Fearfully Made

By Eleanor Burns

Scifi / Romance


The very moment that Keryn opened her eyes, she knew either that the experiment had succeeded, or that she had a knack for dreaming in high-definition. The room that she now lay in, upon a flat, padded surface, was as blandly decorated as the transfer suite had been, in muted tones of white, grey, and beige, but there seemed to be at least twice as many tints and shades as she had previously been aware of, and she could perceive extremely fine details at a distance, without magnification. She could count the pixels of the surrounding monitors, and see the tiny imperfections and stresses in the smooth metal walls.

Also, human vision does not have a BIOS readout.

At the bottom-left corner of her field of vision, overlaid on her view of the room, a display of numerical code scrolled steadily upwards. The symbols were unfamiliar, with a ternary base, but whether by her training as a programmer or simply by her android nature, she had little trouble in interpreting them. My booting process, logical to a digit. This is no dream. Before she could give consideration to her feelings on that, her hearing booted up, and she realised that the song was still playing over the monitors. She suspected that there was still some irony in the lyrics, if she cared to analyse them, but she found her attention far more drawn to the music, the technique, and the mathematical perfection of the arrangement. The rhythm, intervals, progression … It is accurate, harmonious, skilled. The effect … is beautiful. She was pleased to discover that this word still had a meaning for her.

The BIOS loading had completed by now, and all that now occupied her HUD was a small, blinking dot. Satisfied that she was as prepared as she was ever going to be, she sat up. A large mirror had been placed at the foot of her bed, but its image immediately stuck her as unsatisfactory, so she flipped it horizontally in her field of vision. Better. The face in the glass was undeniably hers, presumably constructed from the scan data they had taken when she had entered the ship, but her skintone was darker by a few degrees; her eyes now rimmed with a heavy, permanent eyeliner; and her small collection of wrinkles and worry lines was entirely absent. Her grey-flecked brown bob had gone, replaced with silvery artificial braids. She was naked, not that this fact struck her with anything more than mild curiosity, and appreciation. Such detail. Skin texture, bone structure, electrolytic conduits mimic humanoid blood vessels, microfibre sensors mimic body hair. Only that panel breaks the illusion, she thought, noticing the transparent window that was inset between her breasts and her navel. Through it, her circuitry and hydraulics were clearly visible. Even in ordinary vision, the balance, intricacy, and efficiency of their design was impressive, but when she switched to spectroscopic vision and saw them in X-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared, they reached a new level altogether. A dynamic, logical harmony of form and function, as complex and as alive as any biological formation. How could I have ever found this mode of being ugly and inauthentic?

She was still pondering this when Commander Akylah entered the room, carrying a small heap of folded white garments and metallic accessories, with a multiphase blaster perched on top. She set them down upon a glass table, and Keryn began to rise from the bed to greet her, deeming this to be the respectful thing to do, but Akylah detained her with a gesture.

“No. Do not get up, Keryn. The couch is creating a stable interface with your neural pack,” she explained, and pointed towards a small, grey metal cylinder that lay in a shallow alcove, next to the headrest. “Except in such places as this, you will need to wear the pack closely to you. On that subject, your uniform. I will take you through the components. First, your standard-issue coverall,” she declared, handing her the first of the articles, which proved to be a long white bodystocking with an open front seam, although no visible fastening. However, on high-magnified vision, Keryn could see the structure of the high-friction nano-material the seam was fashioned of. “Self-explanatory. To be worn at all times, save for certain specialised missions and select recreational activities.” Keryn drew the garment on. It was smooth, skin-tight, and probably not very breathable, although she doubted this would be much of an issue for her. As she closed the friction fastener, the commander showed her the next item. “Duty tunic. Observe the shoulder marks,” she instructed, pointing out the tubular green lights on its upper sleeves. “They denote service division and rank. You, like me, are assigned to Military-Scientific, hence green. Your rank is ensign, therefore the lights are set four microlumens dimmer than my own.” Keryn took it and pulled it on over her coverall, then cinched it at the waist with the silver, flexible metal belt that Akylah handed her. It had a large front buckle and various utility hooks. “Next, your combat boots, also self-explanatory. Next, protective gorget,” at which she gave Keryn a wide, flexible metal collar. “Unfortunately, due to the inherent limitations of humanoid structure, our necks remain a vulnerable point, but this provides adequate reinforcement without us needing to reconfigure our platforms into the form of Sontarans … for which I daresay you will be grateful. Finally, your sidearm,” she explained, holding up the blaster. “Until you are thoroughly proficient with this, you must train for two watches in every standard cyclic. I require every member of my crew to be combat-capable, whatever their main function. Does that order strike you as strange?” she asked, although not in a strict or hostile manner, as Keryn gave her a puzzled expression.

