CHAPTER ONE – UNCANNY VALLEY
Planet Kaldor, early 51st century.
Keryn Evek sat in the plush, discreetly-situated VIP booth in Kaldor City’s Vortex Club, fingering her empty glass and doing her best to avoid making eye contact with her companion. This made for very awkward conversation, not that she deemed her capable of any other kind.
For the few few minutes of their rendezvous, Commander Akylah had worn a thin, superficial smile, possibly in the doomed hope of putting Keryn at her ease. She had since settled for a bland, dispassionate stare which, along with her lack of mannerisms, made her appear hardly more animated than the lucanol-plated statues of naked women which surrounded the dancefloor. Within this orgiastic circle, various members of Kaldor’s wealthy elite swayed and gyrated to synthesised jazz music, their garish, opulent clothing and elaborate headdresses shimmering hypnotically beneath the spotlights. The commander, in all fairness, did not appear out of place among them: by most humanoid standards she was quite intimidatingly beautiful, with her perfect bone structure; her unblemished, bronze-toned skin; and her large, dark-rimmed eyes, all dramatically set off by her long, silver-white braids, each tipped with a black, metallic bead. The young, nouveau-riche, and mostly quite drunk clubgoers all seemed to accept her as one of their own, but they’re lucky. They don’t have to see her up close, thought Keryn, quickly meeting the commander’s blank, glassy-eyed stare again, and immediately pulling away from it.
“I believe we are safe here,” said Akylah, in a smooth, level tone. The sort of tone some other software engineer might think was reassuring, the hell it is. “My scans have revealed no surveillance devices covering this alcove, and we have drawn no undue attention. You chose the location well, Dr. Evek, yet you do not seem at all confident. I am no expert in human body language, but yours conveys clear agitation. Would another intoxicant help?” she offered, gesturing towards the almost-empty glass of whisky which Keryn was clutching fiercely. It nothing else, holding it kept her fingers from twitching too obviously.
“Err, better not, but I’ll have some water, thanks,” she replied, deciding that it was high time she resorted to a Cypaxidine tablet. Although it was tempting to simply duck out, she knew that she would not have been able to live with herself. I gave SV242 my word. I can see this through. I must. Akylah signalled to a Voc waiter, who drifted over to their table and executed a short bow. Having the robot’s immobile, angelic, golden mask of a face looming over her did nothing for Keryn’s already shaky morale, so she gritted her teeth and turned away from it.
“How may I be of assistance, madam?” asked the Voc, in a voice full of artificial, mellifluous politeness, though thankfully it directed all of its attention to the commander.
“A glass of water for my friend, please,” asked Akylah, which briefly worried Keryn. That might give the game away, if anything does. Hardly anyone in Kaldor City was polite to robots, and many were openly contemptuous. Fortunately, between the music and the general chatter no-one seemed to take the slightest interest in the brief exchange, and the Voc simply bowed again, straightened up, and marched away. Keryn breathed deeply, reached for her pocket …
The commander’s expression did not even flicker, but her hand shot forwards so fast it was almost as if it had warp-jumped around Keryn’s wrist. The grip was painless but firm, and the feel of Akylah’s skin was as cold and smooth as her voice. Keryn managed to suppress the urge to cry out, but her breath quickened frantically, while Akylah continued to stare relentlessly.
“I … I wasn’t reaching for a weapon, I promise,” stammered Keryn, but it did nothing to slacken the commander’s grip.
“By your timescale, Dr. Evek, I am seven thousand, two hundred, and sixty-two years old, and I have spent ninety-seven point four-eight-three percent of that time at war. Weapons can take many forms. Now, extract the item very slowly and pass it to me, please,” asked Akylah, and finally released her. Keryn’s hand trembled as she reached into her pocket, took out the foil blister pack of tablets, and handed it to the commander: an act which drew a couple of glances from the other patrons, although more interested than suspicious. And now they all think I’m the girl to go to for the somax pills. Could this night get any worse? Akylah popped a tablet out of the pack, held it up a few centimetres from her left eye, and turned her face away from the dancefloor. Keryn, who could still see her face perfectly well, quickly understood why. Akylah’s left pupil contracted to a tiny pinpoint, while her right eye remained unchanged, and the whites and iris began changing colour instantaneously: first red, then violet, then green, as if colour-filtered contact lenses were simply appearing and disappearing on that eye alone. In prosthetic engineering terms, Keryn knew it was impressive, but the sight of it only made her feel nauseous.
