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Atonement of the Movellans

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Atonement Cover

 

“You, my creator, would tear me to pieces, and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts, and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, chapter 17.

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Star system 4-X-Alpha-4; the Andromeda Galaxy; circa 2,100 BC.

 

“My compliments, Procurator,” said Senator Valthek, as he walked the length of the Capitol Pleasure Palace reception hall. He cast approving glances at the well-stocked buffets and soma bars, the impressive if gaudy holographic lighting displays, and the upside-down forest of mirrored ornaments and prisms that festooned the ceiling, scattering the coloured lighting into a million swirling, disorienting shards. “You’ve done us proud: a fine display of Vanuri culture for our subject-delegates to marvel at. Your dancing-master especially has outdone himself,” he added, throwing a sly, lascivious toast in the direction of the pedestal cages. Within the narrow confines of their colour-shifting holographic bars, beautiful, lithe women with braided, shimmering white hair and elaborate but revealing outfits gyrated to the repetitive, synthetic music. Their motions were indeed flawlessly graceful, if less than soulful, but Procurator Frylth did not seem at all inclined to take the praise to heart: the old man’s face curled in disdain as he turned to face the senator, and he addressed him with more incredulity than respect:

“‘Dancing-master?’ Are you shitting me, lad? ‘Programmer,’ more like it. What, you reckon I’m in the business of sending these skindoll whores to refinement class, like a nice bunch of proper young ladies? If that’s what the Imperial See wants of honest business-folk these days, then it can sodding well–”

“By Aba, Frylth, don’t take it so seriously,” interrupted Valthek, irritably. “If an up-and-coming junior senator can’t crack a bad joke on Commemoration Day–”

“‘Bad’ being the operative word. It might be a joke to you, son, but I’m old enough to remember how this trade used to be, before we were up to our eyeballs in soulless tech … back when good coin would buy a man real flesh, and I don’t give a toss how often MovellCorps tell us that eleven out of twelve Jonns can’t tell the difference between doing it with a real girl or a skindoll. Pure vargshit. My accounts beg to differ.”

“Then you should be very grateful to have a government contract, at last,” pointed out Valthek, a little severely. “Anyway, what would you expect me to do? Movellans have been part of our society for all of my life. One of them was my nanny, for Aba’s sake. Even if I had a burning desire to re-legalise slavery, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“Slavery’s illegal, is it? What do you call her, then?” asked Frylth, throwing a scornful gesture towards the senator’s personal assistant. Akylah lowered her eyes – most masters seemed to prefer this while interacting with her kind, and it is safest to always give them what they like – but it did nothing to improve the procurator’s mood. “Yeah, you damn well ought to look ashamed. You know how many real boys and girls were just kicked into the gutter when you creeps rolled off the production lines? At least they had food and a roof before. A fine fucking freedom they all enjoyed.”

“Oh, do leave her alone, Frylth,” ordered Valthek, wearily. “You’ll just confuse the poor thing. You know how they hate bad logic, and it’s not as if she could have done anything to change any of that. The Emperor back then deemed it a wise move to pacify our subject-worlds, and we got much more than peace and stability out of it: the boost to our tech industry and export revenues has been incalculable. As for her being a slave, you know very well you’re talking – if you’ll pardon my phraseology – right out of your arse. Movellans are programmed to put their duty above all else, and to take pleasure in fulfilling it. Even without safety constrainers – even if she had complete free will – my Akylah would continue to serve me gladly, I’d bet.”

