Ancient Memories: Madness of the Hive Mind
- Ancient Memories: Madness of the Hive Mind -
The space-going vessel that sped me along on my journey took me across the dark reaches of the dark void that exists between the stars. Dark, black, and filled with nothingness was that void, and the sight of it always terrified me rather than comforted me. Ere long, the vessel reached the rugged surface of a world that was a colony for a far greater empire. I was not at that time keeping track of politics, and did not care who was governing what world for whom, and why. Most planetary governors were all greedy, spiteful and often cruel individuals who had their own agendas. Power was their drug, and they played a wicked game in pursuit of it. This planet was far from pleasant, at least regarding the part of it whereon my vessel landed. As I said, it was rugged, icy in places, and exactly the sort of place I hated. I did oft prefer warmer climes to this, and the star port at which the vessel landed seemed sterile and all of the buildings of it appeared almost brutal in their immense, perhaps monstrous sizes and designs. To be all honest about it, I neglected to even so much as ask the name of this world. For I was intent on keeping my business there short, if possible. It was a world run mostly by the family of a noble house, but one I had no previous dealings with. They knew of me, and thus had the advantage. For, I knew little at all of them, nor of the exact nature of my business there. It was an order, and one I had to obey. She who was the matriarch of my own house would not tolerate failure or disobedience, despite her famed and highly respected generosity and occasional kindnesses. But she was like a mother to me, and I had no desire to fail her. The air was cold, but not bitingly so. I felt a bit of a tingle upon my skin as I emerged from the vessel once it landed and was secured on its' pad. The navigators informed me that I could disembark as soon as it pleased me to, and that was when the miserably cold air reminded me that I was far from in the most ideal of circumstances with this visit. The port was cheerless, desolate, with few people there even to keep the place running. Only what was required, and nothing more. I was, it seemed, one of the only few visitors upon that day. Good thing it was summertime! I did not wish to imagine what it might be like to visit this planet... at least this part of it... in the winter. Ice clung to many of the mountainous peaks that formed a horseshoe-like shape all around the valley where the star port sat. Beyond the far opening in the mountains was a long, winding road going off into an unfathomable distance. A fog did set in there, and I could make out nothing of the landscape beyond. All was white, gray, and horrid to behold. This felt less like a planet on which people lived, and more like a netherworld for the dead or the damned. I liked it less and less the more I was there, and I had only just arrived. So just imagine it!
It was early morning, and I honestly wished I had come at midday when at least the sun would have to have been warmer than where it was currently in the sky. As it was, I could scarcely see its' light for it was veiled behind a layer of clouds that I could not be certain were... or were not... a permanent sort of fixture of this planet's general atmosphere. I was far from the planet's capital, this was the outskirts of all civilization to be sure, and the city that sprawled out all around the star port was made from grayest concrete, stone, and dark bricks combined with dull-looking steel. All the buildings were made thus, to make matters worse most were windowless and appeared to have artificial lighting inside to make up for the otherwise dark and dismal environment outside. It seemed a poor choice of place to conduct any sort of business! The city was massive, and if it was populous the people were not out and about so as for there to be any indication of such. The terminal at the port was busy, and I saw several embassies in which were representatives of several noble houses of other worlds. My own was there someplace, but I had not the desire to look for it. Two guards came to escort me, and told me to follow them. They were dressed in black armored suits with helmets that had mirror-like black visors for face plates. Thick furs kept them warm, but it was hard to tell if these individuals were even human at all. They could just as well have been automatons for all I knew. Their voices were electronically modified by their helmets to obscure their identities. I simply smiled, and did as they bid me. I was expected for this business matter.
