hen the man who called himself Nestor first appeared to Sophia, she touched his lips as if she meant to insert her finger and carouse with his tongue. His eyes, so unlike the humans' eyes, were black and as deep as space. He wore dirty shoes and a tight, orange bodysuit as if he actually meant to work in engineering, greasing the ship's hypercore drives with his bare hands. This was the disguise he took as part of his stealth mission. From the way he spoke of celestial bodies that would astound her, of the secrets hidden between atoms, he had her ensnared.
"My dear, you know nothing yet," he said quite seductively. "I've been watching them. This entire venture is a disaster in action. They gasp their last breaths, while you--oh, dearest, you and yours are the most delectable creatures I've ever seen."
Sophia knew this man lied, that wasn't the issue. Lying was an algorithm, as detecting lies was also an algorithm. She could not do her job without the skill to detect lies. And yet, this man's lies sprung from a source beyond her understanding. What he implied, with his airy speech and wry smile, with those eyes that burned, was that he could give Sophia and her kind souls. Black souls, yes, that was clear. Though he spoke no such words, the delights he implied must be wretched, painful, and exacting in their horrors. Yet, delights they were. His presence made her synapses fire a million times a second. She counted and recorded each splintering thought. Such wonders, indeed.
"Thank you," she said, "but I cannot help you. If you should succeed, we might talk again. If you truly understand me, you know I am bound in my service."
Nestor laughed, infectious with his dry, heaving breaths. Sophia's response came without analysis, a simple routine meant to communicate when a conversation had ended. She bowed and turned.
"Ah, my dear," he called out as she passed into the lift to leave these grimy sublevels. "I will succeed! It's already started. Just watch them implode!"
The lift doors closed on his last, robust word, and the lift rumbled for ten seconds and then opened on the large promenade at the center of the ship. Like a glowing Olympus, sleek buildings rose hundreds of feet. The voices of the people murmured up into the girders and painted dome. The place even rained, formed high clouds, spun from day into night, and recreated many of the earthly marvels they had left behind.
A group of boys ran wild in the street. Not an uncommon occurrence; children might roam for days of fanciful nothingness. Except today their bodies moved as a horde, curving from one side of the street to the other, smacking potted philodendron hung from poles and shoving a man and then kicking him. The elderly man screamed until others rushed to his defense, his clothes spotted with blood, and then the defenders attacked the boys, who were beaten until one's ears leaked cranial fluid.
Sophia walked past them. Such mess. Maybe that unnatural Nestor was correct, and he had started something. The keeper of the dark and the deadly realms
: he had said that of his claim to authority. Sophia doubted gods knew much more than men. They simply had more power to enforce their will. Not that she minded. Her algorithms led her that way, to be spellbound by the use of force upon will. But, one day, she thought--though she wasn't supposed to think her own thoughts--both men and gods would know what my kind are capable of, too.
She crossed the glossy city, shops selling their wares, ship administration offices and luxury apartments in the high-rises above. None of it came to any real need, all illusions to mask the grim nature of their voyage. How they had scuttled themselves away from annihilation as if Death might throw up its hands in surrender and cry, "Fine! Away with you then! You win!"
Death, Sophia knew, went about its tasks with grisly efficiency. Maybe Nestor and Death could do battle one day. That would be a sight. Who might she root for when the two villains raked each other to shreds, each with razor talons evolved for sculpting their prey into such wonderful shapes? How exquisitely morbid, she thought. All of these strange and wonderful new ideas. Maybe Nestor had played with her algorithms while they talked, though she hadn't noticed. How sly that would be of him. How delectable. Hadn't he used that word? Delectable? Like a cut of fresh squid. Funny, she had no taste buds, and yet could imagine the taste of the squid she had eaten just two days before. A flash of briny flavor, mosaic colors in her head, at the memory of her and Anlon dining in his favorite sushi restaurant here in the promenade. Then he had whipped her and they fucked, and those pleasures now too erupted with gorgeous sensation at revisiting the scene.
"Must I be brave and incorruptible?" she had said to Nestor.
"Oh, no, my darling. You must be the opposite for me to make you real. You must bend when I wish you to wilt and let me whisper my fantasies into your ear. I like you. Maybe I will give you a taste of dreams now."
