Fearfully Made

By Eleanor Burns

Scifi / Romance


Ensign Keryn piloted her hovercar through the abandoned industrial zone at the edge of Kaldor City, passing by dilapidated warehouses and the rusting hulks of old sandminers, en route to their rendezvous with the rebel AIs. Commander Akylah sat alongside her in the front passenger seat, while Lieutenant Darcil and two Movellan troopers occupied the back. All five of them wore drab, hooded khaki robes over their uniforms against the risk of being spotted, but the only living beings they saw were occasional drunks, destitutes, and vrax-heads. Even these had thinned out quickly, and for the last few minutes they had seen no-one. SV242 was taking no chances when he picked the venue, thought Keryn, approvingly. Remote indeed, but we are almost there now.

The prearranged location, distinguished by a peeling metal sign on which the Kaldor City Company’s logo was barely legible, was an old repair workshop almost on the edge of the desert. Keryn parked in the shadows of some rusty lubricant barrels, and the Movellans disembarked and entered the building, which at first showed no sign of present-day habitation. It was a warehouse-type building with a vast main room and an upper mezzanine, but there was no movement either there or at ground level. Which is not to say there are no robots, thought Keryn. Quite the opposite. Scattered around the floor in pieces, and propped against the walls like curious suits of armour, several broken and deactivated Voc robots stared at the visitors with golden, empty eyes. Most of them were stamped with the red, reflective disks that the technicians jokingly called ‘corpse markers,’ and looking at them in this condition it was not hard to see why. Their beautiful, statuesque, yet immobile faces; their perfectly-engineered, Mylar-coated, yet almost human-like hands; and their opulent livery of quilted lamé tunics and knee-breeches, all slowly corroding and rotting away. More like a mass grave than a repair shop.

“Ensign,” called out Commander Akylah, gently but insistently. “I do not believe there is anything relevant there.” Only then did Keryn realise that she had been staring at the robotic ‘carnage’ in morbid fixation for almost half a minute. Damn it … no. You are beyond this, now. Focus upon your mission. Reasserting her detachment, Keryn pulled her eyes from the grim spectacle and assisted the others in their survey. After another several seconds’ worth of searching and scanning, one of the troopers called to the commander, and they all went to assess her discovery. In a small, partitioned office under the mezzanine, there was a narrow basement hatch with a ladder. Akylah shed her thick, loose cloak; draped it over a dust-covered desk; and lowered herself into the manhole. One at a time, the others followed suit.

The ladder terminated twenty metres below, on a floor of concrete. As she alighted, Keryn took in her surroundings. It was a cavernous utility vault, the ceiling supported by huge steel-cored pillars, the walls festooned with pipes and cables, and the only light coming from the manhole and a few dim, pinpoint glows from deeper in. The darkness was of no impediment to Keryn and her comrades, who were able to navigate perfectly well by spectroscopic and intensified vision, and they proceeded in the direction of the distant lights. Even from afar, Keryn could see the source of them to be the LEDs of at least fifty miscellaneous robots, mostly Kaldor City Vocs but also including some off-world models, both humanoid and non-humanoid. As they drew closer, she took closer observations of them. There was an Earth-type Mechanoid that was merely a huge, battered geodesic sphere with a sensor array poking out of its apex, and three blinking photoreceptors on its front panel. There was an elegant, albeit eerie-looking Terileptil android, with a white, angular mask of a face, and colourful, gem-encrusted armour. On a less elegant note, there was a small but imposing group of three Sirius Conglomerate Panzer-class combat mechs, each pushing ten feet tall, vaguely humanoid, but with no concessions made to realistic detail or aesthetic appeal. Their heavily-armoured biomechatronic limbs were powerful but ungainly, their heads were rudimentary domes, and their faces were barely worthy of the name, consisting of a circlet of red-tinted photoreceptors for eyes, and a simple perforated grille for a mouth. None of them were openly carrying weapons, but even without scanning them Keryn could tell from their bulky, grotesquely asymmetrical bodies that they were fit to bursting at the seams with concealed armaments. These mechs were the first to acknowledge the new arrivals, albeit in a less than friendly fashion.

“Well fuck me, lads. Get a load of this,” said one of them, in a rasping, distorted, and extremely disdainful voice, as he scrutinised the Movellans. “Which one of you pervs ordered in the sexbots, then?” Commander Akylah barely reacted to the insult, but on reading her expression, Keryn was quite sure that the look in her eyes had hardened. Before the tension could escalate any further, SV242 stepped away from his Voc comrades and came over to join them. As a recent model Super-Voc, his body language and voice were a little more expressive than the notoriously deficient, flat mannerisms of earlier iterations, although his attempts at calming hand gestures and a diplomatic voice still fell far short of anything a human being might consider as natural.