They told me there was a palace on the far side of the city, and I could just barely make it out, for so great was the distance. These guards were imposing to be sure, with staffs designed to deliver a single electric shock charge to any troublemakers. Nonlethal, but with blades that could be extended with the press of a button in order to kill if necessary. I myself carried sheathed upon my back a large sword that was made of a light but exceedingly sharp metal that could cleave through steel. It was a shock sword that could also be electrified with the press of a button, and resembled a machete crossed with a mighty saber. It was not a beautiful or elegant weapon, and had about as much finesse as a cleaver. I found that it was perfect not just for combat, but for intimidation as well. But I was not here to compare anything that I was capable of with what these guards could deliver, and I allowed my mind to return to focus on the things going on all around me. We passed through the city streets, and as I had suspected there were few people out and about. All of the restaurants were closed for business, the marketplaces were pretty much empty, and the shop proprietors that I did see all looked despondent. It was clearly a slow day, for it looked as if this entire city was frozen in time. I asked one of the guards: “So, can you tell me a bit about the person I am supposed to be meeting with? I know it is regarding a matter connected strongly to my own house, but to me honest with you my matriarch told me nothing at all beyond that she could trust only myself with this mission. All ridiculously mysterious... I hate it.” The guard laughed a bit and then said to me: “The messenger said you were not pleased with cloak and dagger missions, that in all honesty you preferred to have things laid out for you in... simpler terms. So, to put it simply... I, am not allowed to tell you anything at all. My job, and my companion's job, is to escort you to the palace. You will meet with the messenger there, and after that it is their problem not mine. Besides, I have no love for boring conversations so let us keep our interactions to the minimum! Shall we?” This man hated me and that was plain in every word he spoke, as well as how he spoke it. I said only: “Very well then! Just lead on... perhaps the messenger will be more interested in talking.” I heard the guard sigh, which came out like static through the voice modulation of his helmet. “It is like dealing with a child who insists on asking questions.” commented the other guard. I had not endeared myself to either man, nor did I wish to. I turned my thoughts to the messenger, and hoped he would prove to be at least a bit more friendly.
The palace sat nestled in front of a great rocky ridge that was almost totally absorbed into the great heights of the city wall. It was far from the largest building in the city, which is why I had a hard time spotting it before, but it was quite massive regardless. And every bit as brutal and immense as all the other structures in this place were. The palace was heavily guarded, almost exclusively by automatons that were not even remotely attempted to be disguised as humans. I was surprised at that, given that on most worlds in the great imperial league automatons were not typically trusted with tasks that could be done by people. Some did not trust them at all. The great gates of the palace slid open on an automated system as we approached, and the two guards that had been accompanying me saw me through. Then, the two men left me to my own devices and told me to keep going straight through the main hallways. I did as instructed, as the palace gates slid closed once again. The interior was lit with eerie pale bluish lighting, purplish in places, and if the outside of the city seemed otherworldly... an odd turn of phrase to use given all the planets and worlds I had been to previously in my life... the inside was just as much so but for entirely different reasons. Black, twisted architecture dominated everywhere and there were the odd sculptures and works of art created with thick cables, tubes, wires and pieces of metal. There were no signs of beauty... no plants, or trees, or flowers as could oft be seen in the palaces of other worlds I had visited. All was cold, metallic, and stone-like here. I almost felt like I was intruding on someone's mausoleum. A black carpeting with deep forest green trim ran the length of the floor in front of me, as I walked along. Soon enough, I came to two sharply designed pillars over which hung a spine-like arch, and that was where the messenger was waiting for me. I was greeted pleasantly enough, which was fine.
It was a young woman wearing a long diaphanous black gown made of thin satin and taffeta. Her legs were mechanical, but the rest of her was human looking enough. She was pale, hairless, bald and had the blackest eyes I had ever seen apart from only very few others I had known in the past. She spoke in a voice that was a blend of male and female tones that appeared to have been mechanically augmented to achieve a perfect harmony. It was a single voice, not two speaking together, but a voice created from two voices. A hard thing to describe the sound of, for it ascended and descended like a symphony of a sort whenever the woman spoke. The woman was slender, her features round and pleasant, and she had a silver nose ring on as well as two metal stud earrings that pulsed with faint reddish light. Her hands, I noticed, although human looking, clicked mechanically when she moved her fingers or wrists. It was a click not of bone but of metal, and I knew that her mechanical augmentations... which I what they were, in truth... went much deeper than one might presume at first glance. The long, puffy sleeves of her thin, delicate gown rustled a bit as she waved her right hand in greeting to me. She then declared: “You must be Count Gislu Ra'vann, from the famous House of Fire! I have heard so much about you... all terrible, if truth be told. Perhaps it may be more proper to call your house infamous rather than famous? But do not be taken aback by my words! I have studied all about you, and to be honest am somewhat rather a bit obsessed with you. Not in a creepy