“Okay, I can fix this. I just need help.” The young girl heaved a sigh of relief as she slumped against the front door of her grandparents’ house that she’d just rushed through. Her short blue hair was all scraggled, and her clothes looked much the same. Things had happened very quickly and gone wrong even quicker. She wasn’t sure what she should do, but she knew she had to get back as soon as possible, otherwise.
“Lorelei?!” gasped her mother, rounding the corner. “Where’ve you been?! I thought you came home with Bianca! What happened? Why’re you all banged up?”
It was late, and seeing as she’d been running as fast as she could, Lorelei hadn’t been too quiet when she burst through the door.
“What?” she pointed to herself, “Me? Where’ve I been? Just y’know…” she looked around the room, scraping for a feasible answer, “just riding my bike. Yeah!” she perked up. “Late night bike ride in the country. That sort of thing.”
“Then,” her mother gestured to all of her ragamuffin daughter, “How’d your clothes get all torn and dirty?”
“OH!” Lorelei clapped her hands together, “That! YES!” She hadn’t actually noticed the state of her clothes with all that had happened. “I totally fell into a ditch. But it’s okay, I’m okay!” She waved her hands frantically. “I’m good, no fractures, broken bones, or otherwise.”
She knocked on her head, “Had my helmet on too, so my noggin’s good as well! No worries.”
“Hmm,” her mother mulled over this information, “okay.” Lorelei sighed at this, “But next time, give me a heads up before you go out, okay? You’re usually so good at that.”
“Yeah, well, what can I say?” Lorelei pointed to herself with both hands, “Teenager,” she smirked.
“Okay, well, g’night then,” her mother waved and yawned as she headed to her room.
“See you in the morning.”
Another sigh. “Well, at least that went well,” Lorelei thought. “Could’ve gone worse. Could’ve gone worse. I’ve already had enough worse for one night.”
* * *
Lorelei dropped her backpack on the floor by her room’s door. She and her mother had temporarily moved in with her grandparents. At least until the divorce was a done deal. It had taken a while, but her new room had begun to feel a little bit more like home after she had filled the dresser with her clothes, and stacked the few books she had brought from home on the desk near her bed. Neat and organized…and a little cramped. It was the exact opposite of her old room. At least it had a big window, though. She sighed and looked out at the dark night, wondering what to do, knowing what she had to do, not wanting to do what she had to do.
Whether she liked it or not, she had to go back there.
Back to the factory. Back to the fear.
The voice came from her bed, startling Lorelei. It was a friend.
“What happened after I left?” Bianca asked, looking confused. “Where’s Wes?”
* * *
A few days after they’d moved in, Lorelei decided to take a walk to try and clear her head a bit. She stepped outside, followed the bends of her grandparent’s driveway, and headed out onto the empty country road. The sun shone warm, but the wind was cool. Fall lay on the horizon. She wore her favorite hooded purple sweatshirt covered with tiny silver stars on it while she took her walk to no place in particular. The wind, and the sun, and the quiet helped to clear her recently very busy mind as she trudged on. Eventually, she came across a clearing in the woods off the side of the road, with an old, broken, wooden gate in front. Curious, she headed down the path beyond it. The clearing looked pretty old, and had a rut from car tires that was now covered in grass and leaves. She followed the path for quite some time until it was blocked by a high wall of fallen trees. From the looks of things, the trees seemed to have been cut down, rather than blown over by the wind or fallen down on their own. There were several “Caution” blockades in front of the trees.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” thought Lorelei. “I’d wager somebody doesn’t want somebody to get past this blockade…but why?”
Her curiosity had been piqued. There was no way that this minor setback was going to stop her. She searched around until she found a way around them, through the thick woods. She grabbed ahold of a low-hanging tree branch, and pulled herself up onto the high embankment that formed the sides of the wooded path. Her skin and clothes were scratched as she waded her way through the thick brush. Soon, she rounded the blockade and stepped back out onto the path.
The trail continued winding on and on, and Lorelei soon began wondering whether she should head back or not.
That is, until she saw the factory.
It was old. At least several decades from the look of it.
It was big. Not tall, but large and strange enough that it looked very out of place in the middle of the woods.
