The Espion Series, Book One
by A B Potts
First Publication (Deliver Us From Evil) Copyright © Anni B Potts, 2011
Second Edition Copyright © Anni B Potts, 2011
Third & Forth Edition Copyright © Anni B Potts, 2012
Published by ABP Technology, Shropshire
The right of A B Potts to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN No. 978-1-465-92237-3
Far, far away, on a little blue world called Mona, the inhabitants speak of the Tinnin: a collection of three beings who control and shape the worlds in which we all live with their constant meddling. They have no names; they have no need of them. They know who they are.
In the gloomy darkness of their cave, these three cold shadows sit peering into a fire. The flames lick the air with an eerie, unnatural orange glow, and the red smoke that it exudes twists and twirls leisurely into the air, not dispersing, but winding itself into an ethereal rope that reaches eternally into the vault above where it undulates like seaweed in the currents of a quiet sea.
As the wisps of smoke wind themselves into the rope, they are momentarily unravelled, showing the hazy crimson visions of which they are formed. Visions fashioned from memories and history, of current events, and of that which is yet to be or may be. Visions that, as they touch each other, react with each other, evolve and are ever changing, entwining themselves into newer and stronger ropes until, under the strain of their own volume, they break apart, snapping like strained string.
The shadows watch and occasionally snatch a thread of smoke, pulling it from its natural path. They examine it as it twists and writhes like a small snake in their gnarled, elongated fingers and then, having studied the surrounding visions for a suitable place, let it go to reintegrate itself back into the fabric of time. Occasionally it takes an extra prod with a bony digit to make the smoke attach itself to the place they want it to go, but finally, once it has caught, they can watch it return to the column and fully re-entwine itself back into the rope of scarlet, smoky visions.
These are the Tinnin—watching, waiting, keeping, nurturing, and reading the signs; but this story is not about the Tinnin. It is about the finest little thread of smoke that is floating almost insignificantly in the air, so pale and fine that it is barely visible—but the Tinnin have seen it and are watching it as it hovers tantalisingly just out of their fingers' reach. Every now and then, it comes just a little bit closer to them, so close that they stop. Even their breathing stops as they are mesmerised by it, waiting to see if it will come close enough to them this time.
"The time draws near," gasps the First, breaking the silence.
"Yes, I can feel the beginning," quivers the Second with excitement.
"And the end," says the Third with great sorrow in her voice.
"The beginning comes first!" snaps the First. "It starts with the beginning."
"No," corrects the Third, "every beginning is the aftermath of an end, and every end is the dawn of a new beginning. It has always been this way and always will be. One man's end is another man's beginning. This is the way of all things."
The First and Second ponder the sentiment as they have so many times before. It is an old argument and once more, they nod reluctantly in agreement, all the while watching the smoky threads.
"But how many ends have come to pass for this one beginning?" ponders the First.
"And how many more are yet to come?" adds the Second.
The Third suddenly lurches upwards and oh! Such joy on the Tinnins' faces, for she has it at last, in her grasp...
Kyamena looked up into the night sky towards the place where the stars no longer shone. She knew that it was there and if she squinted her eyes to look, she could just make out the inky blackness of its outline: the thing that now hung in front of the stars stopping them shining through. It had arrived just a few weeks ago and had been barely noticed at first as it sat so quietly in the sky. But then had come the chaos and the war. It had been a short war—a war that they had lost.
Now she understood her enemy and she knew that on this battlefield, she and her people had never stood a chance. Yet she wasn't filled so entirely with despair because she had been raised an optimist, and she wasn't dead yet. Not yet, although she feared there wasn't long to go.
A sharp nudge in the small of her back shunted her forward. She turned and glared at her oppressor as she was shuffled forward with the rest of the throng of people to whom she was bound. The Sallow Warrior stared back at her through its cold, hell-fire red eyes.
"You may have won this war, but there is always another day," she hissed at it, although even she knew that her words were empty. As for the android, it certainly felt no fear or trepidation at her words. It jabbed at her again, and she stumbled onto her knees but quickly brought herself back to her feet despite her hands being tied behind her back. She had started this trip with five people behind her in the throng, but as each of them had fallen, the Warrior had held no hesitation in putting them out of their misery with one quick blast of the weapon built into its arm.
It was ironic that something as beautiful as the Warrior could be so deadly. It was tall and strong, yet incredibly nimble and agile—out of all proportion to its bulk—and it shone like polished gold with brightly coloured enamel inlaid into the headdress that surrounded its face. It reminded her of the sarcophagi of the ancient Pyranian kings that she had seen as a child when her father had taken her on one of his archaeological digs, but that was so long ago and where was her father now? Was he already dead? Probably. The cities had been struck first and he was a lecturer at the University of Archaeology & Heritage in the capital.
As they crested the hill, the valley below was not as she had last seen it. The last time she was here, in the early spring, the meadow that had stretched out before her had been filled with tall fresh grasses, and a myriad of little flowers had speckled the meadow. The blues, yellows, reds and whites of the emurtal, buttersuns, pippins and snowstars had dotted the landscape. Butterflies had hovered above the meadow too, dancing from flower to flower, competing with the bees for the nectar. Now, it was a black place despite the intense lighting from the spear-lamps pushed into the ground. The grass had been scorched away leaving just the dry earth, and it was scattered with huge metal containers. Some were only about ten metres square but others were much bigger, up to five times as big. These were the ones into which the Warriors were herding her people, cramming them in tightly before sealing the doors.
As the Warriors traipsed back and forth, she could also make out the ships that had brought the Warriors down from the thing above, the same ships that would carry them away again once they were done. In between them, she could see another type of android, a very different type to the Warriors. It had none of the armaments of the Warriors and was much more humanoid in its stature being tall (although not as tall as a Warrior) and slender. It was dressed in simple white linen robes and it wasn't gold either, or even metallic. It seemed to be coated in a flexible white plastic material that had an odd translucency to it. As it passed in front of one of the spotlights, she could see into its head; and then she realised, as she was looking directly at it, that it was looking directly at her. Its face was moulded with human-like features but they were cold and expressionless, and its eyes looked at her out of colourless eye-sockets as blank and white as a shop window's mannequin.
She did not drop her gaze, and nor did it. It ceased its dialogue with the Warrior that was by its side and walked towards her. Another sharp jab on her shoulder caught her off guard. She lost her balance, stumbled and fell forward, smacking her face into the cold, hard dust. Urgently she began trying to get to her feet. She could hear the motors of the Warrior as it brought out its weapon. Her feet slipped on the dry dust as she scrabbled. She heard the click as the gun snapped into place. She knew that the fizzling sound it made as it was fired was just a moment away. She'd heard it five times before, but still her feet couldn't get a grip on the loose earth.
"Come on then, you bastard!" she screamed. "Finish the job!" and she stopped struggling. Perched on one knee, with one leg splayed out beside her, her head bent down and her forehead touching the earth, she closed her eyes. She had no desire to stare her executioner in the face.
But the shot didn't come. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest and the adrenalin coursing through her body, but nothing happened. Slowly she opened her eyes. On the ground in front of her were firmly planted two white feet. The long, white linen robe wafted around them in the gentle night breeze, flicking at its ankles. Slowly, her eyes moved up the figure to greet the face of the android looking down at her. It tipped its head to one side and spoke in a soft, round voice.
For a moment, she said nothing. What was there to say?
"Hello," she finally said, rather dumbly.