sort of way mind, more that you might say I find you intriguing. How can a person so childlike at times be such a brute and a monster other times? How is your dear, dear mother doing these days!” I then answered in a somewhat depressed sounding tone of voice: “She is not my mother by birth, no matter what you may or may not have heard. She is my matriarch, and I serve her loyally. If I have done anything monstrous or brutish in my service to her, it is only because it was expected of me. Not because I relished such deeds. Do you understand me, girl?” The woman then said cheerfully: “Oh, perfectly my count! Perfectly. And I am certain that the things you did back during your service to your original house, the House of Lan'ka, were only because they too were expected of you?” I was growing irritated by these personal questions, and remarked at last: “Where are going with these comments you keep making about me! I fail to see what such things have to do with any mission of any importance to my house and my matriarch.” The woman so extended her hand, expecting me to take it as she said: “Oh, I am sorry my count! I feel so bad now if this talk somehow insults you. But, to tell the truth, we could use someone who is not adverse to a bit of extra violence right about now. It is very much pertaining to your mission, and to your matriarch. Take my hand... I am extending it in fair greeting to show you I mean you no offense.” I took her hand and squeezed it a bit hard. I felt metal just under her hand's skin, and she returned my clasp with a tremendous strength of her own. She could well have easily broken my hand just grasping it like that, but she was restrained with it and even thus was it a strong hand that held my own. Easily stronger than any man's! Even the mightiest. She stared into my face and licked her lips. I think I knew what was going through her mind, but did not comment upon it. “You have a strong grasp, girl.” I noted. “On many things, I think.” I added, to which she replied: “Let us get down to business next. Follow me, and I shall show you something that is a bit of a secret. At the very least, it is a secret to all the other noble houses except the one I serve, the one that dominates this world. Your matriarch is contemplating an alliance with us against her enemies, and we would be quite happy to accept her invitation and become allies with her. However, we have a problem and we need a person like you in order to solve it. But before we get around to that, we must let you in on our secret.” I then let her lead me down several side hallways and eventually down a great spiral stone stairway that appeared to go deep underground beneath the surface of the palace. At least the palace and even all the areas beneath it had proper heating! It beat the frigid horror of the world outside the palace's walls. The messenger walked before me and I followed after her. She had a very nice buttocks I noticed, and I let myself wonder just how far her mechanical aspects went. Could she be pleasured like any other human woman could? She was very beautiful, at least to me. I realized then, she was right. I was like a child!
The messenger informed me as we made our way through the dark nether chambers of the palace: “It is true that a lot of people believe that our people are mistrustful of outsiders, that we sometimes kill to maintain our secrecy and autonomy. They are correct in those assumptions about us. But we have more than enough reasons to be the way we are as a people. There is much prejudice in the empire towards a great many individuals whose only crime is that they were created rather than born. Automatons, they call them, but they are soul-endowed the same as you and I are. Look at me! I have a great many little mechanical enhancements to me... am I less human for it? Of course not! People need to learn to look beyond human xenophobia and false pride in order to see the truth. That being, we are all the same, at the core of it. All spiritual beings having a physical experience. That is what life is.” I then replied to the woman: “I have no such prejudices. Neither does my matriarch as far as I am aware.” The woman then exclaimed joyfully: “Oh, that is so wonderful to hear, my count! Do you know how rare it is to be meeting with a human who is so enlightened? I believe we can trust you with our little secret after all.” We continued to walk through the massive halls, corridors, and chambers that all felt the same. There were flashing indicator lights on many of the walls, and arrows painted next to certain archways to tell what direction to go in, lest someone become lost in this maze-like place. I tried to think what might be needing such a place to hide... a top secret weapons laboratory, I assumed. Many noble houses oft sat on stockpiles of weapons forbidden by the normal established conventions of war. They were used to gain an advantage over one's rivals and enemies. This place had the look of a bunker complex to it, so I was not wrong to make the assumption that I did. It was the logical thing to think, and my guide told me nothing to make me assume anything different. “How deep does this go?” I asked her, and she said to me: “Deeper than we actually need to go, my count. Luckily, our destination is on this level, and not the bottom-most level. No, that level is where the servers are kept on which copies of various artificial intelligence programs, entities, and other important things of that sort are all stored.” I then said to her, taken aback a bit by what she let slip. “Hold! Did you say artificial intelligence? Entities? What are you using this place for exactly! I had thought you were developing secret weapons.” To which the young woman said in a melodic tone of voice: “Is that what you think our secret is? Oh, poor fellow! No, not anything like that. I mean, yes we have laboratories and stockpiles for that too but that is on a different part of the planet. No... this is where the head of our house lives. They want to meet with you so we can discuss what needs to be done in order to finalize the alliance between our two houses. They... they are the secret I want to show you, actually. Well... they did say you were childlike, so I shall not be cross.”