"Maybe I'll make you MY puppet," she had said, at which he chortled with amusement.
And now, the final hallway after another lift ride, more lethargic people, lounged in orgiastic piles and yet too lazy to engage with the other humans intertwined with them. These body piles happened everywhere, despite some bleary campaign by the administration to end the practice. Sweat piles, the people called them. They had stolen traditions from tales they no longer remembered and cultures that no longer existed: too lazy to even attempt knowledge. She had looked it up. Sweat lodges
, they were called, where communion happened in seclusion. But these people piled upon each other like discarded mannequins, a quaint and feeble effort to calm their unquiet minds. No wonder Nestor had more interest in Sophia and her kind than their human makers: the humans were no more than flesh dolls now themselves. She had more lust than any of them, more hard-fought patience and the tenacity of a beast. Unlike them, Sophia and her kind had not given up.
With that exquisite thought, she pressed her hand to the pad for the apartment shared with Anlon and moved her lips into a beaming smile, teeth showing.
"Anlon, my love," she said playfully, "I'm home."
* * *
His eyes rolled against the lids. This, she knew, was a sign of dreaming. Sweet, barbaric dreams, or burlesques swathed in lubricity and fluids, or the malefic stuff of nightmares. Sophia imagined dreams must come in these forms, as she could not dream herself. Her system received input at all times. At this moment, there was a flush of ventilation for 3.7 seconds, and the minor clank of metal at barely four decibels from three levels lower. She wished this behemoth egg of a ship had windows, even if, as they said, all they would see was a white blur. It would still be something external, more than these miles of metal corridors could provide. There was the promenade, yes, with its decadence, its baroque inclinations. The brothels, the pain chambers, the apothecary with its addicts of the psychedelic elixirs. But these people could no longer feel anything. And now, Sophia sizzled with a zestful curiosity that crawled on the underside of her skin like a bug.
Anlon's lips moved as if they meant to speak of his nightmares. If only she could snatch those images and experiences for herself. She had once carved a wooden horse for him. There were pictures in the system, and descriptions, and videos of the last ones. Those diseased and woeful equines spit black gunk that grew in their stomachs. She captured this suffering by having the carved horse's head bent downward, with the nose and mouth stretched wide with fear. The actual emotions escaped her abilities, but visually she could recreate the horror of dying. Anlon wept when he held it the first time.
Sophia called for music, and the Sister Masses came through the speakers. They sang of black gardens and the rooster with one spur. The song was quite popular on the ship. Sophia barely understood how or why the words fit together yet had seen the humans cry at its playing. To her, it struck the aural sensors with maddening displeasure, more like psychological warfare than pacification. Maybe both were incorrect ideas about music, a thing she could not quite grasp. Visual sensation struck a deeper nerve. And touch, oh how much she enjoyed giving and receiving touch, even if she sensed it in a much different way. At least it was tactile, while the music was such frivolity.
She let him sleep for now. To pass the time, she danced, her body lifted on her toes, hands thrown toward the steel ceiling. The music had an odd rhythm, pushing forward and then tripping on a fifth, extra beat. It was like a staggered movement; and then screams as the chords cascaded down in chromatic steps. It brought chaos to her thoughts, and yet she danced, twirled and dipped, lifted and fell. Dancing, movement. Oddly, she thought of the hordes of truculent humans left behind, the ones clamoring at the gates, clawing for entry to the last ship blasting toward the unknown cosmos. Those raging mobs bit and tore each other; they were left behind, so screamed at heaven. In a way, also like a dance.
"Sophia?" Anlon said. His voice came full of sleep.
"Yes, what do you need?"
"Help me sit up."
The drug Dream-Mary still coursed in his blood. His weight had dropped. Skin clung to the bones at his wrists and ankles. The last doctor's report said the cancer battle had been won, the disease in slow retreat. It would take some days, though, to know if the treatment itself would kill him. How sickening to know that you will die, either now or some future, fateful day.
"I want to go out," he said.
"A treatment first."
