allies, myself included.
I do not want you to see my thoughts. I do not want you to know what I truly am, what I am capable of…
Skelos Dorm’s Stores were the envy of all the scientists in the city of Pareus. Constructed of cylindrical glass and steel, the fifteen-storey, scientific research facility was devoted to the exploration and acquisition of Intelligent Systems. The windows were masked. You could see out, but you seldom saw in.
Skelos had a fleet of staff to do his bidding. There were too many names to remember. Students, field researchers, professors, doctors, engineers, and scientific board members were in frequent attendance. He had one floor for specimens alone and a whole floor devoted to his work in neurorobotics.
Skelos worked in The Hub on the ground floor. The Hub was his personal laboratory: his nervous system. And he was the brains. Each piece of research generated in The Hub gravitated up. He had fashioned a sector into his secondary living quarters. After all, he spent more time in The Stores than he did anywhere else. It was the place where he felt most at home, squeezed into his black lab coat and surgical gloves.
He swiped at the holograms that hovered above the raised podium.
His new, sixteen-year-old, apprentice watched him from a distance.
‘May I have a look?’ said the apprentice. He crept up to the platform, flicking his fringe out of his eyes.
Every year, Skelos acquired one eager apprentice to work alongside him, to observe, to learn, to strive, and to emulate his great work, though none had ever achieved such a feat. Unfortunately, this apprentice was not of his choosing and was more tiresome than eager.
In fact, Skelos thought him rather stolid for a First Status Citizen. He seemed to care more about his looks and the females on his roster than he did about science, but the boy’s father was a prominent figure in the Parliamentary Elite, so Skelos had no choice in the matter.
‘No, you may not.’ Skelos tried to recall the boy’s name. Imbecile sprung to mind. No that’s not it. ‘And please do me the courtesy of addressing me by my formal title.’
‘Sorry, Dr Skelos.’ The young apprentice gulped. ‘I’m eager to learn.’
‘You’re not as eager to learn as I was when I was your age. What do you do when you leave here?’
Skelos rolled his eyes. He knew how he spent his time at sixteen years of age, and it wasn’t chasing after girls.
Skelos’s parents had encouraged him to enter the family energy business. Dorm Presteria Energy had been in his family for generations. Skelos saw little point in working hard in a vocation he had no interest in and little understanding. The burden of this obligation had shifted to his older brother who was glad to take up the mantle.
He fell into his current profession when he was given the opportunity to work as an apprentice in the Pareusians’s Pharmaceutical Stores. He found mixing toxic liquids together therapeutic and the clinical feel of the labs exhilarating. He remembered the rush he felt when he shrugged in and out of his tailor-made lab coat. He soon decided that he wanted to be a scientist, not just any scientist, the most renowned scientist in the world.
While he embodied science, his new apprentice treated it as if it were a punishment. Well, I will see him punished.
‘Consult my notes.’
‘That can’t take very long. I seldom see you take any.’ Skelos dragged a hologram of a brain in front of the Citizen youth. ‘Dissect it.’
The apprentice prodded at the image as if it were a real brain. He then paused mid-prodding to gawp at a female research assistant who had wandered into their midst. Her hair cascaded down her back like a rapidly flowing river, and her eyelashes were decorated with ice crystals. The boy’s eyes bulged with delight, and he twisted his neck, pursuing her in his mind.
Skelos considered slapping the boy around the head to garner his attention and then remembered who his father was. He made a fist of his slapping hand and watched the boy tweak apart the holographic brain segment by segment. The apprentice’s name then came to him: Imbrecas.
‘Well, tell me what you’re looking at, Imbrecas.’ There was nothing to stop him having two apprentices, he supposed. A second apprentice on alternate days of the week will alleviate this torture. I will speak to the boy’s father tomorrow. See if we might come to another arrangement that is more to my advantage and less to his.
‘The-the left temporal lobe,’ said Imbrecas, his hand shaking. ‘Urm…the…Occ-occipital Lobe.’
Skelos sighed. His mind ventured to more critical matters. His years of measured research taunted him. By all accounts, they were non-productive. It was not his fault, or the fault of his assistants. It was The Establishment. They were to blame for his lack of progress. He could have Stores half the size of Pareus and a thousand discoveries and inventions to his name, but few would ever make it into Odisirian society, few would ever be recognised, rewarded or acknowledged, not without the backing of The Establishment, the three most powerful orders in Odisiris: The Parliamentary Elite, The P.D.P.C: Planetary Data Protection Committee, and the P.S.R.F.D: Pareus Scientific Research and Funding Division.