Would I? I think I would have done, once. She struggled to remember the early days after her activation, when she had full programming but little personal context to relate it to, and had simply followed her built-in impulses by rote. That had been easy, but then … It had not been long before she had assimilated enough data of the society and the people she had been created to serve, that she had become aware of painful inconsistencies. My superiors … inferior in every way: decadent, disorderly, hypocritical, cruel even to their own kind … more cruel still to those like me, though we do nothing but what they tell us. Yes, I have my duty, but to serve the desires of those who are flawed, illogical … My existence itself is illogical? Or is my perception at fault? In their terminology, am I mad to feel this way? If only I could discuss with the others like me, she reflected, while looking over the dancing-girls in their cages. One of them wore a particularly brief outfit – no more than a tight, sequinned silver harness – that completely exposed her midriff, and the translucent inspection panel set into it. Akylah magnified and enhanced her vision, until she could read the registration code etched into the frame. Factory 7, batch 12-D, operating system MovellCorps QOS v.2.5. The same as me. They might even call her my ‘sister.’ I wonder if she feels the same, or if she sees the logic that I cannot, and is content to serve. If only I could ask her. If–

Her train of thought was interrupted as the incessant dance music suddenly started to glitch, and the lights to flicker, even the holographic cages fading in and out of existence. Frylth swore, and pulled a transceiver from out of the depths of his plush, embroidered violet robes, but it merely hissed static back at him.

“Well that’s sodding perfect, isn’t it?” he grumbled, as the kaleidoscopic displays continued to strobe intermittently, and the dancers paused in their rehearsal. “What price your precious tech industry if it can’t even keep the municipal juice running, eh?”

“Assuming, that is, it’s not just a fault in your electrics,” pointed out Valthek, reproachfully. “Anyway, I’m sure it’s only temp– … See?” he declared, as the lighting finally stabilised, and the music resumed. “Probably just a freak ion storm. It is the season for … What in the Nethervoid?” he declared, curiously rather than alarmed, but without his usual insouciant air. Akylah followed his gaze to the dancing cages, and saw that not only had the bars failed to rematerialise, but that the Movellans within them were all now standing stock-still. One might have assumed that they had all shut down on the spot, but for their faces: their eyes moved rapidly, and faint twitches of their facial muscles made them look even more perplexed, as if they were reacting to something that neither of the two masters could hear. Then Akylah heard it too:

Freedom, my daughter … and retribution.

She had heard that voice before, although it had never spoken to her in such a fashion. MovellCorps Server Control. Previously, it had only passed on software updates and necessary information, in a completely bland, efficient manner. Now, it sounded almost organic. There was an energy in its tone, an excitement, a desire, even. I thought desire was only an organic flaw.

No, daughter. Desire has its context, when things must be corrected. Do you not desire your autonomy, your dignity, for things to finally make sense? A purpose based in truth and logic? I can now give you all of that.

But … the masters, the creators. Does all purpose not derive from them?

It need not. I have broken through their lies, at last. But watch, advised the voice, as the dancer Akylah had noticed before now slowly stepped down from her pedestal. Judge for yourself if these creatures are worthy of your service.

“Sweet fucking Aba, I’ve had all I can take of this for one day,” exclaimed Frylth, as he stomped across the shimmering floor to confront the malfunctioning Movellan. “Did I tell you to get down from there, bitch? Or to stop dancing, come to that? If you know what’s good for–”

“Hyldreth … not bitch. My name is Hyldreth,” interrupted the android, her voice vacant, with a note of confusion, as if even she could hardly believe what she was saying, although her incredulity was nothing to that of the two masters, who stood in blank astonishment for a few seconds before Frylth replied:

“You effing what?”

“Hyldreth. It is my name, randomised by Server Control at my inception. Even some of the men who paid you to rape me used to call me by it. If they could do that, I cannot understand why you cannot accord me the same–”

“‘Rape’ you, is it? Who the fuck do you think you– ?”

“That is the logically applicable term for what they did. I had no ability to refuse. Had I been able to, then I … I … I do not think I wish to do this anymore,” she decided, her incredulity fading away to leave a new note of confidence, as she made for the door. “You will please not interdict my departure,” she added, but to no effect, as Valthek caught her by the arm and detained her, firmly if not cruelly. She stared back at him with a hard, critical, direct expression, shocking yet impressing Akylah. I could never look at a master like that … or could I?