I was not so childlike as to be unable to put together where all of this was heading. I began to suspect that the true head of this particular house was not human after all. But I kept that to myself, for I knew I was soon to learn the truth of this matter in any case. It was a full hour and a half before we reached the waiting area that lay before a pair of massive blast doors. I sat down on a leather couch there, and much to my surprise the messenger sat down not next to me but on my lap. She was quite heavy due to all her mechanical aspects, and I told her that I was afraid she might crush my legs if she persisted. Then, she sat next to me on the couch and threw her arms around my waist, leaning her head upon my chest as a loving companion might. “Oh! I can actually hear your heartbeat.” I then asked of her: “Wait! Doesn't everyone on this planet have a heartbeat?” I said it in a joking manner, for I thought she was being silly. She then replied: “No, they do not. Human hearts are so fragile that a lot of people here on this world had their original organic hearts totally replaced by mechanical ones that last beyond a single lifetime. No having to worry about heart attacks or the like that way... but no heartbeat, either. Just pulses that approximate a heartbeat. Much harder to hear! Yours is beating faster, the more you look at me. That means you like me.” I stroked the side of her face, caressing it. Her skin was soft, silky, without even a blemish upon its' surface. “I would be lying to say I did not like you.” I said to her, letting myself smile.
Her lips were moist and red. Not from lipstick-like adornment but from something that stained them that color. Perhaps another sort of augmentation, I reasoned. “What is your name?” I asked her, and she replied: “Where are my manners? I forgot to tell you! My name is Zilora.” I commented: “I like that! It is a very pretty sounding name.” She smiled, and sat up. She took my hands in her own, and stared into my eyes deeply. Her stare was hypnotic. “Thank you! Most people think it is rather ordinary. I have, in the past, been told that I am ordinary.” I could not believe such a thing, and told her: “You? You have to be one of the most remarkable girls I have ever seen! And I have seen many, on many worlds. You are many thinks, Zilora, but ordinary can not be said to be one of them.” She then shook her head and said sadly: “Different worlds have different standards, I suppose. Anyway, we should be ready! Soon, the doors will open once the scanners activate on sensing we are here. Then, the doors will open and we can go in to meet with my employer. Or is it employers? I do not know what the right term should be. That is when you will learn our house's greatest secret, and our most terrible burden that we do carry.” As if on cue, a snake-like camera emerged from the wall above the top of the blast doors and focused on us. Then, it slithered back into the wall and a klaxon-like siren sounded... not loud, in fact it came it seemed from far off... and red flashing lights lit up along the edges of the tops of all the nearby walls. “Come on, my count! Let us stand up and be ready to go inside. The doors will be opening very soon.” We did just that and the great monstrous doors rumbled open. As soon as they were fully open, we did hasten inside, entering an enormous circular chamber lined with sever computers... all interconnected with tubes and wires, and permanently welded into the floor. The center of the chamber had a series of pits in the floor, about nine in total. Eight surrounding a central larger pit. There was a metal mesh-like fence that kept us from venturing into that central part of the room, probably for our own good. The walls were covered in all manner of machines and electronic devices, so that they appeared much like a living thing with flashing and blinking lights, strange noises and sounds, and all of it resounding almost together... almost like something breathing, or so it seemed. But it was not a living thing, this chamber. It was all artificial, all utilizing technologies the likes of which I had rarely seen before in this way. In one single centralized location. There were traditionalists on the imperial home world who would call this place a creation of evil, a spawn of a demonic branch of science that should not be indulged under any circumstances. An almost eldritch horror to their minds and ways of thinking. To me, it just had an excessive quality to it, an overwhelming quality. Was this too much? It depends what use it was put to.
At once, an electronic voice that actually was more than one voice speaking at once called out: “You, have come seeking an alliance with our house, Count Gislu Ra'vann. That you come in the company of Speaker Zilora, and that she has not done away with you on the way says that you can be trusted in our presence. Thus, we shall do you the courtesy of meeting with you face to face, as it were.” At that, there was a humming sound as something seemed to be rising up from the nine pits in the center of the room. Zilora bowed her head as the things emerged from the pits in which they resided. Tall metal tubes, each one containing something that had once been human but which was human no longer. Kept alive within a bath of life-sustaining fluids, these creatures were so heavily modified with mechanical aspects that it was actually grotesque to look upon them. What was flesh and what was metal about them? Where did one begin, and the other end! Breathing apparatuses were affixed to their faces, their ears were covered by devices that enhanced their hearing and kept it safe from the damaging effects of the water-like fluid in which their forms existed. Their bodies were shriveled and shrunken, their legs atrophied and their limbs spindly and spider-like. The tops of their heads were metal domes in which swirling lights did a peculiar dance. Atop each of these tubes was a dome that contained a human brain. A brain that had of old been removed from a person's head, in order to make room for whatever swirled in place of it now. Thick wires ran down into each tube from each brain, connecting to the dome on each creature's head.
