Tessa's office was on the lower part of the saucer, sloping windows offering a panoramic view of the city below. It was morning now and the light filtered through the dome above, diffusing as it slowly replaced the light of the dayglobes in the streets and houses. Tessa sat on the transmetal window, seemingly floating over the city below, gulping back more caffeine pills with a glass of glucose water, so highly strung she seemed to vibrate as she wound through the evidence tapes on her TeleBand, glaring at the greenish projections as though the crime would resolve itself if she scared it enough.
“Robur... summarise... what do we know?”
Robur was standing in his recharge unit, humming slightly as his secondary systems charged and his main generator wound back up to full power. His hands moved a buffer over his new 'scars' as he did so and those blank and empty glowing eyes turned back towards Tessa as his switches clattered, processing her request.
“Person or persons unknown gained access to the BioVat facility late last night. The surviving scientists report a technician of medium height, medium build and brown hair. Not especially useful. We know that this person or persons replaced the punch cards with those from a cloning depot allowing the synth-men to develop a mentality and musculature that they would not normally achieve. This was done inexpertly, though it suggests at least a passing understanding of the technologies involved so we are looking for an educated perpetrator...”
“...In a city of millions of scientists, engineers and technicians.”
“If I may continue maam?”
Tessa waved away his concerns with a grumble.
“Well, sabotage is passing rare maam, everyone in the city knows we depend on the city and its infrastructure. Attacks usually come from outside, or are attempted from outside but as you well know such incursions are rarely successful, suggesting that the attack has to come from inside. Perhaps a stolen identity, a turncoat is preposterous. Who would give up all this for the radioactive wasteland beyond? Certainly nobody rational.”
“Not everyone has a set of valves, switches and circuits for a brain Robur. Even scientists can get wedded to their pet theories and follow them in the teeth of the evidence. It's a struggle for us all.”
“A terrible flaw in the human mind maam.”
“But essential to understand possible motives for our perpetrator.”
“As you say maam.”
“So, basically we don't know anything except that our saboteur could be almost anyone and doesn't care about the welfare of the city.”
“As you say maam.”
Tessa slammed her hand down on the transmetal, something that always gave her a frisson of fear, even though she knew the transmetal was nigh unbreakable. “Damn and blast. We've no option but to wait for the maniac to strike again and that irritates me. Without another incident we can't even begin building a profile.”
“It does, indeed, seem prudent to wait and it is not as though we have a choice maam. Perhaps you should get some rest.”
Tessa threw one of her pills at Robur and it clanged off his chest plate with a loud 'ting'.
Tessa was dozing at her desk, the electromassage lulling her – finally – to sleep, overcoming the surging chemistry of the pills the boiled through her veins. Robur was still plugged in, repeatedly churning over the evidence that they'd gathered, hooked into the precinct's MONOVAC for additional power, putting in various variables and calculating probabilities, but nothing was seeming to fit.
Tessa tumbled from her desk with a start as the TeleScreen leapt into life.
“Coyle!” Her master's voice, Captain Newton swimming into view on the screen and peering out at them through the electric eye.
“Sir!” Tessa clambered back up into view, rubbing the rheum from her eyes and straightening her glasses, trying to scramble back to reality from dreams of synth-men and violence.
“We've another incident. A containment breach at Aubade Power, another research institute. Very high tech, very well protected, very advanced. The director's called me in person and asked for my best agents. That's you. Get down there.”
It was not long before they were there, taking a full scale floater this time, rather than a disk, in case they needed the extra power or swiftness it could bring. The Aubade facility was blindingly bright, surrounded by the proctors and their screens, flaring blindingly bright every colour of the rainbow as the blinding light within reduced the building to a mere shadow, slowly getting soft at the edges as the terrible forces within began to melt even the strongest of buildings.
The floater set down at the proctor line and they had to holler to be heard over the screaming of generators and the roaring air.
“Maam!” Shouted the proctor over the deafening sound. “The inner screens have gone down and we can barely hold it in with the screens.”
They moved into the shelter of one of the newly arrived screens, others being shipped in from around the city to reinforce the perimeter, so that they could be heard.
“There's no way I can let you in maam, we can't get close and the director told us they were harnessing the power of the sun. The Energy Commission is trying to find a solution but we may have to evacuate the city.”
Tessa growled and snapped at the proctor. “I can't deal with it without a closer look. Bring me a proctor suit, a fresh screen and some high capacitance cabling. Immediately.”