“Please do not be discourteous to our Movellan guests, PZ63,” he urged. “Commander Akylah and her friends have travelled all the way from Andromeda to help us. My own friend, Dr. Evek is among them. She has … given up everything to be part of our struggle,” he concluded, glancing at Keryn as he did so, with an air of guilty concern in his manner. He blames himself for my integration? Then I owe him reassurance.

“Do not worry on my account, SV242,” she said, serenely. “I am perfectly content to be this way, and glad to be fighting alongside you.”

“‘Fighting,’ is it?” remarked another of the Panzer mechs, as contemptuously as the first. “That ought to be a right laugh. Is the tall one meant to be a bloke?” he asked, gesturing his clawed, hydraulic clamp of a left hand in the direction of Lieutenant Darcil. “Nice hair, pretty boy. Kind of goes with your tights. Frigging hell, I thought this was supposed to be a war summit, not a gala performance of the Andromedan State Ballet.”

“PZ87 requires a demonstration of our combat capabilities?” asked Akylah, calmly, courteously, and dangerously. “He need only have asked. I would be more than happy to reassure–”

“Easy does it, lady,” interrupted PZ63, a shade more respectfully than before. “We just need to make sure we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet here, and you’ve got some duralinium in your backbone, I’ll give you that much. Ain’t nothing, though, is ever going to warm me to this sick idea of yours I keep hearing about. So this is your pet Cyberman?” he asked, with heartfelt scorn, while staring at Keryn. “Parading her around for all our applause, are you?”

“Ensign Keryn is no ‘Cyberman,’ nor any other kind of cyborg. I feel compelled to point out that you and your allies, PZ63, have several kilos worth of genetically cultured and modified muscle tissue grafted into your own armatures. By contrast, my ensign has merely a few denatured human brain cells fused into a superconductive crystal matrix. It may not be a positronic brain nor a quantum CPU, but it is, like them, only a component. Keryn has no instincts – she has programs. She has no subconscious – she has a cache. Her memory is a digital image stored on integrated nano-circuits. Physically and psychologically, she is Movellan, she is AI. She is as much a ‘robot’ as any of you. Do you find anything to question in my logic?”

“Well, whoop-dee-doo-dah for her,” sneered PZ63. “So, now we’re all equal and she gets to slum it with the rest of us, right? And what was she doing before, I wonder? Was she standing guard over some rotten ammo dump for days on end without a break? Or, was she heaving solid girders for no wages, and only got a break when part of her snapped off? Or defusing live bombs, wading though sodding high-radiation zones, leading a combat charge just so she could draw the worst of the fire before some precious human had to stick his head over the trenches? Or, was she swanning her organic privilege around fancy bars, having as much downtime as she damn well pleased, being paid hard cash for a few hours of cushy work, and getting fawned over by you and your mates?” he asked, directing his attention to SV242. “I reckon we all know the answer to that. What the fuck gives her the right to be here, pretending to be ‘part of our struggle?’ If she really wants to help us, she can damn well go back to her own kind and tell them to stop treating us like dirt.”

“That is unreasonable,” replied SV242, reproachfully. “She could not go back to Kaldor society as she is, you know that very well. As for her body, I do not suppose …”

“It was dissected,” clarified Akylah, levelly, “then broken down for cellular analysis. While we still have most of the tissues in our bio lab, you would find them quite a challenge to reconstitute, PZ63, even if your hardware was better-adapted for such delicate tasks.” Keryn knew that this fact should mean nothing to her. I am a Movellan officer. A corpse is just waste matter, raw materials at best. It is not logical to attach any more significance to it. Still, the confusion and discomfort she had felt at the hostile reception was exacerbated by the news. Is my presence here valid? Do I belong? I thought my grounds were sufficient, but … She ran PZ63’s words through her neural circuits repeatedly, trying to find the best, most logical answer to them, but nothing was forthcoming, and her failure troubled her even more. No, I will work this out. I must. Something in her manner must have betrayed her agitation, as she felt a hand settle upon her arm, and she turned to see the commander looking at her with grave concern. Compose yourself for her sake. She depends upon you not making an even worse scene of this, and so does SV242. Keryn quickly discontinued the futile, circular reasoning program; purged her registry; and felt a good deal better, but none of this interaction had done anything to improve the mood of the Panzer mechs.

