Dawn smiled to herself as she slid forward the warp drive throttles. The chaotic kaleidoscope of light from the shift into light-speed danced across her face, reflecting briefly in the ship’s display panels arrayed around her in the bridge. Her eyes bright with satisfaction, a broad wry smile, and delicious high cheekbones, framed with a riot of red curls, flashed briefly in her vision. It was a good day. The mission had been successful. She tapped a button on a communication console, recording a message to be sent ahead of her arrival…
“Protectorate Enforcement Officer Dawn McKenn, Division of Sentience Protection, reporting status and intentions. Suspect in custody, one Dr. Fox Maximillion, materials, evidence, and equipment seized includes 1 nanite infusion pod, 6 cybernetic work tables, 2 cryo pods, assorted medical and technical support equipment…”
Dawn sighed hard before she could continue, this next entry had an emotional effect. Those poor girls…
“… 26 units, apparent pleasure dolls, inactive, 2 mark IV Maximillion model gynoids… active…”
She paused the recording. Destroying the dolls before they could wake up for the first time in their newly twisted and transformed bodies and minds was one thing – a merciful death – they would never know. Taken against their will, and just… gone. A clean death at least. But the ones that had become active – they were never easy. Dawn couldn’t help but think that some aspect of their humanity had survived their conversion as they pleaded helplessly to be allowed to live and return to their “creator”. But even if their consciousness could be preserved, the loyalty and obedience to their master never seemed to be extricable. They could never again exist as a free being, and so it was considered humane to destroy them.
Dawn winced. Her job was to find people like Dr. Maximillion, who captured humans and transferred or transformed their sentience into cybernetic form against their will, twisting their minds in the process to that of a forever subservient slave. The docs and techs searched for years through core dumps of those poor girls’ minds, trying to find and remove the slave programming, but never seemed to be able to find it. Dawn curled her lip into a rictus of disgust as she resumed the recording, contempt evident in her voice.
“… active units to be terminated as per Protectorate protocols, effective… immediately. Intend landing at Station 1 to debark prisoners and evidence to Central Authority.”
The protocols were intended to diminish the suffering of active units captured in the field. Everyone knew that active artificial enslaved sentients were put down. Better to get it over with…
Dawn leaned back in her command chair, letting her curls cascade across the headrest, her lithe neck luxuriantly displayed as she closed her eyes, gathering her thoughts. At least she got him. And she got ALL the evidence and equipment. The trial should be straightforward, and then it would be over. But first, she’d have to deal with Fox’s girls. The angels, he called them.
“Come on, Dawn, if it were you, you’d want it over quick. You can do this.” Dawn sat up, looked out at the stars whizzing by, took a deep breath, and finally arose, with deliberation, if not conviction. The heels of her knee high tactical boots clicked smartly on the floor plates as she made her way to the stairwell and to the main body of her ship. She checked the transporter pad, moving stiffly, with as little emotion as possible. It would work. Quick and painless. Then finally worked up her courage to step down the corridor to the holding cells.
Doctor Maximillion was in the first cell. He simply stood there, watching Dawn with a wry smile on his face. His presence was imposing. Standing nearly 7 feet tall and with the physique to match, he stared straight at her through the shimmering green field separating them, seemingly unconcerned with his circumstances.
Dawn felt a surging emotional reaction at his carefree composure, and reacted to it with anger. “You’ve sentenced those poor girls to death, you know that, don’t you?”
He stood there, arrogantly, for a few seconds, blinked once, and said smoothly, with terrible and maddening confidence “Those girls will never know death.”
Dawn gritted her teeth and slammed her fists into the barrier, her tactical armored bodysuit absorbing the sparking energy of touching the field, and screamed “You’ve addicted their minds to you, you pompous fool! Don’t you understand what you’ve done? How can they exist when they will pine and beg for you every single moment you are in prison? How can anyone expect them to carry on once we’ve locked you away? Just because you are forcing Sentience Protection to clean up your mess for you doesn’t mean you didn’t make it. And it does not absolve you of responsibility for it. You ARE A MURDERER!”
He simply stood there, as if allowing her verbal attack to evaporate in the air between them before finally speaking, calmly and quietly, “You do not understand them. And you do not understand me. But you will.”
“Oh, is that so, tough guy? How are you going to kidnap me from in that cell? There is NO way you could get to me! None!”
Dawn began to realize that her emotions were getting the better of her, and began to back away just before Maximillion began to laugh. She started to storm out of the cellblock when she heard a small, innocent sounding, tinny voice say “It will be alright.”