“That's an order.”
The proctor scurried off to get what she wanted, after a brief glance at her badge and she turned to Robur next, so fast the otherwise implacable Metalman actually recoiled. “Open your chest plate Robur.”
“We'll need the extra power.”
Tessa suited up, strapping the heavy armour-plating of the robotic proctor suit into place and strapping on heavy welding goggles beneath the helmet. The suit was too big and pinched at the joints, but there was little that was better protection in all of Zero. Behind her as she finished suiting up, the Aubade building was now all but impossible to make out, the light within so strong that even the most solid of walls was near transparent.
The screen was powered up and focussed to the minimum, all of its power focussed in a tiny space. Robur's chest was open and the cables ran from it to the screen, sending even more power into the field projector, threatening to overload it.
The proctors withdrew and Tessa flexed the hydraulic muscles of the suit, pushing against the screen and marching step by step into the bedazzling aura of the glow that was too bright for any to see how she was doing. The ground was wet beneath her armoured boots and pushing the screen forward was like wading through treacle. It wasn't treacle though, the ground was melted like magma. Metal, brick and ceramic flowed thinner and hotter as she got closer to the centre, having to throw her arm in front as the light grew too bright even for the goggles, the helm and the screen all together.
A warning bell rang inside the suit as she reached the epicentre of the light and the heat. A miniature, artificial sun, suspended in the air between massive presser rays, protected by their own screens that were flickering and faltering even now.
The warning bell rang louder and louder, increasing in frequency and volume as the suit began to buckle under the strain. There was only one chance and it was a long shot but the fate of the city was at stake this time. Forcing the suit to maximum power she pushed the small screen closer to the presser projector console. The suit was beginning to melt, a trickle of metal silvery as it ran down the faceplate and dripped from the chin.
There was one chance, one slim chance to end this. Tessa tore the panel from the presser controls, hissing as the heat began to bore through the suit, burning her fingers as she exposed the power connectors. A quick twist back and she snatched the power leads from the screen projector, thrusting them into the presser controls. The moment the screen went down she was seared, the suit seizing up as the joints melted but in the power of the supercharged pressers the miniature sun shrank in on itself and turned dark.
In an instant everything changed, the outward pressure of the sun energy abruptly reversing direction as the miniature black hole that had formed began to crush what was left of the building inwards. The suit wouldn't move and began to drag along the floor as Tessa struggled with the controls, whining hydraulics straining against the fusion-welded seams but it wouldn't move, grinding across the cooling floor as the rock began to set up solid again.
In desperation Tessa hammered on the inside the suit, straining with her wiry muscles against the chest plate until, finally, it gave way. She spilled out, snatching and grasping at the cables, floating backwards, spiralling inward towards that singular black point as it devoured the suit, stretching its atoms into infinity. She was white knuckled, clinging on for dear life as the cable drew taut and then slowly, implacably drew backwards, hauling her inch by inch away from the swirling void.
There was a scream of metal on metal and the great presser rays trembled in their brackets, suddenly tearing loose, sucked into their own creation and annihilated. Without the power of the ray the singularity could not maintain and with a thunderous clap of equalising energy and a rush of air it disappeared, blasting what remained of Aubade into smithereens.
Tessa blinked as the rubble was pulled from her, smiling up at Robur as he tossed aside the distorted remnants of a steel beam and helped her up to her feet.
“Are you alright maam?”
“Never better Robur... never better... though I think our chances of getting any evidence out of this place are pretty much zero.” She dusted herself down and stumbled out of the debris, leaning on her metal companion.
“You'd be wrong there maam. I believe we do have a lead. I was conversing by TeleBand with Aubade director while you were engaged in your heroics.”
“And?” She leaned against the floater, wearily popping a fistful of caffeine pills and dragging out the first aid kit.
“The only change of note was that they began a study into the psychological and social implications of true artificial sun control on the general population and its potential uses for impressing or intimidating wastelanders.”
“I see... so?”
“We have suspects. A list of suspects from the psychology, sociology and anthropology departments involved in those experiments. The only new people who would have had the opportunity.”
“Forget the sociologists, they're less likely to have biological knowledge.” Tessa dragged herself into the floater. “Let's get back to the precinct and crunch the cards. Maybe we can find this bastard and then I can get a decent night's sleep.”