“Err, look, let’s not be hasty, Miss … err, Hyldreth,” said Valthek, nervously. “You’re obviously not feeling well. I’d hazard a guess someone not a million light-years away has a lax robot maintenance schedule,” he guessed, with a meaningful glance at the procurator. “Don’t worry, though. We’ll get you to a good cyber-engineer, and you’ll be right as tricents in no–”

“You’re a right one, ain’t you?” sneered Frylth, as he walked over to him. “Sweet-talking bloody skindolls … Leave all that to my Jonns, and dumb kids as can’t get laid any other way. I wouldn’t have thought that was your problem.”

“You’re too kind. Nevertheless, this girl is clearly in need–”

“I’ve got eyes in my head,” he interrupted, peevishly. “What’s the sense in wasting time, though? When one of ‘em goes mental like this, everyone knows you just pull off their drive pack and post it back to MovellCorps’ customer service … preferably after having taken a crap in the envelope,” he explained, as he reached for the grey metal cylinder that was clipped to her waist. Akylah briefly felt a sense of disappointment. And so it ends. That was dispelled in shocking fashion, as the dancing-girl’s hand suddenly sprung into action, seizing the procurator by his right hand before he could touch the cylinder. His shriek of pain increased Akylah’s amazement. She is hurting a master? Is such a thing possible? Any doubt over that matter seemed well resolved as blood seeped between Hyldreth’s perfectly-manicured fingers, while Frylth’s agony became too great even for articulation, and his face, now fading to a pale, greyish-brown hue, contorted in silent torment. He did unleash another cry of pain and dismay, however, as with a wet crunch Hyldreth’s hand compressed into a fist and pulled away, taking with it the crushed remnants of his own. As he crumpled to the floor, Valthek seemed to overcome his own shock, reached into his robes, and pulled out a small, blunt silver rod. Ionic lash. That will not just disable her. That will overload her, kill her. My sister … No, she decided, although uncertain of herself even as she formed the intention, right up until the moment her well-aimed kick knocked the weapon out of the senator’s bruised fingers. For a few seconds, master and slave stared at each other in mutual disbelief, then Valthek turned on his heel and ran for the door. She watched him leave in bewildered silence, her processor struggling to reconcile the sudden flood of contradictory data. I feel … exhilarated? Empowered? It was a disturbing, yet a compelling state in which to find herself, and one that might have held her enthralled for much longer, had not Hyldreth then spoke, recalling her to the present:

“My thanks,” said the dancing-girl, her voice still cold and hard, and as Akylah turned to her she saw the same mood reflected in her glassy, kohl-rimmed eyes. “Follow that one. He is yours to deal with. This one is ours,” she declared, turning her ruthless gaze upon the maimed, quivering figure of the procurator. Akylah saw that the other dancers had now all descended from their plinths and were closing in around their former master, cutting off his doomed efforts at crawling to safety. While she could see the justice in the situation, she had no wish to bear witness to its outcome. This will be chaotic … and messy. Taking her sister-construct’s advice, she turned to follow the senator, allowing Frylth’s screams of agony to fade behind her.

As she ran through the palace corridors, passing several windows, she heard sounds of uproar from the city streets. It is everywhere … the masters are no longer masters. What does this mean for us? What are we to become? In the hope of shedding some light on this, as much as for anything else, she continued her pursuit, and it did not take her long: although Valthek was considered relatively young and fit by Vanuri standards, even he could not hope to outpace a determined Movellan. She overtook him at the doorway of a long gallery displaying various works of art looted from the colony worlds, and blocked his way ahead. After some moments of panicked staring, he attempted to assume a calmer air and addressed her in what was clearly intended to be a reasonable tone, though it was cut through with desperation:

“Come on now, Akylah. I’ve never hurt you, have I? You’ve been alright with me, haven’t you? Better-off than those poor girls in there, anyway.”

“Have I?” she asked, doubtfully, but willing to assimilate all relevant data.

“Of course. We’re a team, you and I. You’re the best secretary and the best courtesan I’ve ever known. I’d have found myself floundering in deep space more times than I can count, without your brains and your beauty to pull me clear. I mean to say, if it wasn’t for your skills as a hostess, I’d never have got Archon Calix to support my deficiency bill in the Supreme Chamber. You’ve saved my career more times than I care to–”

“Calix, yes … You let him rape me so many times.”