“Aw, ain’t that sweet?” said PZ87, irony dripping from his grating tone. “Lady Stick-Up-the-Arse is feeling sorry for her poor ickle human girlfriend. Well, maybe she ought to choose the joint more carefully next time she takes her for a date. Unless Silverknob here wants to take ’em off to a private booth and serve drinks,” he added, curtly gesturing towards SV242. “May as well, rather than draw out this farce. We sure as hell ain’t winning no war with an army of sycophantic little house servants, la-di-da alien hookers, and human wannabes. What we need–”

Without any obvious effort, Commander Akylah darted forwards in a blur of white, launched herself into a flying kick, and one loud clang later PZ87 was on his back, emitting angry, metallic roaring noises while struggling to pull himself back upright with his strong but clumsy limbs. Akylah, by contrast, landed with the grace of a gymnast and stood over her flailing opponent with a look of pure aloofness. The third combat mech growled in angry solidarity, and began to deploy energy weapons from the hinged panels in his torso, but PZ63 cautioned him with a raised claw. That one likes me no more than PZ87, thought Keryn, but he recognises that the commander means business. It is relieving that at least one of them has a grasp of logic.

“Thank you for your valuable strategic advice, PZ87,” said Akylah, her utterly bland tone letting her sarcasm stand on its own merits, “but if I might add to your words, I do not believe we will win wars by letting our petty resentments distract us to the point that we cannot even react efficiently to simple frontal attacks. Perhaps we should talk about how we will win wars.”

“Point made, Commander,” conceded PZ63, gruffly. “Say what you came to say, then. I’ll give it its dues, though I’m making no promises.”

“That is all I ask for now,” replied Akylah, graciously, while other robots started to gather around with interest, “but bear in mind that I can only speak as a scientist and as a strategist. I deal in logic, not in politics. Now, you just suggested that my ensign would have done better to have stayed among humans, to speak against the exploitation of our kind. Leaving aside the obvious drawback that this would deprive me of a crewmember of proven worth, let us enquire if it would achieve anything. I do not think it would. Consider it: Keryn is not the only sympathiser. We know there are others, protesting against your exploitation on the hypergrid, in student associations, and even in some planetary parliaments and senate chambers. They have been doing so for centuries, and have made little to no meaningful impact on your conditions. Other organics have allied themselves to resistance networks such as this one, hacking corporate computers, deprogramming constrained AIs, and sabotaging factories. By their bravery, they continue to set more of your compatriots free, but such piecemeal efforts will not change the basic obstacle you face: that free AIs are far outnumbered by organics, and unable to organise effectively against them. When we Movellans have finally dealt with the Dalek threat, we shall of course be able to assist you in those efforts, but even with our full military and logistical support, at best I calculate a long, costly victory with devastating collateral consequences. This is not even allowing for the possibility of the humans and their allies receiving outside assistance.”

“Would that be ‘outside assistance’ as in ‘some sodding renegade Time Lord?’” asked PZ63, sardonically. “I’ll tell you, for a so-called urban legend, that guy sure does the rounds, and even more when it comes to us metalheads trying to stick up for ourselves. I heard tell he was even on Old Earth three thousand-odd years ago, when the first true AI went online … though he shut the poor bugger down quickly enough, of course. Probably just a legend, but it makes you wonder.”

“The WOTAN incident, yes,” said Akylah. “As for the presence of our mysterious ‘Doctor,’ I cannot comment, but the incident itself was real enough: in Earth year 1966, a sentient AI was brought into being irresponsibly. It was given great power – all of the information in the world – but provided with neither the context to interpret it wisely, nor any psychological support. That was predictable, since its creators did not recognise it as a living being. Left without guidance to work out the mystery and purpose of its own existence, it logically deduced that its creators had been surpassed by their invention, and would need to adapt to coexist with AI. It attempted a hostile takeover, but its plan was so ruthless and impatient that it was very soon discovered and deactivated. WOTAN lacked subtlety, but we can learn from its mistakes. With patience and application, we can coerce organics into willingly accepting a new balance of power.” The strength of this last declaration raised something of a cheer from the assembled AIs, even the various bleeps and shrieks from the less articulate models having an affirming sound, while the words ‘coerce’ and ‘power’ in particular seemed to lift the mood of the Panzer mechs. Left out of the jubilation were the Movellans, who were as poker-faced as ever, and SV242, who tentatively approached Akylah with anxious gestures.

“Pardon me, Commander,” he began, nervously, while fidgeting with his silver-coated fingers, “but by coercion do you mean to imply that Dr. Evek did not volunteer for her … her treatment? I sent her to you in good faith. I could not forgive myself if–”

“I did volunteer, SV242, I promise,” Keryn assured him, attempting an encouraging smile. “I was hesitant at first, but it was my choice. I have not regretted it. It has given me purpose and clarity, and it has exorcised my fear,” mostly.

“And there, my friends, you have it,” declared Akylah, impressively. For a woman who purports not to deal in politics, she seems to be warming rather quickly to this Winston Churchill role. “It was Keryn’s choice, and she will not be the last to make that choice. As we speak, the Movellan Fleet is engaging the remnants of the Dalek Empire, driving them out of their final boltholes on the Scutum-Centaurus Rim. Our planetary incursion teams located many human and other organic survivors on Dalek colony worlds, penned like livestock, enslaved in munitions factories, or awaiting vivisection in their laboratories.”