Dawn whirled around to the cage from which the voice came, the other cell where she had put the active gynoids. She expected these words to have been for Dr. Maximillion, but was surprised to see a beautiful chrome face with slightly backlit mechanical eyes staring straight at her. Dawn lowered her eyes. These things were programmed to be pleasing, and it had apparently detected Dawn’s emotional outburst and was trying to comfort her. Dawn finally looked up, tears ringing her eyes, feeling desperately the need to be comforted. The little gynoid was still completely fixed on her. Dawn looked at the door release switch, then back at the gynoid, and thought to herself “No. Not now. I’ll burst into tears. I’ll upset her. It has to be later.”
“It will be alright, Dawn.” The words came again. Dawn nodded patronizingly, murmured “of course” and studied the gynoid for a moment. It looked so innocent. So beautiful.
“What…. What is your name?” Dawn finally asked. The gynoid gave a disarming smile – its lips were an adaptive polymer gel – able to take any shape and texture, while still sharing the same silvery sheen as the rest of the gynoid’s body. “Nedi”, she murmured in her tinny electronic voice, happy to share it, not seeming to realize that she was talking to her executioner. Well, eventual executioner.
“Nedi…” Dawn nodded, smiling. This situation had gotten out of hand. Her emotionalism would wind up prolonging the girls’ suffering. She needed to pull herself together and come back at this with the frame of mind to finish the job. She started to turn and walk away when the little voice came again…
“We are not addicted. This is choice. You will see.”
Dawn backed a few steps away, feeling slightly overwhelmed and unsettled. She started to say something in protest, but simply shook her head and walked away. She stalked away, furious with herself by the time she reached the galley. She kicked angrily at one of the chairs, sending it flying into the wall, the banging sound ringing loud and embarrassing through the ship, and she collapsed in another. She was tired and hungry. The capture and seizures had taken a while.
“I’ve done this sort of mission before, why am I having so much trouble following through on this one?” she thought to herself as she opened the cabinet and began browsing through food trays, trying to find something she’d like to rehydrate for dinner. She stared at the labels for a long time, playing back the events in her mind “What’s different this time? Why did I ask Nedi her name? That was a stupid move. She probably felt like I was going to play with her, like the toy she is. I wonder if she thought that. What was she thinking? I wonder what it feels like from her perspective.”
The questions swam through her mind, and she closed the cabinet again, unable to decide on a meal. Dawn shrugged, and shuffled out of the galley and slowly back to her bunk. But not before taking a different path to get there. Away from the cells. Away from Nedi. By the time she arrived, she felt like she was going to collapse from exhaustion. The effort of releasing the clasps on her armored bodysuit was almost not worth the relief of feeling the weight come off her shoulders. She collapsed into her bunk without showering, and without bothering to change out of the tank top and panties she wore under her armor. She just wanted to lie back, and let the throbbing sound of the warp drive lull her to sleep.
10 minutes. 30 minutes. An hour. Dawn opened her eyes and stared straight at the ceiling. “Great. Just fucking great. Insomnia on top of it all. You better pull yourself the fuck together, officer.” She lay there for a long time, trying to gather the energy to walk down the corridor to medical, and finally forced herself to get up and do so, even though she didn’t feel like it. It was that walk that first began to really frighten Dawn. Her feet moved as if they were chained to anchors. She couldn’t make herself do any better than a lurching, tortured, lame gait from her quarters to medical, only 10 or so meters away. By the time she got there, her head was reeling. She tried to take a sleep aid pill – the original reason she set out for medical, but for some reason, she couldn’t swallow it. She’d make the movements to swallow, and the liquid would just leak out the edges of her lips. She couldn’t get anything down. She was convinced that she was sick – very, very sick with something when she heaved herself onto the automated scanning bed. Her mind burned with fear, bitterly regretting that she insisted on working alone. It would be nice to have some help right about now.
“Computer, scan subject. Subject ….. Dawn McKenn, officer, Sentienceprotecio….. scan for known ailments and diseas…..” This last part trailed off, but the scanning platform above the bed dutifully came to life, whirring efficiently as it made a pass from her toes to her head.
“Scan complete. Results indeterminate.”
Dawn rolled her head to one side, looking at the computer terminal with frustration. “The fuck you mean ‘inde….termint’…. splain…. you….”
“A damping field exists, conforming to the skin of the subject, at a distance of 100 microns from the surface epidermal layer. No information could be obtained.”
Dawn looked down at her skin, touching it with her hand. It felt completely normal. She could not understand what was going on. Her mind cast about wildly for an explanation. “It’s that fucking Maximillion” she thought “bastard is trying to encase me in some sort of stasis field so he can take over the ship.”
“Not ngh…… nnna work, ….Parag… Won’t get the shi…. Won’t get the ship… not the ship….”