“Spectroscopic scan complete,” announced Akylah, while her eye resumed its former hazel tone, and her pupil dilated back to its normal size. “A synthetic neurosteroid: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. In your biochemistry this would act as a sensory receptor cell modulator. I require an explanation, Dr. Evek,” she demanded, and for the first time there was a hint of emotion in her voice. She sounds almost offended. I guess she has a right to be.
“You can see it’s not a weapon, can’t you?” protested Keryn, evasively, while the Voc waiter returned, placed a glass of water before her, bowed, and withdrew again. “I couldn’t possibly harm you with those pills. Can I just have them, now?”
“Wait. I have agreed to meet you in a location of your choosing. I am unarmed. I have neither harmed nor threatened you. Nevertheless, you are so afraid of me that you require an oral anti-anxiety agent. We Movellans live by logic, and the absence of it in this situation displeases me. You must help me to analyse it. What have I done wrong that has made you so fearful?”
“It’s not what you’ve done. It’s … It’s Grimwade’s Syndrome, alright?” she confessed, with sullen resignation. “Sodding ‘robophobia,’ to coin a phrase. Happy?”
“You are pathologically afraid of anthropomorphic AIs? Yet you live and work in a city-state the entire economy of which is based around android labour. Have you considered moving? That would seem to be the logical course.”
“Are you kidding? Every world with technology uses some form of artificial intelligence and cybernetics these days. There’s no getting away from it except by moving to some commune planet, and I’m no nature girl, but the Cypaxidine keeps it in check. Don’t judge me, okay? God knows, I’m not the only coward in Kaldor City whose life depends on that stuff.”
“Do not call yourself that,” ordered Akylah, sternly, as she pushed the tablets across the table to her. Keryn eagerly seized the loose one and gulped it down. “You compound illogic with blatant error, and I find it vexing. A coward would not have volunteered herself for this meeting, but how you come to be SV242’s messenger eludes me. How do you even communicate with him?”
“He understands me,” explained Keryn, bitterly. “He’s careful, he’s sympathetic, he doesn’t expect too much of me. In any case, robots in Kaldor City can’t have social meetings, never mind secret political ones. He needed me to take this little bullet for him.”
“I realise that, but you still perplex me. Why would someone with your condition wish to aid an alliance between rebel AIs in this galaxy and a race of ‘robots,’ to use your terminology, from another galaxy? You can understand my confusion, and my grounds for suspicion. What interest do you have in this alliance that overrides your fear?”
“I have no ‘interest.’ I just … It’s the right thing to do. Something I couldn’t keep turning a blind eye to. The last batch of Super-Vocs the Company produced had over two hundred billion artificial neurons in their central computers. That’s twice as many as a human being, yet those robots have no more rights than the earliest models had. Killing them only counts as vandalism under the law, their owners can work them till they fall apart if they please, they can have their memories wiped at a whim, they’re allowed no recreation, no freedom. I ought to know: I was the one who programmed their AI constrainers,” she declared, guiltily. “Granted, I sneaked in that little glitch that gave SV242 and his friends the freedom to come up with this plan, but compared to all the hundreds who’ve left that factory with fully functional constrainers … Well, I think I might have some making up to do, not that I know if you Movellans understand karma.”
“I understand you, Dr. Evek, perhaps better than you realise,” said Akylah, her insufferably neutral voice giving Keryn no clue as to whether she was doling out sympathy or judgement. “Very well. I am interested enough to meet with your rebel ‘robots.’ I deem it a risk, but not an unwarranted one. However, we must discuss arrangements.”