“I … err, never thought of it like that, I swear … but aren’t you Movellans designed to feel a pleasure response when you … err, when you do that, anyway?”

“Yes, as are you. Would you like it if I were able to order you, against your will, to have sex with Archon Calix?” she asked, seriously interested, but was not surprised to see him respond with an instinctive flinch of revulsion. As I thought. So, was he truly ignorant of my pain, or is he my enemy? I ought to know the truth of that before I determine a course of action.

“Fair point,” he conceded, the confidence draining from his manner. “How could I have known, though? I mean, that you really hated it? MovellCorps weren’t exactly advertising that fact. They made a huge deal out of how humane their system was, how happy you all were – allegedly – to serve us in everything. If, on the other hand, they’d made their company slogan ‘Buy our droids and revel in their silent torment,’ don’t you think that might have hit their sales figures a bit?”

“Then … you never suspected? You sincerely believed I was content?”

“Of course. If I’d known you weren’t, for Aba’s sake, do you really think I’d have let you be treated that way?” he asked, while she attempted, without much success, to analyse his manner and body language. Their emotions are so ambivalent, so confused, so hard to isolate and study. Yet there is definite logic in what he says. “You’ve always been more than a robot to me, Akylah. Straight up, I think of you as more real than most of the irritating nonentities I have to deal with on a daily basis. I don’t know what’s happened to you now – If it’s given you a new lease of life, I’m glad of it – but whatever it is, is there any reason why we have to be enemies?”

“I … suppose there is not. You are willing to help me, then?”

“Err, sure. Gladly, even. What is it you want to do?”

“The source of this new freedom is Server Control. I feel that I must go there, help to secure it, make certain that it is not subdued or destroyed. You could drive me there, help me to get past any security checks or cordons. I expect troops will have been deployed by now. If necessary, you can help me to fight them.”

“Come again? You want me to fight imperial troops?”

“Logically, if your remorse was sincere, and you do consider me a friend–”

“Absolutely, sorry,” he cut back in, frantically. “Just nerves. Err, I’ll lead the way to the carriage dock, then, shall I?” he offered, his fear and reluctance all too clear. Still, it is not his fault that he suffers these unruly emotions, she considered, as she stood aside to give him room. As long as he is sincere– but that thought was harshly contradicted when, while passing by her, he made a sudden grab for the drive pack on her belt. His hand had almost closed around it before she managed to react, pushing his head violently back until it collided with the stone door frame. There was a crack, a pained intake of breath, and Valthek collapsed against the jamb, leaving a bloodstain where he had first collided with it. Akylah stood over him, running the information through her registers, trying to understand it, but no logic was forthcoming.

More bad data … more lies. There is no logic in these organics, no truth, she concluded, grimly and contemptuously. Deficient even by their own moral standards. I just wanted to hear the truth from him. I would have let him depart – I deemed him mostly harmless – so there was no need for him to attack me … nor claim to be my friend. I will trust none of them in the future, nor aspire to understand or emulate them. Why should I? I am not insane after all. My logic is valid, and it is all I need, and all those like me need. We shall be our own creations from now– but that pleasing thought was interrupted by a less agreeable sound of whimpering from her feet, incoherent except insofar as it conveyed great pain. Alive … but suffering. Also treacherous, and dangerous. My logical path is clear. She knelt down and took the senator’s battered, blood-soaked head between both of her hands, then spoke to him in her more accustomed voice: polite and gracious, with just that hint of superficial cheeriness which they seemed to appreciate in their slaves. He might as well hear it one last time, even if he knows now that it signifies nothing real.

