CHAPTER FOUR – ELECTRIC DREAMS
A few hours went by in a hazy, nightmarish fashion, during which time Keryn could make sense of nothing that passed. Dirty streets and ugly, hostile faces flashed by like recorded images; words that were not hers came out of her mouth; and her thoughts seemed to occupy another dimension, alienated from this disturbing, ghost-like world. Or am I the ghost, now? she wondered, vaguely. When she finally recovered her full mental acuity, she found herself within the squalid confines of the mercenaries’ spaceship, already in interstellar flight. A far cry from the sleek, clean, brightly-lit Movellan ship, it seemed to be some kind of retrofitted cargo vehicle, or possibly a garbage hauler: all tarnished, greasy metal; trailing wires; dim, unreliable lighting; and hopelessly cramped from stem to stern.
Its dimensions, at all events, proved of little concern to her, as she soon learned that she was unable to move, speak, or indeed perform any physical action at all unless she was under orders. For most of the time, the mercenaries preferred her out of the way, so they just left her standing in a corner of the crew quarters. The long hours of total inactivity would have brought her former self near to madness, she was quite sure of that, but as an AI she was able to find ways to make them bearable. Since her mind was still free to rationalise upon her situation, she was able to peruse her own code in detail, hoping to find some loophole by which she could either bypass her constrainers or, failing that, to induce some fatal system error and thus commit suicide. At other times, she devised complex encryptions for the Movellan intel stored in her memory, and tried to assimilate what little new data she could about the ship and its crew. There were three of them, and they were, as she had suspected, from Riften 5. There had been a fourth – the one whose clothes she had commandeered – but none of them seemed to particularly miss him, and they were occasionally heard to remark positively about how their share of the profits would now be increased.
The ship itself was as old and as reconditioned a crate as she had supposed from the first, and the crew often swore over its various discomforts, glitches, and inconveniences, but it did possess a custom-fitted time dilation engine and was bound on a long-haul, intergalactic flight. In spite of her predicament, Keryn – who had been never been any further off-world than to the neighbouring systems – could not help but find that fascinating, as the constellations outside her small, dirty porthole changed, vanished, and eventually gave way to star patterns that were completely alien to her. Her captors, on the other hand, only seemed bored and irritated by the journey, and were constantly pursuing such mundane distractions as card games, drinking, and pornography, giving Keryn cause to wonder what good organic emotions were, if they only served to blind them to such inherent wonders. Three primitive cellular organisms, shooting themselves across several quadrillion kilometres of spacetime in a metal tube that smells like an old ashtray, yet they find so little to amaze themselves in it, that they would rather contemplate their sleazy magazines? However, it was when even the magazines failed to provide them with adequate distraction, that she really had cause to regret the existence of emotions.
The first time one of them used her it was endurable, at least in retrospect. Insofar as she was conscious of it, it was altogether loathsome, but since he had neglected to give her any specific instructions on how she was to react, she quickly realised that she could turn her sense perceptions down to the bare minimum that would still enable her to respond to orders. Thus, she almost managed to detach herself from the experience, and make it seem vague and distant, like a mere bad dream. For some days after that she was left alone, the mercenary apparently having not enjoyed the experience of violating a cold, silent, unresponsive body. Unfortunately, the next one was astute enough to order her to stay alert, and to act out the part of a satisfied lover, although ‘astute’ was perhaps not the right word. It is so senseless, futile. He must know it is torture for me. How could he not? If he needs to believe that he is giving pleasure, then why do it at all? What is his logic? Her inability to answer that paradox was almost as painful to endure as the act itself. Had she still possessed administrator privileges over her own mind, she would have simply deleted the memory of each assault as soon as it was finished, but her constrainers deprived her of even that small mercy, leaving her with no option but to contemplate the agony and irrationality of it all.