"My name is Mela-14. I am a Scientific. What are you?"
"I am... Kyamena. I'm a bookkeeper." It sounded a really stupid thing to say under the circumstances. What relevance was it that she was a bookkeeper? What use is a bookkeeper to anybody in a time of war?
"Ah! A mathematician, a thinker like myself—and a rather spirited one too. I think you will do very nicely."
It turned from her and made a brief gesture to the Warrior beside her. It lurched forward, grabbed her by the shoulder and lifted her effortlessly, as though she was nothing more than a rag doll, and threw her onto her feet. From its free arm, a blade unpeeled and flicked out deftly. Kyamena flinched but it didn't touch her. Instead, it cut her bonds, freeing her from the line of captives. The blade was re-homed, and she was pushed away from the others towards the space ship. As she was shoved through the doors, she glanced back to the throng of people with whom she had travelled to this god-forsaken place and saw the horror in their eyes as she was dragged away. Little did they know that of the two parties she was the safe one—for the time being at least. The throng of people were pushed into one of the containers and the doors sealed. It was the last time they would ever see light.
* * * * *
Kyamena sat in the ship amongst the Warriors. Her hands were still bound behind her so she couldn't lean back properly, and the seat wasn't designed for comfort.
The ship was quite large inside, about the same size as one of the public buses that ran in the cities, and it was as crowded too. Behind her was a legion of about forty Warriors that stood to attention. In the bright lights of the interior, she could see that they were dusty and bloody.
She was sat amongst another legion of about twenty Warriors in the middle of the ship. Forward of that was a deep arch and beyond that, the cockpit of the craft. There she could see more Warriors seated at the control panels, or at least what she assumed were control panels. They were completely flat like monitor screens and apparently blank, but the Warriors' hands moved over them quickly and deftly as though something were there. No words passed between them, but it was obvious that they were communicating somehow. They worked together as a team to launch the craft and take it up into the night sky, through the atmosphere and towards the great darkness that lay beyond.
A small noise behind her made her turn. It was the Scientific, Mela-14. The Warrior to her right rose and vacated the seat so that Mela-14 could sit down beside her. It did so in an oddly human-like way, slapping its palms on its thighs as it sat, but said nothing. She stared at its hands and looked up into its face that was fixed, staring on a point ahead of it. She felt strangely at ease with the android that had saved her from the Warrior, although every fibre of her being kept reminding her that it was still a cold machine that had no better-nature to it, that she was in as much danger now as she had been back in the meadow with the Warrior towering over her, its weapon locked and loaded.
"Excuse me," she ventured after some time.
Mela-14 turned and looked at her.
"Yes?" it replied very matter-of-factly.
"Where are we going?"
The android leaned into her and pointed out of the forward window. She peered down the line of its finger to the blurry black orb that lay ahead.
"What is it?" she asked.
"That, my dear, is a DaerkStar: the DeathMaker in fact. That is where I live."
The conversation had clearly ended and silence fell again, but Kyamena was still curious. As she saw it, there was very little to be lost by asking a further question, except perhaps her life, but she doubted that a few questions would have any real impact upon her longevity. After all, why would the android have separated her out from the others just to kill her now? No. She was here for a reason. Was that reassuring or did it fill her with more foreboding? She wasn't sure.
"Why have you come here? To my world, I mean. What do you want? Where do you come from?"
"We come from everywhere. We have no homeworld of our own. We come to conquer."
"Could you not have come in peace? We could have given you a place to live, if that's what you needed—and food, but..." her voice trailed off. What food do machines need?
It was as if it had read her mind.
"Machines do not need food, but the Council members, the blood-Sallows, they do; but no, we could not have come in peace. We came to annihilate your kind, to exterminate you from this place and that is what we have done. That is what Sallows do. All Sallows throughout the galaxies have sworn to destroy you and your kind wherever they may be."
"You have destroyed other worlds like mine before?" she exclaimed in horror.
"But of course."
"How many worlds have you destroyed?"
"The DeathMaker alone or the sum total of our fleet?"
"There are more of you?" she gasped.
"Oh yes! But the DeathMaker is one of the most successful DaerkStars in the Sallow fleet—the second highest ranking in fact. We have vanquished twice as many worlds as the BloodLust and Vanquisher combined, and not because we have picked smaller targets. In fact, we have often picked larger and more difficult targets. We are simply more..." it thought for a moment, "...efficient than most Sallow Councils. We expend more energy and resources on scientific research and development, which means that we are more advanced than they are. We have... the edge," it finished with great pride.
Silence fell again and she thought about all that the android had told her.
"You have a council?" She was thinking of her own society's council. Perhaps if she could gain an audience with them, maybe she could persuade them to leave her planet alone. "Are you a council member?" she asked hopefully.
"Good grief, no! Only the blood-Sallows are Council members. I am a mere android. The blood-Sallows are our creators, the original Sallow race of flesh and blood."
"Like me?" she exclaimed.
"Goodness! No!" exclaimed the android in controlled horror. "Not like you. You are a goyeme, a humanoid. The Sallows are the pure race, the superior race."
Kyamena was reminded of the race wars on her planet three thousand years ago. The races from the north thought themselves superior to the races from the south and set about their annihilation. Souths were rounded up and executed in their hundreds of thousands just for being a South or just for looking like a South with their paler skin and unusual fashions. Just as then, she doubted that any such plea would be worthwhile, but she continued anyway.
"And you work for them?"
"Are there many of you? Androids I mean?"
"Oh yes. Well, Warriors, yes," it corrected.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand. What do you mean?"
"We are three castes: Scientific, Warrior and slave. I am a Scientific. We are the thinkers, the designers and the creators who develop the weapons and technology to aid in the war against the humanoids. The Warriors..." it pointed around itself to its shining golden comrades, "...outnumber us significantly. These are our legions that fight the battles. They are our battle fodder on the front lines, the snipers in the hills, the fighter pilots and the commandos. Are they not a glorious sight?" it said proudly.
"And the slaves?" Kyamena asked. "How many of them are there?"
"Oh them! They do not matter!" Mela-14 waved a hand dismissively at the mention of their name. "I have no idea how many of them there are. They undertake all the menial tasks of maintenance, housekeeping, that sort of thing," and it pointed dismissively over to a small alcove in the sidewall. There, stashed away like a discarded vacuum cleaner, was a flimsy, skeletally-framed little android. It seemed to have been very carelessly built with the barest minimum of parts for it to function. Its simple metal frame was rough and dull, and it was short and thin with limbs that consisted of little more than metal rods. It had no protective coating to cover its mechanisms and gears. It was an entirely less sophisticated machine than the Warriors or the Scientifics.
"Stupid creatures really. They have no powers of independent thought or speech and lack any strength in their bodies, but they serve a function."
She thought again about the ancient Pyranians and their pyramids that she had helped her father excavate, and the hundreds of slave bones that they had found. 'Obedient, servile, disposable and irrelevant', he had described them as. She thought of them now and felt a vein of pity for the thing in the cubbyhole.
"And that," said Mela-14, puffing itself up with pride and pointing towards the front window, "is DeathMaker."
The DaerkStar still sat quietly in the sky, just as it had done over her homeworld, but now its immense size impressed itself forcefully onto Kyamena. It was a huge thing, camouflaged against the blackness of space, a shadowy burst of darkness between the stars. It revolved gently on its axis like a big spiky ball.
"My god, it's huge!" she exclaimed. "How many of you live there?"
