They rode in silence out of Gelunbu and onto the outer beltway. The sun was sinking low in the sky, and the clouds gathering on the horizon were deep blue against the blazing orange of the autumn light. As the towers of the city receded into the distance, they found themselves racing into a multicolored world of the splendid autumn leaves, punctuated at intervals by signs indicating off ramps, and occasional neon advertars—huge, semi-transparent three-dimensional figures, drawing glowing letters in the air with messages like, “Hughes’s Groovy House of Hovercars: Lease A New Myra With No Money Down” and “A New Age Dawns: Buy From Katie’s Acrylics Now!”
Finally, Venus broke the silence: “You know, I told you my background, but I didn’t ask yours. How did you come to be here?”
Sandra kept her eyes on the road. “I was a cop. Then I quit and started doing this.”
There was a pause, until Venus realized she wasn’t going to continue. “So… any family?”
“I have a brother lives outta state. Haven’t seen him in years. He’s some kind of manager at a rocket lab, I think.”
“No boyfriend? Girlfriend? Cat? Dog?”
“Look,” said Sandra, finally jerking her head around to look at Venus. “I’m not lookin’ to be buddies, okay? For some reason, Max brought you aboard. I don’t know why, he didn’t ask me, and I don’t like it. I’ll work with you, ‘cause that’s what he pays me for, but—”
Venus interrupted. “Look—it’s a long story; we probably don’t have time for it right now. But I’m not replacing you, not at all. Max had to hire me for a very specific reason, and it’s not about you. Well, I guess it is kind of about you, in that Max won’t shut up about how awesome you are, and that I could learn a lot from you.”
Sandra was more than a little taken aback by this, and was tempted to ask her to say more, but at that moment, the Exit sign for “Lurge Robotics” appeared, and the car veered onto the off-ramp, and the huge exhaust towers of the factory loomed up over the trees like a battery of cannons, surrounding a huge cooling tower with the single word “LURGE” across it in fifteen-foot-tall letters.
The two women wound their way down the narrow road that ran behind the sprawling complex, gazing across the open field that separated the road from the chain-link fence at the edge of the factory yard. In the light of the setting sun, the orange glint in the windows of the long, rusty-red buildings made the old plant seem as though it had sprung into action again, once more forging armies like those that had waged the Great Robot War of ’57.
But only for a moment. Then the angle changed and the reflection vanished, and the sprawling industrial campus appeared once more as it really was—dead and desolate.
The hatchback pulled up to the front gate, which lifted automatically and allowed them to enter.
“This certainly looks inviting,” Sandra muttered as they pulled to a stop and the car settled to the ground. They climbed out of the vehicle and walked across the eerily empty asphalt of the parking lot, the chilly breeze whooshing against them as they went. Sandra pulled her red leather blazer tighter, her hand brushing the strap of her shoulder holster as she did so. She stopped abruptly and turned to Venus, who was clad only in a dress slacks and a thin grey sweater.
“You got a gun?” Sandra asked.
“No, I don’t.”
Sandra sighed impatiently. “Ugh; well, you better get one soon. Get yourself a JEK-17; there’s nothin’ else like it. It’s heavy, but it packs a punch.” She patted the holster under her jacket.
“I’m sure you can cover me if it comes to that,” said Venus, her mouth twitching a bit. “Besides, are you really expecting to get in a shoot-out here?”
Sandra shook her head. “I dunno what kinda training they gave you in the FES, but I don’t want to argue about it now; it’s freezing out here.”
They walked briskly to the nearest building, the only one that was lit. An electric glow illuminated a sign that read “Visitor Check-In” There was a wheezy chime as the door slid open, and they entered a dimly-lit waiting room. At the desk was seated a skinny young man of about twenty, wearing an ill-fitting uniform, with a police-style hat perched backwards on his head. He had been engrossed in something on a small tablet device, but glanced up and set it aside on hearing them enter.
“Geez!” he said, standing up and straightening his dark green tie. “I mean—whoa!” He stared at them wide-eyed, mouth curving into a smirk.
“Hello,” said Venus, extending a hand.
There was a pause of a few seconds before the dazed guard reciprocated the gesture.
“I’m Venus Miles, and this is Sandra Darcy. We’re private investigators.”
“And our eyes are up here,” Sandra said sharply, keeping her own hands at her sides.
“Sure thing,” the young man said, blinking and re-focusing his gaze slowly, “Charlie Bradler, chief of overnight security for Lurge Robotics.” He paused as if to divulge something significant. “Keepin’ it going all night long.”
Sandra fought the urge to roll her eyes. She continued evenly, “You were on duty the night of October 1 of this year?”
“Uh, yeah; I was. Manning ‘Control Central’ as usual.”
“You discovered Mr. Lurge’s remains?”
“Walk us through your exact routine, please.”
“Well, um, I came in 7PM, checked out everything, activated the security system, and then took up my position.”
“How does the security system work?”
Bradler shrugged. “Dunno exactly; she’s a state-of-the-art, proprietary system.” He jerked his head in the direction of a rather old-fashioned panel on the wall behind his desk. “I just enter codes into that panel to turn it on every night. Mr. Lurge said activating those motion sensors was the most important part of the job; he had the whole thing installed special, and he told me it was my responsibility to keep it running.”
“Do you ever patrol the premises? Check things out?”
He smirked. “Oh, yeah; I check things out, that’s for sure.”