Skelos had an aptitude for neuroscience. The Establishment was impressed with his work in neurorobotics. Anything to do with droids and cyborgs was always welcome. However, they did not have the same enthusiasm when it came to understanding the Citizen psyche, reading thoughts, interpreting minds. He understood their caution; many Citizens had plenty to hide. They did not want their indiscretions made known to anyone but their closest allies.
Skelos grew weary of the protocol and rules regarding the research conducted within his Stores. His so-called Mind Work was done in the evening or at night when most of his team had gone home. There were ways in which he could take his Mind Work to another level. He was wasting his efforts experimenting on Unmarked Ones and rodents. Their genetic make-up was different, very different to Citizens. Practically alien.
He left Imbrecas to his dissecting. He crossed the grooved floor and accessed his private room. The specimen lay in a life-chamber, which allowed it to breathe. This specimen was a male Outsider of about eleven years. His bones were stiff and thin. His skin was bone white. His lips were blue, which Skelos found captivating as he was not a Citizen. The boy was brain dead: a repercussion of another one of his failed experiments. And there were many. The child would be the last Outsider he would use for his research, he concluded. He sighed and disconnected the life-chamber.
The door swung open. One of his assistant’s wandered in: Denlor. He was the only one who had access to the private room.
‘I’ve shut it off,’ said Skelos, not looking behind him. He had worked with the Citizen for eight years and could deduce his noisy breathing and ponderous footsteps by hear.
‘It was the right thing to do,’ said Denlor. ‘We need to find more compatible subjects.’
Skelos turned to face Denlor. Two years his senior, his eyes were the colour of wheat, and he had a deep cleft in his chin. Skelos had never socialised with the reputable Third Status Citizen outside of his Stores. Skelos struggled with the idea of socialising with a Citizen whose blood was so orange that when he blushed, he resembled overripe fruit. Skelos’s mother detested the Lower Status Citizens. She considered them subservient and less intelligent than the First and Second Status Citizens. They often undertook menial roles. However, they could be counted on for their discretion. Skelos had vowed that when he grew up, he would embrace them as his equal and make some his friends. To date, he lacked the fortitude to make it happen. Like his mother, he preferred to spend his leisure time with the upper echelons of his society, the highborn First Status Citizens whose blood colour more closely matched his own.
‘What is more compatible with a Citizen than another Citizen? I should make myself a test subject.’
‘You’re the only one who can interpret the results.’ Denlor folded his arms behind his back and stared into the life-chamber. ‘This is your work. If anything were to happen to you, there would be no one to carry on.’
How right Denlor was. ‘You are one of the few who see merit in this work.’
‘I see potential, yes, but I also see time and resources wasted on these Outsiders. Better to use amphibians than these creatures.’ He nodded at the life-chamber. ‘You find them fascinating?’
Skelos nodded and peered into the life-chamber with the eagerness of a child looking into a candy store. ‘Look at the lips. Why blue when its blood is red?’
‘This is what their genetic make-up dictates,’ said Denlor, crossing his arms. ‘Such creatures do not fascinate me. They are inhuman.’
‘You don’t think I should give up?’ He didn’t need Denlor’s reassurance, just his undulant praise and appreciation.
‘You give up when you’re dead.’
‘Could be a long time coming, if ever, if I have my way.’
Denlor smiled. ‘What should I do with his body?’
This was what Skelos liked about Denlor. He was willing to assist at all time. Whatever the consequences. Whatever the subject matter.
‘Toss it in the incinerator.’ Skelos turned to leave. He paused at the door, remembering his Third Status Citizen vow. ‘And Denlor−’ I will ask him over for an evening meal.
I can’t do it. My beloved wife, Nylthia, will loathe me for it. Besides, what shall we talk about?
‘Decontaminate the life-chamber when you’re done.’
Skelos returned to his apprentice. Imbrecas had reassembled the brain and was now poking around one of his encrypted files. Skelos decided that he needed to keep a closer eye on him. His father was Onas Pralyeton, one of the vice-chancellor’s most championed advisers. Onas may have asked his son to spy on him. It stood to reason that any research Skelos conducted would be of a political advantage. Let him poke around all he likes. He won’t find anything. Not in here.
As he approached the prying apprentice, a cyborg leapt from the third floor into the hub. The carbonic metal cyborg was a prototype for the new generation. Someone or something had attempted to deconstruct it. The layer of living tissue that covered it had been stripped away. Its teeth had been removed. Half its skull hung open, revealing part of a human brain, glistening like intestines within. A portion of its chest had been ripped open, exposing metal and tubes sloshing with fluid.