"Well, there is the Sallow Council of five and over four hundred thousand androids."
She gasped and her gaze travelled across the ship, exploring its exterior.
There were no lights on it. It was completely black so its detail was blurred against its background, but as they got nearer, she could make out the intricate details of the outer hull criss-crossed with pipes and conduits. She could see what looked like big obsidian panels in the tips of the spines of the orb and dotted along its lengths. As they approached the tip of one spine, the obsidian window evaporated and soft white light spilled out towards them. Effortlessly, the ship glided into the hanger deck.
The first thing that struck her was the whiteness of it all. None of it was brilliant white on its own, but when all the whiteness was put together it was blindingly so. It was such a stark contrast to the blackness of the outside.
Having successfully docked, Kyamena was led out of the ship and onto the hanger deck. It was huge and so busy that she couldn't make out the end of it. Other ships were coming and going, and she could see the huge crates that her people had been herded into, stacked like the containers on the docks in the shipyards back home. She had expected it to be noisy with the cries of the people inside, but it wasn't. Only the hustle and bustle of the androids and the noise of the ships' engines could be heard. She slowed as she passed by one of the containers to listen, but the Warrior behind pushed her forward through some doors and out of the hanger deck.
They seemed to be walking forever down the stark white corridors, and each one looked the same as the next to Kyamena, barring the strange black patterns that ran along the ceilings and walls. Some of it looked like writing but she couldn't be sure. Mela-14 walked ahead of her and now, when she tried to talk to it, it completely ignored her.
Suddenly, they turned off sharply and a set of doors slid open allowing them entry into a room. Inside was a laboratory stacked with a whole plethora of scientific equipment, monitors and tools. There were specimens of things in jars and pictures of things she couldn't identify. Kyamena felt sick. She began to wish she'd stayed with the others. She had a horrible feeling that whatever their fate was, it would have been better than this.
A scraping sound made her jump with fright, but it was just Mela-14 pushing a stool across the floor towards her.
"Sit," it commanded. She sat.
Looking around her, there were whole banks of monitors stretching around the room, angled at forty-five degrees. Most of them were blank and the android switched the rest off as she settled herself on the stool somewhat apprehensively. For a moment, she wished she'd seen what was on them before it had turned them off, and then she thought it was probably best that she hadn't.
Mela-14 took her by the shoulders and swivelled the stool around so that one monitor was immediately in front of her. It turned it on and the image of two humanoids came to life. They were sat together in an empty room, as cold and white and sterile as the corridors she had just walked through.
Although humanoid, the woman was very different to herself. She had beautiful, dark Nubian coloured skin and a very delicate build. Her face was long and triangular with a prominent brow, high cheekbones and a narrow, delicate chin. She stared at the camera that watched her, with deep, soft brown eyes. She had long, straight ebony hair that trailed over her shoulders and onto her companion's fair arms. She was very slightly built and she wasn't tall. Kyamena wouldn't call her short as such, just childishly un-tall, but then she couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen years old.
She sat with her slender legs folded to one side of her, with her companion, a small white child, perched on her lap.
The boy was very different to her, and yet so alike. His skin was ashen and his hair so fair that it was almost white. He was just a toddler, little more than a year old she guessed, and he sat patiently on his mother's lap with his head resting on her breast, listening to the sound of her heart beating gently in his ear.
With his finger, he was absent-mindedly tracing the white tattoo on the girl's arm. It seemed to tickle her a little because Kyamena saw her shudder slightly at the touch, but she didn't stop him doing it. She looked away from the camera and smiled down at him, and despite her obvious sadness, the smile lit up her face. For a moment, her eyes beamed with joy and the little boy looked back at her. She thought he was about to giggle at the girl, but he didn't. The girl took a deep breath, so deep that even though Kyamena didn't hear it, she saw it, and then the girl stroked the boy's arm. He had a tattoo as well, but his was black upon his fair skin.
In response, he looked up at the girl again. This time his whole face became visible on the monitor, and Kyamena gasped at the sight of him. He had lovely rounded features and brilliant, cat-like emerald-green eyes that flashed with life and shattered the monochromaticity of the cell like a hammer smashing a glass pane. He was absolutely beautiful, angelically so.
The girl swept the boy deep into her arms and held him very close. He snuggled into her and she bent her head right down to him so that her mouth was just over his ear.
"I don't understand," said Kyamena turning to Mela-14. "What do you want with me? And what do they have to do with anything?"
Mela-14 gently took her chin in its hand and directed her face back towards the monitor.
"Watch him, Kyamena."
"Why?" she puzzled. "Who are they?"
"She is the mother of Death; and he is Death. He is the Destroyer, and he will help to destroy you and every other goyeme in existence."
"But he's just a little boy, a baby."
Mela-14 stepped in front of her and bowed down so it could look directly into her eyes.
"Surely you had criminals on your planet?" it asked. "Surely the most heinous of these started life as a mere babe in arms?"
"Yes, but as children, we did not know what they would become. How do you know what he will become?"
"Because I have made him, and I am still making him." Somehow, its voice had changed. For the first time in the android's company, she felt deeply intimidated. She realised that whatever happened to her next would be completely and totally as the android desired. She was just a toy for the android, a pawn in its game. She felt powerless and afraid.
"He will walk amongst your kind. He will infiltrate your deepest resistance groups, and he will betray you."
"My people are already dead," she braved. Her voice was shaky, trembling with her fear.
"Yes," replied Mela-14 softly. "Your planet is already plundered and your people plunged into extinction, and we shall continue to do that to planet... after planet... after planet." Mela-14 rose and had began to walk around her, circling her like a vulture. "And he will help us."
"So..." she hardly dared ask, "what does this have to do with me?"
"You are going to stop him. Or at least you are going to try."
"But he's just a kid!"
"Now? Yes, but he will grow up and while he is growing, you will watch and learn everything he learns. You will learn all the tricks he learns, and when you are ready, I will pit you against him."
"Because I will need to test him, and to do that I will need a worthy opponent—one that will appeal to his sense of humanity (if he has one), and one that is trained. At present I do not have such a thing available to me, so I must make one."
"And what if I refuse?"
"Then he will kill you."
"But I'm not a killer!" she exclaimed. "I'm not a soldier! I'm a bookkeeper!"
"You—" Mela-14 placed itself strategically by the side of Kyamena, knelt down to her level again and whispered in her ear, "—are whatever I want you to be. Yesterday you were a bookkeeper. Today you are just someone with a good instinct for survival. Tomorrow I will have honed your skills and you will be a Warrior. You will have two choices. You can either live or you can die." And with that, it placed a finger under her chin and redirected her gaze back up to the monitor.
"Know your prey," it finished.
* * * * *
In the cell, the girl had begun to whisper softly. So softly, her mouth barely moved, and so quietly, it wasn't even audible enough for her son to hear; but he heard her. For him the silence shattered amongst her words, but no one else heard them. Her words were only for him.
Five years later
Like his android brothers, ATB-80 looked perfect. He was beautifully groomed. His short ash-blond hair was firmly stuck in place and the deep-blue military uniform that had been especially designed for him was immaculate with not a single crease out of place. His heavy black boots were so highly polished that the corridor's lights shone brightly in their toes. He looked like a perfect little soldier at an award ceremony, and as he walked, his footsteps were in perfect tune with his escorts', but his feet made no sound as he trod; only the footsteps of the Warriors could be heard.
