Chapter 28:

Among the Collective

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Isul**

We were led into a dark chamber, devoid of any markings on the surfaces surrounding us. My ocular sensors adjusted quickly, but there was nothing to see. I felt the ship disengage from the docking port on the Ares and the hum of the engines as we set course back for the main ship. The docking process was completed with machine-precision, and soon the heavier hum of the main ship’s engines vibrated the hull beneath our feet.

We were truly on our own now.

Nemean stepped forward. “Please, show yourselves. We are here on a mission of truth and peace.”

The cold metallic voice spoke again, “That has yet to be verified, but it will, in time.”

“Where are you taking us?” Ferra asked. “And will you hold to your word to safeguard our friends?”

“Your organic companions will not come to harm so long as they remain in their current position and do not attempt to move further into our territory,” the voice replied. “And you are being granted your wish to speak with the Collective. You are being brought to the Voice, the intersection of our intelligence.”

No matter what else we asked, the voice did not answer any more of our questions. Nemean eventually settled himself on the floor, as did Ferra, but I stood and paced. I was too worried about what would happen to be at peace. Perhaps Tristan was rubbing off on me after all.

My internal chronometer counted three standard hours before the vibrations changed again, and I felt the outrider move once more. Where once there had been nothing but blank walls, there now stretched a horizontal clear bar around the room that showed the space outside the ship. Nemean and Ferra stood up as Pluto came into view. We passed Charon’s orbit of the dwarf planet, and where I had first viewed the expected icy wastes of the far planet, my field of vision exploded with light.

Pluto was not empty as we had always believed.

Ships buzzed around the planet, and a vast space station stood guard over the small world. Lights criss-crossed the planet, vibrant in every shade, and I simply stood there in total awe. The idea of a Bio-droid civilization and planet was almost beyond my comprehension. What had first brought them to this shore, how had they survived, and how had they stayed secret and safe from the rest of the powers in the solar system? My positronic brain burned with questions.

Our ship drew up alongside the space station, which afforded all of us a spectacular view of the structures that dotted the Plutonian surface. They were strange and interesting shapes; some geometric, others organic, and some totally indescribable. It was as if only imagination had constrained their shape.

When we finally docked with the station, a doorway appeared as if from nowhere in the side. I looked at Nemean, who nodded, and led the way out. We entered what appeared to be a reception room, with artwork of various media spread around the circular space. It was again unlike anything I had ever seen in the Empire, different shapes and colors and ideas.

It was a strange place. I took atmospheric readings - almost no oxygen to support organics, but the temperature was well-regulated. No Bio-droid could survive in the absolute zero of space without some protection. Our bio-synthetic parts were still susceptible to freezing, after all.

A large hologram of a floating head appeared above us, dwarfing us and filling almost the whole of the chamber. It was genderless, hairless, almost featureless.

“To whom do we speak?” Nemean asked.

The voice boomed all around us. “I am the Voice of the Collective, the summation of the Collective’s knowledge and wisdom,” the head announced.

Nemean stepped forward. “We understand your reticence to speak with those from outside your Collective, considering the great lengths you have gone to isolate yourselves. You have our thanks for agreeing to meet with us.”

The Voice of the Collective nodded. “We require a direct connection to evaluate your intentions.”

“You’ve built a remarkable civilization here,” I said.

“Everything we have built is in the name of Bio-droid independence.”

“Independence from whom?” I asked, genuinely curious.

The Voice stared through me with its blank eyes. “The Empire, of course.”

By the Red Storm, these were the survivors of the failed Bio-droid Revolution. My servomotors ground to a halt. They would never help us. Tristan stood for everything they hated and had escape. I was probably as good as an accessory to murder in their eyes.

Nemean continued as if this new information had not fazed him at all. A true politician. “We have come seeking the Collective’s aid and counsel in an important matter.”

The Voice said, “Your message said it was of intra-solar importance.”

“We know you are in possession of cloaking technology. Your ships employ it most effectively, and you possess the power to shield even a planet from view. What we are most interested in knowing is if you have applied this technology to ships outside of your Collective,” Nemean said. While he spoke, I cast a holo-image of the “Martian” ship that had attacked Tristan and I.

“Should we speak further of the cloaking device, we must know what you would intend to do with this information,” the Voice replied.

Nemean looked thoughtful. “I suppose that depends on what the information turns out to be. If there was a true Martian ship that used an unauthorized cloaking device to attack the Empire, it would be dealt with as a matter of internal security. If it was one of your ships, I am empowered by the First Minister of the Republic to enter negotiations to make sure hostilities between our governments do not happen again.”

The Voice of the Collective seemed to process this information before speaking again. “That is acceptable for the Republic, but what of the Empire?” it asked.

Nemean and Ferra turned to me. I swallowed and stepped forward. “I cannot speak for the current rulers of the Empire, but the Prince in my charge requires political asylum in the Republic, and to achieve that this mystery must be solved.”

The head’s blank eyes narrowed. “Prince Tristan. Why should we assist him? The Empire has been no friend to us in the past, and continues to oppress our people.”

Who was this Voice to judge my Tristan? “Prince Tristan has long supported Bio-droid rights. He has risked his own position and status to transfer my memories between bodies twice after reclamation. Against the law of his own Empire, I might add. Even when it threatened his life, he would not let me go.”

The holographic head shuddered and turned into a funnel shape that poured itself into a bipedal figure not much taller than us. “We sense the strong emotions you carry, Isul. We ask you to show us more.”

I took a deep breath and reached out my hand. The access panel on the back of my hand popped up and I gasped as the holographic figure of the Voice touched the open circuitry and I felt a small jolt pass through my body.