Sandra rolled her eyes again. “Just answer the question.”
“Every couple of hours yeah; I go on my rounds, sure. That’s what I was doing when I found him.”
“But you had no idea he was in the factory prior to finding his remains?”
The young man fidgeted with his clip-on tie. “Right… I… um… heard noises… but I didn’t… I figured I should keep monitoring from The Bridge.”
Sandra’s gaze hardened.
“You’re the night watchman. You heard strange noises, and you didn’t investigate?”
He looked down furtively for an instant, then tried to resume his previous cocky manner.
“Old Man Lurge told me about some stuff that might go down here. Gave me a real good handle on what needs to be looked into, and what needs to be let alone.”
Sandra continued to stare him down. “What kind of a guard are you?”
“You don’t understand!” He blurted out. “The factory is haunted! There have always been weird noises at night, and it’s not from anything alive or natural. It freaks me out, and I keep away.”
Sandra shook her head. “Seriously, kid?”
“It’s true!” he insisted. “You must have heard the stories—you know, they play it up like it’s all fun and games for the little kids, but this place is weird! Old Man Lurge knew; he told me about it, too. When he hired me, he said ‘Son, there’s stuff in there I don’t understand. You’ll hear it late at night sometimes. You just leave it alone.’ And that’s what I was doing,” he finished in a rush.
Sandra’s eyes darted to Venus, who was trying to suppress a smile.
“Okay,” Sandra said after a moment. “But you did eventually go onto the factory floor, right?”
“Sure, I’m supposed to poke my head in the door of the factory and shine a light around. So that night, around 3AM, I did that. And…”
Sandra cut him off. “You made your first rounds eight hours after your shift started?’
Bradler shrugged. “I was busy.”
After a moment or two, when no further explanation was offered, Sandra sighed. “Can you show us the exact place?” Sandra asked, “We need to inspect the scene of the incident.”
He gulped, then recovered some of his earlier bravado. “Definitely! But you know, I probably shouldn’t leave the Main Entrance unguarded for that long. You ladies are professionals,” he smirked, “and I’m sure I can trust you on your own. I can monitor your movements from here.” He gestured grandly towards a row of security camera displays, only one of which seemed to be functional.
“But, Charlie, we need you to show us the exact spot. We’d never find it on our own,” insisted Venus.
“‘He who hesitates is lost.’”
“Look,” he said, glancing nervously towards the long corridor behind him, barely lit by a single bulb hanging by a wire from the high ceiling. “It’s super freaky back there. Can’t we go some other time—when it’s sunny?”
“No,” said Sandra, walking past him and starting down the hall. “Unlock this door and take us back there. You don’t want us telling Mrs. Lurge you’re holding up our investigation.”
The young man looked around wildly, first at Venus, then back at Sandra, then down at his desk, then back to Venus again, as if hoping some solution would become apparent. But he soon realized nothing would dissuade Sandra and scurried down the hall after her, till finally they reached the huge metal door at the back. He approached a small console beside the door and with trembling fingers, swiped a card and entered a passcode while Sandra watched, arms folded, foot tapping the floor impatiently.
“There you go,” he said, after finally managing to enter the code correctly. Within seconds, the thick walls, gears growled and groaned with motion, and the metal slab began to slowly rise.
“Thank you,” said Sandra. “That wasn’t so bad was it? Now how’s about you show us just where you found Mr. Lurge?”
Even in the gloom of the dark hallway, it was clear that the color was draining from his face. “You want me to go in there?”
“You ask too many questions,” Sandra said. “Yes, come in and show us where you found him. It can’t be that bad in here; after all, you came in the night you found him.”
“That was… different,” he muttered.
“How so?” asked Venus, who had come down the hall behind him, and whose sudden arrival beside him caused him to whirl about.
“Oh, it’s only you,” he said, clutching his chest in relief. “Titan, was it?”
“Venus,” she corrected primly.
“Oops… wrong heavenly body.” This line he accompanied with a feeble attempt at his swaggering manner, though it looked more like the grimace of someone shivering in the cold. Sandra snorted theatrically, but Venus acted as though she hadn’t heard him at all.
“Now, come on, tell us what was different that night that made you go into the factory.”
Bradler seized this opportunity to both delay and explain himself, and began:
“Here’s the lowdown: there are different ghosts around here, and you get to know which ones are acting up on a certain night. Some nights, you’ve got Samuel in the factory. He was an old line manager back in the day. They say he pitched over the side onto the factory floor one day when they were in full production. The emergency breaker kicked in too late, and he… he was crushed by one of the bots. And ever since, his ghost comes round here, rattlin’ the equipment and crying out in anger.”
Sandra said nothing—it was clear that Charlie was one of those witnesses that you had to let tell a story their own way—but she rubbed her temples and began to rifle through her purse for some aspirin.
“…there’s a couple other minor ghosts, too; like the woman in white who lives in the accounting department. She’s the widow of a line-worker who died during Mr. Lurge Sr.’s time. But,” he added, sensing he should come to the point. “The worst of all is the thing we call. . . ‘the Eidolon.’”
He said this peculiar word with an air of great self-importance, and looked at them, clearly expecting a reaction.
“What’s that?” Venus asked.
”The Eidolon,” Charlie repeated, glancing furtively around, “Is the most horrible, dreadful, scariest, most absolutely evil thing in the whole world.”
A low, ominous rumble from somewhere above them lent weight to the young man’s words.