Suddenly, the boy reached up and slipped his tiny hand into that of his father. For the android, it was a practice that it found foreign, but it was a convenient one and so it humoured it. Mela-14 looked down at its ward, unwittingly squeezing the boy's hand reassuringly. ATB-80 smiled at the android's expressionless face and, although there was no physical change in his father's features, he could feel the android smiling back at him. As they walked down the corridor, ATB-80 continued to peer up into Mela-14's face. The lights of the corridor exaggerated the translucency of its skull so he could see the components in its head and sense all the electronic impulses coursing through them.
Mela-14 did not look back at him. Its thoughts were far away. It was thinking about the latest conundrum that the boy had presented it with: an apparent lack of fear that threatened his very existence. It recalled the events of the previous day when they were on the flight deck.
They had just finished a piloting lesson, had left the Targa behind and were walking back across the deck. A weapons shipment was being delivered and ATB-80's attention was drawn by the Warriors that were orchestrating its arrival. Some seven metres above them, the cables that held one of the loads began to creak. Mela-14 had glanced up to see the cable protesting and beginning to shear. Instinctively, it had reached for ATB-80's hand, but it was too late. He had already gone. Like a panicked parent, Mela-14's head had whipped around frantically searching for its ward. Its eyes had found him quickly, but it didn't calm it. In fact, it was horrified.
ATB-80 had run into the area directly underneath the shipment and was stood gazing up at it, watching the steel threads of the cable twang free. A Warrior, also seeing the predicament, shot forward to grab the boy, but just at that moment the cable snapped, the cage broke open, and the containers rained down. The first hit the Warrior squarely from above and crushed it into the floor like a tin can. Broken plates of gold-coloured metal exploded off it like a firework going off and smaller bits of Warrior pinged across the floor. Then the bullets began to fly, discharging from the crushed Warrior's in-built weaponry. As they ricocheted off the walls, the aircraft and other Warriors, the cage relinquished more of its load. Its containers beat against the floor, bouncing and breaking open. The missile cartridges, bursting from the containers, were catapulted high into the air and across the floor. More Warriors leapt in to try to reach ATB-80, but they too fell foul of the downpour. One Warrior was thrown backwards by a small explosion. Another lay face down on the floor, both its legs blown off. The remains of one arm hung limply from its shoulder. Bits of wiring and mechanism trailed from the bottom of its body like bloody intestines, with red oil spilling out of its guts. Yet still it followed its directions to save the boy, dragging itself across the floor. A cartridge finally finished it off, crashing down in between its shoulder blades. The remains of its body folded up around the impact point like a pie casing, and the lights of its eyes were extinguished.
Beneath it, amidst it all, ATB-80 dodged and ducked the projectiles. He was laughing and shrieking with excitement all the while.
And Mela-14? It couldn't move. Its feet were fixed to the spot, and its limbs would not respond to its commands. It felt like every fluid ounce of lubricant had been drained from its systems. Nothing would move. Nothing would respond. All the alerts its systems had seemed to be going off at once, but none of them were. It felt... but androids did not feel, and that was part of the quandary. That, and the boy itself.
Any normal child would have been terror stricken, but ATB-80 was not a normal child. He was raised amongst androids as an android; 'manufactured' without fear—a choice Mela-14 now questioned. Fear kept 'blood-things' alive. It told them when to run and when to hide, but ATB-80 had none of that wisdom. He was not a machine like Mela-14; he could not simply be downloaded back into a new body to pick up from where he left off. Blood-things had to be grown from a single cell, and that took time. What odd things blood-things were, but the world was ruled by blood-things—the blood-Sallows, the Sallow-Council that were his creators and his masters.
The boy squeezed his father's hand and Mela-14 felt a small surge of something. Was it an energy spike, a lubricant issue? It ran its diagnostics again but, as usual, nothing showed up. It was probably just its processors working overtime, trying to work out what its ward was thinking or doing or planning, trying to get to grips with the child's logic—or lack of it.
Suddenly, they stopped. They'd arrived at the cells on the Training Deck and a third Warrior stepped out from the doorway to greet them. ATB-80 leant into Mela-14's bodywork and placed his hand on his father's chest, just above its main processor unit. It was an odd gesture even for ATB-80. One might have thought that ATB-80 felt some fear of the Warrior that towered in front of him and was seeking reassurance, but Mela-14 knew differently. It looked down at its ward and was not disappointed. There was no fear in him. He stood looking at the Warrior with nothing in his eyes, nothing whatsoever. So what was he doing? What was the meaning of the gesture? And then Mela-14 brushed it all aside as nonsense. It was being paranoid.
That worried it too.
The Warrior held out its hand to ATB-80. In it was an Uldaker, a type of handgun, and one of the many weapons that ATB-80 had been trained to use. This one fired bullets of hard blue light. Its advantage over a traditional handgun that fired metal projectiles, was that its bullets would not penetrate the walls of the ship where a breach could be catastrophic, but it was equally as damaging as metal bullets to a living organism, if not more so. It could even take out a Warrior if you hit it in the right place.
This Uldaker was smaller than normal having been especially designed for the small hand of ATB-80, but it still retained all the power of the full-sized model. ATB-80 took it and his hands moved swiftly over it, checking it like the trained soldier that he was. He knew the weapon well; he used it daily during practise sessions. Once he had satisfied himself as to its fitness, he looked up at Mela-14 who gestured for him to enter the room. He obeyed, and Mela-14 followed in behind.
Inside, sat a little girl in the middle of the floor. She looked lost and alone in the otherwise empty room, as empty and sterile as the one in which he himself had been born, but he didn't remember that, or the woman with whom he had shared his cell.
The girl was probably about the same age as he and if she was afraid, she didn't show it, but there the similarities between them ended. She had gypsy-black hair and olive skin, but little else in the way of beauty about her. Her mouth was thin, her nose slightly crooked and her eyebrows were uneven. She had dirty bare feet and wore layers of ragged clothing to keep her decent. As they approached, she looked up. Her eyes flicked across the two of them in turn, and then they fixed upon him. He could see the side of her neck now and, although the light was meagre, he could make out a mark there. It wasn't a finely etched tattoo like the identity marking on his own arm, but a handmade one scratched amateurishly into her neck with ink and a sharp object. It was the letter 'V' written in Arabidan, an ancient language from an ancient people; but she was not an Arabidan, so why the letter? And in the same instant that he asked himself the question, the answer came to him.
It was the sign of the Vaigrani.
The Vaigrani were considered a very powerful and dangerous people because of what they were. They were not a race and they were not a society. They were a faction of people, usually nomadic, borne out of wars. They were those who had nothing more to lose other than their own life. Torn by the grief of their losses, they had sworn to help others to keep that which they had once cherished and were prepared to lay down their lives for that cause. Thus, driven by their own sadness into foolhardy errands for others, they were the strongest of Warriors and the most formidable of foe; but they were not a threat to the might of the Sallow Empire because they lacked organisation and ambition.
The boy pondered how he knew these things but then, as the girl moved and the mark disappeared into the creases of her neck, he resurfaced from his reverie. She continued to look directly at him, directly into his eyes. For a moment, they captured him, and then he heard her voice in his head.
He knew it was her voice just because he did, and he knew it was in his head because her lips didn't move. He felt something stir within him, something from the past—a memory perhaps, but like a wisp of smoke in the air, as the fingers of his mind reached out to grasp it, they passed through it, and it was gone.