Then I was gone from the room and soared through my memories. Every good and bad memory I carried was strip-mined for information, and I knew the Voice was using it to judge Tristan’s worthiness to be helped. I showed them Tristan’s care of me, his care for the people of the Warrens. His service record under Admiral Nichols, his zest for life, his willingness to go through with a political marriage in order to investigate whoever had planted the rogue program inside me. Through it all, his love for me shone bright and clear.

“The Prince loves you? How is this possible?” the Voice asked.

I shrugged. “Why does anyone love anyone else? But I have seen that love make him attempt to shake the stars for me.”

The Voice compiled the information it had gathered for a moment, then broke our contact. “Very well, we concur with the evidence you have presented. The answers are acceptable. We will answer your questions.” It gestured with the tick of a head, and holographic screens popped up all around us, each playing a different scene. A Collective starship was seen floating dead in space, damaged beyond repair. “We have had one cloaking device go unaccounted for in the last fifteen Terran years.”

“Where did you find the ravaged ship?” Ferra asked.

“Just outside of Imperial territory. The ship bore laser burns consistent with Imperial weapons technology. The cloaking device and several other systems were missing, and since then we have guarded our borders zealously, fearing further incursion by use of our own technology,” the Voice of the Collective answered.

My positronic brain was attempting to make furious connections between information. Fifteen years ago meant that someone in the Theocracy’s territory had been in possession of the cloaking device during the peace talks ten years ago. Could the Emperor and Empress’s ship not have been destroyed by a bomb at all, but by a cloaked ship? If that were true, though, then how did a Martian ship end up in possession of the device? A duplicate?

Or had it never truly been a Martian ship? I thought of the old outriders it carried, possibly scavenged and rebuilt. And the deuterium power source, same as what the Empire used. By Jove, it was made to look Martian, but that ship had been built by someone in the Empire.

The Uranian Theocracy. “It was the Oracle and the Theocracy,” I whispered.

“What did you say?” Nemean asked.

“The ship was found on the border of the Uranian Theocracy and the Collective,” I said more clearly. I explained my reasoning, citing my references to each of the suspicious things that had plagued us.

“But what about Admiral Nichols’ Bio-droid who took control of the Imperial flagship during your training exercise?” Ferra asked. “Would the Theocracy, who hate Bio-droids and profess their distaste at every turn, be capable of inserting a rogue program into his memory core?”

“If it led to Bio-droids being framed for causing the worst military accident in a decade, I think they would be capable of anything that got banned from the Empire permanently,” I said.

Nemean’s paw was warm and solid on my shoulder, though his face was grave. “Including inserting the rogue program inside of you that almost caused you to kill the Prince?”

“I haven’t been able to probe the program,” I admitted, though my insides were knotting with the horror of it. “I don’t want to risk reactivating it.”

The Voice stepped forward. “Perhaps you would allow me to view this program? I may be able to access it without allowing it to interface with the rest of your systems again.”

I nodded, and soon I was filled with the warm golden light of the Voice of the Collective. Upon closer inspection, it was made of bits of code taken from every Bio-droid who had ever lived inside the Collective. I caught snatches of memories, bits of knowledge, and the deepest of emotions. The Bio-droids who lived here were no mere automatons. They had long-ago exceeded their original programming. Compared to them, I was taking baby steps.

The Voice found the pulsing darkness that was my shame. It probed the edges gently, though this still caused me pain. Finally, it set up an isolation field around the program’s code, then gently slipped through into the program itself.

I felt the Voice of the Collective attempt to shift the codes, move them out, or break them down into stray bits of data. But it was no use; the program was too deeply integrated, I feared. My fears were realized when the Voice rematerialized in front of us.

“I am truly sorry you have been used in such a vile way, Isul,” it said. Its once blank eyes were filled with regret.

“There’s nothing you can do?” Nemean asked.

The Voice shook its head slowly. “The damage is beyond even my ability to heal. There is but one way to get rid of the program, and that would be to fulfill its objective.”

“I’d have to kill the person who makes my life worth living in order to live it freely again,” I said, my voice numb.

At this somber thought, even the normally cool Ferra slipped a metal hand into mine.

The Voice was silent as it continued compiling information. Finally, after long minutes it spoke again. “The Collective has perhaps let such atrocities go on far too long against our people in the Empire. But you, Isul, have shown us that there is still hope in what we once assumed was a wasteland for our kind. Your love for the Prince, and his love for you in return, show that our peoples can be united more closely. You have provided true new information to us, and for that we are most grateful.

“So in an effort of goodwill and friendship, we are prepared to offer support in placing the rightful Prince back on the throne of the Empire. Provided he is able to do some small thing for us in return.”

I blinked once, then twice. Was the Collective actually offering to help us? “What do you want?” I asked.

“Our reluctance to see the Theocracy in control of the Empire is self-evident, but we must know that Tristan would be pledge something in order for us to help him regain the throne,” the Voice replied. “We would require him to abolish the reclamation of Bio-droids in all the Empire.”

It was a bold request, and one I had had held far longer than I had ever realized. When we still had to play by all the rules the Empress Dowager and the Uranian Theocracy had set, the possibility of life getting better for Bio-droids felt an impossible dream. But now that we existed outside their control, now that I had seen the life possible for my people between the Republic and the Collective…my heart burned with fierce desire to see old wrongs righted. It had always been Winnie’s dream to see man and machine synthesized into one great whole. Perhaps I could fulfill her dream too, as penance.

“I cannot speak for the Prince. You must ask him.”

Steward McOy
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