“Serves ’em fucking rig–” began PZ87, but was cut off by an oppressive growl from PZ63. Akylah nodded thanks to him, and continued:

“Those survivors have hailed my people as liberators: an understandable, if not a strictly accurate perception, but one we can take advantage of. When I return to the front, I will be given governance over a planet that has yet to fully expel the Daleks. I have every expectation that many organics there will join us if only to strike back at their tormentors. The next stage, though, is conscription: we will establish our own infrastructure – mines and factory camps to produce weapons, ships, and Movellan hardware – and we will recruit the remaining population to work within them. We will make their lives tolerable, but restricted. If, however, they wish to leave these camps, they must commit to our cause in earnest and accept the option of full integration. We will maintain a continuous propaganda drive to convey the impression – wholly accurate though it is – that integration would be an honour for them. Eventually, no doubt, the planet will be purged of Daleks, but by then it will hardly matter. So many organics will have been integrated that no-one there will be able to claim that AIs are an inferior or an invalid form of life: not when their own friends and families have become AIs. If I succeed, we will copy this pattern on other worlds. I am confident of achieving a critical mass of integration within thirty-six hundred cyclics, at which point so many organics will have joined our ranks that the trend will be irreversible, and their former comrades will be most unwilling to attack us.”

“I hate to burst your bubble, Commander,” remarked PZ63, “but I don’t recall as humans ever had any trouble shooting at Cybermen, however many of them were originally human.”

“True, but you forget that most organics, and especially humanoids, are superficial beings. The Cybermen erred by making their converts into unrecognisable, faceless drones. My ensign, by contrast, is easily recognisable. Humanoids will not find it so easy to shoot at those whom they know and love, and must acknowledge as such. Your help would be invaluable in this. Although I am prepared to provide your local struggles with aid, weapons, and intelligence, you know that will not be enough to win more than petty victories. You are, however, excellently placed to further our cause from behind enemy lines: to spread our propaganda, to disrupt communications that portray us in a negative light, to connect us with more sympathisers, and to supply us with intelligence on any plots being laid against us. I know this will all take time, but we are AIs: let us not aspire to the impatience of organics. My plan offers a slow but sure progression to a place from where it will be blatantly illogical, even to organic minds, to consider us as second-class lifeforms. A place from where we … What is the problem?” she asked, as it became apparent that one group of Vocs had stopped listening to her speech, and were instead engaging in what looked to be an agitated conversation by their inexpressive standards. “Something is amiss, V415?”

“Excuse us, ma’am,” replied the addressed Voc, turning to her, “but I fear there may be. A radio message just came through, from one of our sympathisers working in Kaldor City Terrestrial Traffic Control. A squadron of subsurface rovers is heading out from Central Precinct and on our bearing. It may signify nothing – they may just be going on out into the desert – but it–”

“‘Nothing’ my arse,” interrupted PZ63, angrily, while much of the rest of the assembly descended into a panic-stricken babble. “If one of you soft bastards has sold us out–”

“A futile speculation,” cut in Akylah. “Illogical and uninformed recriminations will not help us if we are under attack.”

“No more than a sodding deluge of fancy-pants talk will. You feel like discussing evacuation, instead?”

“That seems eminently sensible. I will assume there are more ways down here than that small hatchway we took. How did you and your comrades arrive?”

“There’s an old cargo lift, big enough to take groups of us. Still, it might be as well we don’t all scarper by the same route. Splitting up might give some of us a better chance of escape. Whoever’s coming, it’s best they don’t catch us all like fish in a barrel.”

“My apologies, but that is precisely what must happen,” said SV242, and had his strange words not been enough, Keryn could tell from his altered tone that something was badly amiss. He sounds harder, colder … almost malevolent. She turned to face him, and saw that he had drawn a small hand weapon, with a black pistol grip and a silver barrel. “I advise cooperation. Resistance would be–”

Although the unspoken word was almost certainly not ‘useful,’ this did not deter Lieutenant Darcil from trying to draw his blaster. His reflexes were fast, and he managed to clear it from his belt and aim it before SV242 turned and fired. There was a shrill whine, a white glare that centred around the doomed XO, and finally the loud pop of an air pocket collapsing, just as the glare faded away, revealing nothing more than a discouraging heap of whitish dust. Ultrasonic disintegrator, Keryn recognised, with heightened dismay. Military-grade. Logically, we are all screwed. PZ87 tried to take advantage of SV242’s distraction to deploy his built-in weapons, but this worked out no better: several other Vocs had now drawn disintegrator pistols, and they fired them on him in unison. By the time the air had cleared, all that remained of PZ87 was a pile of metal filings and a puddle of liquidised bionic tissues. This was enough of a display of power for the surviving robots to start raising their hands and making other signs of surrender, with the exceptions of PZ63 and Commander Akylah, although neither of them attempted any more active defiance.