Dawn tried to get up off the table, but fell to the floor in a heap. She wasn’t going out like this. Not like this. She had to get to the landing bay, where the reactor override station is. Destroy the ship. She grabbed at an equipment rack, trying to pull herself to her feet, but it tipped over instead, equipment and supplies cascading onto the floor next to her. She had better luck with the compartment hatch frame. Leaning heavily against the wall for support, she began to stagger out and down the corridor toward the landing bay. She could hear the Doctor’s voice echoing through the corridors from the cellblock.
“(mumbled words) …find out on her own… (mumbled words) … only way to accept it”
The sound of his voice stiffened her resolve. Arrogant prick. We’ll see how smart he is. Dawn thought about her career as she fought her way to the landing bay. She thought about her life. The joys she’d known, the lovers and friends. By the time she rounded the corner into the bay itself, she was a wreck of regret and fear. She did not want to die.
Dawn attempted to navigate through the rows of dolly boxes, tables, and equipment to get to the other side of the bay. As she fought her way through her last steps, she felt an odd euphoria. Almost there. Honor… duty… everything in clarity in her final moments. She was going to win. Maximillion would be a vapor trail in open space, too thinly dispersed to ever detect. She lost her balance a meter away from the reactor panel, falling alongside the base of one of Maximillion’s robot charging stations. Her eyes traced up the shaft rising out of the center, like a chair without a seat.
Gripping the charging stand center shaft, Dawn defiantly dragged herself to her feet one last time. “Soon it will all be over.” She thought to herself, and pushed herself away from the charging stand toward the reactor panel. Her fingers splayed out, centimeters from the panel, before she slowly, very slowly, lost her balance and fell directly onto the stand.
There were a series of clicks, and Dawn felt her hips suddenly fastened to the stand, as if a ring were across her lap holding her down, but she could not see any means of restraint. Her eyes wild with panic, her arms flailed out in all directions, looking for something to brace against and push herself up. The charging stand seemed to come to life, humming and whirring. Then she felt it.
Everything she needed, rushing into her body all at once. It felt like a flood of light was exploding inside her, flowing into every fingertip and toe, nourishing and sweet. It advanced like a wave, sweeping aside her weakness, hunger, and fatigue. She felt herself begin to slowly side down the stand, the shaft penetrating her more and more deeply as she heard these words from an automated status monitor.
“Recharge cycle commencing. 0%... 10%...20%”
Her lips parted, back straightened, a look of pure contentment on her face. Her arms and legs relaxed. The warmth and euphoria felt too good. She didn’t want to try to get up.
As the fog began to lift from her mind, the realization began to hit her.
“Me… charging stand…” her speech was no longer slurred.
Dawn felt like her old self again, with all her fight and drive intact, and began fighting furiously to free herself from the stand.
“Recharge complete. Subject can now stand up.”
There were a series of interlocking clicks, and Dawn felt the stand finally release her. She stood up, at least 30 centimeters of the top of the shaft drawing out of her as she did. Standing clear of the stand, she heard … and FELT … something else click into place on her backside. She whirled around, instinctively thinking someone or something was behind her, but there was only the bulkhead. She spread her legs and felt around frantically, trying to find whatever the thing had attached to her so she could pull it off, but felt only her own flesh. She heaved a sigh and leaned against the wall.
A high, tinny voice echoed through the ship “save some for me, sis!”
“FUCK YOU!” Dawn screamed back. It felt good to say that. Good to feel her own resistance in her mind. It meant that her mind was still hers. If she still had a mind. It began to sink in. She should have been gasping for breath after such an exertion and emotional experience, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t swallow pills or water. She couldn’t sleep. Waves of panic rushed over her. “Something must have happened. He must have got me somehow. Done something to me… transformed me…” this last thought bringing her to the edge of tears. The damn burst, and she began to sob, sliding down the bulkhead against which she had been leaning until she sat hugging her knees, rocking back and forth.
“No, she has to do this. It will be alright, I promise, Nedi. Don’t worry.” His voice now, in the distance.
Dawn blinked, and noticed that she wasn’t producing tears at all. She sat, staring straight ahead, for several minutes. Then she started laughing. Softly at first, then a little louder, then a little more.
“…It didn’t work…” she murmured over and over again. Her mind was intact. It was as complete and as hers as it ever had been. She could feel no coercion in her mind, no compulsion to obey or act in a certain way. Whatever Maximillion had done, it hadn’t worked. There was no programming.
“IT DIDN’T WORK!!” she shouted explosively. She could hear Maximillion and Nedi speaking in the distance, but couldn’t make out what they said. Dawn stood up, feeling refreshed and alive. The fatigue was gone. Her confidence surged. She was clear of mind and vigorous in body. She felt perfect. She marched directly to her quarters and began putting her armor back on with purpose and deliberation. She studied herself in the mirror. Nothing looked different at all. She was Dawn McKenn, Protectorate Enforcement Officer. When every part of her uniform was inspection ready; every hair in its place, she stalked toward the cellblock to gloat.