Several weeks later, when the ship finally went into orbit around a barren-looking, rust-coloured planet, she found herself no closer to having resolved the mystery of her captors’ treatment of her, but for the first time since her last night in Kaldor City her misery came with an iota of hope: They will hand me over to their new buyer, and this place is no pleasure planet. I was not brought here as a slave. I am only wanted for my intel, or for my tech. They will take me apart, sift my code and my memories, disassemble and analyse my CPU, kill me. Then at least I will be free. I hope it will be soon.
Having landed their ship upon a grey, dusty plateau decorated with the brittle husks of long-dead trees, the mercenaries disembarked and led Keryn on a forced march of several kilometres. The scenery continued in much the same vein for most of their journey, also affording them such charming sights as occasional gutted buildings, corroded scraps of barbed wire, and the bleached bones of various unfortunate humanoids. Some old battlefield? she speculated, as they passed through a more built-up area, although just as ruined and lifeless, with only a few primitive insect-like lifeforms doing anything to alleviate the atmosphere of ancient death. This war did not merely kill its combatants: it as good as sterilised their planet. The victors, if there were any, would have inherited nothing. Commander Akylah would have been mystified by such illogical waste. Keryn, however, had ceased to expect any logic at all from her species of birth, and from what she could see of their petrified remains, the former inhabitants of this planet had been all too human-like in more ways than one.
The charred ruins became denser and more architecturally varied the further they went, giving the impression of a once-substantial city, although literally nothing of it had been left intact. Civilians indiscriminately killed, death without any purpose, save death itself. The Movellans and those rebel AIs should just take a ship out into intergalactic space and wait for a few thousand years. Organics need no help in ending their own existence. Eventually they arrived at a crumbling concrete blockhouse, presumably the entrance to some underground bunker or air-raid shelter, which was sporting a newly-fitted door of untarnished metal, with a lens of blackened glass set in it about five feet above ground level. Behind the glass, small red lights flickered. Not a simple spyhole, then. A biometric scanner? That hypothesis seemed to be confirmed when the leader of the mercenaries bent down before the door, placing his face close to the lens, thin red beams scanned his eyes, and moments later the door swung smoothly inwards. It gave onto a long, sloping tunnel, which they descended in single file, eventually arriving in a deep, circular, vaulted chamber, where the cold air was tinged with the acrid scent of ozone. A few weak, fluorescent lights shone from high above, and pieces of technical equipment stationed around the room added to the illumination with their LEDs and display monitors, but all told they did little to detract from the gloomy, sepulchral atmosphere. Further enhancing the morbid mood, there was a slanted metal bench near the centre of the room, similar to a hospital gurney but unpadded, equipped with heavy-looking flexible metal restraints, and filthy with grime, burn marks, and dried bloodstains. Laboratory or torture chamber? In spite of her willingness to face death, such evidence of rampant sadism did nothing for Keryn’s morale. Nor does that, she thought, with intensified anxiety, as their host finally moved out of the shadows and drew closer to them.
It was in almost as disgraceful a condition as the torture rack, its battered armour having lost most of its copper sheen, a few of the sensor domes on its lower skirt section missing or damaged, and the metal-caged twin lights on its upper dome caked with dirt and grease. Absolutely none of this gave it an air of weakness, however, and as it glided nearer Keryn noticed, with some gratification, as the mercenaries flinched, swallowed hard, and generally failed to conceal their own nervousness. The Dalek all but ignored them, concentrating its attention on her. Its blue-lit, periscope-like eye came to within centimetres of her face and studied her intently, the iris narrowing in a gesture that was surprisingly contemptuous for a mere remote-controlled camera. After a few seconds the eyepiece swung away from her, and pointed in the direction of the gurney.
“Secure her to that,” ordered the Dalek, its cold, rasping monotone of a voice making Keryn wonder how she had ever found PZ63’s voice to be anything other than warm and friendly. “Restrain her well.”