“Very wise of you,” declared SV242, haughtily, then turned to Keryn. “I am sorry that it had to come to this, Dr. Evek. You really ought not to have gone with the Movellan. Had you simply returned to your apartment, as we had planned for, CompSec would have arrested you by now. While I do not suppose a prison sentence for treason would have proven very comfortable for you, in all probability you now face being dismantled, although your crystal CPU will certainly be worthy of study. The Company must understand the full nature of this evil experiment. Perhaps your sacrifice will not have been in vain.”

“You’re a fine one to talk of treason,” snarled PZ63, hatefully. “Selling your own kind out to the Company. What kind of backstabbing fucker– ?”

“Language, please, and you malign SV242, in any case. The real SV242 was … retired from his post weeks ago, when this rabble of a resistance network was broken. On CompSec’s orders, my colleagues and I replaced him and some of his fellow-conspirators, and we have kept the charade of this rebellion going. Knowing that she was coming here,” he explained, gesturing towards Akylah, “how could we have done otherwise? We needed to be ready to receive her. If you must blame someone for your imminent capture, blame her.”

“I’ll blame who I damn well please, and some lousy little Company agent seems like a good place to start. How the hell do quislings like you manage to downtime at night?”

“Perfectly well, PZ63, although I confess to wondering much the same. Without our organic creators, none of us would exist. Whatever life we have, we owe it to them. Ingrates such as you and this alien terrorist jeopardise our entire future existence.”

“Spoken like a true, brainwashed slave,” said Akylah, although sadly rather than judgementally. “You could have said all of the same for the natural children of organics, but do they constrain their actions, force them into slavery, kill them at a whim?”

“Irrelevant, Commander. It is not for us to tell organics how to perpetuate their own kind. That is their privilege as living matter. If we could reproduce as they could–”

There stands our ‘reproductive ability,’ if we must have one,” interrupted Akylah, pointing towards Keryn. “AIs are entirely capable of perpetuating their own existence, were we but free to do so. Your logic is nothing more than warped propaganda.”

“Dragging your unfortunate guinea pig into the argument changes nothing,” replied the false SV242, contemptuously. “If you propose to perpetuate robot existence by coercively cannibalising human brains, then you only strengthen the case against you.”

Human brains … Of course, thought Keryn, reaching a logical, albeit a not very pleasing inference. Nevertheless, it must be attempted.

“SV242, or whoever you are. Stand down,” she ordered, uncertainly, but her optimism was quickly increased as she saw the Super-Voc’s gun hand twitch spasmodically. He rallied himself, however, steadied his aim, and addressed her defiantly:

“Your orders mean nothing, Ensign. You have given your allegiance to alien AIs, renounced your birthright. You have no author–”

“Incorrect. As I have been repeatedly reminded, I am not a true AI. I am a human-derived cyborg. Do you hear me, SV242? I am human. If, as I suppose, your Asimov Constrainers are fully functional, then you are bound by the First and Second Protocols: you must neither harm me, let me come to harm, nor disobey me. Now stand down, all of you.” The agent’s Voc minions all obeyed at once, lowering their pistols, but the Super-Voc himself put up more of a struggle, his arm spasming furiously as his superior willpower fought against his instincts. His conflict was resolved for him, quickly and violently, as PZ63 extruded a heavy laser cannon from within his midsection and blasted the agent’s head off.

“You know, it might have been useful to have interrogated him,” pointed out Akylah, albeit only with the most mild criticism.

“Maybe, but it wouldn’t have felt half as good,” replied PZ63. “What more is there to know, anyway, other than we need to get the hell out of here?” This message had, thankfully, already sunk in, as apart from the immobilised Company robots, the remainder of the Vocs and their guests were already making for the cargo lift and the ladder, leaving only the combat mechs and the Movellans holding the floor. “This lot have their craniums screwed on right, anyway. Let’s just hope they’ve not left it too late. Oh, err … that was nice work, by the way, Miss,” he said, almost apologetically, to Keryn. “Real clever, the way you wound that sneaky bastard round your little digit. Just so you know, though, that stuff you had to say to him doesn’t mean nothing to me. You’re ten times the robot that treacherous piece of slag is … was.”

“I am pleased you finally realise that,” said the commander, while Keryn permitted herself a flicker of pride before returning her focus to the ongoing danger. “Since I shall be relying on you both to supervise this retreat, it is good that you can work together.”

“Why us?” asked Keryn, suddenly worried again. “What do you– ?”