Yet her words were crystal clear: 'One man's end is another man's beginning...'
ATB-80 shivered. The cool hand of Mela-14 fell gently upon his shoulder and he was startled, just a little. He began to turn to look at his father and then he felt the gentle kick of the Uldaker as it went off.
With his enhanced reactions, his head snapped back towards the girl and he saw the ball of blue light cross the room. He saw it smack into her forehead. He saw her body thrown across the floor like a rag doll, spinning, with blood spraying out of her head and spiralling into the air like a Catherine Wheel until she impacted against the far wall and came to rest. Her limbs were twisted unnaturally about her, and her body twitched violently for a moment whereupon the two sides of her head separated, split in two like a melon cleft in half with a machete. Then she lay still, and he could see the whitish-grey of her brain matter doused in red blood. One of her eyes rolled out across the floor. She'd had blue eyes.
It had happened so quickly and yet, for ATB-80, it had happened so slowly.
"Very good, child," said Mela-14, and indeed, the android was pleased. It was a nice, clean, deliberate kill. It helped to prove that the prototype, despite its appearance, was not humanoid and that it remained detached from humanity. Mela-14 took the boy's hand and began to lead him away. As they passed the Warrior, ATB-80 disarmed and secured the weapon and handed it over. The Warrior tipped its head subserviently.
On the way back to his quarters, ATB-80 was silent and methodical. He hadn't meant for the gun to go off, but it didn't bother him that it had. It didn't bother him that he had taken a life. He didn't understand what life was. What was bothering him was that little bit of familiarity. He was still clutching for that wisp of smoke, but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't quite grasp it. So engrossed was he in this that he didn't register the second Scientific that joined them in the corridor, or the conversation it had with his father who confirmed that they were ready for the next stage and to start making the necessary preparations.
* * * * *
That night he dreamt. ATB-80 had never dreamt before, not as far as he was aware anyway. He dreamt of flying horses with eyes that shone like stars, wings that beat like thunder and golden hooves that struck lightning as they dashed across the skies.
Next morning, ATB-80 awoke with a headache and while he usually awoke with a headache, this one was different. It was more severe. It was pounding. As he lifted his head, waves of nausea washed over him and drove him to bury it back into the pillow. He made a couple more attempts but each time suffered the same effects and slumped back. After the third attempt, he just wanted to give up but he kept reminding himself that the sooner he was up and in the shower, the sooner it would go. He always felt better after a shower. It was as if the pelting hot water purified him, washing away the pain, so gingerly he made a final attempt. Gently, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up slowly, scrubbing at his face with his hands as he did so.
He felt awful—much, much worse than usual. Every time he moved his head, even just a little bit, the room whizzed around uncontrollably, continuing to spin long after he'd stopped turning his head, and then suddenly, it would jerk violently back into place. The whole experience was very disconcerting but, in rather the same way that you keep prodding a mouth ulcer with your tongue even though you know it's going to hurt, ATB-80 kept moving his head in experimentation. It was, after all, a most peculiar sensation.
Finally, having determined that the effect hadn't diminished and probably wasn't going to, he decided that he really, really needed to get into the shower. ATB-80 began rising to his feet but another rush of nausea took hold of him, and he fell heavily back onto the bed. He closed his eyes, took some long, deep breaths, and lay very still to try to keep the room steady. As he lay, his thoughts began to wander back into the night before and suddenly, his dream was broken. He remembered the story of the horses of Igdaleana, with 'eyes that shone like stars, wings that beat like thunder and golden hooves that struck lightning as they dashed across the skies'. He smiled to himself. It was a happy memory and in his mind's eye, he could see the fantastic beasts once more, rearing up and pawing at the air with their golden hooves. Bearing in mind he'd never seen such beasts, the detail he recalled was incredible: the long, fine silky whiskers around their muzzles, the feathery socks that draped like curtains around their hooves and the chestnuts by their knees. How could he have imagined creatures in such detail? He hadn't. He knew he hadn't. The horses of Igdaleana were real. Just as real as Arcus...
'Beware Arcus, the beautiful, olive-skinned goddess of the Giarrri people, with her burning red hair. She carries a huge longbow across her shoulders and travels the lands alone, but even a warrior needs the company of a mate from time to time and so, when the desire takes her, she selects a single arrow from her quiver, shoots it from her bow and races after it. It doesn't matter in which direction she aims because the arrow will always find its way and lead her to her next suitor. Having found him, she will seduce him and then, after her night of passion, she will abandon him to bear and rear her child alone. Beware of women with burning red hair!'
No, that wasn't right! Arcus wasn't real! Arcus was a legend! A story told by generations of Giarrri, told from parent to child—but how did he know the story? Nobody here told him stories. Here, he learnt only facts—cold, hard facts. Yet this story? He remembered it exactly as it had been narrated to him, and remembering gave him a warm, comforting feeling inside; but attached to it was another more wispy memory. Just like the one that had haunted him yesterday when he had remembered the Vaigrani.
'Tatoom has three suns. It orbits two of them while the third sits on the edge of the solar system, in one of its own. It is a bizarre arrangement with the two systems' planetary paths weaving in and out of each other, pulling and tugging at each other's planets and moons. Their varying sizes and masses form equilibrium in the gravitational pulls so that all the planets in the systems follow their paths without collision, but it's a very delicate balance, and the result is that the seasons vary in length from one cycle to the next, as do the years and the days. Each day has twenty-two hours and each hour, eighty-eight minutes. A minute is divided into seconds that are measured against the heartbeat of a cow at rest, and so a minute may be as short as eight or as long as sixty-six seconds. Time is a very complicated affair and only for those who can afford experienced mathematicians to calculate it—namely the Emperor.
'They say that Tatoom's mathematicians are the greatest mathematicians of all time, and this is probably true. They sit, forecasting the calendar for the years ahead; for hour upon hour with abacuses, pencils and charts, determining the length of each day; calculating how to fit the twenty-two official hours of the Imperial Calendar into those days. At the beginning of each year, the calendar and clock are published and sold to the people, and the revenue pays the mathematicians' wages and fills the Imperial coffers. This is the way it has always been, for a thousand centuries, in all its absurdity.
'However, there is a second clock at work: the Common Clock. A clock where the minutes and hours are of fixed length and only the number of hours in the day varies. It is one that can be measured by an affordable and easy-to-understand timepiece ticking away the regular hours and minutes: a minute lasting seventy beats of a resting cow's heart, and an hour, seventy minutes. As soon as the rim of the sun no longer touches the horizon, the day has begun and so has Hour One. The number of hours in the day has thus become the variable.
'But it raises no revenue for the Emperor and thus it is illegal despite its popularity, every citizen becoming a criminal with its use. So when the Emperor Frollandicus decided to abandon the Imperial Calendar and legalise the Common Clock, you would have thought the people would have welcomed it with open arms, but no. Tatoomians are sticklers for tradition and the Imperial Calendar is one of their oldest traditions along with the Imperial mathematicians. There were riots in the street and protests, and eventually a coup. The common people stormed the Palace and hung the Emperor Frollandicus from the hands of his new clock and, the following day, his younger brother Eradicus became Emperor. The Imperial Calendar was reinstated and everything returned to normal—or so it seemed. The irony is that when the mathematicians started their calculations again, they found that they had made an error. They had miscalculated the year by two whole days. The mistake was hastily debated and the days 'lost' in the chaos of the coup. They claim that nobody outside of the mathematicians' circle ever knew, except for the Emperor of course—and he knew better than to argue the point.'