It was broken. Part of the roof was caved in where a large old tree had fallen over onto it. Weeds and scrubs covered almost the entirety of the outside. The front doors were busted off their hinges, and darkness was all that could be seen of the interior.
“That…is more than enough exploring for one day,” Lorelei decided as she spun around on her heal and hurried back home.
* * *
“Dr. Matthews! Dr. Matthews! Sir, wait!” The young man rushed down the hall, shouting.
“…what is it, Arron?” The old man turned as he kept walking. He furrowed his brow and faced forward again.
“Well, it’s the head of our soon-to-be owners. They’re here. They’d like to see you.”
“See me? More like smile through their teeth while they stab us in the back. How long you think this place will be running after they get their greasy claws into it?”
* * *
The next day, Lorelei brought her friends Bianca and Wes to explore the factory further.
“Remind me again, Wes, why’re you here?” Lorelei asked.
“Me? Why’m I here?” Her friend Wes, a thin lanky fellow, snapped his fingers and pointed towards himself. “Me? I am here because: a.) old, abandoned factories are cool and creepy, b.) I didn’t really have anything to do today, and c.) Bianca can’t keep a secret.” He then gestured towards Bianca, who gripped her scarf and snapped:
“Shut up, man!” She punched Wes on the shoulder. He winced even though it didn’t really hurt.
The three friends stood outside the factory in the late afternoon. Had they given this little exploration party a bit more thought, they might’ve headed out earlier in the day, but otherwise they were all set. They’d brought all the necessities for the trip.
The dark innards of the place seemed to seep out of it, all around it. Both warning away and inviting any would-be explorers.
“Okay. Has everybody steeled themselves?” Lorelei asked. “All prepared mentally? No? Cool. Me neither,” she looked at her friends. “Let’s head on in then.”
* * *
“Sir, where are you off to, now?” It was days later, and Arron was again hurrying after Dr. Matthews.
“They want this place so bad, eh? They can have it! But I’m gonna keep working ‘til they drag me out of here kicking and screaming!” He pointed at the young man. “Now let me be, Arron!”
“But…wait. What’s that in your pocket? Is that–” Arron reached forward.
Dr. Matthews’ pocket bulged and several small gears and parts of machinery fell from it as he continued his hurried path down the hall. Arron stared, shocked.
“Are you the one who’s been stealing from the company?”
“Preposterous. These are just some parts I made at home. Now go away.” He shooed the young man away. “I’ve important things to take care of.”
* * *
The inside of the building wasn’t much nicer than the outside. Pretty much all of the tiled flooring had been cracked, shattered, and uprooted by plant life. Furniture was moldy, cubicles had fallen over, and wires and cables hung down all over the place.
And it was dark. The trio switched their flashlights on.
“Yeah, okay, I know I said I wanted to check this place out, but I’m having second thoughts now,” said Bianca.
Lorelei shrugged. “Okay, but Wes and I’re heading further in. So, see you outside in a bit,” she started to walk ahead.
Bianca looked back over her shoulder at the quickly darkening woods outside. “Hrmph,” she made a pouty face, “Fine. Lead on. But if anything goes badly, I’m blamin’ you, Lore.”
The three carried on through room after room of empty office-like spaces until they found an emergency stairway, tucked away in the corner of a room, partially blocked by a bookcase.
“Oh dang,” Lorelei reached out and touched the cold door, “You guys think we should check it out?”
“We’ve come this far,” Wes said, “Might as well, right?”
It took all three of them to heave the heavy shelving unit out of the way, knocking several dusty tomes to the floor, further kicking up even more dust in the process. Heaving her body into the door, Lorelei barely managed to crack it open, leaving the group to squeeze through the narrow opening. The stairway, unlike the rest of the building, was still in pretty good shape.
“Hey, so, though,” Wes held up his finger. “If this building is only one floor, why did they build a fire exit that goes underground?”
“That…is an excellent question,” Lorelei began, “One to which I do not yet know the answer to.”
“Okay, well I’m definitely heading out now, guys,” Bianca said, jabbing a thumb in the direction they had come from. “For real this time,” she put on a serious face aimed at her friends, in the hope that they’d join her. “Not even kidding. I can do creepy empty office rooms, but mysterious, hidden, shouldn’t-even-be-there-in-the-first-place staircases? Nope. I’m out,” she spun around, and waved back at them, “You two have fun. If it’s cool with you, Lore, I’mma head back to your grandparent’s place.”