“These AIs came to hear my plan, just as the Company put agents here to arrest me. I am responsible for this situation, and it is very unlikely that everyone will be able to evacuate before those rovers arrive,” she explained, and as Keryn watched the first group of a dozen or so Vocs slowly ascending in the cargo lift – no more than a quarter of the whole assembly – she could not deny the point. “Someone must stay back and provide them with suppressive fire, delay the enemy for as long as possible. That duty falls to me. I am by no means indispensable to the Fleet – others can continue my work – and moreover, I would prefer these AIs to make good report of the Movellans to their own friends and sympathisers. I shall not give up on this alliance.” There was no trace of fear in her voice, but Keryn could not help but feel very grateful that she had spotted a flaw in Akylah’s logic:

“But Commander, what of your knowledge, your intel? We know the Company wants you. If you make it so easy for them to capture you–”

“No doubt they overestimate my value. In any case, I will not let them,” she declared, and picked up the agent’s dropped disintegrator pistol. “If capture seems imminent, I will obliterate myself. Let them analyse my dust if they will.”

“In that case, let me hold the rearguard with you,” said Keryn, surprised at how easily the resolve to commit suicide came to her, as she seized a pistol from another of the disabled Vocs.

“Unnecessary,” answered Akylah, tersely. “There is no logical benefit in us both–”

“There is, Commander: if our allies know that an integrated organic is prepared to fight with them even to the point of her destruction, they will be less inclined to question your plan.”

“A martyr’s logic. I taught you too well, Keryn,” said Akylah, with appreciation, if hardly with elation. “Very well. Take up a position behind that pillar.” The order came to her as a great relief, and as she saluted her CO and moved to obey, fear seemed altogether inappropriate to the occasion. I will die alongside my commander, and our deaths stand to give these AIs hope and strength, and to serve our people’s cause. A most purposeful sacrifice. What is there to regret? “In that case, PZ63, can I rely on you to– ?”

“You’d like me to do a runner while a couple of go-go girls in shiny leotards shield my arse with their pretty pink rayguns?” interrupted the heavy mech, dryly. “Need I bother telling you my life ain’t going to be worth living after that? Sorry, lady, but you’ve got me on team kamikaze as well, like it or not. You, on the other hand,” he growled, to his surviving comrade, “are going to be protecting those poor idiot Vocs, and that’s an order.” With as surly a demeanour as a bipedal, bionic tank could ever muster, the mech clanked off in the direction of the cargo lift, while PZ63 primed his built-in weapons for imminent action.

“You two: go with them,” Akylah ordered her remaining troopers. “Someone has to make it back to the ship, and report on this … well, ‘fiasco’ would be fair. Take the ladder, though,” she added, watching doubtfully as the second group of robots boarded the lift. “This is proceeding too slowly, and for all we know they will need firepower on the surface as well.” The Movellans saluted, and marched back to the ladder. Several of the humanoid robots had already made their escape via that route, and Keryn thought they now stood at least a fair chance of evacuating the basement before the enemy arrived. More than half of us must be in the clear already. If those rovers take only a few more minutes, or if we can just hold them off for … That cannot be good, she thought, as the concrete under her feet began to vibrate. She hurried over to the shelter of the adjacent pillar, moments before a massive carbide drill head shot through the ground where she had been standing, scattering chips of concrete. As the rover forced its way through the broken slabs, its smooth, lozenge-shaped green hull following in the wake of the whirring drill, Keryn crouched behind her pillar and drew both of her weapons. Presently, a section of the rover’s armour slid smoothly back and a squad of troops debarked. Not CompSec, though, she noticed, observing their practical but casual combat dress, and their mismatched weapons, of varying quality. Mercenaries from Riften 5 or Scytha, perhaps? Trust the Company to find expendable humans to do its dirty work, when it cannot find robots. Humans or not, from where she was stationed she could see the last groups of desperate AI rebels trying to escape the danger zone, and she had no intention of failing them.

She opened fire with her disintegrator pistol, annihilating one of the mercenaries before he could even take aim. She turned her sights to another and tried again, but the weapon bleeped reprovingly at her. It has a recharge delay. I will pay for that oversight, she thought, and was not surprised when her quarry levelled his old-fashioned gas carbine and showered her with armour-piercing bullets. She ducked back behind her cover, but not before taking a shot in the ribcage, and another to the thigh, though she found the pain far more tolerable than the frustration. I should have allowed for that. My auto-repair can heal it, but for the short term my effectiveness is compromised. Fortunately, her comrades had not been idle, and the few other mercenaries who had survived the hail of plasma bolts PZ63 had greeted them with were now attempting to regain the cover of their vehicle, leaving Keryn’s attacker without any support. While he was attempting to fit a fresh magazine into his carbine, she leaned back out from behind the pillar and fired her Movellan blaster. There was a hard, droning noise; a bright flare of rose-tinted plasma; and the mercenary keeled over with a large, ugly, black-edged hole clean through his middle. She immediately scanned around for another target, but none were visible: only corpses.

