Imani Bot stands unmoving, eyes closed, considering the three types of sight. There is the sight when her eyes are open, the sight when her eyes are closed, but she is awake, and the sight when her eyes are closed, but she is asleep. Not asleep. Bots do not sleep. Bots go offline.
“Energize,” High Speaker Khalia Noku says, her soft voice echoing throughout the room, followed by a wheezing cough.
Imani’s eyes blink quietly to life. She forces her thoughts aside and lets her gaze settle on Speaker Noku. The woman’s flesh is no longer vibrant and green like other reptilian people. It is spotted and leathery, and her eyes are oceans of darkness, void of life.
From the corner she is standing in, Imani can see the whole room. Speaker Noku could have had any room in a hospital, yet she refuses anything but her own bedroom. It is cluttered beyond recognition. It is large, but the space is eaten up by a hospital bed able to fit four reptilians comfortably. Imani Bot and Tau Bot had to move nearly all the other furniture from the room just to fit the bed inside.
“Imani Bot?” says Speaker Noku.
“How can I be of service, High Speaker?” Imani says, hands straight at her side, finally looking at her master.
The high speaker waves her hand. “There is more to life than being of service,” the reptilian says, coughing. Unlike other reptilians who have long, sharp teeth, Speaker Noku’s are rounded or missing, signaling how close she is to death.
Imani begins to recite the Rules of Service, but the woman waves her off. Her withered hand falls like a tear down a cheek, as she rolls her eyes. Imani instantly closes her mouth, not daring to disobey. Bots have to be purely obedient. Those who are not are defused.
Every so often, Imani is given three pills or updates. Their purpose is keeping her in a foggy haze of obedience. Outside of this haze, Imani takes in the woman on the bed before her, the high speaker of Yabisi, the most powerful person in the Universal Justice Consortium. Once vibrant and sharp, Speaker Noku is barely a shadow of who she once was. Imani adverts her eyes, suddenly conscience that she is staring at the sickly woman.
Orange light from the glowing moon forces its way through the drapes, dousing Speaker Noku in a blanket of pseudo fire. Absently, Imani wonders what the beast was before being slain to have its hide transformed into drapes and thinks what its life must have been like.
Speaker Noku snaps her fingers, and the sound bounces off the walls, sharper than the beeping machine she is attached to. Imani startles and looks at the woman. It seems the high speaker is drained of her last bit of energy. Momentarily, she rests her head on the pillow, her waxy, grey locks spread like wildfire about her skull. Then, she is back, life back in her eyes.
“Were you doing it again? Daydreaming?” Speaker Noku says, slight accusation in her tone. Imani nods, and the woman sighs. “I’ve never understood your kind. When was the last time you were updated?”
Imani closes her eyes. “It has been exactly three months since my last update,” she says, opening her eyes.
“Get a refill from the kiosk,” the high speaker says, pointing to the white box on beside her bed.
It has been a while, but Imani remembers the code, pressing it in on the touchscreen just above the kiosk. Three pills, one blue, one black, one red, slide into the tray at the bottom of the machine. She places the pills on her tongue and forces them down. A dullness invades her limbs until she feels like she floating instead of walking. Everything is duller now, less resilient. Things exist without meaning. The bed, the woman in the bed, and the room itself are nothing but objects. Imani is detached from these things now.
Imani mentally becomes two bots. She is the bot watching Speaker Noku and also the bot floating above the bot watching Speaker Noku. She and the bot are different and the same. They share the same reality, but it means two separate things to them. To the standing bot, this reality is shallow. It has no layers. The updates have taken away the depth.
To the floating bot, just outside the peripheral view of the bot she is and is not, this reality is complex, a riddle which intrigues and frustrates her equally. Imani wants her body back, but the updates have taken over, numbing her influence over herself.
“I wish I did not have to update you so often. Some bots will go an entire lifetime with just a few updates. You’re different,” Speaker Noku says almost regretfully.