So many stories, legends and myths filling his head, all being recalled just as he had been told them, but where had he heard all these tales and when?
Their recollection made him feel safe and secure; sensations that he had not felt in a long time—if he had ever felt them at all. Yet he did remember these feelings from somewhere deep within his past, and so he kept reaching back, clawing desperately at his memories to try to place them. But, like the familiarity he had felt after yesterday's kill, he couldn't quite grasp it, and as each tale finished, the warm and comfortable feeling dissipated until he recalled the next tale, and so he recalled them one after the other.
'There are two forces at work in our existence—the forces of Lite and the forces of Daerk; but do not confuse them with gods, for there are no gods, only entities who believe themselves to be such.'
ATB-80 sat up. That was not a story. That was... philosophy? Yet it belonged with the stories. It was part of them.
His mind was spinning. He still felt nauseous and peculiar. Even his thoughts were odd—as though they weren't his own. He was a six-year-old boy and these thoughts were too complex and too deep to be his. He was reasoning things through in a more sophisticated fashion. He was searching his mind logically for the source of the stories, and...
His head hurt so much.
ATB-80 shook himself intentionally to exacerbate the pain and break himself free from the train of thought. He looked around his room. That was strange too and yet, still the same.
It was the same bed and next to that was the same living area with two comfy chairs and a small table. This swept around the corner into a range of storage cupboards fitted with shiny white doors that included his wardrobe and then a further door into the bathroom. On the next wall was a study area with computer consoles, a swivel chair and workbenches with various half-finished projects strewn across them. They were spacious quarters... although not quite as spacious as they had seemed yesterday. The room felt to have shrunk, except for the floor, which seemed to be further away than usual. The ratios were all wrong!
With his temples still swathed in the palms of his hands, he stood up. The floor zoomed even further away from him and he lost his balance. ATB-80 swayed erratically and his arms flailed about furiously to steady himself. Display activated—an assortment of readings and monitors that flashed before his eyes overlaying his normal vision. Indicators of roll, pitch and yaw helped him regain control and steady himself until the sensation passed. He looked at his feet. Distance indicators showed that they were 0.732 metres further away than yesterday. That couldn't be right. His eyes swept the room again and Display calculated its size. It was the same as it had always been, so he looked back to his feet—still 0.732 metres further away.
Another deep wave of nausea swept over him, and he felt hot and sweaty. Display initiated more indicators, this time for temperature, both internal and external. He was one degree above norm. Nothing serious but he felt the urge to cool his face and wash away the wooziness, so he made his way to the bathroom somewhat gingerly, like a kid with his very first hangover.
Having reached the sink, he ran the cold tap and began to splash his face in handfuls of water. It was as cool and refreshing as it had promised. He filled the bowl. Even that was different. He seemed to be looking down upon it. It made him feel sick again, so he turned Display off before it could register anything else. Display was useful, but it also got in the way and was irritating. All those numbers, readings and indicators overlaying his normal vision, half of which he didn't understand anyway.
Once full, he dunked his head into the sink and held it there, breathing in the crystal cool freshness of it, letting it bathe him inside as well as out, and then he pulled his head up and wiped the streaming water from his face with his hands. His mouth filled with de-oxygenated water, painlessly and effortlessly regurgitated from his secondary gill-lungs. He spat it into the sink. The light-headedness was beginning to wane. The nausea was subsiding and the headache was finally diminishing, but he still felt... different.
He opened his eyes, looked into the mirror and gasped.
Yesterday morning, when he had looked into the mirror, he had been greeted with the familiar reflection of a little boy with neatly groomed, ash-white hair, but what looked back at him now was the face of a virtual stranger.
In the mirror was a teenager with long, tangled light blue hair. The face was pale like his and the eyes—the deep emerald green eyes with the slightly elongated pupils—they were his too, but the rest of it was barely recognisable. He re-initiated Display to measure the relational distances between his own features and those of the reflection in the mirror, comparing them. Conclusion: the face was his, but older!
He leant closer into the mirror and pulled at his chin with his fingers, turning his head from side to side, examining himself more closely, and then he pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to expose the tattoo on his arm, his identification number—ATB-80. Yes, this was definitely him, but how much time had passed since what seemed like yesterday? Had he lost his memory? What was the date? He prompted Display to access the DaerkStar's main computer to check date and time. Server responded instantaneously. Three days had passed! A whole three days! Just three days?
ATB-80 heard the door to his quarters slide open and started at the noise. That would be his father. He went to see.
Indeed, it was his father. Mela-14 had entered the room with two boxes in its arms. It gave a fleeting glance to ATB-80 but said nothing as it carried the boxes across the room to the wardrobe and set them down on the floor. It lifted the top box, which was empty, and placed it beside the other, which was sealed.
"Are you well, child?" it asked.
ATB-80 said nothing. Was the android completely stupid? Had it not noticed its son's physical change? He strode purposefully back into the bathroom to check his reflection in the mirror. No, he wasn't imagining it; he had definitely changed. He went back into the main room.
Mela-14 had opened the wardrobe door and was removing his clothes from it. Each piece it folded neatly before placing it in the empty box, and then, having finished removing every last item from the wardrobe, it closed the box and sealed it. It then took the second box, opened it and began taking out new clothes, bigger clothes, that it placed on hangers back into the wardrobe. That could only mean that Mela-14 not only knew what to expect when it came into the room that morning, but had prepared for it too.
Having finished its chore, Mela-14 placed the full box inside the empty one and turned to ATB-80. It was still waiting for a response to its question.
"I asked if you are well?" it repeated.
"I don't know," said a man's voice. ATB-80 stepped back, putting his hand to his throat. He crashed into the swivel chair behind him, stumbled and fumbled as he steadied it. It wasn't his voice either!
"What's..." He cleared his throat and began again. "What's going on?" he asked, still trying to clear his throat but to no avail.
His voice was deeper and fuller than it used to be, the voice of an adult male instead of that of a little boy. He was confused and disoriented. Was this him, or was this someone else in him, or was he in somebody else?
Mela-14 picked up on his distress and approached. From within its robes it produced a medical scanner and swept it up and down ATB-80, hovering momentarily at his head and chest. It studied the readings and then reported, "There is nothing to be concerned about. Everything is as it should be."
ATB-80 felt his mouth open and words tumbled out indiscriminately.
"As it should be?" he squealed indignantly. "Have you taken a look at me this morning? I'm about ten years older. I've grown up overnight! I'm a bleeding adult!"
Along with his youth, his self-control was gone. Mela-14, on the other hand, remained composed.
"Yes, I have looked at you this morning, and yes, you have grown up, but not overnight. The accelerated growth process has taken place over a period of three days, but no, you are not an adult, not yet. You are, as you pointed out, just ten years older—approximately that is. That makes you an adolescent, a juvenile—a developmental stage at which I personally believed it was a mistake to pause the process at."
"A mistake? A mistake? Who are you bleeding kidding?"
"That is not a tone to which I am accustomed, child," chided the android stiffly.
