My saber-toothed cat, Sabra, lay on the bed beside me. Her tail twitched as she stared out the floor-to-ceiling window, her fur gilded by the morning sunlight. A bird flew past in a blur and she leaped off of the bed and dashed toward the window, then lay flat on the floor, her tail quivering, her ears flattened against her head. Another bird flew past and she jumped at it, her giant paws sliding against the window in a vain attempt to catch her prey. Claws scraped along the window.
“Sabra! You know you can’t catch them, silly girl.”
One ear flicked back, indicating she’d heard me, but then she crept away, pacing, muscles rippling beneath her sleek golden coat.
It might be futile for Sabra to catch a bird from inside the Spire, but I hoped it would not be as futile for me to catch my quarry. It was going to come right to me, after all.
I sat up and leaned against the cushioned headboard, signaling that I was awake and ready for breakfast. I stretched, sparking my mind into alert mode. I had to be careful about this. If Dad discovered what I was up to, he would probably take my wings. Maybe permanently. Not that Dad had been noticing much lately…which was why this was a good time to do this. Although…the very reason Dad was out of commission was the reason I wanted to trap an M. Because of-my heart shuddered-Mom.
Tears threatened to well up in my eyes. I fought them, fought to distract myself-hard to do when the very reason I was doing this was for Mom.
If this worked, I might find the reason for her madness. And then-I hardly dared hope-they’d be able to find a cure.
But not if they caught me before my plan succeeded… Granted, it would be pretty risky even if Dad wasn’t paying attention. Ms had their own internal safeguards. If they found out what I had planned, they’d swarm over me like antibodies attacking a virus…though they would not hurt me, because I was Royalty. They’d report me to my sister, the de facto ruler of City Magnificent, and she’d punish me. She’d be more lenient than Dad…but whatever happened, she would keep me from modifying any more Ms, keep me from doing anything to help Mom. They didn’t think I had the ability as the youngest, a mere natural-born, who used tech to make pranks, who fooled around instead of getting his school work done. Maybe they were right that I was useless. But I had to try to help Mom. Everyone else had given up. It did not even occur to the others to break the law, even for Mom’s sake. Maybe Vy. But Vy was always offworld nowadays, almost as inaccessible as Dad.
It had just come to me…a spark of an idea. Unconventional, risky, against the law-but that didn’t matter. Nothing did, except Mom getting better. Even if I lost my wings…. I shuddered. Yes, it was even worth losing my wings, if I got Mom back.
Sometimes I thought it would be less cruel for her to have died, but then there would be no chance of a cure. It just hurt so much to see her that way-screaming, crying, thrashing about, in such pain that she felt it even in her dreams. As hard as it was to see her, I still went to her room, saw the pale figure wasted away on her bed, agony written on her face… fear crushing her so it was hard to believe she was the same person as the Iridescent Queen, so full of light and life….
No one else except Glory went to see her. Even Glory, some of her own light dimmed by having the world on her shoulders, had lost hope of a cure.
No. I would not lose hope. I would not give up on Mom. Not until I did everything I possibly could.
If I thought it would heal her, I’d give my life for her. Though I hoped it would not come to that.
If Dad woke up enough to take my wings, that would almost be like taking my life….
The door swished sideways. An M walked in, holding a covered golden tray. The strong smell of sausages wafted into the room. Sausages. My favorite.
“Good morning, sir,” said the M, as he strode up to my bed.
“Good morning, Peri,” I said. I’d given him the name “Periwinkle” when I was little, just because I’d liked the sound of it. Now I thought it rather silly, but I was used to it now, and his actual designation was 102389483. I wasn’t about to call him that. “What do you have for me today?”
He swept the cover off of the tray with a flourish, the motion ruffling his brown holographic hair. He leaned over the bed at an angle that most humans would find impossible, and held the tray in front of me. “Today we have Kalata’ian sausages from Mirage, masp root from Ice, and red mushrooms from Eclipse, all prepared with complementary spices.”
I patted the bed beside me, and he set the tray there.
“We also have juice from our very own fireberry.” He handed me a glass of juice, swirling with the colors of sunset. I took it and set it on the back of the headboard. I didn’t want it to get in the way of what I had to do.
Peri bowed deeply. He was a pleasant-looking M, with a long, middle-aged face, a kind expression-although, as with all Ms, there was something a bit disconcerting about them. No matter how perfect their imitation was, when you looked into their eyes, there was nothing there. Nothing but circuits and gears, hardware and software. Most people were fine with Ms, but even the ones I’d grown up with made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want mechanical parts for a friend. I wanted real people. A bit hard to get nowadays…..