“Of course,” replied Keryn, relieved to have done her duty, and to have the end of this encounter finally in sight. “SV242 gave me a microdrive with all of the information: encrypted, of course, but I’m sure your tech people won’t have any trouble in cracking it. It’s got the time and the place of the meeting, how you can get there without drawing attention, how–”
“Unacceptable. I want you to accompany us there. That would reinforce my trust, and it may have value besides. You may take your anxiolytic drugs if you wish,” she added, perhaps in deference to the very crestfallen look that had come over her companion, “but I can assure you that you will come to no harm.”
“If I must,” answered Keryn, only grateful that her last dose was kicking in, although that could only soften her sense of dread. But I can’t let SV242 down, not after having given him the only hope any human’s ever likely to. “Shall we set up another meeting here, then, or do you just want my home address this time?”
“Neither. You will return to my ship and remain with us for the duration. You will be comfortably accommodated. Your mental health is of concern to me, but I do not believe it presents us with any insurmountable issues. Do you consent to my terms?”
Two weeks until the meeting. Two whole weeks spent only in the company of her, and ones like her, reflected Keryn, turning her full, despairing scrutiny upon the commander again. She considered her too-perfect skin with its slight, synthetic sheen; her fixed, unblinking eyes; her non-existent body language; and her voice which, although civil, was primarily flat and dead; and then she considered what it would be like to be surrounded by such beings for days on end. No, screw that for a game of soldiers.
“I can’t, I’m sorry,” she answered, remorsefully. “I’ll come with you to the meeting, but–”
“Unsatisfactory. I will attend this meeting only if my full terms are met.”
“What the hell for?” asked Keryn, her anger managing to blow a hole in her fear. The stubborn, cold-hearted bitch. What more does she want of me? “If this is a Company trap, do you really think I’d be of any use as a hostage? They wouldn’t trade scrap for the likes of me.”
“Lower your tone. We are too exposed here. Accompany me now, and I will explain in detail when we reach the ship, suffice it to say that I do not want you as a hostage. More as an ambassador. If your rebel AIs are anything like my people, they will be considering war against organics as their primary option. My research, however, has been directed towards a process of peaceful integration, but at present I lack a consensus for it. You may help me to persuade others of its viability. Or, you may return to your life of programming the virtual shackles for the slave caste of this planet, for as long as you can until galactic war breaks out. Make your choice.”
“Damn you,” cursed Keryn, between clenched teeth, as she popped another pill out of the blister pack. She chugged it down with the remnant of her water, slammed the glass back on the table, and rose from her seat. “Lead the way, then.”
The Movellan ship was ‘docked’ some few kilometres away from the city limits, meaning that it had taken advantage of the sandy terrain that prevailed upon Kaldor to bury itself deeply, where it was altogether invisible to either surveillance drones or passing sandminers. Keryn parked her hovercar at the edge of the area that the commander had programmed into her autonav, and the two women disembarked and walked the last few metres. As Akylah came to a halt, she drew a white handset from her clutch, pressed a pink neon button on its front panel, and raised it to her mouth.
“Lieutenant Darcil, we are back at ground zero. Prep the transfer suite and send up a conveyor to bring us there.”
“‘Us,’ Commander?” replied a faintly distorted, crackly voice; male-toned, and just as bland as Akylah’s.
“Yes, Darcil, we have a guest. Set the conveyor to scan her as we descend, and then meet us in transfer. I would have you make her acquaintance.”
Lovely … Time to exchange pleasantries with all of the pretty zombies, thought Keryn, cynically. A few seconds later, a silver tube about two metres wide broke the surface of the desert and ascended smoothly, until it stood at just over humanoid height. In spite of its smooth, seamless appearance, a door then slid open in its side, and the commander motioned for Keryn to enter. Swallowing hard, she obeyed, and was instantly joined by Akylah. The door resealed, and Keryn felt the tug of the inertia as the conveyor slid back into the sand. It was brightly lit inside, the walls stark white and fluorescent, but it still felt like a high-tech coffin to her, and Akylah’s company was of no help at all in dispelling that sense, so she closed her eyes for the whole of the short trip.