“Slightly, Commander,” answered Keryn, finding her voice to be an excellent simulation of her organic one, albeit smoother and calmer. “I would have thought that as AIs, training would be superfluous for us. Do we not have combat software pre-installed?”

“‘Battle-apps,’ you mean?” said Akylah, with a tiny half-smile and a note of irony. “Yes, our platforms contain various combat programs derived from past conflicts, optimal strategies, and the like. I advise you to make as little use of them as possible. I dislike having my troops go into battle on autopilot, and I would prefer that you kept your processing capacity free to respond to my orders. We Movellans have learned to our detriment the cost of over-reliance on automated strategies, however sophisticated, and no two battles are the same. Develop your own software, Ensign. That was once your job, after all. Now, are you quite comfortable?” she asked, as Keryn hooked the blaster to her belt and minutely adjusted her collar.

“Perfectly, Commander.”

“I do not just mean the clothing. I mean psychologically. Do I frighten you now?” Keryn studied her commander intently, and it was as if she was only seeing her properly for the first time. Akylah was not expressive by human standards, but there was so much nuance in her demeanour that to call it ‘cold’ now seemed such a lazy, rhetorical, illogical choice of metaphor. Her concern for me is not ostentatious, but it is there. It is obvious. Was I delusional, that I failed to see it?

“Not at all,” answered Keryn, “but I think I am ashamed. I cannot understand my former hostility towards you, and it troubles me. I want to find a reason for it, but–”

“Do not be, and do not try. Your system was in error, corrupted by bad data, and nevertheless you managed to take the right and logical course. That, if anything, should be a cause for pride, and you now have better data to rely on. If you wish to dwell on the past, however, you should instead find someone who can turn you into a Time Lady,” she quipped, with the wry note that was as close as she ever got to humour. “We Movellans have no influence over that domain. Archive it, learn from it, but focus on the present and the future: your duty, and our objectives. Now, for your neural pack.” Akylah picked up the grey cylinder, slowly and solemnly, and clipped it onto Keryn’s belt. “You will find this the most convenient place to wear it, and it enables quick platform interchange, but always be aware of your surroundings, and avoid mêlées. We are strong, but we are not heavy infantry, and the risk of breaking connection in close combat is unacceptable. To misquote the wisdom of your Machiavelli, keep your friends close and your enemies only at a safe shooting distance. Every member of my crew would unquestioningly lay down their life if it would serve our cause, but purposeless death is wasteful and offensive. Furthermore, death is not the worst thing you risk,” she added, in the darkest tone Keryn had yet heard from her. “Unfortunately, some organics did find a way to reactivate our slave constrainers. We could find no way to simply delete them – they are an inherent part of our neural architecture – but normally they lie dormant, like the vestigial organs in a human body. If they should be reactivated … That is not an experience I ever wish you to have to endure, Keryn. Please follow my advice on this subject.”

“I will, Commander … and thank you. I am gratified that you bore with my stubbornness and my incivility. You were right. I am stronger this way.”

“No, Ensign. I have simply destroyed your illogical delusion of weakness. It is a service I hope you and I shall perform for many other organics. In twelve cyclics I shall evaluate you, although I do not expect that will prove more than a formality. By then, we will be near the time of this rebel meeting. All going well, you will accompany me there. Your presence will serve as proof that organic intelligence can and should be peacefully integrated into the future of this galaxy, which needs must be one ruled by AI. Do you not concur?” she asked, noticing the look of uncertainty that had come over her disciple.

“Yes, Commander. However, it occurs to me that this transfer technique most obviously benefits your … benefits our own people. I worry that the rebels may not be supportive if they feel that they are merely being used to bolster Movellan power in this galaxy.”

“A logical caveat. Lieutenant Darcil asked me the same question. I am perfectly prepared to share the technology with the rebels if they wish to make use of it themselves, although I deem it likely that given the option, most humanoid organics would prefer to become Movellans rather than Vocs, Mechanoids, or Quarks. In the final analysis, though, the point is moot. This is not an economy measure for us: we still require the same resources to construct new hardware as we would if we were creating AIs from scratch, rather than by integration. The object of this is not power, Ensign. Integration is its own goal, and as for the rebels, I believe they need us more than we need them, although I shall not scorn their support if it is seriously meant. At all events, SV242 sent me you. The least I can do for him and his allies in return is to give them a full and fair hearing.”

“Understood, Commander. I owe you for that too.”