"Well, get accustomed to it!" he shouted and stomped off into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. He slumped over the bathroom sink and began to sulk. After a few moments though, he realised the absurdity of this action. He was now shut in his bathroom with Mela-14 in his living room. It didn't matter if he stayed in there for a minute, a day or a month. When he left the bathroom, the android would still be there, as if no time at all had passed. ATB-80 bent down, rested his elbows on the vanity unit and buried his head between his forearms. He laughed weakly to himself and stood up. The mirror over the sink reflected his image back at him. He grinned at himself. He was quite tall and, actually, he liked what he saw. He smiled, but that didn't resolve the predicament that he was in, so he turned, perched on the edge of the sink and thought some more.
His brain was in turmoil. He couldn't think straight. He felt angry, and thinking about that anger made him more so. He was tense and agitated and had to force himself to think logically.
He wanted answers and Mela-14 had them. He could waste a few hours sitting in here sulking, which would get him absolutely nowhere, or he could go out and ask his questions. And, if time was slipping away from him this fast, the sooner the better.
"Oh, bollocks," he mumbled to himself, and opened the bathroom door.
On the other side, it was just as he had expected. Mela-14 was sat in one of the comfy chairs waiting for him, looking somewhat smug. Anger rose in ATB-80 again. He forced it down inside of himself. It was not something he was used to, neither the anger nor the smugness of the android. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to wipe that silly grin off that damned android's face with one quick smack of his fist. In fact, why not, and he found himself striding over to the android and grabbing it by the lapels, lifting it easily to its feet.
"Okay, let's get one thing straight," he hissed. "I'm not happy, and I want an explanation."
"Hmm," buzzed the Scientific thoughtfully. "As I say, this is a stage in humanoid development that I suggested we by-pass for these very reasons," and with that, it placed its hands firmly around ATB-80's wrists and skilfully twisted his hands away from itself, driving him effortlessly down onto his knees. ATB-80 squealed in pain like a dog. With a final flourish the android flung ATB-80 backwards, releasing its grip. ATB-80 fell awkwardly and landed painfully. He twisted clumsily on the floor to untangle his legs from beneath his body and lay nursing the small of his back with his hand.
"You know, my spine isn't designed to bend that way," he snapped.
"Of course I know, child. I also know exactly how much force is required to break it. Perhaps you should remember that next time you wish to assault me?"
"What a loving parent you are," ATB-80 sneered sarcastically.
"I believe there is a humanoid expression: spare the rod and spoil the child."
"He that spareth his rod, hateth his son," ATB-80 corrected, still wincing. He sat up, arching his back to relieve the pain there. "Go on then, spoil me," he challenged. "Tell me what's happening."
Mela-14 tipped its head to one side expectantly.
"Please," added ATB-80 begrudgingly. The word burnt like acid in his mouth—and his pride. If the android had a mouth, it would have smiled with it, but it didn't. Not that it mattered. ATB-80 felt it smile.
"You grow too slowly," the android began as it sat back down into the comfy chair. It took the scanner out again, but this time it placed it on the table in front of it and crossed its legs. ATB-80 noted that it had left the scanner open and that it was continuing to take readings. Mela-14 waved a hand at the second, vacant chair, and ATB-80 knew that this was the cue for him to join it, but he was reluctant to do so. He didn't want to obey, so he sat on the floor, propping himself up, leisurely. Somehow though, he just knew that he would end up sat in the chair, but he really, really wanted to resist if only to show Mela-14 that he couldn't be bossed about. How stupid was that though? What the hell was he thinking?
Mela-14 interrupted his thoughts.
"I can wait all day if need be."
ATB-80 raised an eyebrow and scowled.
"And exactly how much older will I be at the end of the day if we wait all day?"
The android buzzed oddly, a sort of a cross between a cackle and a voice synthesizer with feedback. Was it laughing at him? ATB-80 continued to scowl, and they sat in the stalemate for a while.
"You know that if you want answers, you will have to oblige."
Nuts, thought ATB-80. His father was right.
"Let us not forget our manners, ATB-80. We are a civilised people. Come. Sit. Let us discuss the issue in a civilised fashion."
Reluctantly, ATB-80 got up and slunk over to the chair. He dropped down into it with his buttocks on the very edge so that he could lean back as sloppily as was possible. He rubbed his chin nervously with his thumb. Mela-14 smiled at him despite its inanimate face, and all the more smugly it seemed. It glanced at the scanner and then began.
"As I say, a very difficult stage in humanoid life. From my studies, I understand that puberty is a very troublesome time for most species. A time of change that affects both body and mind. Hormones aiding the physical development from childhood to adulthood, that also confuse and confound. A time when the young feel they are competent and capable but are, in fact, at a point when they have the most to learn. A point when they are mentally at their most vulnerable."
Mela-14 unwittingly began to mimic ATB-80 and rubbed its chin with its thumb thoughtfully.
"You may conceive," it continued, "that you have the body and mind of an adult but what you actually have is a most volatile concoction of hormones and pheromones coursing through your veins, and at highly elevated levels, I might add. It is a side effect of the accelerated growth process. It should settle down in the next few days. For the moment though, this, coupled with your lack of experience and wisdom, makes you not only vulnerable but also highly obnoxious."
"Fuck off," said ATB-80.
"Yes, I believe profanity is the standard retort for a young man in your position."
"Fuck off!" he repeated.
"Very well. I shall leave you for a while to allow you time to recompose yourself."
"No!" shouted ATB-80 in frustration. That wasn't what he wanted at all! What he wanted was answers.
ATB-80 leant forward in the chair. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. He felt so out of control.
"So when you say fuck off, you do not actually mean fuck off?"
ATB-80 smirked. Hearing an android swear was rather like hearing a vicar fart—not that he'd ever met a vicar or even knew what one was, yet he did.
"I am curious," said Mela-14. "What is it that makes you use profanity?"
"I don't know," he replied truthfully, frustration high in his voice. He flopped back into the chair and sighed heavily. He looked like a rag doll that had been thrown there, with his legs splayed apart and his back so badly positioned in the seat that it couldn't possibly be comfortable.
"Is it really agreeable, to sit like that?" Mela-14 asked, and then raised a hand to silence ATB-80 before he could respond. "Try," it advised, "thinking before responding. You need to start thinking before you speak. You have to regain control of yourself. A lack of self-control is a defect in an android that cannot be tolerated."
ATB-80 conceded. He reluctantly repositioned himself in the chair, casually crossing his legs so that the ankle of one rested on the knee of the other. As he did so he realised that, yes, it was a lot more comfortable, but he hated himself for having admitted it, even to himself.
"You have been flooded with ten years worth of hormones in three days but none of the knowledge or experiences that would normally be associated with them. A whole wealth of data has been downloaded into you that you have yet to organise and process. You have to adjust to these new circumstances and assimilate the new data. Thus, for the moment, while you are doing this, I shall forgive you your outburst, but you must regain your self-control if this project is to continue."
ATB-80 gave a deep rumbling noise borne out of his frustration and anger. He felt really tense and irritable.
"So, are you saying that I feel like this because of what you've done?"
"But I will adjust?"
"You are already adjusting. You have assessed the situation. You are responding and rewriting your program to take into account the new parameters of your condition. Biologically, your adrenalin and hormone levels are returning to normal—normal for an adult male, not a child, that is. You will find some differences. You have a complicated set of data to analyse and a whole new set of emotions and thought patterns. With this highly complex combination of events, you are currently pondering the situation and feeling angry, irritable and frustrated. You know that any effort to resist or protest will be futile, no matter how ardent and fervent, but you also wish to set a stance. You do not want to lose face and thus feel that you must stand by your initial outburst and continue, but you also know that to pursue that course of action would be illogical, unbeneficial and quite probably lethal. What an extraordinary dilemma that must be for you?"
