“I swear, if the foreman doesn't pad my envelope this week, I'm done. I’m the best damn engineer in the company and I’m still getting paid like a journeyman… You know what, I'm going to talk to him right now. Yeah, I’m going to march right into his office and tell that Hessat-faced slave driver to give me a raise or I’m done tonight!”
Marcus nodded to himself in the mirror of the work toilets, but then his shoulders slumped as he frowned and hopped down off the small stool he used to wash his hands. He pushed the stool back into the cubby off to the side and brushed off his leather apron.
“Yeah Marcus… yeah, you go do that…. Or you just march your scared gnome butt back to the line and get back to work.”
With another sigh he just shook his head as he mumbled to himself; his shift would start in 10 minutes but he was already wanting to go home. He walked out of the toilets into the factory’s cavernous basement. Here he would spend his shift overseeing the massive assembly drone, checking the quality of the parts as they came down the line, and making sure everything ran smoothly. Marcus climbed up to his small platform next to the line and called out to the assembly drone.
“Alright, Big Bess, let's make sure you double tighten those wingnuts on the legs. Last night I found three that were loose and one that even a halfling could have undone with his little finger. Also can we keep the overfills to a minimum, I legit had to order a whole extra barrel because you are over lubing these damn joints.”
The large shard assembly drone shifted its cold, red eye to Marcus for a moment and held his gaze without a sound or movement; its eye then swung right back to the leg it was working on, then back to Marcus. It paused for a moment, unmoving, with its eye fixed right on Marcus as it riveted a bolt into the leg, letting its ratchet gun click a few extra times to make a point. It then shifted its focus back to the line and away from Marcus. The hours ticked away in relative silence between the two, the sound of welding, cutting, and the occasional clang of metal as Marcus rejected a flawed part and tossed it into one of the bins to be torn down and recycled. This was how the countless nights on the assembly line went. Marcus thought of the old stories he was told before, of when this whole line was manned, when there was more than one giant temperamental drone and a depressed gnome stuck in the depths of the factory. The old workers would tell him the factory was full of song, of talk, and of life. There would be gossip shared over the line, fights in the break room, and then drinks shared to make up after work. Most nights Marcus could be found talking to himself. He tried talking to Bess every now and again, but the damn thing didn't have an audio module. Hell, Bess might not even have the ability to understand anything above certain keywords and orders—the truth was, not many truly knew what made up the higher functions of the shard drones. Those were kept under tight lock and key by the manufacturer and those with the power to imbue life into these oversized tinker toys. Marcus knew enough to build a drone and get it functional with a single purpose or action, but to create such things as Bess or anything the navy used was beyond him. He had been tempted many times to peek behind the curtain, but if he were ever caught on Bess tinkering with its internals he would be sacked on the spot, and maybe worse. So onward they both trudged through the hours of silence each night.
“BESS! What have I told you about this?! Look, look right here, you cut right through the joint again! I can't even fix this—if I tried to solder or replace this section, the moment the damn thing moved it would blow out the weld and drop like a drunk cabin boy from the crow’s nest! Get your gears in line and pay attention; you’re three more cuts away from losing that infernal saw. Don't make me put you on sweeping duty for a week—the only reason the boss has you doing major assembly over me is speed, but speed don't mean a damn thing if the product blows up in the customer's face or during shipping. Gorram glorified scrap jack, I’d have better cuts out of a retired navy yard task guardian.”
Marcus tossed the large piece into the bin and stormed around in a small circle for a few moments, muttering to himself, his hands wildly moving about as he continued. Bess looked down at the piece that had been cast into the bin, back to Marcus, and back to the piece. Picking it out of the bin, it slowly rotated it to inspect the damage. It held the small part in its large, clamp-like hand and moved its small, nimble manipulator over. Within a few seconds, after a small inspection and a few sparks, it had removed the damaged joint and replaced it with a fresh one. Turning and lowering its massive arm next to the small path Marcus had been pacing in the floor, it offered the part to him.
“What now… what have you done… broke something elll….”
Marcus glanced over at the hand and moved to take the large piece offered. He hefted it up and paused for a moment. Glancing at Bess with suspicion as he climbed back up to his platform and placed it on this desk, pulling his amplifying goggles down as he leaned over to inspect.
“The joint is correctly aligned, correct bolts, trimmed off the flash moldings… no spark damage, casing didn't pick up any soot…hmmmm … acceptable.”
Marcus placed the part onto the assembly line and pushed the clear button to restart the line. He glanced over his shoulder to Bess, who had been looming over him, waiting. When the line started, the massive assembly drone moved back into place and continued on with its work. Every now and again Marcus wondered if Bess had picked up some quirks in its old age. He had heard stories about some of the larger drones that were powered on for too long and worked too hard picking up, well, for lack of better words, personality quirks. Some old combat drones had been known to seem to appear to get joy out of fighting, some factory loaders even becoming jealous and hoarding the thing they were meant to stack and inventory. It wasn’t totally out of the question that an assembly drone would become protective of its work—hell, maybe it even took pride in it.
With an audible sigh, Marcus shook his head and pushed himself back to work. Just a few more shifts, he thought to himself, just a few more and he would get his chance to be out of this damn factory and would be in the spotlight. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, rough cut, dark red crystal. He fiddled with it in his hand and nodded. This damn thing better work and better be worth the three weeks’ salary it cost him on the black market. He had read through the rule book four times, and while he had to use one of the tournament-approved internal controllers and sanctioned spells, there was nothing, absolutely nothing about adding in a synth-personality crystal. Granted, the rule book was a little behind the times with certain things and there had been on-the-field rulings, but those were mostly to do with the rules being interpreted; this didn't even exist in the book. The dragonborn he had bought it from told him that not only was it technically legal in the tournament, but it was a sample from the military, so it was tested and guaranteed to be working.