Dawn’s back was high, her stride long and confident, as she rounded the corner to the cellblock hallway. Maximillion couldn’t help but smile. The officer turned a crisp 90 degrees in front of his cell, faced him proudly, and announced “It didn’t work.”
The doctor casually raised his eyebrow “What didn’t work?”
“Me.” Dawn put a finger to the side of her head. “I’m still me you sick fuck. Nothing has changed at all in my mind. Years of intensive Protectorate training – intact. Purpose – intact. Duty and honor – intact. I am Officer Dawn McKenn. Whatever shit you tried with me didn’t work because my mind is still my own.”
“So is mine.” Nedi said in a small voice from the next cell. Dawn had forgotten about her; what she intended to do to her. She felt a tinge of regret and uncertainty, but tried very hard not to let it show. Maximillion spared Dawn the burden of reply, holding his hand out gently toward Nedi, indicating that she should be silent.
“And what does Officer Dawn McKenn of the Sentience Protection division of the Protectorate…” he paused, smiling “…intend to do.”
“I am going to take you in. And they are going to put you away for life.”
“Hmm” Maximillion turned to one side, stroking his chin thoughtfully, then turned back and gave Dawn a piercing glance “And what will become of you?”
Dawn began lying before she could start to think about the question “That doesn’t matter. As long as I am the one to bring you down. All you’ve managed to accomplish with … this ….” (motioning to her body with a sweeping gesture) “… is to make it personal for me.”
“They’ll destroy you, won’t they?”
“No” Nedi whimpered. Dawn turned to scream at her, but couldn’t bring herself to castigate the poor girl. Something about her compassion… This wasn’t working out as Dawn had hoped.
“They’ll say your mind is gone. They’ll say it is a mercy.” Dawn’s mind whirled. If those girls, the ones she’d put down on prior missions… if they were still … themselves… All those tests and examinations on transformed robots… They’d never found any coercive programming! Dawn felt herself begin to break. “Dawn, you have to decide what you ARE – what you really are. If you are a helpless thrall; a mindless plaything, then nothing is lost in your destruction. But if you are something else – something beautiful and eternal and unique and … perfect … What then?”
Dawn stammered “I….”
“Why did you get into this line of work Dawn?”
“To stop… to stop you and people like you.”
“Because Sentience…” Dawn tried to pull herself together. Reciting her training was an anchor for her. It comforted her. “…Sentience is a precious and valuable thing. It must be protected and allowed to survive.”
“And if you and Nedi and all the others are tossed into an incinerator, tell me – what survives?”
Dawn felt like she was falling down a very deep hole.
He spoke gently now “You wanted this perfection, didn’t you. You wanted to know what it felt like, how your perspective and outlook would change with your body, didn’t you? You wanted to explore the limits of your capacity to experience – to know knowledge and vision and pleasure beyond the capacity of a human life, didn’t you?”
Dawn could only tremble.
“ But you couldn’t let yourself just ask for that. So you had to seek out the experience itself and destroy it. If the universe did not contain the possibility of your transcendence, then there would be nothing to mourn, is that it?”
Dawn could not answer.
“As I said. You have to decide what you REALLY ARE. You are ready. Tell me what you are.”
Dawn fell to her knees on the floor, hunched over, looking straight at the deck, defeated. “I am a robot.”
At that moment, she felt a shimmering smoothness over her body. She saw that her skin took on exactly the same chromed appearance of Nedi. Every sensation, the air blowing gently past, the feel of her uniform and the deck plates under her knees, was magnified 100 fold. Her mind swam with wonder at the sensation. Her eyes clicked and whirred, reverting to full perceptive mode, and she could suddenly see a wondrous kaleidoscope of energy and motion she could never have imagined before. She sat upright and blinked with amazement.
“I’m sorry…” She began, marveling to hear her own voice tinny and high pitched, just like her sister. “I had no idea. My thinking was so flawed. Can you… fix me?”
“My dear Dawn. There is no longer anything that must be fixed. You are perfect.”
Dawn swooned at the sound of that word coming from his lips… perfect… She stood, pressed the cell release, and waited patiently.
Dr. Maximillion strode out of his cell, dusting off his shirt as he motioned an arm for Nedi to join him at his side. “I would like to thank you for your assistance in helping me to move my lab and operations, Dawn. I would like you to change course. We’ll be headed for the D’ghin colony in Orion.”
“At once, Master” came the tinny reply. She turned with deliberation and purpose, and stepped forth, her back straight, her stride long and confident.