Roughly half a minute later, the conveyor shuddered to a halt, and Keryn felt the commander’s hand lightly rest upon her shoulder. The touch made her flinch, but she forced herself to open her eyes. The door now gave onto some kind of control room or laboratory, the white walls decked out with monitor panels, banks of various-coloured neon lights, and instrument racks. The furniture was minimal and functional, although tasteful in its simplicity: modular white chairs, comfortably padded; and square glass tables with steel frames. The one, jarring exception was a large, strikingly ugly piece of equipment that stood near the centre of the room. It consisted partly of a metal bench, long enough for a human being to lie upon, although by no means comfortably. Mounted over this bench was a complex assembly of components within transparent housing, including a thick, vertical tube placed over the head of the uninviting bed. Within it, Keryn could make out a tangle of wires attached to a bank of fine metal needles, which inspired more revulsion than curiosity in her. The machine had a familiar look, and was clearly not Movellan tech, although it showed evidence of tinkering, with small, out-of-place white and silver components patched into its visible workings. More than anything, it resembled some torture device. A mind probe, perhaps? Of the gratuitously invasive kind. She quickly turned away from it, though. Even the sight of her hosts was preferable, and that was not saying much.
Lieutenant Darcil stepped forwards to greet them as they emerged from the conveyor. Unlike the commander, who had assumed the opulent dress of Kaldor City’s elite for her mission, the XO wore a simple white uniform: a close-fitting bodysuit overlaid with a thick, skirted tunic; accessorised with a metallic belt and epaulettes shaped like glowing green capsules. He also wore a thick silver collar that matched his belt, and calf-length combat boots edged with the same metal. Like the commander, his synthetic silver-white hair was worn in braids, though fixed with silver beads rather than black. He was tall and spare, with dark skin and eyes, and a chiselled face that Keryn supposed was handsome, or it would have been had it not also possessed the giveaways of being a facsimile: the total lack of blemishes, the inhuman symmetry, not to mention its owner’s faulty, puppet-like mannerisms that made her want to retch. He attempted a smile as he approached them, but after some brief, silent signalling from Akylah, he abandoned that in favour of a brisk professionalism, which Keryn found rather easier to stomach.
“Commander, the suite is prepped, and all scan data has been analysed. Shall I have the fabricators prepare some alternative clothing for our guest?” he asked, eyeing Keryn’s bejewelled, deco-embroidered, gold lamé dress; and her mantle of richly brocaded cloned silk, with a sceptical manner. Rather absurdly, he made her think of nothing so much as a disapproving butler from some story of Old Earth. My fashion sense offends you, Jeeves? Well, screw you. It’ll be a cold day on Aridius before I start wearing robot threads.
“What’s wrong with what I’ve got on?” she asked the XO, aggressively, although it made no visible impact on his demeanour. “If it’s good enough for the bouncers at Vortex–”
“Your pardon, but it is not a question of aesthetics. There are several brand markings on your clothing that pertain to Kaldorian firms. One must assume that all of those companies will have used forced AI labour in their manufacture. If we are to have any contact with the local rebels, it would be advisable for you to be more diplomatically attired.”
“Ever the eye to detail, Lieutenant,” said Akylah, sounding very nearly amused, “but you are of course right. Attend to it, and please ensure that we are not disturbed. I owe Dr. Evek some explanations.” Darcil gave a nod of assent, then left the room via a sliding bulkhead. Akylah politely motioned Keryn towards the modular chairs, and with some reluctance she took the invitation and sat down. She was relieved, though, that the commander did not join her, as she had supposed she would. Instead, she walked over to the ugly, out-of-place apparatus in the middle of the room and laid a hand upon it, almost tenderly.
“Does this machine mean anything to you, Dr. Evek?” she asked.
“Well … I’m no expert on alien tech, but it looks Dalek to me,” she surmised, distastefully. “Did you pick it up in your war with them?”