“Yeah no, that’s totally fine Bi, we’ll head back in just a bit. Be safe.”
“You guys, too,” Bianca said, looking back as she left.
“Whelp,” Lorelei turned to Wes, “Ready?”
“Oh, most definitely! I’m in my element, girl!”
They took each step cautiously, making sure that their weight could be supported. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, and rounded the bend, there was nothing in the wall where there should’ve (logically?) been a door. So, they headed down the next flight, and the next…and the next. They had gone down at least four flights when they caught sight of the door.
It was large, heavy-duty, and had a numbered lock on it.
“Agh, all this way, and we can’t even get in!” Wes growled with anger.
“Oh, can’t we?” Lorelei pointed to a small piece of paper sticking out of the bottom of the door, with a number sequence written on it. It was (luckily) not pinched entirely beneath the door, so it was easy enough to de-wedge it, and easier still to enter the secret code.
The latch clacked open. Lorelei swung open the door.
She and Wes stepped into the dark, vast, dusty room. Cobwebs populated the area, covering the many boxes, computers, and shelves with bits of machinery on them. They could see a shaft of moonlight streaming down from a crack in the ceiling high above, with part of a tree poking through as well. Lorelei looked at Wes, and nodded her head in the direction she wanted to head. For some reason, she wished to remain as quiet as she could in this room. As she walked on, she almost tripped over something. She bent down. It was an odd-shaped piece of machinery. Moreover, it was an odd-shaped piece of machinery made of several overlapping gold and silver gears that looked like it could be wound up with a key. There was a little tag tied to it, with a little message on it:
To you, my boy. Time to show the world all the great things you can do. Be free. -Dr. Matthews
Lorelei pocketed the strange thing and caught up to Wes a little ways ahead. He had stopped a few feet ahead for some reason. He was just…standing there. Staring. Lorelei waved her hand in front of his eyes, and then looked to where he was looking.
Everything happened in a moment.
There was a robot…and it was staring at them.
They stared back.
There was a sudden cracking sound and the building shook.
The robot looked up and then lunged towards them, and pulled Wes towards it.
The tree fell through the roof.
Lorelei fell backwards, hit her head on the floor, and blacked out.
* * *
“LET ME GO!!!” Dr. Matthews screamed, kicking. Two massive men carried him by the arms. “You’ve no right! I’ve done nothing!”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to kindly shut your mouth,” said one of the men. “You steal from the company, you get the boot. The boot, and jail.”
“You blasted fools! All my hard work will be for naught if you don’t free me!”
“You’ve been given plenty of time to clear out, sir. It’s time for you to leave. You brought this on yourself.”
“But he won’t survive without me! You take me away, you’re taking the life of another!”
* * *
Lorelei woke with a start, gasped, bolted up, and remembered everything that had happened in a flash. “WES! WES! WHERE ARE YOU?!!” she shouted. Looking around, she was alone. Wes was nowhere to be seen. And neither was the robot. “Nononononononononono. He took him. He took him somewhere. He took him somewhere and I don’t know where and I don’t know what he’s gonna do to him. This is all my fault. This is all my fault. What am I gonna do what am I gonna do?” She could feel the fear and panic burning at the back of her brain, rampant throughout her head. The robot. Wes. The divorce. All her worries and fears. All of it. All at once. “Is this…is this a panic attack?” Her heart began to beat faster and she felt a cold sweat come over her as she sat in the dark in the basement in the factory in the woods. “No. NO. Cal- Calm down. Breathe. Breathe…slowly.” This had happened before. Not too long ago, shortly before the divorce, when things were getting really intense back home. A feeling of absolute terror. Uncontrollable and raging. “But, but I rode it out…before. It’s okay. It’s okay.
“I’m…okay. Breathe.” She did her best to talk herself down. “Breathe in. Out. In. Slowly. Focus on only breathing. Calm. Calm. Steady.”
The feeling began to subside. A little bit at a time. “Good. Good. Al- Almost there.” Her mind began to calm.
She let out a long breath, trying to center herself, trying to center her mind again.