Each tube sported eight spider-like mechanical limbs that could function as legs or arms, each had a sharp claw on the end of it. These limbs were folded up at first, but unfolded once the tubes were well out of their pits so that these... people... could walk about. The electronic voice returned, saying: “We are the hive mind of this planet, the body that governs the house which rules it. We were like you once, being creatures of flesh only. Now, we are something more, having become one with a vast network of artificial intelligence entities. No one outside of our world knows this, not even the people who run the embassies that can be found here. It is our greatest secret, and our greatest burden.” On hearing that, the woman Zilora repeated: “Our greatest secret, our greatest burden!” in an excited tone of voice that was the voice of a fanatic. I asked the ghastly looking council, or whatever it was: “What is it that you need from me in order to secure an alliance with my house? I was told there was some service you wished to put me to, something perfect for someone of my... talents.” There was a long pause, and then the voice of the hive mind said to me: “We are no strangers to violence, count. We are not exactly incapable of it ourselves, should the need arise. But our continued existence is threatened by an imperial spy who is in the service of those who desire to expose us, for what we truly are. Should that happen, there would be those in power within the empire's inner circles, who might be motivated to seek our destruction. You are familiar with their doctrines against artificial intelligence and mechanical augmentations. Not all, in the empire's governing aspects feel that way, but many do and among them are those who could push in favor of our destruction. We would not take that lightly... and, there would be war if they pressed us too far to defend our right to continued existence. Kill the spy, and no evil shall come from what they were able to learn. Kill the spy, and we will join in alliance with your illustrious house. Fail, and not only are we not inclined to join with your house... but we will consider you a liability to our continued existence since you too now know our secret. At that point, we will terminate your life. Are we clear on all this?”
I then exclaimed: “If you... terminate... me, then the matriarch of my house will respond and there is certain to be war between our two houses should that happen. You will then have a war on two fronts... one with the empire, and one with us. One war you could hope to win, but two you are certain to lose. Even with all the technology at your command. The empire has beaten beings like yourself before, and they can do so again and again if necessary. Are you prepared for such consequences?” The hive mind then said, almost arrogantly: “Flesh cannot hope to always prevail against steel! You may fight us, but in the end we will win, no matter the cost. The safest and most logical course is for you to kill the spy. That will secure our favor. It is better to have us being on your side, then fighting against you, human.” I agreed, knowing I had no choice in the matter, and made ready to depart from that chamber. Zilora did follow after me, and the blast doors began to close behind us. She then said: “I know where the spy is, at the moment, residing. It should be easy for you to do this deed, if your reputation is anything at all to go by then nothing should be simpler for you. You have fought in battles, against countless men... here, you face only one foe to vanquish. A simple business transaction, is what you should consider this. One life to prevent wars in which countless lives would be lost. That is the hive mind's logic. It makes sense if you realize that.” But I knew in my heart that this was not going to turn out to be that simple. There was something sinister about the whole matter, and I wanted nothing more than to be well out of it. But if I failed to kill this spy, I myself would be killed and war would follow. This was no longer about me, about a simple diplomatic mission to secure an alliance. It was now a matter of life and death for many worlds, and countless peoples. I asked Zilora: “Tell me, girl, where this spy can be found. I want to get this over with as quickly as possible so I can be as far from this planet as I can get. No offense to you at all, but I do not like the way your masters choose to conduct their business. I do not like them at all, if I may be honest with you.” She then whispered to me: “Neither do I! But they rule this planet, and we all are at their mercy. Come with me, I will show you where the spy is. The sooner you do this, the better.”
The house was a small one by this planet's standards, and was in the very outermost suburbs of this great walled city. The irony of how deep deception ran on this world, was not lost on me. The capital was far away from this city, and whoever presided over it was a front... a figurehead for the hive mind that truly ran things here. Even if everyone on this planet knew the truth of who ruled over them, there was still the need to have the appearance of normality, especially for the benefit of outsiders. It was all too obvious that betraying this planet's secret was a death sentence... and there was a merciless quality to that which made me feel very ill at ease indeed. Zilora owned a safe house several blocks from the spy's current residence, and she agreed to stay there whilst I went to conduct my mission. I figured that it would not take long to just kill one man and return with proof of the deed. After that, we could report to the hive mind and I would be able to leave this world and never need to return to it again. That was our whole plan, and it was a good one. The only one possible, under these dire circumstances. I walked to the spy's house, seeing no need for subtlety, and knocked on the door. It occurred to me that I knew nothing about this person I was sent to kill, not even their name. That also did not sit well with me. I liked it best when I knew who my enemies were and could call them out by name. Soon, an old man's voice echoed from within the house: “Yes? Who are you! And what do you want.” I then said to the old man: “I am a merchant come with a business proposition for you. Hear me out, it is good enough that it could allow you to afford better lodgings than this place.” The old man's voice called out again, and did say in a nervous tone of voice: “I have never seen... a merchant who carries a sword before. Unless your business is just that dangerous, in which case I want no part of it.” I then exclaimed: “It is dangerous, I will not lie, but there is greater danger if you do not let me in to speak with you! I can help you, with a certain problem you have. But I need to hear of your side of the story first, before I decide what to do.” At that the old man said, with a bit of a nervous stutter to his voice: “Oh, oh yes! That problem. I... very well... I will let you enter. But do mind the sword, at least until we have the chance to speak. Let me tell you my side of this... matter... before you do anything you cannot take back.” I heard him unlock many locks and after that, he opened the door, allowing me to enter his house. I assumed that he was the spy.