Still, I liked Peri more than most, since he’d been my personal servant for as long as I could remember, and I felt a twinge of guilt for what I was about to do.
“Is there anything else that you require, sir?” He backed toward the door, not having to look behind him because of his sensors. Since he wasn’t trying to blend in, he could do things that were not quite human…which did not bother most people. They thought it comforting, in fact, since Ms were created to protect us.
“Actually, there is.”
A faint expression of surprise crossed his face. I didn’t usually ask for much from him; most of the time, I just wanted to be left to do my own thing without Ms watching my every move.
“What is it, my lord?”
Peri obediently walked back toward me. I slid off the bed, careful not to jolt the food off of the tray.
“Hold out your hand,” I said.
Peri did so, palm up. I grasped Peri’s wrist. The joint was cold, metallic, beneath holographic skin, reminding me there was no humanity here, no matter how much it might mimic it. I didn’t have to feel one bit guilty-in fact, hesitation could mean failure.
I took a deep breath and pulled at the energy powering the M, letting it seep through my fingers with warm, pleasant sparks, which turned into a steady flow, draining the M of electric current. Its eyes widened in shock, and despite myself I felt sorry for ambushing him and using him… but this wouldn’t damage him permanently, anyway. He had no real feeling, after all-he was just a computer with a body.
He struggled weakly against my grip, but by this time most of his energy had poured into me, and his holographic skin flickered, then vanished, revealing the silver metal beneath. His wrist slipped from my hand and he collapsed to the floor, a metal skull and skeleton, the jaw hanging open, the eye sockets blank red sensors.
I had to hurry. Any malfunction would be picked up and more Ms would come to take him away.
I grabbed the toolkit hidden beneath my bed and picked out a screwdriver. Then I pried open a panel on the top of the M’s skull and took another tool, which I inserted into the computer brain, and toggled around until I reached the malfunction alarm and switched it off.
Sabra jumped up onto the bed and snatched one of the sausages, then lay down to eat it. I grabbed the other sausage and ate with one hand while I worked with the other.
I had to flip off a few more safeguards, but it was easy to do now that the alarm was off and I had drained all of the electricity from the M. With a little bit of electricity, it might have still been able to alert someone. I was good at absorbing electricity, one of the only things, besides tech and flying, that I was good at. But no one saw it as an asset-Marches were supposed to be able to produce electric current, not leech it out of things. The only other person I knew who had been good at it was my grandfather, who had killed my other grandfather, the Sovereign of Mag City, and been thrown to the Abyss. He had done it by tweaking an M like I was doing, come to think of it…. But no. I couldn’t compare myself with him. He had modified the M so it could kill my Grandpapa. I was modifying the M so it could save my mother. I was not like Strike Vale at all. I hated to even think I was related to him, or that I was like him in any way. I was using this defective ability for good, not evil. There was something good that could come of it after all.
After the safeguards were off, I summoned lightning. A few paltry sparks danced across my fingertips. But I didn’t need to power the M much; I didn’t want him to turn all the way back on yet. I pressed my hand to the computer brain and it sputtered to life. Then I opened the M’s basic programming, and its hologram sprang into the air in front of me.
I opened its security programming and slid the safeguards past the danger level. An alarm pinged; I jabbed it off. Then I grabbed the plate and set it down beside me, and ate the springy branched mushrooms and the soft, tangy root, while I entered entirely new programs, fiddling with it when it resisted and tried to spring back to its original mission. Stubborn thing. I wrested it back to the way I wanted it.
I impressed into it its mission-find data from grayspace that could explain the reason for Mom’s madness-and added subprograms to deal with contingencies, stretching its rigid mind to the limit, and giving it as much adaptability to extreme environments as I could. It was too bad I couldn’t get a battle M, or better yet, a spy M, which had the best adaptability matrix of any of them, but it would be almost impossible to catch one of them off guard. I’d have to make do with this one-although, with its modifications, I might be able to use it catch another one. But I hoped my modifications to the servant M would be enough, perhaps making it the equivalent of a battle M at least. Though none had the exact programming I had given it; I was making a whole new breed of M.
