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William Coldwell needed to break free. His whole life, he’d been brushed aside, told to be obedient and quiet. He’d been fooled into thinking that if he just did what he was told and bided his time, he’d be rewarded. It felt like everything he did just shadowed his father. He was tired of being his father’s child. 

He was his own person!

William picked up the plate of steak that lay on the table in front of him. He paced around the posh room, trying not to sneer at it all. He’s trying to placate me again, William thought. The lush sofas, the full pantries, the top-of-the-line entertainment pod… it was all ridiculously expensive. It was practically everything anyone could ask for. Endless food alone was enough to make William steel himself against the temptation to give in. It wasn’t prefabricated– real steak, grown and killed on Earth and imported here to Obsius. It was probably worth enough to feed an entire family in the Ferrou Mines for a month.

It had been a while since William had eaten real food… What was a bite in the grand scheme of things?

No, William thought, twitching aggressively– a nervous tick he’d developed since the… incident. He grimaced and then threw the glass of water by the food at the wall behind him, causing a crash and a wet stain to splash across the wall and the floor. 

That was how it started. With a single bite. Then it was just a little nap. William had seen it before. He forced himself to take a deep breath. 

Dealing with his father always left him feeling like this.

He was trapped in one of his father’s enrichment centers. Mr. Coldwell dealt with most of his enemies this way; he’d invite them to his Penthouse business tower here on Obsius for some party or another, and then introduce them to the life of luxury available inside the skyscraper. Then, they’d stay the night. They’d enjoy the free, endless food. They’d try out the entertainment pod. And suddenly, they’d never want to leave. Mr. Coldwell made sure they never even thought about freedom again. His “guests” would become fat in the Penthouse and forget their worries and forget about their feud with William’s father, and then the Coldwell Industries machine would just keep rolling on.

It was awful. But with someone as powerful as Mr. Coldwell, what could you do? He controlled the energy output of practically the entire New System and most of the Solar System’s, too.

A QOL droid quietly whirred over to the broken glass on the floor. The robot swept up the mess into its storage and then whirred away into another room. William sighed. His father couldn’t get away with what he was doing any longer.

So William returned to the Penthouse he’d struggled so hard to escape. Technically an adult now, some things were easier. Once you were an adult, you could ride the magtrains and transports off-planet without raising as many questions.

He was going to bring Mr. Coldwell to justice. He’d finally be freed of his father’s far-reaching shadow. William wouldn’t be what his father wanted him to be– a copy. William was bigger than that– he would prove it.

He could save those poor, tortured souls in the deepest level of the Penthouse.

If he ever got out of this enrichment center, that is.

Where was Maxis, anyway?

William walked over to the door and tried the button again. Nothing. His father technically wasn’t allowed to lock William in his room anymore– but that didn’t stop him. Mr. Coldwell’s security had escorted William here after he’d tried to confront his father earlier today.

True, he’d barged into his father’s office in the middle of some call, but that didn’t matter to William. That man deserved everything that William was about to throw his way.

His father had locked him up in here, assuming that William was acting on his usual rash instincts. He assumed William would tire himself out, like he had before, and that life would go back to normal. What he didn’t know was that this time, William had a plan. Backup plans.

William remembered his travels, all leading up to this day. All across the New System, from Obsius to Echelon. 

He remembered searching for all the Coldwell Industries matter-gathering towers. Just in case…

A clanging noise came from somewhere on the floor across the room. A series of agitated whistles and beeps followed.

William hurried over to the other side of the aesthetic room, weaving around the sofas and beautiful decor. At the base of the wall on the opposite side of the room was a little white air vent, silently filtering the oxygen and regulating the temperature of the enrichment center. It was barely large enough to fit a hand inside.

Inside, two purple little lights blinked at him.

“Maxis! Good to see you made it,” William whispered, glancing around the room for any other QOL droids. He was sure there were hidden cameras in here, but that couldn’t be helped. They’d know when he escaped. He’d just have to be faster and smarter than his father’s security team.

There was a mechanical whirring, and then the bolts holding the air vent in place popped out and Maxis emerged from the hole in the wall. The little fist-sized droid scuttled on his four legs in a disjointed fashion, cocking his box-shaped body to look up at William. His mag-driver attachment retracted back into his body, now that the vent was out of the way. His black paint was peeling, revealing the shoddy scrap-workmanship of his chassis. 