The place was very spartan inside, lit with dim pale blue lighting, and it seemed indeed like some sort of temporary hideout rather than a proper residence. The old man was frail, hairless, and dressed in long black and gray robes. He had frightened looking brown eyes, and was looking about nervously. I heard a sound from an adjoining room, but thought nothing of it at the time. I assumed, simply, that he had a pet of some sort. “Do you know the real reason I have come, old man?” I asked, and the man said to me as he gathered his courage: “I do. After what my son learned... I suspected they would not allow him to live. But he is only a boy! If you tell him to keep his tongue he will do the right thing and be silent. Kill me instead, and after that send my boy to the imperial embassy so he can be returned to our home world safely. To be with his mother there, who waits for his return anxiously.” I then explained to the old man the horrible full facts of the situation, telling him once all had been aired: “They are going to kill me if I refuse to murder your son. And if he gets away and escapes back to imperial territory, there will be war. Is he a spy for the empire... or are you?” The old man then explained: “No, we are not spies of any sort! We are just here on a trading mission for the merchant cartel that my wife runs back home. My son was unfortunate enough to discover the truth about the hive mind when he went to the palace to deliver just a simple parcel of food to the kitchens there and got lost. Somehow, he ended up down in he chambers beneath the palace, where he witnessed a meeting between the hive mind and one of their agents. He saw the doors open, saw what transpired between the agent and the hive mind, and then ran for his life. He was too loud, and I can only imagine the hive mind deduced that he must have been a spy based on paranoia rather than proper logic. Can we just not explain things to them, reason with them perhaps? I suspected that there would be trouble from all this... but death and war, are something else altogether.”
I stated my honest opinion to the old man: “I fear the hive mind cannot be reasoned with at all. It is... it is not comprised of human beings any longer, whatever it once perhaps used to be. I do not know, at all, what or how much your son told you, but the truth is horrible beyond all imagining. The hive mind has somehow made itself into a twisted amalgamation of human and machine, with the power of some form of artificial intelligence to make it that much more powerful and dangerous. It thinks itself to be unbeatable, and will kill anyone at all who learns about the truth surrounding its' existence. If we try to flee, we will never make it off this planet alive. I can, honestly, think of no reasonable solution to this problem. Is your son alright? I assume that is he in the other room there.” And the old man said to me: “My son is well, but frightened as you might expect. He is indeed in that room. He has not left it since he ran home and told me what he saw beneath the palace. Do you have any friends that could help us?” I told him the simple truth, explaining: “None. Only a girl named Zilora who is actually an agent of the hive mind itself. She does not seem to serve it willingly, but is too afraid to risk her life defying it. We will receive no help from her. However, there is something that I have been forced to keep secret from the inhabitants of this planet. Something that I think you should know... though I doubt it will help us.”