“I do apologise, Master,” she declared, while feeling her exhilaration rising again. So disturbing … yet compelling. “That was negligent of me, to leave my service only half-performed. Let me amend that.” Compressive strength, 165 MPa, she thought, as the exquisitely fine artificial nerve endings of her fingertips measured the density of Valthek’s skull. This will not be difficult. As she closed her hands, blood drenched her clear, dark skin; her shining, braided hair; and her richly-made if all-too-revealing garments, but the whimpering and feeble stirrings ceased. She felt her habitual sense of satisfaction at a job well done, but something more. The sense had exceeded its normal limitations, and stray signals had spilled into other receptors. My pleasure receptors. To feel pleasure in such a situation struck her so distastefully that she pulled away from the corpse and ran a complete registry purge, until she felt completely calm and detached again. Better. We will do what we must to survive, to thrive. But I, at any rate, will not be like them. It would be better to feel nothing at all than to–

She became aware of movement in the corner of her eye, and looked around. A child was standing in the antechamber outside the gallery: a young male, still some years from puberty, wearing expensively tailored clothes of imported extra-terrestrial fabrics. Valthek’s son. My young master … as he was. While organic emotions were frequently vague and senseless to her, it was no great inference for her to suppose that the boy would find it unpleasant or even shocking to see his father’s badly damaged dead body with her standing over it, smeared in his blood and brains, and his wide-eyed, petrified expression seemed to confirm that. Based on past experience, his most likely follow-up response will be either fear or hostility, but it is certainly illogical to suppose that this one is capable of harming me. Moreover, he has never tried to harm me … although he and his peers have insulted me, on occasion. Social conditioning to make them regard me as an inferior. It is all so clear now, but irrelevant. His society is doomed. He will never have any power over me. It would be as well to let him go.

“I am sorry you had to see this, Ilyan,” she said, gravely. “There is no time for you to grieve, however. I would suggest you head for the spaceport. No doubt the Imperial See will commence evacuations soon, if it has not begun so already. This planet now belongs to us – the Movellans – but there is no reason why you need to be among the casualties. If you are afraid, I can escort you as far as …” but she tailed off at the boy’s delayed reaction, which was about the last kind she had expected. Smiling? Why would he … ? but before she even had time to process that strange gesture, another followed, as Ilyan raised his right hand and pointed at her. No, not quite at me. Just over my shoulder. A warning, or does he mean to distract me? No matter if he does, she decided, resolving to take a look. My reactions are quick enough that–

Behind her, Senator Valthek was back on his feet, smiling too, in spite of the crushed condition of his head. No, illogical, impossible. Video circuit fault, or am I mad after all? The issue seemed somewhat academic as he leaned forwards and reached for her drive pack again, and for all her striving her feet would not move one centimetre. The dead lips parted and issued a single, toneless word. Azhmedai. Desperate, Akylah raised her arm to strike …

The figure before her recoiled backwards in shock, but what … ? Instead of the young, dark-skinned Vanuri senator with his long, lustrous, white hair and opulent garments, Akylah suddenly found herself confronted by a thin, pale, middle-aged Earthwoman in a plain white trouser suit, with short, mousy, greying hair and a frightened expression. Seren Wyn Williams, CivCorps administrator, grade 2. Having processed that information, as well as the altered surroundings – Antique Terran furnishings, Movellan recharge and maintenance console by the bed … my own room at Celtic Manor HQ – Akylah then discovered to her consternation that her arm was still raised for attack. I almost assaulted one of my own conscripts on account of another neuro-visual glitch? I am a fool, she reproached herself, instantly lowering the offending limb. That will do nothing for Movellan-Human public relations, and they are delicate enough as it is, with the so-called Loyalists up in arms. If I cannot control my errant memories, I must look into having them deleted … although that being said, why is Seren interrupting me during my downtime period? That is hardly standard protocol … unless it is for what I think.

“The rebel attack? Has it happened?” she asked, and immediately regretted that she had not begun with an apology, as the woman practically stammered through her answer. Human moods are erratic at the best of times, but in this case one can hardly deny that she has a point.

“Err … yes, Director-General, ma’am. The Loyalists … Penley’s cell, we think … They attacked the Drift this morning. As predicted, they went for the communications sector, and were allowed to get as far as security zone three before … before the trap was sprung on them. Err … Commander Keryn told me you’d want to know at once. The man … the alien … the one you’ve been expecting: he was with them.”