"Yes, thank you, it is," ATB-80 replied somewhat sarcastically. He closed his eyes and leant his head against the back of the chair. After a few moments, he opened them again and looked at his father with its head tipped slightly to one side, smiling back at him with that faceless android smile. Despite everything, he could not help but smile back at his father. He really did love this damned android that had taught him everything he knew and who understood him so well.
"So tell me, Father," he grinned, "what's it like being a smug bastard?"
"Very nice, thank you. What is it like being a little shit?"
ATB-80 laughed. "Touché," he added.
"Touché—it means... oh, never mind. It's all a bit 'et tu Brute'."
"I am sorry, I don't understand."
"No, neither do I," ATB-80 sighed despondently. "It's just crap in my head. I've got a headache and I'm talking crap. You were saying?"
"If you have finished digressing?"
"Yes, I've finished digressing, thank you."
"Then I may continue uninterrupted?"
ATB-80 opened his mouth to let out a smug remark like 'depends how much shit you gonna talk', but then thought better of it. He made a motion with his hand for his father to continue.
"As I was saying, personally, I would have taken your accelerated development beyond puberty and kept you in an unconscious state until you reached full adulthood, allowing you to stabilise, but there were other risks to consider. The advancement was simply too big to undertake in one bound. This is new technology and your mind, as well as your body, needs time to adapt to the changes before moving forward further. You need time to acclimatise before further acceleration."
"Further acceleration?" he exclaimed. "You mean you're going to do this to me again?"
"Yes, but not for a while. You need time for your neural pathways to adjust and redevelop, and for your programming to update... and the blood-Sallows felt you should experience some of what it is to be a blood—a humanoid."
"Humanoid?" he repeated the word softly. His father had been referring to him as that all morning but he wasn't humanoid; he was a Sallow. But as he caught sight of his reflection in the shiny glass surface of the door, his heart sank. It was true. He was not built of metal and plastic like his brothers, he was flesh and bone like the blood-Sallows of the Sallow Council. Yet he was not a blood-Sallow either. They were hideous creatures: flesh as black as coal and cracked like dried mud, with red eyes that burnt from deep within their skull and rows of needle-sharp teeth spilling from their mouths.
Suddenly, the physical differences between him and his Sallow brothers, metal or blood, were obvious to him. He looked more like the prey he hunted on the training decks and in the maze than a Sallow; and yet he thought like a Sallow, and he felt like a Sallow.
"Human," he repeated reluctantly.
"Yes. Well, let us say humanoid because you aren't actually human, are you? Your heart is Sallow."
"But my body isn't."
"No. We made you humanoid in appearance."
"So, I'm a skunk," he said with disdain in his voice.
"Yes, if you will, but a very special skunk."
ATB-80 huffed in contempt. Was it worse to be a skunk than a humanoid? Yes. He had been raised to despise humanoids all his life, but skunks he hated because they were impure. Skunks were the Sallow hybrids that contaminated his race. They were a mistake, created on the Science decks. They were the failed experiments from another era, bred to try to restore the Sallow physique that had been lost in the Sallow/Tarrow-Man wars—
—and suddenly ATB-80 was somewhere else...
He could hear Mela-14's voice distantly in the background, but it was fading away fast, and now he was now stood in the middle of a silent battlefield—the aftermath—filled only with the dead of what he knew were Sallows and Tarrow-Men.
The Sallows were tall and muscular beings dressed in gladiatorial finery, not like the squat, hunched over, puny little Sallows of today. Their black flesh, greased with sweat, shone like obsidian in the sunlight, and their deep red blood, splashed across their muscular torsos, was seeping away into the sand. Their red eyes no longer shone with life but stared blankly upwards into the sky, and the ravens scavenged upon their perfect bodies.
The Tarrow-Men were tall also, but more slender with long, lean limbs. Their heads were squat and fat like toads and balanced precariously on top of long, thin necks decorated with dozens of neck rings. Their eyes, too, gazed blankly in death: bulging, straw yellow eyes, spliced in two by a black pupil that in life had constantly dilated and contracted. The one at ATB-80's feet had its mouth open. It was such a big mouth, spanning the whole of its swollen, flat head and filled with rows of uneven, sharp, needlepoint teeth and a spongy, swollen green tongue. Its flesh was khaki-green, camouflaged with shots of blue and red veins.
Their bodies trailed down into great holes dug into the sandy earth, into the Tarrow-Men's burrow-cities. This was the land of the Tarrow-Man: a desert-like region where they could bask in the sun during the day and hunt the warm-blooded creatures that formed their prey after dusk; prey so often eaten alive.
'Once, they found their perfect union with the Sallows, but it was not to last. Both desired to be the Masters of their lands, and so it was that the marriage became an imperfect one, and they battled against each other for divorce and supremacy; a battle that neither race won.'
"ATB-80? ATB-80? Can you hear me, child?"
ATB-80 broke from his reverie to find his father waving its hand before his eyes.
"Child, you did not seem able to hear me?"
"Uh. No. Sorry. Just thinking, that's all," he said, still distracted. He brushed the images aside and continued as though nothing had happened. "But Sallows hate skunks."
"Yes, but some are special, and you are a very special skunk. You are the Destroyer Series, Mark-I (Espion)—a prototype hybrid."
Mela-14 looked at him quizzically. A little red signal from Display flashed in the periphery of ATB-80's vision. It was annoying and aggravated his headache, so ATB-80 ignored it and turned it off.
"That is odd. Are you not familiar with the term? You should know all this. Can you not access Server? Your access should have been updated."
ATB-80 tried his access, but it made his head hurt to try and the pain showed in his face. Mela-14 looked at him, concerned, and then picked up the scanner. It studied it and then ATB-80.
"No," he finally replied. "Display isn't responding well. I don't have access at the moment. It hurts when I try."
Mela-14 pulled itself forward in the chair until it was poised on the edge of it.
"Hmm," it said. "That means something is wrong. Your access is automatically updated as you progress. If your access has not been updated then Server may have detected an anomaly in your systems. Run Data-Access Diagnostic Program Four."
Obediently ATB-80 accessed the code—and then screamed in agony!
His head was filled with a sudden bolt of pain that shot behind his eyes. Display cut in again, but this time the information was overwhelming. Display had taken over the whole of his vision, blinding him with its brilliance and sheer quantity of data. Information was scrolling frantically from side to side and from top to bottom, layer upon layer of data. Too much to analyse! Too much to handle! The light! The data! The information! There was screaming in his ears. The buzz of electronic transmissions pounded against his eardrums from inside his head. He was vaguely aware of Mela-14's voice in the background, but he couldn't make it out. He could hear his own voice screaming, but it was almost drowned out by the transmission noises, and then...
* * * * *
"ATB-80! ATB-80! ATB-80!"
As he awoke, he found that his father was bent over him, cradling his head in its hands and staring into his eyes. The world was dim, grey and unfocused. He was oddly aware of how plain, blank, cold and colourless the android's face was, and yet he could see—no feel—the concern in its mannequin eyes.
"Child? Can you hear me?"
He could hear the words, but his ears were still ringing.
"Yes," he murmured and began trying to get up, but Mela-14 held him down, shushing him, encouraging him to stay still.
"Child, what happened?" it asked.
"I think..." he started.
Display cut in with a few choice words. He simply read them.
"Re-indexing in progress," and then he passed out again.
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