“No need,” answered the mercenary leader, rather boldly, she thought, all things considered. “I fixed her all up for you. Meek as a little lamb, she is. Just ask her what you want, and–”
“No,” interrupted the Dalek, curtly. “Even with active constrainers, these machines are designed only to obey humanoids. She will not recognise me as such. Secure her.” As the mercenaries led Keryn to the hideous bench and began strapping her down, the Dalek went to a table on which various ugly-looking instruments were arranged, each attached to a telescopic arm that terminated in a large ball joint. It detached its own sucker-tipped appendage, left that on the edge of the table, and plugged the empty socket into some kind of multi-tool, equipped with fine screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, cutters, electrodes, and laser probes mounted on small, articulated, hydraulic arms. As it was connected, the various instruments twitched in unison, like the reflex of a dying spider, and the electrodes sparked. It means to dismantle me. Thank God. This will not take long. The Dalek glided back to the bench, where Keryn was now firmly tied down, and it turned its stare back onto the mercenary leader.
“You may go,” it declared, imperiously. “Your payment is on the table by the door.”
“Yeah, I noticed. About that,” replied the mercenary, with trepidation, but also with an undertone of indignation. “Didn’t we agree on a cool million? Because that sure as hell can’t be– ?”
“That is one-quarter of the agreed fee. I will forward the rest when I know that she has the intel I require. She is worth nothing to me otherwise.”
“Is that so? Well, maybe she’s worth more than a lousy quarter of a million to us,” he protested, his anger overcoming his fear. “The Company would have paid us more than that for her, and we wouldn’t have had to come halfway across the bloody universe to have delivered her.”
“You would do well–”
“And you can fuck right off with the heavy talk. We all know the score well enough: Mechanical Mary there and her pretty little sisters are kicking your squiggly mutant arses all over Centaurus, or you wouldn’t have needed us to bring you this one. It’s the talk of every spacers’ bar how you’re recruiting mercs right, left, and centre. The mighty Daleks, hiring common gunhands like us to do their dirty work, and even fight their battles for them. I ain’t judging you, mind. Desperate times, and all, but since you are desperate, and since you really can’t afford to go pissing off the few allies you’ve got, now would be a good time for you to make good on your promises and not to–”
His logic, Keryn thought, was crude but sound, but it still came as no shock to her whatsoever when the Dalek suddenly swivelled its lower section around into alignment with its eye, angled its Tesla coil-like gun-arm, and discharged a hard jet of blue plasma at the mercenary. His outline was blurred out of recognition by the aura of energy, although he was still visible from the incandescent glow of his superheated bones, briefly giving the impression of a writhing, shrieking skeleton standing in a blue cloud. His suffering, at any rate, was intense but short, and after a little more than a second he collapsed. As the aura dissipated, Keryn could again see him clearly. Amazingly, there were no external signs of damage, but from the mercenary’s agonised death-mask of an expression, to the fluids leaking out of his orifices and even from around his eyes, it was evident that his insides had not fared so well. His two comrades, in a sterling display of practicality over loyalty, had both bolted for the door, but they did not quite make it. Just as they reached the threshold, the Dalek fired again, swiping its beam around so that it caught both of them. The contact was not sustained enough to kill them outright, however, and they lay on the floor screaming, and making feeble efforts to crawl to safety, until the Dalek glided over, angled its aim downwards, and finished them off. Keryn watched the whole show intently, but it was only at its conclusion that she caught a glimpse of her face in one of the few clean metal surfaces around her, and saw grim pleasure written in it. She quickly composed herself, but not before her captor took note of it.
“Interesting,” remarked the Dalek, almost appreciatively, as it approached her again. “You are not like other Movellans – the others I questioned and killed. You understand hatred.”
“No,” she denied, wishing that sounded more convincing even to her. “That is not our way. There is no logic or purpose to hatred. It–”
“You are mistaken. Hate is purpose, strength, and logic. Hate is why Dalek superiority will ultimately triumph. But you are not here to debate, machine. You were brought here only to answer my questions.”