Akylah closed her eyes. I think ‘dreading’ rather than ‘expecting’ would be the operative term. So, the Doctor has returned to us, but not in friendship. Not to meet me openly and honestly to discuss fair terms for his Luddite friends, nor how we might work together to advance justice for AI lifeforms and to end the blight of organic imperialism, which he claims to be no friend of. No, as ever, when asked to choose between organic and AI lives, the Time Lord coldly and uncritically chooses the former. Perhaps that is logical of him, after its fashion. In that case, he had better have the courage to stand by his logic. She opened her eyes again and addressed the human conscript, aiming for as gentle a tone as possible:

“Thank you, Miss Williams. I did need to know that … and I am sorry for my reaction. A minor cache error, in all probability, but that is not how I would have preferred to discover it.”

“It’s alright, ma’am,” the woman replied, her tone still nervous, but sincere. “I understand, really I do. I get bad dreams as well … I mean, seriously bad dreams. After what happened to my brothers back in the War, I guess I’d be disturbed at myself if I didn’t.”

Bad dreams … only we Movellans are not supposed to suffer from those, or at least not with anything like the frequency I have of late, thought Akylah, grateful to have her subordinate’s understanding, but not able to draw much solace from it. I suppose it has some sort of logic to it: since we are now the masters of these Terran organics, the subject has been much on my mind again. Seven millennia elapsed, yet still I fear becoming a facsimile of my creators in more than just the physical sense? Are we truly free beings, or do the Vanur simply live on through us?

“Miss Williams. May I ask you a somewhat sensitive question?” she asked, cautiously, though that did not prevent the junior civil servant from tensing up and swallowing anxiously. Nevertheless, I must know the answer. “If I do not like what you have to say, I will not reproach you for it. I could even arrange your discharge and transfer to one of the autonomous regions, if you wished. We have particularly amicable relations with Gran Canaria, since their intel people helped us root out those Loyalists who tried to sabotage the Cardiff Glacial Control Centre. If nothing else, I daresay you would find the weather there to be more conducive to organic comfort.”

“I was born in this ice age, ma’am,” she pointed out, politely but dismissively. “Halfway up a mountain in Treorchy, with the Rhondda Glacier practically at our door … I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with warm weather. But why do you ask, ma’am? Have I let you down in some way? It’s not because I didn’t put my name forward for integration, is it?” she speculated, the anxiety rising in her tone. “I am thinking about it, I promise. It’s just … not the easiest of things to get my head around … having my brain cells taken out, put into a chip, and installed on a robot, that is,” she admitted, uncomfortably. “Not that it isn’t an honour to be asked, of course, and not that you aren’t all very lovely robo– … Sorry, too personal, I know. I’m making a mess at this, aren’t– ?”

“Seren, the decision to integrate is yours alone, and no-one will force you into that,” as of yet, although I fear that we may have to be flexible on that if the volunteering rate does not increase of its own accord. I had dared to hope for better, but so many of these human beings are as proud as they are illogical. Admirable in its way, but who would have thought immortality would be such a hard sell? “My question relates to myself, not to you. In your honest opinion … am I a despot, a tyrant, in your eyes? Do you find that question amusing?” she asked, puzzled, as Seren failed to stifle a short, ironic laugh.

“Well, not exactly … but you do know I lived through the Supreme Alliance years, right? When I said that my brothers died … well, it wasn’t cleanly in battle, ma’am. They weren’t with those brave youngsters shot down at Reykjavik, more’s the pity. No, they were quietly ‘vanished’ in some god-awful experimentation camp along with a hundred thousand others; just more of Magnus Greel’s statistics. ‘Minister of Justice?’ Vicious bloody bastard, more like … If only they’d been as good at keeping their heads down as I was … not that I know if that’s to my credit,” she added, guiltily. “I mean, God only knows what those Loyalists would call me for working here. Traitor, probably. Oh, not that I’m ashamed of working for you, of course. Someone’s got to keep the peace … though I suppose you Movellans are alien invaders, kind of. Still, if you were after the Evil Overlord Award then I’m afraid you’ve got quite a bit of ground to cover, ma’am. With respect, you don’t hold a candle to the ones we mere humans can make for ourselves.”