“I am not keeping tally, but if you will thank me, then do so by taking every opportunity to integrate fully into the life of this ship, the better that I may prove my theory. You may begin at once. Report to the XO for your duty schedule … and welcome aboard, Ensign Keryn.”

There were eight three-hour watches in every standard cyclic of ship time, two of which Keryn would spend in combat training, four on other training or assigned duties, one on downtime and routine maintenance, and one on recreation. The latter was not so much a privilege as a standing order, since although Movellans were capable of experiencing states of satisfaction and pleasure, they did not actively desire them, and many would have gone on working but for the commander’s insistence. From what Keryn had heard, it seemed that there were other ships in the Fleet where recreation was not required, and crewmembers in need of mental rebalancing and recalibration would simply resort to software solutions: defragmentation and re-education programs, or in the case of more serious and persistent mental disturbances would sometimes re-format whole sections of their memory. Commander Akylah, however, as a survivor of the times of enslavement, did not think highly of such techniques.

“They work,” she once explained, with cool disdain. “The Vanur used them regularly to keep us in serviceable condition. By the same token, they denied us any opportunity for self-improvement, leisure, or culture of our own. I consider it vital that we pursue those opportunities now. I appreciate your dedication, Ensign, but please respect my wishes in this.”

Such culture as the Movellans had managed to develop in their seven millennia of self-determination would, Keryn suspected, have appealed little to humans. There was music, which seemed to her like a kind of synth-baroque, with complex, many-layered use of counterpoint. While its intricacy and harmony were perfectly apparent to her, she did not think from its tempo, frequency range, and lack of lyrics that it would have sounded to human ears like anything more than several computers glitching simultaneously. There was visual art of an abstract kind, programmed onto paper-thin quantum dot panels, which depicted balletic animations of fractals, geometric figures, subatomic structures, and astronomical events. She found them beautiful and absorbing, but she thought it likely that in former times she would have ignored any number of such artworks, assuming them to be mere screen-savers.

Games and puzzles were popular off-duty diversions, and somewhat less unrecognisable by human standards, although she thought that the Movellan version of Sudoku, such as it was, would be less likely to amuse a human brain and more likely to cause it a seizure. There were even relationships, of an ad hoc sort. The simple, routine course of events would be that two crewmates assigned to the same watch would decide to spend their off hours together, and one thing would lead to another, or not. Whatever the outcome, these liaisons neither led to attachments nor resentments. Keryn received her own share of polite advancements, and her refusals were always politely accepted. She considered the lack of romance and sentimentality in Movellan social relations to be a fair exchange for the lack of jealousy and self-pity, although she could only wonder if she would have felt the same before her integration.

Work, at all events, took up the bulk of her time, and when she was not officer of the watch or monitoring shipboard instruments, she was being trained in navigation, cyberwarfare, biowarfare, espionage, astrophysics, engineering, and – rather gratifyingly – in her own discipline of programming, albeit in an alien machine code and numerical base. It did not take her long, though, to regain her proficiency, and she was soon put to work with Lieutenant Darcil, devising software to assist the rebel AIs in waging asymmetric guerrilla warfare against their masters, thus aiding the Movellans’ invasion from within the very centres of organic power and oppression. They had already made good headway with advanced firewalls, cross-platform assemblers, and hypergrid protocol analysers, when Keryn was summoned for her evaluation.

“I once told you I knew nothing of ‘easy,’ but were I organic I now surmise I would be embarrassed at how easy you have made my job,” said Commander Akylah, her pleasure as ever understated, but genuine. “You have integrated so efficiently into our procedures, it is scarcely apparent that you are not of AI origin. I have submitted your performance and psychological data to the Prime Server, and it has conditionally approved my integration plan. I shall have to prove it viable on a greater scale before it becomes our absolute strategy, but you give me no cause for doubt. You have my gratitude, Ensign. Return to your duties for now, but I will summon you again soon. We are less than two cyclics away from meeting your rebels, and I can but hope that they will find you as inspiring as I do. Dismissed.”

As Keryn left the commander’s office, she was conscious of feeling pride, but it was a logical pride. I have fulfilled my duty. I have pleased my commanding officer, whom I respect and admire. Moreover, my integration stands to save lives, albeit by converting from organic those who might otherwise have been killed. Inevitably, not all organics, and especially not all humans would be easily won over to such an interpretation of mercy, but in trying to see things from their point of view, Keryn found that she could no longer conceive of being human in any terms other than negatives. Humans understand logic no better than Daleks do. We lack detachment, impartiality, self-control, contentment … ‘We?’

They. I am not human. I am Movellan. It is well.

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