I put in some finishing touches, then sat back and admired my handiwork-the new program, spinning bright inside the holographic schematics of the M’s mind. Hope surged inside of me. It was beautiful. A new thing, an idea that had sprung from my mind, now in visual form. A shiver of excitement ran through me, along with a quiver of fear. This was the easy part. Now I’d have to get the M to the Portal and gather enough data without anyone finding out.
I ate the last of the mushroom, which had gotten cold and rubbery, and slid my hand along Sabra’s smooth back. She blinked at me with half-closed eyes, and a purr rumbled in her throat. I kissed the top of her head. “I’ll be back,” I said, and scratched between her shoulder blades. She laid her head down on her paws, her long canines hanging over the edge of the bed.
I knelt back down beside Peri and slid his cranial plate back on with a snap. Then I pressed my palm on his chest over his main energy core and tried to summon lightning. I closed my eyes, concentrating, forcing myself to calm down-which wasn’t easy to do. My heart pounded hard, my body seized with adrenaline.
Unlike the rest of my family, my lightning was unpredictable. I couldn’t even make it work consistently with strong emotion, like anger. The only thing that sometimes worked was shutting out all distractions and dragging it from deep inside me. The small amount that I had was always reluctant and preferred to stay asleep inside of me rather than do any sort of work. Trying to force it didn’t work either. I had to just let it flow out of its own accord, if it wanted to…. While my siblings, especially Blade, had a hard time suppressing theirs.
Lightning flickered down my arms, dissipating as it flowed, then melted back into my skin.
“Come on!” I said. But getting frustrated would only make it worse.
I forced myself to breathe. Find the calm center of myself, the way Mom had taught me….
“I don’t have a calm center,” I told her once, sitting in her garden where she liked to meditate, holographic candles flickering around her in the dim light. She sat in front of me, cross-legged, her svelte form draped with a white nightgown, her eyes closed, her golden hair cascading over her shoulders. “It’s just-a hurricane inside of me.”
She smiled. “Even hurricanes have a calm center.”
“But-what if I don’t? I mean-I’m just a mess of random genes. I’m not like the other Marches. I don’t have powerful lightning like you, I’m smaller; I-I think differently.”
She opened her eyes. “My Jet. You are different-and maybe that will make meditation harder. It may make a lot of things harder. You might not have been built from scratch like the rest of us. But you also have freedom-something the rest of us only have in part, because our role is written in our very DNA.”
“What do I choose, Mom?”
She kissed my forehead. “That, you will have to find out for yourself.”
Her words echoed in my mind. My heart ached, like it always did when I thought of Mom. I forced my mind to think of something else.
Flying. Soaring over City Magnificent, up toward the clear blue sky…. I could never totally clear my mind, and I doubted I could ever find a calm center. But flying was the closest I could get.
Lightning gathered, crackling over my arms. I forced myself to stay calm, though excitement threatened to douse my attempt before it started.
I let it flow down into the M’s metal chest. Pain snapped into my hands. I hoped the protective skin coating that Royalty had would protect me from the worst of it. Letting the lightning out, I lifted my hands away so they wouldn’t bear the full force of the feedback. Electricity cracked and surged against the M’s chest, then a sharp jolt hit me and I fell back, all thought wiped from my mind for a millisecond before pain seized my hands. I fumbled for a medpatch in the toolkit and pressed it to my shoulder. My palms throbbed violently. I sat back against the bed, gasping, as the medpatch began to work and send euphoria through me, dulling the pain.
Peri stirred and sat up, a blur of silver. I wiped the tears from my eyes, my hands still shaking, and when I could see more clearly, his holoskin flickered back on, concealing his metal skeleton.
His face turned toward me. “Master, are you all right?”
“What happened?” He blinked. An expression of confusion crossed his face. “What did you d-d-d-” He shook his head, and his voice distorted. “Do.”
Maybe the new programming had been too much for his limited adaptability matrix. I crawled forward, still shaken despite the medpatch. Its sedative wasn’t helping much with coordination either.
I’d planned for this more than I normally did for anything, but I’d thought I could make up the rest as I went along. That had always worked for me before, more or less, but maybe it would be my downfall this time…
No. Don’t think like that.
I knelt in front of Peri. He was sitting, staring into space. His holoskin flickered, and I feared that the new programming was taking too much memory so he couldn’t even keep his appearance. I couldn’t very well go anywhere with a naked M….
“Are you all right, Peri?”
His head jerked toward me. “I-I-I-”
I did the only thing I could think of. I slammed my fist into his metal cheek.
He toppled over and hit the floor with a dull thud.