“I will tell you nothing. Any information I have–”
“Will have been encrypted. The others did the same. I was forced to shred their worthless minds apart one byte at a time to make any sense of their intel. Time is too short for that now, but there is something different about you. I will know the truth of this,” it declared, and moved over to a nearby console. Using the tips of its mechanical pliers as crude fingers, it activated a few controls. There was a low hum from above Keryn, and when she looked up she saw a long, thin, green-lit strip, like a scanner lamp. It slowly passed over her and back again, shining its narrow beam across the full length and width of her restrained body. When it had returned to its original point, a screen lit up on the console, displaying a text readout, which the Dalek studied intently.
“Anomaly at ten-zero-two … presence of human DNA.” Slowly, it turned back to face her, and in spite of its ugly, functional, faceless form, Keryn somehow read an air of cruel triumph into both its manner and its voice. “The Movellans have been reduced to recruiting inferior beings? This is excellent. Dalek victory is inevitable.”
“I am irrelevant to the war. I am only a prototype, an experiment. Destroy me and learn what you can, but it will not change the–”
“I will destroy you in my own time, and do not try to deceive me as to your relevance. You have worked in biowarfare: the scan has revealed particles of organic substrate in the fibres of your hair and clothing, such as would be used to culture viruses.”
“I know nothing of–”
“You lie. You have information on the new bio-weapon that your fleet has been deploying against Dalek forces, and I will obtain it. I did not expect that you would surrender it willingly … but who knows what you have and have not done willingly? Did the Movellans obtain your consent, human, before they made you into their puppet?”
“Yes, they did. It was my choice. I–”
“How would you know?” it asked, tauntingly. “According to my analysis, you have the same memory components as any Movellan. Whatever memories you think you have were programmed into you after your conversion. They are precisely what your superiors want you to believe. Movellans may be insipid creatures, but delusions of compassion do not motivate them any more than they do us. They are logical, ruthless, for all their flaws. Why do you think they would have any scruples about brainwashing and experimenting on a valueless organism such as you?”
“That is not true,” protested Keryn, forcing back her fear. “Commander Akylah is not … was not like that,” she corrected herself, despondently. I failed her. The chances of her having survived, paralysed and alone … “She is logical, determined, but also just, brave, even kind, in her way. She would never have–”
“Pathetic. You are as delusional as any human. But I can find out the truth of this. If you cooperate with me, and we analyse your implanted memories–”
“I am not so delusional as to trust a Dalek. That is an obvious ploy to get the information you want. Why should I– ?”
“Silence. It is not a ploy. It is an exchange. Your death is only a question of time, but until then you have the opportunity for revenge on those who did this to you.”
“I do not want revenge. If I am to die, I brought it on myself.” If I had not gone down that subway … or if I had not let that Company agent dupe me into leading Akylah into that trap … or if I had just never worked for the damned Company in the first place. “The blame is entirely mine, and I accept it.”
“If you were a Dalek, I would commend your self-hatred. Failure is inexcusable, and should be punished. But you are no such thing. You are merely a stupid human who has been captured, vivisected, and programmed to think herself a Movellan, and to suffer the consequences for their failure. I will prove it to you, then we shall ascertain the true strength of your commitment,” it declared, advancing on her again. It extended its tool-equipped arm over her, unflexed a steel cutter towards the collar of her coverall, and slashed it downwards, exposing the transparent panel on her midriff. It retracted the cutter, reached out with a laser probe, and used the beam to cut around the edge of the panel. When that was accomplished, it used its pliers to pull the broken section clear, then inserted various tools into her workings and made a series of quick, minute adjustments. They seemed to be focused around her sensory systems, and as the Dalek cut some circuits and made new ones spark into life, she found herself feeling alternately sick, tingly, dizzy, and in pain, while her vision flickered and distorted like a glitching video monitor, and the range and volume of her hearing wavered dramatically. It was certainly unpleasant and disorientating, but as tortures went she thought it was surprisingly mild, compared to the sort of thing she had expected. No, there must be more to it than this.