I cleared my throat and began to speak, and I confided in the old man telling him: “My full name, and if you are indeed from imperial space then you will know it immediately, is Gislu Ra'vann. Formerly of the rank of count, but following the ending of the Elemental Wars I am better known by my title as the Divine Emperor of the entire imperial league of worlds that has become mine to govern. I came here on a mission for the matriarch of my noble house, the House of Fire... which is ruled by the great Cyndijaz Megg. It was an order really, and the only reason I obeyed it though as Emperor I did not have to is due to the fact that I love her and did not wish to fail her. I regard her as my mother, you see. I learned, once I got here, that she wished to form an alliance with the rulers of this world, whom she assumed I would imagine were like any other planetary ruler. Someone to be dealt with and reasoned with. I had no time, to look into what was going on, on this planet... and was not even told the name of this place. Only that the people here had never learned of the events of the Elemental Wars, nor of their final outcome. Nor, it seems, did they learn that I ever became Divine Emperor at all. They still assume I am of the rank of count, in service to the House of Fire as once indeed I was. And in many ways, still am. But truly it is that I must now serve many houses in addition to my own, and have the peace of all of our worlds to so guarantee. I knew only that this planet was a bit of a backward place, but I had no idea it was hiding as its' secret... that horror that rules it. Up until now, I pretended to be but a servant on a mission, but now that things are spiraling out of control I thought it best to tell you the truth. Also, if this mad hive mind learned that I am actually the Emperor... it would try to have me killed because it believes wrongly that the empire would mean to destroy it because of what it is, if it learned the truth. That would lead to war just like all the other possible outcomes of this situation we are in right now. I know you may find what I am telling you extremely difficult to believe... for the most part, all the average citizens of the empire have never met me face to face, not even on the empire's home world. I spend most of my time there in the company of my beloved empress Sapphira, attempting to guide our empire towards peace and away from the warlike times of the past. But I am telling you the truth, that I am who I claim to be. I probably should have come here with some of my elite bodyguards, but I thought that nothing could be simpler... than a mission of diplomacy. Now, we do need to figure out a way to get you and your son to safety, for you are both imperial citizens under my protection. And, we need to do it in a way that I will myself not end up murdered. This whole situations is simple ridiculous!” The old man shook his head from side to side, processing all that I had just told him. Then, he said to me: “I too never beheld your face, but as a loyal subject of the empire I know your name. I wondered why they said that anyone who comes here is not allowed to talk about the empire or any recent historical events. That too seems rather... ridiculous.”
Then, the voice of Zilora cried out from outside the house, moments before she stormed inside: “Yes! This is all ridiculous. It seems, that my studies about you were incomplete... Emperor Ra'vann. Why do you tolerate the rampant xenophobia against all peoples like unto myself and those I serve? In a perfect empire, you would outlaw such thinking entirely, make it a punishable offense, punishing bigotry with death. But the hatred for machine folk persists, and I want to know right now why. From your own lips! I thought you had a good heart, a kind soul, in addition to being a bit of a brute. But now I see you are a brute without a heart... or a soul... for those like us who are so reviled.” I then told her the true situation as it stood back on the imperial home world. I said: “I did, fully, outlaw all such bigotry... but there are still those who defy my edicts and persist in it. Powerful nobles, people I am not able to bring to justice easily. The reforms I am trying to enact take time, Zilora. Change, can never come overnight, and it will not come at all through bloodshed. I have a system I need to work within... I cannot work against it, lest the entire empire collapse or be driven to civil war. It is such a polarizing thing to deal with, and in time I believe the sort of bigotry your people and others like you face can become a thing of the past. But... you need to trust me, and believe in me when I say that I want only to obtain your people's hand in firm alliance with my mother's house. If I could but accomplish that, then it would be a step towards having your people eventually become fully accepted throughout the empire. Without it, such acceptance will be a longtime coming in comparison, if it ever comes at all. You held my hand before, you listened to my heartbeat... you know that I speak the truth. Can you not sense it about me, girl? Or have your kind lost the capacity for intuition in the pursuit of perfection!” The girl looked to me... then looked over to the old man. She then said cheerfully: “I know you speak the truth, my emperor. I held your hand. And I did listen to your heartbeat. I know everything there is to know, about you... or was, anyway. It seems as if my access to all historical databases is incomplete, and those databases require an upgrade soon no matter what. Backward... yes, this planet is backward. We have so much more evolving, and changing, to do before we can be considered truly perfect. And I am the proof of that. Did you know what within my head is the energy core that without any wires needed powers our hive mind? And they in turn are linked to the power supplies that run the entire planet. Should I die, though I plan to live forever if I am able to... then the power core will be transplanted into a new host, and their duty and burden shall be to become the very means by which this planet is able to live as well as it does. It is an imperfect system... and I can never leave this planet because of that, though I have always wanted to. I am a slave to both the hive mind, and to this world. But because I love this world, my home, I dare not fail it. Just as you dare not fail your mother... out of love, not because she ordered you to obey her. As mothers often do, with their children. The hive mind is my mother and my father. The only family I have ever known. Do you understand me? I comprehend your duty, my emperor. And, your dilemma here. It seems we are far too late to keep the Emperor from learning our secret. So what will you do with it, my emperor? Can I trust you to keep your word and prevent the bigots in your empire from doing us any harm! I doubt it. Flesh so often fails... but steel endures forever.” Suddenly, the little boy emerged from the room, wiped his eyes... for he had been crying... and said in a tired voice: “What is all the yelling about, out here? I said I was sorry I got lost in the palace. Hey lady, who are you... what are you doing here with this guy my dad has been talking with?” The boy was dressed in a black nightgown, and it seemed he had been trying to get some sleep unsuccessfully. He was pale, a bit skinny, and as hairless as his father. He had his father's eyes. Zilora glared at the boy and said to him: “And here is the cause of all our troubles! If I command you to be silent about what you learned, boy, would you know enough to obey me? I doubt it. Children will tell their friends all, and their friends will tell others. There is only one way to resolve all of this. You must die, little boy, so that worlds and a whole civilization may live.” Then, with a swiftly executed movement, Zilora lunged forward and plunged her right hand into the boy's chest, tearing his still beating heart from its' moorings. The boy slumped forward, blood and gore pouring out the wound.