William crouched down and held out his hand for Maxis to climb onto. The little droid beeped and scuttled up William’s arm, perching on his shoulder.

“You’ve got the recorder?” William asked, holding out his hand expectantly. Maxis whistled and ejected a little blue rectangle into William’s palm. William put the recorder into his jacket pocket and held out his hand again.

Maxis beeped aggressively.

William clenched his jaw and gestured out with his hand persistently.

“It’s just a precaution– you know that,” William tried, and Maxis obliged. The droid ejected the second item William had stored with him– a small black cylinder with a red button on one end. Maxis made an ominous whirring noise and blinked.

William walked over to the enrichment center door and held out his hand to the button. Maxis crawled down his arm and his mag-driver popped out. It attached to the button and disconnected the panel, revealing the chips and wires beneath. Maxis beeped a couple times and the enrichment center door wooshed open.

William peeked his head out into the hallway and started moving. There were huge paintings hung up on the walls, with white light coming down from the ceiling and the edges of the floor. William’s footsteps echoed. Enrichment centers stretched down through the hall.

The hall was a familiar one. All of Coldwell Penthouse floors followed the same standard format with little deviation. William had grown up here; he knew its every in and out and especially how to sneak around.

He reached the end of the hall and passed the elevator doors, instead entering the unassuming door on the elevator’s right. It swung open easily and revealed an unpolished service closet. Another door hid in the very back of the closet, which William knew led to the service channels that all the QOL droids and employees used. The closet door closed behind William, leaving him in the pitch-black. Maxis whistled and his purple eyes shone bright, illuminating the way.

William had vivid memories of hiding in one of these closets in a fit as a child. 

Eventually, William had emerged and came back to his father’s office. His dad was still at work, drawing on his chalkboard some equation for his terrible living matter-density to energy machine. Or maybe it was a blueprint for his matter-gathering towers that spotted the New System– William hadn’t paid attention to it, back then. William had told him about running away, and his dad had just stared at him confusedly and then told him to leave.

Mr. Coldwell had bigger things to worry about than children.

William twitched again and opened the back-closet door. At least his mother had cared when he’d told her about running away. 

She’d been kind. 

William stepped out into the Penthouse’s main service shaft and was washed in white light. The service shaft was designed on a lot of steel framework with ladders and stairs but with little enough clutter that you could look up all the way to the top floor of the shaft and all the way to the bottom from any one of the staircases. One wall of the long shaft was made of glass, revealing the stark landscape of Obsius stretched out before the skyscraper.

The planet was covered in star-bleached white dust that reflected light so intensely you had to squint your eyes to look at it. In the distance, Mount Sica jutted out from the dust with dagger-like edges. The mountain looked like a gigantic scar on Obsius’ white surface; it was black as black could be– the white dust didn’t reach as high as the mountain did. The outer crust of the planet was made of obsidian, lying hidden under the bright dust that coated its surface. Mount Sica seemed to frown on William, its harsh edges glinting from the reflected light of the planet’s surface.

William looked down over the railing he leaned against at the bustling little port-city that surrounded the Penthouse. Tiny magtrains and starcruisers flickered in and out of view. At the edge of the city, one of the Coldwell Industries matter-gathering towers poked up. They fueled the Coldwell reactors across the System.

William turned away and navigated through the service channels for a few minutes before finding what he was looking for– the service elevator.

The service elevator was much larger than the normal elevator that most people would take up the Penthouse’s levels. It was designed to carry larger loads, but it didn’t function as smoothly. 

It also didn’t have cameras.

William stepped inside and looked at the many different buttons for each floor. He froze as he saw the lowest level, marked simply with an M beneath the basement levels. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to relive the memory.

What does M stand for? William had thought, stepping into the elevator.

The zaps, the humming, the squishing…

The faces screamed at him, reaching out for salvation from his father’s abomination.

William put a hand on the elevator wall to steady himself. Maxis cocked his little droid-body and beeped in his question-tone.

“I’m good,” William said, taking a deep breath. He hadn’t been to this same service elevator since the incident. It was… jarring.

M stood for machine.

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