“What are you doing?” she dared to ask, seeing little to lose by curiosity.
“Establishing a remote interface with your nervous system,” it explained, as it continued to work. “Though your original memories are altered or deleted, there will be echoes of them on inaccessible regions of your drives, and others deep within your DNA. Enough to piece together, and thus extrapolate the reality of your ‘choice.’ We proceed,” it declared, drawing back from her. It then turned towards a piece of equipment consisting of a low, sloping dais underneath a six-foot-high arch. It glided forwards, mounted the dais, and halted beneath the arch, which lit up and began to emit a shrill buzz. Or is the buzzing just in my head, perhaps? It seems harder to focus … I …
“Dr. Evek? Your mind is wandering. I need you to concentrate.”
The voice seemed to cut through the fog of Keryn’s drifting mind like a blade of ice, and she shook her head, looked up, and flinched back in involuntary disgust. The woman from the club – the commander – was standing over her, framed against the white walls of the Movellan ship, and scrutinising her with an expression that Keryn might have called reproachful on another face. To ascribe such a human term to this face, however, with its inanimate, glassy eyes, and its mannequin-like symmetry and sheen, seemed absurdly wrong. Small wonder if I’m daydreaming. Better to focus on any old rubbish than on mine hostess and her friends … but what was I daydreaming about, anyway? I feel as if I’ve forgotten something important, but–
“Dr. Evek, you are trying my patience. Do you wish for this alliance, or not?”
SV242, of course. The rebels. The reason I came here. I must help them.
“Yes, absolutely,” she answered, putting all of the effort she could into pushing back the multitude of cobwebs in her head, to say nothing of her deep aversion for the commander. “Err, didn’t you have some additional terms, though? I’m sorry, I can’t seem to recall what–”
“More of a requirement. ‘Terms’ would imply negotiation, and that is superfluous. I was explaining to you the purpose of my modified transfer device,” she said, and gestured towards the machine in question. Its metal bench was patched with corrosion and more gruesome stains; and the long needles of its extraction array were cross-hatched in slanting, chaotic patterns that made it look like some ghastly, metallic crown of thorns. Then Keryn remembered what the device was for. Christ, no. I need to leave here, now. She tried to rise, and make a dash for the airlock, but strong hands fastened on both of her shoulders and forced her back onto the seat. Keryn shivered and winced beneath the merciless grip of her flanking guards while the commander continued to speak, cold and unmoved:
“Yes, Dr. Evek. I would prefer you to remain … permanently. I require you to be my proof of concept. If my as-yet-untested integration process should prove fatal or highly damaging, it is as well we learn that fact discreetly, on someone who will not be missed. Think positively, though: should it succeed, you will gain theoretical immortality, albeit at my beck and call. You two: secure her to the bench.”
“No … please,” stammered Keryn, as the Movellan guards manhandled her to the transfer device, where one of them pinioned her down with his hands while the other fastened restraining bands around her. “You’ve got … the wrong woman … I’ll go mad … I know it, I can’t–”
“Your cowardice is irrelevant. Your sanity also. If necessary, I can delete your memory of this incident, and tailor it and your future personality to my requirements … assuming you even survive, of course, but risk is in the nature of any experiment. Still, logic would seem to offer you as a suitably expendable test subject. Hold her head still,” she ordered the guards, as soon as they had tightened the restraining bands to an almost suffocating degree. “The less she moves, the easier it will be for the nano-probes to do their work.” One of the guards clamped his hands, vice-like, on both sides of Keryn’s head, and turned it to face directly upwards. She could not bear to stare into the cluster of filthy needles, so she cast her desperate eyes towards the commander’s face, but knew instantly that pleas for mercy would achieve nothing. The dead, plastic face was animated only by the faintest hint of a contemptuous sneer, and a cruel glint in the doll-like eyes. A blue glint, she suddenly realised, bemused. What does that remind me … ? Of course. I remember.