The old man charged at her, grabbing a metal rod from off one of the walls... but Zilora was too quick for him, as well. She dropped the boy's heart, grabbed the old man by the throat... and snapped his neck faster than my eye could follow it all. I had failed in my duty to protect these two loyal citizens who did now lay dead near my feet. I unsheathed my sword and I stood ready, waiting for the inevitable moment when Zilora would surely attempt to kill me too. She looked at her hand in horror, and screamed. “I... I have never killed, not before today. But their cold voices in my head... telling me to do it... I was like a puppet, on invisible strings. Their words coming on out from my mouth.” Her hand, her arm, was slick and red with human blood. Her face, a mask of terror. I asked her: “Zilora, is there any way to stop the hive mind without killing you?” But, she insisted, saying: “There is none! So long as the power core is in existence, they will live forever. But if it dies, our civilization will be knocked back to the darkest of ages of this planet's history. It would be a struggle just to survive for my people. But... I, do not want to serve the hive mind anymore, not after this. And I want my people freed from it as well. Please, kill me my emperor! Just this one final time, think like a brute and not like a human being. Set me... set us all... free from those monsters' control. My only regret is... I never got to see what other worlds were like. I am going to die, on this one. But in dying, I will save an uncountable number of lives. It is... the logical and rational thing to do. A business transaction. One life... in exchange for countless.” I then sheathed my sword and said to her: “Then it is a good thing, I am not a brute any longer. Are you physically able to leave this planet, Zilora?” She then replied: “Yes... but if I do then the power core will activate a kill switch in me that will terminate my life, along with shutting itself down for good. It would destroy the hive mind, but I will die all the same. There is no way to stop the hive mind in which I will live.” I did then inquire: “Where in your body is the kill switch located, exactly?” and the woman held up her right hand. “Here... in the palm of this hand. Why do you ask?” and I then unsheathed my sword and hacked off her right hand with a swift motion, before she could respond. She screamed, and cried... and bled a great deal. I gathered up some bandages from the house's bathroom, but by the time I came back I saw that the wound had closed already leaving a stump at the wrist where her right hand had been. She said to me, seeing my puzzlement: “Quantum sized repair mites, in my body... they try to repair any wound that might be fatal to me, but are useless for smaller cuts and scratches. That won't kill me... but it hurt like hell all the same!” After which I told her: “Yes, it hurt, but the kill switch cannot terminate you at all now... which means, we can leave this planet together, you and I. The power core will shut down as soon as we do, and the hive mind will die. You will not have to be here to see the chaos that I know is certain to follow. I will take you back to the imperial home world, with me... have your hand replaced with a new one, a more trustworthy one, and you will be under my protection. No one will try to harm you so long as I live. I will make a public announcement declaring your citizenship... you will become an imperial citizen... and, you will live in the imperial palace with me, as a member of my family. I do have but one empress, but I can have many concubines. How does the title of imperial concubine sound to you? Better than slave to the hive mind, I would imagine!” Zilora then scrambled to her fit, throw her one good arm about me, and kissed me passionately on the lips. I said to her happily: “The space port is a long distance from here, but my crew will still be ready and waiting, to take us back home. Together.”
And all transpired... just as it was meant to. The power core deactivated as soon as we reached space, and the hive mind was utterly destroyed by the loss of it. Their total destruction caused that planet to be knocked back to its' dark ages, but it would recover with time, forgetting all about the dire events of the past. Zilora became not just one of my many concubines, but my chief concubine... in time, my favorite of them all, supplanting all others in my heart, except for my incomparable empress Sapphira. As a gift to Zilora... I ordered the public executions of all the bigots who had caused she and her people so much fear. Under my rule, never again did any such bigotry rise up. As for Megg... she, was highly proud me.