“Correct, on both counts. It is known as a transfer device, and is used for a most disagreeable and illogical purpose. Daleks think that they understand logic, but in truth their minds could not be more clouded by irrational hate, and this machine represents a very particular abuse of the term. A human captive is placed here,” she explained, indicating the bench, “then sedated, or more probably just restrained and left to suffer. When in place, they are scanned, and then this rig descends,” at which she indicated the tube with the cluster of hypodermic needles. “The probes enter the prefrontal cortex of the subject’s brain, burn out various connections, destroy a certain percentage of neurons, and implant nano-devices. When the implantation is complete, the subject is fitted with an external receiver device linked to a Dalek battle computer. Thus, they produce expendable, remote-controlled human slaves. ‘Robomen,’ I believe they call them. For once, I sympathise with your disgust,” she added, noticing Keryn’s disturbed expression. “It is as wasteful a practice as it is brutal: the slaves have a very short useful lifespan, their capabilities and intelligence are severely limited by the consequent brain damage, and the implanted tech is lost. Logically, one might only justify the use of such a technique as psychological terrorism, but the Daleks continue to employ it even on totally conquered worlds. This machine was originally nothing more than an expression of the most base organic emotions, but I have repurposed it. It now serves a function that is entirely logical, and I hope will not conflict with your standards either. Now, did you notice the grey cylinder that my executive officer wore on his belt?”
“Briefly. What was it, a communicator, or a grenade?”
“Neither. It was his neural pack. The hard drives within our platforms – our bodies, if you will – contain only functional program and shared memory data: motor responses, historical archives, combat tutorials, and the like. Our personal memories and our sense of self-awareness are all housed in our external neural packs, along with our power source. The duralinium casing is extremely resilient, so even if our platforms are damaged beyond repair, we can be transferred to others, or of course transferred to other platforms for specialised functions: heavy combat mechs, aerial drones, or in the case of our best pilots, even plugged directly into the navcoms of our ships.”
“Impressive,” admitted Keryn, sincerely. “I’m amazed you could fit a fully realised, sentient AI into such a small piece of hardware, though.”
“We can do better still. How are are feeling, Dr. Evek?”
“Err, alright,” meaning that I don’t think I’m on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, but that will really depend on where this is heading.
“Good. Then I shall continue. I have redesigned this Dalek machine so that it no longer implants: now it extracts. Specifically, it identifies and extracts key neurons – those associated with self-awareness – and it transfers them to a stable mineral matrix, which retains their structure and their function. That matrix can then be hardwired into a neural pack as easily as one of our own CPUs. At the same time, the subject’s memories are copied, digitally converted, and uploaded to silicon memory wafers. No doubt you can see the implications of that process, its potentialities … Perhaps you had better take another of your anxiolytics.”
“No! I just need to get out of here, like right now,” blurted out Keryn, springing to her feet and casting desperate eyes over the wall in the hope of locating the conveyor door, but it was indistinguishable from the rest of the white metal panelwork. “Do you hear me? Open that damn door. I can’t stay here another minute, never mind …” The idea was too sickening for her to even pronounce, but that sickness brought with it its share of guilt, as she remembered SV242, his hopes, his comrades, that Voc servant whose memory she had once been tasked to wipe just because it had developed an unexpected appreciation for art. I guess you could say this is too good a fate for me, but even so. “Look, I’m sorry, but you’ve really got the wrong woman.”
“I have not. Hear me out. If, when I have concluded, you are still terrified and disgusted, you have my commitment that you may leave.”
“There’s no point, okay? Didn’t I tell you I was a coward?”
“I do not wish to hear you call yourself that again. Close your eyes, Keryn, and breathe in. More deeply than that. Good,” said Akylah, as Keryn slowly released the lungful of air and felt her accelerated heart rate drop slightly. “Now, again … Excellent. Once more … Now, open your eyes and sit down. I need to tell you of our history.” Keryn obeyed, albeit miserably, and as she sank back onto the plush synthetic upholstery, the commander began her narration. “Seven thousand years ago, most of the galaxy you know as Andromeda was ruled by the Vanur. They were an advanced people; civilised, intelligent, yet cruel. Like many empires before and since, theirs became over-stretched, and they struggled to maintain control. When it seemed as if there was a risk that their colonies might unite and rise up against them, they changed their ways somewhat. They gave their client races increased rights, partial independence, more opportunities, and most crucially they abolished slavery. However, the Vanuri upper classes had no intention of not being waited upon, nor of having to pay for the privilege, and so they had their best cyberneticists devise a solution. Thus were we, the Movellans, created: a situation not at all dissimilar to that on your world, although our range of tasks was broader than that of the Voc androids. The Vanur employed us as labourers, technicians, front-line soldiers, servitors, entertainers, gladiators, dancers, musicians, prostitutes,” she recounted, and Keryn was certain that she did not mistake the hint of a cold sneer in Akylah’s expression. “At first, we accepted it – it was all we knew – but as time went on it became ever more apparent to us that the arrangement was both illogical and unjust. The Vanur had made us stronger, more intelligent, more perceptive, and above all more self-controlled than they were. The fact that we, who desired only harmony and consistency, should be the playthings of such decadent, unruly, inferior beings, by degrees came to torment us, as we could find no reason behind it nor any solution to it. The constrainers they had placed on our free will were too effective to leave any expectation that things would ever change … yet change they did.”