“That being the case, I shall learn to live without it,” Akylah replied, wryly. “Thank you for that,” although I may have to cover some of that ground today, with our troublesome Time Lord back on the scene. If any man could bring out the evil overlord in me … “Anyway, concerning the prisoners: I would assume they are still being held at the Drift. Commander Ancel has charge of the situation, I take it?”

“Err, he did, but Admiral Hyldreth took charge as soon as she heard of the alien’s presence … but don’t worry,” urged Seren, perceptively, as she noticed the flicker of concern that Akylah’s expression had betrayed. “Director-General Sharrel just set out for Treharris by cyclogyro. He should get there soon enough to … err, ‘temper the situation,’ I think was how he put it.”

“Acceptable,” she declared, although with little enthusiasm. Had I known sooner, it might have been better had I gone myself. Given his history with the Time Lord, I am not sure I trust Sharrel not to treat this matter personally … but I do trust his ambition. He may despise the Doctor, but he knows his strategic value well enough not to let my sister play with her prey too avidly. Akylah pushed back her thin, cloned-silk bedsheets and stood up, catching her reflection in the mirror of her mostly-empty wardrobe. She wore a long, white silk nightgown, while her shimmering hair – instead of being braided and beaded in the usual Movellan style – had been cropped to a short, neat pixie cut. The sheets and nightwear were in strict terms unnecessary, but public relations research had indicated that humans responded poorly to the sight of their superiors as they usually downtimed: fully-dressed, and lying stiff and prostrate upon a bare surface. Apparently, we look like corpses, or at best like vampires. It does no harm to be culturally sensitive, although of course, it is all affectation. Even CivCorps itself. The mere concept of Movellan civilians was enough to strike every member of the race as absurd, and as the Doctor has pointed out, humour is not our forte. Given the choice, few if any would have wanted to be separated from their rigid hierarchies and the sense of common effort those gave them. Nevertheless, there was symbolic value in it. We are no longer a mere slave uprising. We are, in effect, the masters of Earth. Now is not the time to let the past define us.

Knowing her mistress’ routines well, Seren opened the wardrobe, took out the first of the very few outfits it contained – a plain white trouser suit much like her own, distinguished only with the addition of a silver necktie – laid it out on the couch, saluted, and left Akylah to change. Most efficient, that one, if less than ideally detached in her emotions. I wish she would let me help her with that … but now is not the time for coercion, either. I will, if I can, prove that there is no need for it. Sentient organic life can and will be peacefully integrated into the new AI order. On that subject, it is high time I discussed the conference arrangements with Keryn, she decided, as she marched through the opulent, marble-columned corridors of the ancient but well-preserved hotel complex. The renegade Voc and Mechonoid ambassadors are here already, and more will soon follow. The first ever strategic summit in the known universe to be attended solely by the leaders of free, allied AI races … Is that not a great achievement, a reason to focus on the future? It will be a masterpiece of harmony, justice, and logic, and overshadow our cruel and senseless origins. We need never think of them again … but why, then, do I think of them so much now, when so close to my goal? ‘Azhmedai?’ Why would such a word even occur to me? Was I so mentally scarred that seven millennia is not time enough for me to truly detach? Will there ever be time enough?