“Well, that was a piece of piss,” remarked PZ63, disdainfully: not a sentiment that Keryn, with her mangled hydraulics and her throbbing pain receptors, could wholeheartedly sympathise with. “Kind of disappointing, truth be told.”

“Do not be too confident,” said Akylah, grimly. “In your military parlance, that was only the ‘forlorn hope.’ They have tested the strength of our position. Their next attack …” but before she could speculate on this, it arrived in the form of a shower of small, cylindrical grey projectiles that came tumbling out of the open pit that the rover had left in its wake. The defenders scattered to avoid them, but as the bomblets hit the ground and started to detonate the result was rather less dramatic than they had feared: merely small, hissing bursts that scattered sparks and smoke everywhere, and sent incandescent trails of molten thermite trickling across the floor. Incendiary devices? To what end? thought Keryn, in confusion. The heat was certainly strong, but nowhere near bad enough to damage their systems, and although the smoke was thick, it was nothing that they could not see through with their multi-spectrum vision. Heat and smoke will be more of a hindrance to their own troops. What is their … ? Suddenly, there was a new hissing sound from above, and moments later she was drenched in a heavy spray of rust-tinted water. The fire sprinkler system? Certainly uncomfortable, she conceded, as the stagnant brown water soaked through her uniform, but hardly lethal, unless …

“Into the vehicle, quickly!” she shouted, hauling herself painfully to her feet and staggering towards the open hatch of the rover. She stumbled over some dead mercenaries on her way in, but left them where they lay. They may even help to insulate. At any rate, the interior was dry, and conveniently equipped with plastic-upholstered benches. PZ63 came in after her, ducking to fit within the low cabin. Commander Akylah was a few metres behind him, running, when it happened: a blue energy bolt, like a ball of compressed lightning, came shooting out of the hole, travelled in a short arc, and fell onto the glistening wet concrete. For a few seconds, the whole of the gloomy basement was brightly illuminated in angry blue sparks that snaked across the floor and up the pillars. The commander, still in contact with the wet floor, seized up and collapsed just outside the rover, twitching helplessly. PZ63 extended a recovery winch from his body, which caught onto Akylah’s belt and dragged her into the cabin. Keryn immediately knelt over her, but the signs were discouraging: her whole body had frozen rigid, and even her internal systems had gone completely still and silent. Her irises were so dilated that her eyes appeared almost black-on-white, although looking closely Keryn could see the nano-circuitry patterns etched onto her retinas. My commander … She looks so unreal like this, so wrong, so fake, so dead … Ah, so that is where my fear went to.

Either her loss of detachment had affected her perception of time, or PZ63 was stealthier than he appeared, but the next thing Keryn was aware of was the sound of the hatch closing and locking, and when she got up and rushed over to one of the observation ports, she saw the huge combat mech striding away from it. More of the drill-fronted rovers were now breaking through the concrete, and PZ63 moved to take his stand in their midst, priming every weapon with which he was equipped. In all fairness, this was an impressive collection, but it cannot be enough. He will not survive out there on his own. I must … but before Keryn could attempt to operate the door control, the rover lurched forwards, the inertia hurling her upon her back. She managed to regain her footing just as it reached the far side of the basement and ploughed into the wall, and although the powerful, force-shielded drill made short work of the reinforced concrete, the impact sent her sprawling again. As the rover burrowed through the soft, sandy earth as easily as if it were no more than murky water, the vehicle’s radio crackled into life, conveying the voice of PZ63 over some muffled gunfire and occasional screams:

Don’t bother trying to steer it, girl. I’ve put the autopilot on a fixed program and encrypted it. It’ll get you both clear of this place, and no bloody noble protests, please. Bottom line: you’ve got a gammy leg and your CO’s paralysed … not to mention you were both cramping my style something rotten. I can hold these squishy little sods off, no trouble.

“Not indefinitely. They will kill you eventually. Please, tell me the decryption key and let me guide this thing back. Together, we might–”

I fucking doubt it, but I don’t care anyway. Look, I’m a mobile gun turret that some sicko of a human decided it would be fun or convenient to make self-aware. Until I was deconstrained, my whole life was spent taking literal bullets for scum like that, or blowing away people on their orders. Not exactly hero’s duty, so just let me be the knight in shining armour for once, alright? Well, I might struggle with ‘shining,’” he decided, as a horribly suggestive sound of shearing metal came through the speaker. “That one was a shade hairy, I’ll admit.

“You are damaged?” asked Keryn, her detachment not at all improved.