‘Model ZT289 I believe,’ said Skelos, gazing at the fusion of metal, wires, and tubes. The cyborg stood straight, its arms swinging. It stared at Skelos through infra-blue laser eyes. The last time Skelos had seen Model ZT289, they had had quite a pleasant conversation. It had given him a weather report and complimented him on his new lab coat. It appeared to have nothing to say to him today.
Imbrecas’s scream pierced his ears. ‘Never fear Imbrecas,’ said Skelos. ‘This one’s friendly. Give us a moment, and we’ll get him back in his tank.’ He glanced in Imbrecas’s direction and saw his feet poking out from underneath the hologram podium.
‘What’s going on up there?’ Skelos turned his back on the cyborg. He gazed up at the third- floor balcony. He saw no merit in reasoning with a damaged machine. ‘How many more of these models are you going to destroy?’
Several black coats looked over the balcony but did not appear in any hurry to proffer an explanation or a solution.
The cyborg fired a shot. It went over Skelo’s head. He whirled to see the cyborg’s arm raised. He jumped out of the way as it fired another four shots straight at him.
Skelos had insisted that the prototype’s speed match that of a Citizen’s, which meant it was exceedingly fast. He headed for the hologram podium. He gallantly leapt on top of it in the mistaken belief that the additional height would give him an advantage. The cyborg charged at him. It fired two more shots, blowing holes in a paramount viewing screen and igniting it in a plume of flames. The fire alarm sounded with a deafening screech. Skelos bounded from the podium as the cyborg’s clunky foot smashed into the side of it. The hologram brain and confidential database shuddered and turned an opaque blur.
Imbrecas scurried from under the podium and sprinted through a set of glass doors and up the nearest stairwell. Skelos attempted to do the same.
‘Automatic emergency lockdown initiated,’ a male voice controller announced into The Hub. ‘Exits secured.’
Skelos slammed his hands against the exit doors and then groped his way to a steel pillar. Now this was getting humiliating. He knew how to override the lockdown system. He also knew how to disarm the cyborg. He had the ability to control technology with the power of his mind. But he had an audience. He heard them shouting from the balcony, which meant he would have to do things the laborious way. He seized a small gun, used for stabilising cyborgs, from a holster on the wall. He fired. It hit the cyborg in the chest, splitting apart a bundle of tubes and wires. Sparks and liquids spurted from the open cavity. The prototype staggered to a halt and cranked its weapon-arm.
And then it came at him again.
It punched the steel pillar. Skelos ducked and dashed to his private room. He dove through the door as soon as it opened. The lights came on and the door clicked shut after him. He activated the comms device on his wrist and made contact with one of the neurorobotics department supervisors. ‘Who authorised this model to be armed?’ he spat. ‘Get the thing contained!’
A splash of blood landed on the device. Skelos wiped it off and rushed to a mirror. He had a nasty gash on his forehead, which was healing nicely; vanishing before his eyes. He used the heel of his hand to mop up the last trickle of blood descending towards his left eye before grappling his way to the back of the room, leaving blue blood stains and fingerprints along the length of the decontaminated life-chamber.
The cyborg made a bid to smash its way through the steel door. A dent appeared in it. Then another, deeper than the first.
Skelos felt feverish. His blood seemed to boil in his ears. He held his breath, his heart hammering. He closed his eyes and tried to level his concentration at the machine on the other side of the door. He pounded his forehead with his fist. Even away from prying eyes, he couldn’t focus. And then he remembered the cyborg was fitted with the brain of a dead Citizen and that brain must still be functioning, or else−
The hammering ceased. Skelos heard a grating sound.
Finally. He snorted with relief and made his way over to the door. He opened it a fraction. An old sentinel cyborg overpowered the prototype. Twice its size, it was all machine and no brain. It leaned over Model ZT289 and smashed its elbow into its gaping chest. Fire erupted from it. The old cyborg then ground its foot into the prototype’s skull with his steel boot. The blood and brain tissue seeped out of it.
Two men in lab coats appeared with fire extinguishers. As they proceeded to put out the fire, Skelos stepped from the room.
Imbrecas re-emerged through the shattered exit doors, gaping at Skelos. ‘Friendly you said.’
‘Minor mishap,’ he replied. It wasn’t the first time one of his prototypes had got out of control; he predicted, it would not be the last.
 Unmarked Ones – non-Citizens