Who are you?” she whispered. “Why am I here?”
I…do not know.” Six’s voice sounded rough and uncertain in his own ears. The slender, tiny shape of the girl who haunted his dreams stood before him, her dark eyes wide with fright.
I don’t know why I can’t stop having these dreams.” She looked around her at his service room which was where she always seemed to find him, when he was resting in his docking station.
Her hair fell in a long, straight waterfall of black down her back and her big eyes were partially obscured by strange glass and wire oculars. Six wondered what they were for. They didn’t seem to have the range of his own ocular scanner, the one he’d had implanted over his left eye. Could they be to correct her vision? But if that was the case, why did she simply not have some enhancements done?
What is your designation?” he asked, since she continued to stand there. Usually she faded almost immediately. It was disturbing to note that this time she wasn’t leaving.
I am Six.” He thumped the breastplate of his exoskeleton impatiently with a metallic clang. “What do you call yourself?”
Oh. Mei-Li. My name is Mei-Li.”
May-Lee?” Six frowned at the strange mixture of syllables.
It means ‘beautiful flower’ or something like that, I think. My mother picked it out when my parents adopted me from China because it sounded exotic without being too hard to pronounce. I…” She took a step back. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling. And I’m still here. These dreams never last this long.” She looked around. “Why am I still here?”
I do not know why you remain or why you come at all,” Six said. “You certainly do not belong—you have no enhancements and clearly you are consumed by emotion.”
Enhancements?” For some reason she looked down at her small, barely rounded breasts.
Through the sheer white garment she wore, Six could see that they were tiny but perfectly shaped. For a strange moment, he wondered what they would feel like in his palms. Would the pink points of her nipples, pressing innocently against the thin white fabric, feel good against his fingertips? And what would her reaction be to his touch? Would she moan—illicit emotion overcoming her as he stroked those delicate buds? Would she—?
He shook his head, trying to clear the strange thoughts away. Where had they come from? And what had he been talking about with the little female? Oh, right—enhancements.
Enhancements like my own.” He motioned to his enhanced left hand and the ocular scanner in is left eye. “You have no enhancements. You are not authorized to be here.”
That’s what you always say—that I’m not authorized to be here… That you’ll hunt me down and make me pay…” She began to back away from him, fear growing in her eyes.
Because you are not.” Six reached up to disengage himself from his docking station and took a step toward her. His exoskeleton made a mechanical hiss and his boots thudded heavily against the metallic floor panels.
No—please!” She backed away from him, almost stumbling in her haste. “Please don’t!” She looked around. “Oh God, I just want to wake up! Just let me wake up…”
Suddenly Six’s eyes opened and the dream—if that was what it had been—was over. He looked around, searching the room with his scanner but it was empty—it was always empty. The girl in his dream was nothing but a figment—an insubstantial wisp who disappeared the moment he opened his eyes.
But he could no longer dismiss her as nothing but a figment and the dream as nothing but a slight aberration during his recharging period. It was coming more frequently for one thing—the girl was disturbing his sleep on an almost nightly basis now. And for another, the dream seemed to be lasting longer. He had been able to have an actual exchange with her this time—not a good sign.
Reflexively, he reached behind his head and felt the small metal button of his emotion damper, embedded in the flesh of his neck, just below the base of his skull. Still in working order, he assured himself. I feel nothing. But then why did the dreams keep recurring? And what could he do about it?
Suddenly the speaker at the door of his service room buzzed to life and the voice of Ter, his domicile’s informations system, spoke.
Six, you are requested in One’s domicile at once.”
For some reason, Six’s heart began pumping harder.
Why?” he demanded. “It is not my day to communicate with One. Please clarify.”
No clarification possible,” Ter’s mechanical voice said. “One has requested your immediate presence. He has given no reason for this request.”
Nor did he have to. As the Mouthpiece of the Collective—the group of mechanoids which ruled Zeaga Four with an iron hand—One was entitled to make any request he desired and expect immediate obedience.
Will you come?” Ter asked.
I will. Tell One he may expect my presence momentarily.”
Very good.” With another buzz, the speaker fell silent.
A vague feeling of unease settled over Six as he left his domicile and entered the busy, dark streets of Prime, the main urban center of Zeaga Four. Six frowned to himself as he walked, threading his way through the busy traffic of wheelers, trackers, and mechanoids as well as the organic Enhanced that made up the diverse life in the city. High walls of metal and tempered glass rose all around him, blocking out the sky but he was so used to the view—or lack thereof—he barely noticed it. Instead, his thoughts were turned inward. This unease that would not leave him…it was almost like…like an emotion.
But that was foolish, surely. He was simply concerned for his future, as any rational being would be. And possibly the dream, which kept coming over and over again, was getting to him.
Not that he planned to do anything about it, he reminded himself. The girl was light years away and obviously a Feeler. There was no place in his neatly ordered life for such as her.