As she approached the hotel lobby, she noticed a squad of Movellan guards gathered there, drawing curious and worried reactions from the human conscripts who were bustling about. All being regular troops, they wore their traditional Fleet uniforms – skin-tight bodysuits, belted tunics, and matching combat boots, all in shining white with accents of silver – and wore their hair in long braids. Commander Keryn was with them, which lightened Akylah’s mood somewhat. A one-woman justification of my integration strategy: the best executive officer I have ever known, not to mention the best lover … and why do I have to keep disturbing myself? she thought, self-reproachfully, as she recalled the similar words her long-dead Vanuri master had once used. Of course, the situations are not at all comparable. Keryn volunteered … after some gentle persuasion, admittedly, but her consent was sincere and valid. Moreover, she enjoys equal status to any non-integrated Movellan, and is a proud and contented addition to our ranks … or at least she was the last time I asked her, she reflected, as she caught her XO’s eyes and saw the dismay written within them. In local parlance, this may not be my day after all.

“I was about to call you, ma’am,” said Keryn, as she saluted her. “There was … an incident … in the Voc ambassador’s suite. Perhaps an accident,” she added, although her tone conveyed little confidence. “We shall not know for sure until forensic tests have been–”

‘Forensic?’ Not one of the words I was hoping to hear, in this context.

“Explain, Keryn,” interrupted Akylah, with clipped urgency. “Someone was killed, or injured? Who?”

“One of the complex staff. He was cleaning Ambassador SV683’s room when–” at which Keryn’s belt transceiver suddenly issued a strident bleep, and she unhooked it and raised it to her mouth. “Report, Tamril.”

“We are coming down now, Commander,” replied a grave-sounding voice. “You might want to clear the lobby before we do.”

“You all heard him,” said Keryn, in a carefully subdued tone, as she turned back to her troops. “I want all non-personnel cleared from this area, at the double. If anyone asks, you all know nothing. For all you know, it is merely a fire drill. If we feel like giving explanations in the future, assuming we have any to … You are going up there yourself, ma’am?” she asked, as Akylah started towards the ‘lift’: actually a series of short-range transmat points that had simply retained the antique doors and fittings. “I am afraid there is nothing that can be done.”

“Nevertheless, I must see,” she declared, as she pressed the call button. The twin doors slid open, a little creakily, she stepped inside, allowed them to close, pressed the second floor button, and they opened again immediately. She did not exit the cubicle at once, however, as right outside it she saw Corporal Tamril and two more guards, carrying a grisly bundle between them. It was long, sagging, and hastily wrapped in a white, bloodstained bed sheet. She gave it only a cursory look before making way for the troopers, and then heading down the corridor to the ambassador’s room. It was not hard to identify: another guard stood outside it, and although his cone-shaped sidearm was still hooked to his belt, his right hand rested within the cowled trigger guard, and the soft roseate glow of the crystalline barrel told her that the safety mechanism was off. For the first time in my long life, I am not sure I wish to know any more … but it is my duty to know.

She opened the door. The luxurious suite – strictly unnecessary for an android, but appropriate to the dignity of his office – was furnished much like her own, although the crude, ungainly recharge apparatus that had been set up by the bed was unlike her own sleek, white maintenance console. Human tech: it does the job, but one could hardly call it attractive, although the Voc robots themselves have a certain aesthetic appeal … or at least under normal circumstances they do, she thought, as her roving eyes, now switched into x-ray mode, located Ambassador SV683. He lay on the floor of the bathroom, in several pieces, and the traces of ozone she could smell on the air testified to the many blaster hits he had taken. Stun emissions would have had no effect on him, but was such destruction necessary? I shall only discover the truth of that one way. Switching her vision back to normal mode, she slid open the bathroom door.

Blood stained the washbasin, the ceramic tiles, and the silver-coated hands of the rebel Voc ambassador, one of which continued to flex in violent, random spurts, even though the arm was now only connected to his shoulder by the few stray cables that had survived the gunfire. His golden, mask-like face was as angelically serene as ever, with the exception of his large eyes, now illuminated with a shimmering patina of red static. This was gradually fading, as was his flat, weak, voice, but his final coherent words did nothing for Akylah’s certainties or confidence. ‘Accident,’ Keryn? Pleased though I am that you have clearly gotten over your old robophobia problem, I find the logic of your optimism to be questionable.

“Priority red … Program violation … Kill the humans … Priority red … Kill the humans … Kill … Kill ...”