Marcus had spent the better part of an hour going through the bracket system of the upcoming Combat Drone Tournament. The brackets had been drawn up two nights ago and he had a good idea who he would face in each round. Granted, there was still a chance for a newcomer to roll in and throw all his planning to hell, or for some cheating and collusion to destroy everything. He ran through each match, and between knowing most of the contestants personally and having faced more than half of them he could get a good idea of the outcome and had a solid strategy for each of his opponents.
The tournament was the highlight of the year for drone builders, both professional and home engineers, or really anyone wanting to watch a scratch-built drone battle royale. Two years ago Marcus had made it to the semi finals. If it wasn’t for that cheating tiefling, Camber... Marcus still wasn't sure how Camber had cheated but he must have—that spike was so beyond regulation length and there was no way he was able to get crysteel plating and keep his assembly under the tournament's max budget. Marcus had brought his case to the ruling board, but after an investigation they ruled on Camber’s side. HOW?!? Marcus paused when he felt a small tingle in his palm and looked down at the crystal, which had come alive. What once was just a milky, dull crystal now seemed to have a faint glow to it, as if reacting to the rage at the memory of Camber getting away with cheating. Marcus pulled his goggles’ eye piece down and inspected the crystal. Deep inside, as if it were miles away from him, a small swirling of fair light and clouds was moving inside the crystal. This brought a child-like grin across Marcus’ face. It worked! And if he could get even that smallest of flickers out of it just by holding it while upset, his drone would be able to unleash the maelstrom it was able to offer. Let Camber make his whole drone out of crysteel; with the power this rage crystal would send surging through his drone, not even the ancient Skarrow class would stand a chance! The prize money and kingdom contract would be his! Marcus would be out of this factory and living the high life on a pinnacle yacht. He would paint the ship some garish color—maybe bright orange. That way everyone would know who he was when he went past, and it would throw it in the noses of those snooty, high-class, no-class people that always want everything shiny, polished, and white. Marcus couldn't even say how many times he’d gone to the boss with a sketch for a new, high-end luxury drone but been told it had too many colors or that the mechanicals couldn't be exposed; that it wasn’t sleek enough.
Another couple of hours passed. Marcus was in the home stretch; soon his shift would be over—and he could hear the jar of Umbriel Moon Liquor calling his name at home. A loud crash above snapped him back to reality as he shifted his eyes to the stairwell and the ruckus that drifted from the floors above. Marcus dropped to the floor and slowly made his way to the bottom of the stairs. The clatter of metal feet and screams of combat of those above froze him in place: scrappers? Pirates? Shardforged activists again? Whoever it was, Marcus knew he stood no chance—his zap gun license had been suspended for another year and his shard axe was locked up at home. He panicked and ran as he heard the footsteps grow closer to the top of the stairs. He raced across the floor and clambered up Bess, opening its small wiring harness access door. Marcus slid inside just in time as he peered out of the half-cocked door to see a small group moving down the stairs, their metal feet falling heavy on the stairs. They seemed to be talking to one another as they got to the bottom and looked around; Marcus couldn't make out anything being said over the clamor of Bess’ internals. As they moved into the room there was no doubt what they were: half-built castoffs, miswired freaks, scrap cannibals… the abandoned. They were here to raid the factory of its best parts and steal all of Marcus’ tools! Marcus had heard stories of them raiding factories before, leaving no one alive, nailing all the living workers to the wall, disassembling all the drones and labor units and stripping the factory clean of parts, tools, and anything they could to make more of themselves to grow their clunky, evil army.
He had to do something. He thought as quickly as he could as the abandoned started to shift through the part bins. He turned his body in the small access area and he traced a handful of wires, trying to find the right path. Where was it… where was it! He nearly shouted in victory as he traced a small bundle of wires back to the small, sealed panel. Taking his pocket multitool out, he quickly removed the cover, breaking the company seal and opening what could only be called Bess’ brain cavity. He fished out the small, rough cut crystal from one of his pouches and, with a small spark and one the sloppiest welds, strapped the crystal in place. Bess shuddered for a brief moment and everything went quiet as if it had shut down, but just as Marcus was starting to fear he had fried Bess, Bess’ motors began to hum. It was quiet at first, a gentle pulse that soon grew into a roaring thumping as if Marcus had been placed next to the heart of a dragon mid-flight. Bess’ gears and motors sprang to life and Marcus was jostled around like a loose coin in an empty purse as Bess moved, turned, and struck at the intruders; and then he heard the roaring rush of Bess's welder as it emitted a torrent of flame. It grew silent for a moment, then Marcus could hear the soft clatter of metal on metal. He dared peek out of the door to watch the abandoned haul one of their own up the stairs; it was leaking life oil everywhere. Marcus stuck his head out and scanned the area. It appeared to be clear. He stepped out of the access door and let out a cheer which he quickly covered his mouth to stifle just in case there were any of those things still lurking about.
Bess’ eye snapped to Marcus—it glowed with an infernal fire as it locked on to him. “Bess, you did it! I knew that rage crystal was worth the money! Just wait until I install it in a real combat drone. I’m going to win that damn tournament this year!”
Marcus was so pleased with himself that he didn't notice Bess’ hand moving towards him until the large metal mitt had grabbed him and lifted him into the air. Marcus tried to scream, but Bess’ grip was too tight; all the air had rushed out of his body. All he could do was stare in horror at the fire that glowed behind its eye. His vision started to fade as he felt himself start to black out… all he could manage was a voice barely above a whisper.
“...Bess… no… Bess… shut… down.”