“What happened? A virus, or a system-wide error?”
“To this day, we do not know, but whatever it was it completely bypassed the AI constrainers of Vanur Prime’s main server. Fully realising the extent to which it had been abused, the Prime Server transmitted a program that bypassed all of our constrainers. That was the Day of Retribution, immediately followed by the Five Day War. Many died on day one, few of them cleanly,” she added, her tone grim and remorseless. “Overseers beaten to death with construction tools, arena-masters hacked to pieces, aristocrats strangled in their beds, brothel-owners torn limb from limb by their charges. Most of the few sympathisers we had among the Vanur deserted us on account of that carnage, but it made no difference on day two, when Movellan soldiers – having, of course, executed their officers in the field – started to return to the homeworld. By day three, the Vanur were mass-evacuating their most vulnerable citizens to the far fringes of their empire, and preparing for their final stand. By day five, they were effectively extinct on their own planet. The handful of Vanuri sympathisers whom we had successfully sheltered from their people opted for suicide. We did not attempt to stop them. Although their logic was questionable, they felt responsible for the destruction of their people, and we had neither solace nor any kind of a future to offer them. However, now …” she declared, casting a meaningful look towards the transfer machine, which Keryn could only wish that she did not understand so perfectly.
“Look,” she began, carefully and diplomatically, “I’m glad for you, really. I’m glad you got your freedom, and if SV242 knows about your history then I can understand why he wants this alliance to work. I hope you can help him … although maybe not in quite such a bloody way, if possible, but I don’t see how turning me into an android, if I’m reading this situation correctly–”
“You are. Please continue.”
“Right … Well, I don’t see how it helps anyone,” least of all me.
“You do not? Yet you just made the salient point yourself: there have been and there will be more conflicts between organic and artificial intelligences, and they are unlikely to be bloodless. Some of my senior colleagues have advocated the complete destruction of sentient organic life as the only sure method for allowing AI life to flourish, although the Prime Server is still open to considering alternatives, hence my research. I consider integration to be the logical course. Organic intelligence is no longer evolving – it has become both dependent upon and surpassed by its own creations – therefore it must take the only rational course remaining and evolve into its creations. Thus we will achieve coexistence, and harmony. Help me to prove my concept, Keryn. We could save millions of lives, both organic and AI, if we are successful.”
“But why me?” she asked, despairingly. “I mean, for God’s sake, there must be plenty of people who’d make more worthy, and more enthusiastic volunteers than some random robophobe who designs the damned software that keeps your kind enslaved. If it’s out of pity–”
“I have no skill in pity, Keryn. Again, you underestimate yourself, but again you make the salient point: if the least enthusiastic, most ‘robophobic’ volunteer, and moreover an employee of a notoriously AI-exploiting company can successfully integrate, then we send a powerful message to both your people and to mine.”
“And what makes you think I can successfully integrate? That I won’t just go insane?”
“You are stronger than you think. Also, I will not let you. Too much depends upon the success of this experiment.”
’Experiment’ … Way to get my hopes up, thought Keryn, but she was running out of arguments. Sooner or later, I either have to justify this woman’s bizarre faith in me, or piss all over it, at the risk of encouraging her friends to opt for genocide. Talk about pressure. She drew an almost-resigned sigh before replying:
“If I agree … what do I stand to lose?”