Still, his thoughts kept returning to her slight, frail form and her large, frightened eyes. What if someone threatened her, so far away on that tiny planet where she lived? How could she protect herself? She didn’t even have an exoskeleton…
Before he knew it, he found himself standing outside the featureless metal door that led to One’s domicile. It was exactly the same as any other organic’s residence. There was no class distinction among the inhabitants of Prime—not even for those close to the Collective.
He pressed a sound activator in the center of the door and waited for the resulting alert to ring within.
Name?” the voice of the domicile’s informations system demanded.
Six. One is expecting me.”
He is with Two, now. A momentary delay.”
Understood.” Six crossed his hands behind his back and stood at ease, waiting impassively.
Only a moment later, the metal door panel slid open. He started to step inside but a low, robotic form suddenly appeared, blocking his way. It looked up at Six and growled, a metallic buzzing sound that vibrated its entire body from its blunt snout filled with jagged metal teeth down to the tip of its segmented tail.
Six stood perfectly still, eyeing the mechanoid impassively. It growled again and sidled closer. The metal portals in its snout that comprised its nostrils irised open and began inhaling air.
The process reminded him of his induction into the Collective—when, as an adolescent, he had first had his emotion damper installed. Had he failed that test, the jagged metal teeth would have closed around his throat and his life would have been over.
Now, as he had so many years ago, Six looked impassively into the glaring red mechanical eyes and waited for its decision. The sniffer continued to inhale, stalking around him on stiff, metal legs until at last it seemed satisfied. With a final buzzing growl, it backed away and sat on its haunches by the side of the domicile.
Well, well—so you passed the test.” The voice belonged to Two—the Eyes of the Collective. He was second only to One and they were often in company with each other, consulting on matters of importance. He was a tall, skeletal male with a skull-like face and an advanced multi-spectrum scanner that took up his entire right eye socket as well as the right side of his face. It was permanent—not built over the existing structure like Six’s was. Instead of an exoskeleton, he wore a long, black leather coat which buttoned at his boney chin and fell to the tops of his black boots. When he spoke, he appeared to have too many teeth.
Two was also in charge of the sniffers—the mechanoids whose sole job it was to ferret out Feel-crime in the general populace. Six supposed he should not have been surprised to see one of Two’s pets in attendance but nonetheless, it bothered him. He had not been so thoroughly inspected since his first initiation into the Collective. It was almost as if Two was hoping to find something wrong with him. Something illegal.
Yes, I passed.” Six spoke without rancor though he did not enjoy the other male’s company. “What did you expect? That I would be guilty of Feel-crime?”
I would not be surprised.” Two’s mouth stretched in a humorless rictus of a grin showing his many sharp, yellow teeth. “After all, One informs me you have been dream sharing with a female.”
Why would he inform you of that? It is none of your concern.” Six’s heart began beating faster again and the sniffer, which was lying down now, its snout on its metal paws, raised its head and whined.
That’s right, Grix.” Two snapped his fingers and the sniffer came to heel at his feet. “Six protests much for one whose innocence is in question.”
I have done nothing wrong,” Six said stolidly, willing himself to be blank once more. “The dreams came to me—I did not seek them out.”
Of course you didn’t,” One said from the doorway of his domicile. The clear skull cap which showed the electrodes of the Collective implanted in his brain glinted faintly in the weak sunlight which had somehow made its way between the towering buildings of Prime. “Your guilt or innocence is not in question here. I merely wished to speak with you, Six,” he said.
One.” Six looked up with something like relief. “May we speak privately of this matter? I do not feel it concerns Two.”
Everything approaching Feel-crime concerns me.” Two gave him that grimacing, humorless grin again which showed too many teeth.
There is no Feel-crime here,” One said, frowning slightly. “You may go, Two. I will speak to you at a later time.”
Of course.” Two nodded slightly and glided away, the sniffer jogging at his heels.
One nodded at Six. “Please enter my domicile and make yourself comfortable.”
Thank you.” But Six cast a last glance over his shoulder at the thin, retreating figure. He did not care for the Eyes of the Collective. The male was too eager to find wrong-doing and he displayed smug satisfaction when he was able to punish those found guilty of Feel-crime.
Six touched the back of his neck again, almost without knowing he was doing it. The emotion damper implanted there was a good one—installed by the best Tolleg surgeon aboard any of the medical barges. Even a sniffer with the most sensitive olfactory apparatus would never scent Feel-crime on him. He was safe. Two couldn’t touch him.
One stood aside and allowed him to enter the cool, dark domicile and then sealed the door behind them.
Now, Six,” he said, leading the way down the long, dim hallway to his work room. “As Two said, I understand you have been dream sharing with a female.”
Not on purpose!” Six protested. “The dreams come and I cannot make them go. They don’t mean anything, though—they simply disturb my rest during my recharging period.”
Dream sharing is a Kindred phenomenon,” One said, seating himself behind a plain black metal desk with a smooth, clean, empty top. “It is to be expected that it would happen to you eventually.”
What? But why?” Six took the stool in front of the desk, reflexively hooking the leg sockets of his exoskeleton into the power grids along the metal sides of the stool. It was like One to have such a seat for the recharging of a guest’s armor. He was thoughtful in that manner.
