The Chief Semprix of Exalted Lanesh Sport Unit Production Facility 14.6 was worried. He nervously strode the blood red Axminster carpet, marking precisely twelve paces one way, then pivoting on the heel of his shining leather boot in order to return to his point of origin in another twelve paces, before rotating again (always clockwise, his Assistant Undersemprix noted, always clockwise) in order to repeat the damned performance again and again. A projected company datum set tracking the current Retrieval operation danced and twitched in the exact middle of his linear fretting, fizzing and dancing as the nano light bees were constantly disrupted by the bidirectional pacing of the Chief Semprix, always just managing to reassemble themselves before he assailed them from the opposite direction. Smarter light bees would, of course, have discretely moved one or two metres orthogonally to the fret zone; these were quite stupid, obviously an early model. The projected datum set was, in any case, irrelevant; the Facility itself kept the two of them, as senior management, updated via embedded entanglinks netted through various brain areas. It was more by the way of decoration, changing shape and colour according to the Facility's current mood, and its current mood was Bad. Very Bad Indeed.
One of their Units, #14.6-0983.000758, was missing.
Units had previously been mislaid, and nearly always been efficiently Retrieved and Reprocessed, but the frequency of Unapproved Unit Excursions (UUEs) had been rising over the months. Every Facility was allowed a baseline of UUEs due to the nature of the product. Indeed, the Combine itself alluded to what drove Units to Excurse in the first place in its advertising: "They're no fun to kill if they don't have free will! (tm)", for example. But it was a badge of some dishonour if a Facility found its UUE tally creeping much above that baseline. The typical Intellects chosen to run a Facility were not tolerant of failure, and demanded a great deal of explaining from its senior management if UUE counts rose too high. Those explanations sometimes involved a one-way trip to Reprocessing for all of the old senior management and the quiet hiring of new senior management. And neither the incumbent Chief Semprix, nor his Assistant Undersemprix, were particularly keen on making that trip.
The musings of the Undersemprix, who had been slightly lulled into a semihypnotic state by the rhythmic motion of his superior, ticking backwards and forwards like some large blue uniformed pendulum, were rudely interrupted when the Chief Semprix stopped suddenly in the midst of the lightbees, which finally got the hint and reassembled three steps to his left.
"Aha!", said the old man.
Snapping to alertness, the Undersemprix noted that the datum set was now showing a hopeful yellow, and his own entanglink (on a slightly delayed circuit relative to his boss, presumably in order to discourage insurrection in the ranks by not granting them access to all, or the most up-to-date, data) began to dribble hopefulness through his brain. The effect was like coffee, and, now electrified, he was himself on the verge of blurting out the news when the Chief Semprix clapped his hands together and beat his underling to it.
"They have her! The Retrievers have her!"
The Chief Semprix did a little jig on the carpet, which the Undersemprix found a little vulgar.
There had hardly been any doubt that the Retrievers would catch her. It was their job, after all, and one for which they were exquisitely well Made. But occasionally, a Unit would get away. It was rare, and it had happened more than once in recent times. That information, of course, could never leave the Facility, so the Retrieval operations were redacted to make them look like success, and Reprocessing and numerous other bookkeeping records adjusted accordingly to propagate the lie convincingly. No-one knew where the Units went. Once they were outside of the Combine Autonomous Production Zones, no-one really cared. They couldn't do any harm. No, it was a matter of pride that kept the true records hidden. And helping your Facility to keep its pride intact meant keeping your skin intact.
"That is good news, sir", said the Undersemprix. It didn't hurt to keep the old man happy: only the Chief Semprix and the Facility itself could do anything to cut his career short (or end his life in agony, which was often the next step on from a career-limiting move), but the Chief Semprix was far and away the more volatile and unpredictable of the two. The Facility worked on rules of logic and order and efficiency and profit, which the Undersemprix, in moods of hubris, could at least pretend to understand. The Chief Semprix, on the other hand, seemed to be mostly interested in his two cats and a collection of rather poor quality stamps, and enjoyed listening to the works of Bach and Mozart at ungodly hours and volumes. There was no leverage there. Although almost functionally senile, some part of the old man's brain was so preternaturally honed to the job of keeping a Facility running that it was by now almost second nature, and the decisions he made were almost always the right ones.
Until recently. Recently, something was different. It wasn't necessarily the old man's fault, but, thought the Undersemprix, if I can finger the doddering old fool and send him to Reprocessing, I will. He quickly suppressed the thought, because if the Facility caught a whiff of treachery in his mind, there might be repercussions. He'd learnt to partition the Facility-functions from the rest, or so he hoped, but who knew how much crosstalk there was? He had dreams in Facility-code sometimes, so it wasn't unreasonable to expect that his human thoughts could conceivably travel the other way, too. But perhaps, perhaps the time had come when he *could* make his move, if he could persuade the Facility that he, and only he could fix the problem, and that the Chief Semprix was a liability.
"Our little girl is on her way home to us", said the Chief Semprix, straightening a Hogarth print on the wood panel wall. "What kind of homecoming should she get, mmm?"
Normally, of course, there was no question that the Retrievers would take a Retrieved Unit straight to Reprocessing, but the fact that the Chief Semprix was asking gave his assistant pause.
"Well, sir, you know protocol as well as I do. But we automatically Reprocessed the last five. Perhaps we should take a closer look at her, and see if there might be something we can pinpoint, perhaps some systemic disruption in production?"
The Chief Semprix regarded the print with his head slightly cocked, and turned and smiled, as if his Assistant had passed some sort of test. It wasn't a very nice smile, though.
"Yes. Yes! Let's see what makes little 0983.000758 tick, eh? See if she's the key to all these UUEs, eh, eh?" And with that, he laughed a hyena laugh.
The Undersemprix knew three things right then.
1. That the Chief Semprix was insane.
2. That, as little empathy as he held for the products of the Facility, he did not want to be the girl right now.
3. That he had a feeling that the Chief Semprix was going to make him responsible for what happened next, and, right at that moment, he didn't want to be himself, either. This wasn't the way he had it planned.
"Would you like a sherry, dear boy? It's been quite a day, hasn't it?", said the Chief Semprix.
What the hell, thought the Undersemprix. Why not?
"Yes please, sir. Some of that Amontillado, if you have any left, please."