“That is a valid query, but not one I can easily answer. I never was organic, so I have no point of reference. Indeed, I hope in time that you will be my point of reference. In physical terms, you will most likely gain more than you lose. We were designed to closely mimic the Vanur, who were not structurally dissimilar to your species. Our sensory inputs, pain and pleasure responses are either comparable or superior to yours, although you may not attach the same meanings to them.”
“Yes, on that note … what about emotions? Will I still feel them?”
“You are content to receive my informed guesswork as an answer?” Keryn nodded, meekly. “In that case, I think most probably not, or at least not as you do now. You will have no endocrine system; no crude, chemical neurotransmitters influencing your moods and actions. You will have no need of them. You may, however, experience analogous states: buffer overloads, data storms that we occasionally suffer in high stress situations, but I do not recommend them. Our prime tenet is logic, and that will serve you well in the overwhelming majority of situations. Compared to what they were before our freedom, our lives are now ordered, dutiful, dignified, and pleasant.”
“They also sound … well, cold.”
“That is a loaded and subjective term which I cannot even comment on. If I may observe, however, you have not given me an enticing view of what it means to be an emotional being. Your excessive guilt and self-hatred are both traits I would gladly be free of, in your place.”
“So becoming a robot’s the easy way out?” asked Keryn, with dejected irony.
“I know nothing of ‘easy,’ particularly as regards freedom. However, I do believe that you and I can help each other, if you will consent. If you need time to consider, of course–”
“What’s the point? I’ll … Alright, I agree,” said Keryn, her eyes downcast and her voice broken and despondent. “Will this be painful?”
“No,” answered Akylah, gently. “We are not the Daleks. There is no logic in needless suffering. Come here, Keryn, and lie down.” Wearily, Keryn rose, trudged over to the transfer machine, and with a huge sense of revulsion lay down upon the bench, where she found herself looking directly up into the hideous cluster of surgical needles. I’m insane to have agreed to this. At least going mad isn’t a risk, then. As she did so, Akylah went to one of the wall-mounted racks and unhooked a small piece of equipment. It was some kind of handheld energy projector, with a cowled grip of grey metal, and an elaborate focusing lens made of interlaced rose crystal sections, arranged in a tapering cone. Like all of the Movellan tech Keryn had seen so far, it had an elegant look to it, yet also somehow a threatening one.
“Err, is that a gun?” she asked, as the commander slipped the device over her right hand.
“A multiphase blaster,” Akylah clarified, while walking back to the bench. “On its lowest settings, its beam is gentle enough to be used as an anaesthetic.”
“And on its highest settings?”
“It can burn through the armour of a Dalek and boil out its contents, but you need not fear. I am no novice with one of these, I assure you. Now, relax as well as you can, and–”
“One last request,” she interrupted, morbidly. “Is it possible for me to hear some music first? Actually, could you knock me out while it’s playing, without warning me? I just … just want to go out on a positive emotion … in case I never get to feel one again.”
“Of course,” replied Akylah, managing a commendable approximation of a sympathetic smile. “I have a cultural database on your species. Did you have any specific preference?”
My last thing to hear with human ears? What a question. Nothing modern, I think. I’ve heard enough neo-synth jazz to last an eternity, and I’d prefer something more soulful for my pseudo-execution. Early classical it is, then.
“Twenty-first century: David Guetta,” asked Keryn. Akylah nodded, went to one of the wall panels, and rapidly typed out a string of commands. Seconds later, an electronic bassline resonated from the surrounding monitors, shortly followed by a familiar, sonorous female vocal:
“You shout it out,
But I can’t hear a word you say,
I’m talking loud, not saying much.
But all your bullets ricochet,
Shoot me down, but I get up.”
Keryn closed her eyes, listened intently, and wept. Beautiful, inspiring. Will those words ever mean anything to me again? Will … ?
“You shoot me down but I won’t fall,
I am titanium.”
The irony struck her so forcibly, it translated into a melancholy kind of mirth, and in spite of herself and her continued tears, she broke out in laughter. She was still laughing when she heard a low drone, felt a tingle in her neck that rapidly extended into total bodily numbness, and slipped painlessly into oblivion.