You are pure blooded Kindred, are you not?” One raised an eyebrow at him. “The rest of us who have had our DNA mixed by the Tollegs and were grown in the artificial incubation tubes have traces of other races mixed in. But you came to us already formed as an adolescent. Your genetic heritage is more pure…and thus more prone to this kind of deviance.”
Six frowned, not liking the word ‘deviance.’
What am I to do about it? As I said, I do not invite the dreams—they just come. And I cannot make them go, no matter how I try.”
Tell me about the girl.” One leaned back in his chair, his black oculars cycling lazily. “The one you are sharing with. What does she look like?”
Small…frail…unable to protect herself.” Six frowned. “I always feel she may be in some kind of danger and that I should do something about it. But…I don’t know what.”
One nodded thoughtfully.
You feel protective of her. Not really an emotion—simply another Kindred trait.”
I feel nothing for her,” Six protested, his heart speeding up for some reason. “I feel nothing at all.”
Of course not. No one accused you of feeling,” One said gently.
Two did.” Six frowned. “Why else would he instruct his pet sniffer to inspect me?”
Two…is Two.” One shrugged as though it was of no consequence. “I didn’t call you here to talk about him—I called to talk about your dreams.”
Do you want me to have my emotion damper inspected?” Six asked. “I could ask the Tolleg who installed it—”
No. I want you to claim her.”
It took a moment for One’s words to sink in. When they did, Six stared at him uncertainly. If he could have felt anything, his emotion would have been shock.
What did you say?”
I said I want you to claim her—go and claim the girl you are dream sharing with.”
Claim her and do what with her?” Six demanded. “I have no frame of reference when it comes to females.”
Untrue. You had a female parent and a female sibling—a sister I believe it is called—before the Scarlet Plague claimed them.”
The Scarlet Plague…” Six shut his eyes briefly. Blood leaking from their eyes and ears…oozing in crimson rivulets from Kaylee’s nose, the corners of her mouth. “Kill me, Jax. I want you to kill me…it hurts so bad…”
“…Claiming Period here.”
What?” Six’s eyes flew open. “Forgive me—I did not quite hear your words.”
Which is why you should get an acoustic implant—at least on one side.” One frowned disapprovingly. “I said that you can spend your Claiming Period here on Zeaga Four.”
But I don’t know what a Claiming Period entails,” Six protested. “And the girl is completely unenhanced—I can see that much in the dreams. Also, she is a Feeler.”
You can study the rules of the Claiming Period as you journey to claim her,” One said. “As for enhancements, she can get one or two simple ones aboard one of the medical barges before you come to the surface.”
And her emotions?” Six asked. “What if she does not choose to get an emotion damper as one of her enhancements? What then?”
One sighed. “A special dispensation will be granted. Though if you keep her and she stays here for the long term, an emotion damper will become necessary.”
Of course,” Six said numbly. He stood up. “But…why? Why do you want me to do this, One?”
The older organic, which Six had come to regard as his mentor, sighed and rubbed one hand over the smooth, see-through skull cap.
Officially I will say only that it is the will of the Collective. Unofficially, I will tell you that events are in play that can affect all of Zeaga Prime. I cannot tell you more than that.”
Six frowned. “I will do it if you ask it of me, of course. But I still do not understand.”
One looked up at him. “I know you don’t and I know this is a risk for you, Six, but I believe you can do it. Your character is strong, your logic unimpeachable. You will not allow yourself to fall into Feel-crime, no matter what influence this human female has on you.”
She has no influence,” Six said, frowning again. “None at all.”
But against his will he remembered the sheer, silky white garment which showed her small, perfect breasts…the fear in her eyes…her soft, sweet voice when she begged him not to hurt her… Someone needs to protect her, a voice whispered in his head. She’s too tiny, too delicate—defenseless.
I know she doesn’t. And I know you will stay strong.” One’s voice broke the strange reverie he had somehow fallen into.
Oh, of course. Of course, I will, One.” Six nodded.
Good.” His mentor stood so Six did as well. “When you have her, bring her back to me and let me inspect her enhancements. I will grant you a personal dispensation for her emotions so you won’t have any problems.”
Thank you.” Six made a formal bow which One returned with a nod of his head. “I will do as you ask.”
See that you go at once,” One said. “Take your fastest shuttle and have the tertiary medical barge fold space for you. Its energy source is the strongest.”
Of course.” Six nodded again and turned to go.
Yes?” He turned back to see a strange, unreadable expression on One’s face. Then again, it was odd to see any expression on the normally blank countenance of his mentor.
May Fortune favor you,” One said formally. “Now go. I will see you next when you have the girl with you.”
Six nodded again and left. But as he stepped from One’s domicile into the dim daylight of Prime, he wondered what reason his mentor could possibly have for him to claim the human girl.
And what would Six do with her once he had, in fact claimed her? What did one do with any female? A quick vision of tiny, perfect breasts and huge, lovely eyes flashed before his mind’s eye and was gone just as quickly.
He lifted his chin and headed for the shuttle docks. There was much to do and much to learn.
It was time to claim his bride.