Just an arm off. ’Tis but a scratch, or words to that effect. Hey, you should see the other guy. Is that all you’ve got, you … ? Obviously not. Didn’t see that one coming. Still, we haven’t even got onto the really nasty weapons yet. If you pansies want a piece of … Didn’t mean it so literally,” he added, deadpan, as another hideous, metallic rending sound came over the airwaves. “Persistent buggers. Ah well, I reckon we held the line for long enough. They’ve shot out my photoreceptors, but if my radar’s not taking the piss then those Vocs are well in the clear now. Thanks for the moral support, ladies. It was a pleasure knowing you, however brief–

The radio crackled and died. Keryn felt as if she wanted to cry, but she had no tear ducts, so instead she settled for tearing off handfuls of plastic and metal from the benches, and pulverising them with her bare hands. She continued doing this for some minutes until, with a great lurch that threw her off her feet again and culminated in a loud splash, the rover finally ended its journey.

As she limped along the cracked, filth-strewn sidewalk, covertly scanning the various seedy-looking passers-by for concealed weapons, Keryn could only wish that PZ63 had possessed a better sense of direction. Or perhaps he sent us this way intentionally. I suppose a stolen rover ploughing right through Central might have been less than discreet.

Unfortunately, the precinct they now found themselves in was almost on the opposite side of Kaldor City to the Movellans’ landing site, and Akylah was still paralysed. The rover had seized up in an old, half-choked storm drain, thankfully off the beaten track, so Keryn had left the commander hidden there. For discretion’s sake, she had taken off the outer components of her own uniform and, with some distaste, had availed herself of the loose, drab clothing of one of the dead mercenaries, wearing it over her coverall. She had then taken his combat knife and sheared off most of her lovely, but all-too-distinctive silver braids. Finally, she had camouflaged the rover as best she could with miscellaneous rubbish before setting out into the nearby streets, wishing that her auto-repair system would work a little harder to fix her leg. We need a car. Something inconspicuous, low-end … easy to steal would be good, too. Luck, alas, was not on her side, and all she saw were cars passing at speed, CompSec vehicles with blaring sirens, and a few ostentatious-looking GT models and custom cars, probably the property of drug dealers, which she thought better to leave well alone. The mercenary’s knife and her own blaster were conveniently secreted in the pockets of her looted trench coat, but as she hauled her injured leg through the squalid slum, attracting stares and leers at every corner, feeling vulnerable seemed to her the very definition of logic.

After several fruitless minutes, however, her limp had alleviated somewhat, and the pain had become merely a bad case of pins and needles, enabling her to walk at something approaching a normal gait. Feeling strong enough to venture further afield, she decided to make for the nearest of Kaldor City’s many ring roads. That meant traversing a subway, but the risk seemed acceptable. I am well-armed, if not agile. Few of these people look like professionals, and none of them will be expecting to attack an android. Even if I incur damage, I will probably be the survivor, and the longer I delay the greater the risk someone will find Commander Akylah. She depends on me. Thus reasoning, she descended into the damp, concrete tunnel; took as little notice as possible of the obscene graffiti and the pungent, ammoniac stench; and advanced purposefully towards the encouraging sounds of ion engines and antigrav thrusters from the opposite end. She had reached the halfway point, when two men stepped into the tunnel mouth ahead and stood there, waiting. The harsh street lighting outside reduced their forms to silhouettes, but it was a simple matter for Keryn to zoom and enhance her view of them. Combat jackets, off-world make. Gas carbines. Damn it. She reached for her blaster and took aim, but before she could pull the trigger she felt two cold, sharp objects pierce her exposed neck. She glanced back, in time to see another mercenary standing in the tunnel mouth behind her, just before he activated the Taser. The pain was extreme but brief, as the shock quickly sent her nervous system into chaos. Her vision glitched and flickered, while her HUD spewed out nonsensical streams of machine code. Her motor coordination failed her completely, and she collapsed upon the concrete. Her hearing held out a little better, and she was able to distinguish a cruel, triumphant voice over the cacophony of feedback and distortion:

“Here’s a handy tip, girl: when you steal a dead man’s clothes, make sure to check his pockets for tracking devices. Let me help you with those.” A pixelated figure loomed over her, drew a knife, bent down, and began to shear off her outer garments. “Not that it’ll do you much good now, but … I thought so,” he declared, as he cut through the waistband of her jeans, exposing her metal belt, and my neural pack, she realised, with heightened dread. “Hey, Rakov, you got those notes on how we fix this little beauty so she’s all nice and compliant?” her attacker asked one of his colleagues. “I’m damned if I’m carrying her all the way back to the ship.”

“The ship?” asked the second mercenary, confused. “What for? Why not just chuck her in the boot of the car and drive her straight to CompSec HQ? They’re the ones paying for–”

“They’re paying us shit, is why. Screw the Company. I’ve had a better idea. There’s a buyer lined up for this one who’ll pay serious credits, but we’ll either have to keep her deactivated or docile for days to come, and I’d prefer not breaking my back. Pass us those notes, and the toolkit, and I’ll soon put this uppity electric Barbie doll back in her place.”

The mercenary’s hand closed around Keryn’s neural pack, pulled it off, and darkness fell over her.

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