She opened her eyes. Shaken.
She stood up. Turned around, and raced out of the building, back towards her grandparents’ house.
* * *
“You just left Wes there?!” Bianca asked incredulously after Lorelei had finished telling her everything. “How could you?!” She grabbed ahold of Lorelei’s sweatshirt, as tears began to well up in her eyes.
Lorelei slapped her hands away, and looked her distraught friend in the eyes. “You ask me like I wanted to leave him there? It’s not like I had much of a choice, Bi. I…he was gone when I came to, him and the robot. And…,” She averted her eyes, “I started to have a panic attack I think, but I fought it off. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. All I know is that I needed help,” she placed a hand on Bianca’s shoulder. “And you’re it.”
Bianca blinked away her tears, “Shouldn’t we, like, call the police or something?”
“Probably. But do you think they’d come rushing over when we tell them that our friend was kidnapped by a robot?”
“Fair point. You going to tell your mom?”
“Yeah. After we get Wes back. We need to get back there as soon as we can, and telling her would just make her try and stop us. So later.”
Bianca looked up at her friend. “I…don’t want to go back in there, especially now. I mean I know I-“
“Hey,” Lorelei pulled her friend into a hug. “I don’t want to either. Out of fear of what might happen, I mean. But right now, how we feel is irrelevant. We have to move past this fear to do what we have to do. This all won’t get better if we do nothing.”
“Mmhm,” Bianca buried her face in Lorelei’s shoulder.
Lorelei let out a long breath.
She grabbed her bag and her friend and headed towards the door. She tromped down the hall noisily.
She grabbed her mom’s car keys.
She threw open the door.
She got in the car, turned the key, hit the gas, peeled out.
Her mom rushed to the door as her daughter drove out onto the street, and into the night.
* * *
In a matter of minutes Lorelei and Bianca reached the factory, rushed through the dark and empty rooms, tore down the flights of stairs, and made it to the secret basement room.
“Alright, keep a sharp eye, Bi, they could be anywhere down here.”
“Y’mean, like right there?” Bianca pointed straight ahead, towards the middle of the room. Sitting on the recently fallen tree, under the moonlight crack in the high ceiling, was the robot. He was tall, at least seven feet, and his arms and legs were long, lanky, and thin. There were loose wires hanging off of him in several places, and his boney-looking face had two different sized eyes. He was covered with rust patches. He tilted his head at the girls. They tilted theirs in return. Then Lorelei spoke.
“You!” She growled, angered and pointed at the robot. “WHERE IS HE?!”
The robot cringed and hid behind his arms. “…the…one who was with you? He is in my room, recovering.”
“What did you do to him?!”
“N-nothing. He…his head was hit slightly when the tree fell. He will be fine. I took him in there, but you were gone when I returned a little while later.”
“O-oh. I see. What…who are you? What is all this?”
“I? I am an artificial intelligence unit created by Dr. Matthews. My name is Jericho. This was once a factory that created and designed machines and parts. I was a personal project, constructed in secret. My creator wanted to do more than just design pieces and parts; he sought to create something more, something groundbreaking. But he was unable to gain the approval of those above him. So he began creating me in secret. He gave me emotions, free will, and taught me many things about the world, as well as morals and the like. Then one day, Dr. Matthews was arrested for stealing important machinery from the company…to build me, I presume. The factory was bought up by a larger company, and was left behind, along with myself. I’ve not seen Dr. Matthews since.”
“Why didn’t you leave here?” Bianca asked.
“I cannot. The day Dr. Matthews was planning to present me, he was to give me my final piece of machinery that would allow me to move about freely without the bounds of my recharge station.” There was a long mess of cables trailing from his back along the floor and out to somewhere in the darkness. “And so, I’ve been trapped here for several decades now. Unable to move on. Unable to leave this shell behind.” He gestured all around him.
Lorelei tucked her hand into her pocket as she listened, and it brushed against something cold and metal. She gasped.
“Is this it?! Is this the piece?” She thrust the gear with the tag on it at the robot. He looked at it, picked it up gently with both hands, and read the attached note.
He smiled and looked up at them.
“Thank you. ‘Be free?’ I would like that. I would like that very much.”
“You can be now. Do whatever you feel. You can always move forward.”