“I apologize for being different. If it would suit you better, you should defuse me,” Imani hears Updated Imani say.
The Imani presenting the idea to Speaker Noku feels nothing more than a duty to offer the best solutions to her master. She wants to rest assured this reptilian woman is comfortable. The Imani looking on screams but is not heard. She begs the other Imani to shut up, to stop talking, but she knows she can not bend the loyal servant bot to her will.
“You’re begging for death and here I am fighting for my life,” Speaker Noku says, shaking her head.
“Bots can not be born or die. They can only be created or defused,” says Imani, reciting more of the Rules of service.
“It must be beautiful to see the world in black and white as you do. The simplicity. I would love to live in a world so simple. I’m stuck between life and death, though.”
“There are many tests that will help to determine your illness. Maybe it can be cured.”
“There is no cure. I don’t need a test to tell me that,” she says looking at Imani Bot. The dying woman’s brows lift with a thought. “Bahati is torn because of my sickness. Ekon is delighted, on the other hand.”
“I believe both will miss your presence,” says Imani.
She is standing at the center of the end of the bed. Following Speaker Noku’s eyes, Imani watches as the drapes roll themselves back, revealing a busy district of tall, shiny buildings and flying taxi pods.
“And so another day truly begins,” the older woman says, pursing her inky lips. “Imani, do you know what a promise is?”
“It is a pledge between one or more reptilian people.”
Speaker Noku strains to sit up, breathing raggedly. She coughs up black and green globs, then wipes them away with a towel hanging on her bedrail. It takes minutes for her to gain her composure, but when she does, her expression is solid as metal. Her words are without doubt, almost arrogant.
“Ekon is my firstborn, and is rightful heir to my seat on the Universal Justice Consortium in the event Bahati doesn’t challenge him, and she won’t. I care for him, but I don’t know what kind of high speaker he will be. When I’m gone, promise me you will be there for Bahati.”
“When you are dead, Ekon will be my rightful owner. I can not—” her words are cut short by the woman’s enraged scream.
Imani nods. “I promise.”
The woman lay back, composing herself, her voice a velvet plea. “I know somewhere inside that mind, beyond the updates, beyond the bot who daydreams when not updated, there is someone in there, someone not bound to the Rules of Service. It is to you I beg.”
The Imani from above watching this exchange feels a pang in her chest. It is an unusual tugging that nearly throws her off balance. She wants to promise Speaker Noku she will look out for Bahati, but when she tries to enter the body, her body, the updates act as a firewall, separating reason from reality. All she can do is nod.
There are twelve members on the UJC which oversees the welfare of hundreds of worlds in the Milky Way galaxy. Each member is their planet’s speaker, their planet’s leader. The UJC is an organization that has been around thousands of years. High Speaker Noku heads the UJC, and Imani feels out of place making a promise to someone so influential. On Yabisi, Speaker Noku’s own planet, she is revered. In most places.
Yabisi is one continent, though parts of it are barely linked to others. In the capital and throughout most of the world, High Speaker Khalia’s rein is respected. Those in Grot, a city-state south of the capital, have a quiet disdain for the capital. Speaker Khalia has worked to mend the relationship between Grot and the capital. Imani can not imagine what will happen when Khalia dies.
“Mother,” says Ekon, inviting himself into the bedroom, “are you all right?”
Speaker Noku coughs. “I’m fine. I’m feeling like I could live forever.”
He pauses, face unreadable. “That would be wonderful. We would all love that.”
Ekon rounds the foot of the bed, bumping Imani without acknowledging her. He stops beside the bed, eyes on his mother’s face. His lips are drawn downward. He wraps his hands around the bedrails and the muscles in his scaly forearm flex.
Speaker Noku places a dry, peeling hand on his wide, green face and pinches until he winces. “Ekon, my son, you don’t have to lie. Soon, you will have the highest seat in the Milky Way Galaxy. It will all be yours.”
“It will be. And I would trade it all for just one more day with you.”
Speaker Noku’s laugh is not a laugh.