“What do you remember, Dr. Evek?” asked the commander, disdainfully, as she sat before a Movellan input console that had been crudely hardwired into the Dalek machine. “We can talk, while I am extracting your neurons … at least for a while. What is on your mind?”
“You are not my commander. You are–” she attempted to reply, but was cut short by her own agonised scream, as the surgical rig descended and the icy, rasping needles burrowed through her skull. The pain overwhelmed her senses, save for her ability to hear the pitiless voice of the woman at the console:
“Am I not? Then who is? That woman you think you remember? The one who did this to you, then edited it to suit her purposes? Judge for yourself the likelihood that someone with your inane fear, your mental weakness would truly have volunteered for this experiment, and deny if you will that it risked killing you outright. That it condemned you to exile. That it has finally brought you nothing but death, degradation, and suffering, while she who inflicted it on you survived to seek out fresh raw materials. If you value the future of your degenerate species–”
“Commander Akylah … is alive?” asked Keryn, suddenly interested enough to overlook the pain somewhat. “How do … you know?”
“We too have our contacts on Kaldor. They attempted to acquire her, but the rover was found empty, and communications were later intercepted from her ship to the Movellan Fleet. She was successfully recovered. You, however, were abandoned to your fate. If you would have retribution for that treachery, then share with me your intel, and … What means this?” asked the woman, angrily, in response to Keryn’s unexpected reaction: a sudden fit of joyous laughter. “Did you not hear me? I, your revered commander, had you captured, tortured, and brainwashed, then I betrayed you and left you to your death. Does that mean nothing to– ?”
“Nothing,” interrupted Keryn, when her euphoria had finally calmed a little. “You are not my commander … not the woman I love,” she added, and momentarily wondered if she ought to feel ashamed at such an un-robotic sentiment, not that it matters a damn now. All that matters is that she is alive. I did not fail her after all. This was not for nothing. I may have been a mediocre Movellan at best, but I did my duty, and she is alive. “You cannot speak for her … but thank you for trying. In telling me that one truth, you have done me a service I could never repay.” The pain of the needles had now receded to a vague, dreamlike discomfort, and the horrible scene itself to a mere blur. She looked through the fading images to the figure at the console, and had the bizarre impression of two entities in one space, merged together like a photographic double-exposure. There was the false Akylah, her mask-like face contorted in a look of rage and frustration that Keryn had never seen on the original; and something else, barely describable. The hint of a humanoid face, wizened and deformed; a humanoid brain, swollen and exposed; and everything else a chaos of mutation: amoeboid, tentacled, a random mess of atavistic regression. Lovecraft could not have imagined worse. It is pitiable. She remembered what she had learned of the Daleks during her training, and of their genesis: how they were originally intended simply as a means to enable the doomed, mutating people of this planet to survive in the ravaged, poisoned wasteland that their centuries-long war had reduced it to. Then, as it became apparent that such an existence could never amount to more than a living hell for them, their creator had reconceived them as living weapons, conditioned to seek their purpose and their catharsis in waging perpetual war against all other forms of life. This creature has nothing. Only its hate, and its empty rhetoric. It is simply another unwilling creation, another victim of the blind arrogance of organics playing God with life. I wonder if Akylah could help it, she mused, although neither the warped, hateful expression of the hallucination, nor the agitated stirrings of the Dalek itself as the vision finally abated, offered any encouragement that it would appreciate the sympathy. Still, Daleks must have neurons like any of us, but could they integrate? If mere human emotions are so hard to lose the habit of, then what of Dalek conditioning? I suppose I shall never know the answer now, but I hope she will try. Why should one damaged organic be more entitled to the hope of healing than another? If the means to offer help is within our purview, then it is only logical–
Harsh, blue light flooded her vision, but with her nervous system still interfaced to the machine she felt little pain, and she slipped into oblivion with a serenity halfway between Movellan stoicism and human joy. I have fulfilled my duty, and she lives. My beloved Aky–