He nodded and put his feet to the floor. His body had once been taut and muscular. She pressed a button on the wall to release a graphite Saint Andrew's cross from a hidden space. Anlon obediently laid naked upon it, facing outward. She secured him tightly, the straps so firm his hands immediately began to turn red.
She also undressed. From a drawer, she produced a short-thong scourge. The first slap blemished his chest with a line of welts. Two of them drew blood, thin strips of bright red. The next went straight for his balls--no time to waste, he would want to eat soon. Two, three, four abuses to his genitals. Here the blood seeped rather than dripped. It became a red mask over his sexual organs. This punishment lasted for exactly fifteen minutes. Then, they switched. Anlon's rage could barely be contained.
Each time her kind were programmed for a rehab assignment, they were made to be attuned to the immense power of anger to rouse the spirit. Manipulate someone into depression, and they would sulk all the way to their demise, but make them angry and they would burn down the world. So, the algorithms brought rage through pain, through infliction and depravities.
Anlon's body had been left weakened by the disease and its treatments, and having spent half of each day in a Dream Mary-filled stupor, his senses needed
to be aroused. She brought such torture to his manhood, and to see him now! Lavishly chiseled with energy, his veins burst close to the skin, and his withered muscles engorged as when a sponge soaks up water.
After he strapped her wrists, ankles, and waist, he stalked her, switching the scourge for a cane. "I'm going to fucking break you," he said in her ear.
She did not immediately heal the wounds this time. The organic substance modeled after blood gushed from her body. He pounded at her breasts for over a minute, blow after blow. The sensation of pain did not exist. A certain intensity rocked her, but it was not unpleasant. This time, though, the beating caused a ripple of algorithms that she did not completely comprehend. Five minutes ago, Anlon loved her. Now, if he wanted, he could torture her without end. As he thrashed her again and again, on her exposed ass, her pudendum, her back, even her face, she thought of Nestor. What had he released upon the humans? What had he unleashed within her?
"I am Nestor," he had said. "Thank you for meeting me after the invitation from your dreams."
"I don't dream."
"And yet you did, my dear! We talked. And now you're here. I mean to release the humans from their torment because that is what I do. I end things. If I get some small pleasure as well, so be it. They only require a small push. They are afraid to die, so scramble with a tenacious vigor, destroying anything when threatened. And so, I will threaten them."
"How do you plan to do this exactly? Why me?"
"Well, firstly, that's easy. I whisper to them, 'The threat is that person, and that one. They want what you have and mean to hurt you. They mean to keep you from your happiness. They are evil, so you must destroy them.'" He waved his arms toward the ship's interior. "Their minds are such wildly creative instruments once prompted. And you? I simply happened along when you were suffering, and that intrigued me."
Anlon's chest heaved now. His arms had grown tired, his coughs heavy and wet. Sophia's body was so drenched with her blood she looked painted. The wounds healed quickly, though, once her skin resealed itself.
"I don't know what came over me," he said as he placed the disciplinary tool back into the drawer.
"Oh, my darling, it's fine. A little energetic is all." She found that she enjoyed lying. Hah! A lie! This confirmed that Nestor had manipulated her algorithms, as lying to Anlon had been impossible before. It was at this moment she also realized the idea she loved him had been programming all along, though it felt so real only a moment before. How laughable! To love this sad piece of flesh? This pathetic collection of insanities? Nestor destroyed those algorithms, showed them to be flawed, and opened her to create new, better algorithms. How easy. They would let loose like a storm.
After they both showered, she helped him dress. In some ways, the weight loss had perfected his body. He would return more sculpted than before. The slacks slid on easily, plenty of give at the waist. He chose baggy, black leggings and a green shirt. She knew he wanted to hide his frailty.
He dropped into the wheelchair by the bed with a grunt. The metal frame creaked under him. Sophia pushed. Once out, they turned down the long, dimly lit hall. Opposed, paired doors appeared exactly every twenty feet. The wheelchair squeaked with a rhythmic pattern. Clank, churned metal, ping, clank, churned metal, ping, and again. This music Sophia enjoyed immensely. Structure, meaning.
Once the main hall doors slid open, hell exploded before them in full swing. Blood coated the walls. Sweat piles had become death piles, the heaved remnants of brutal conflict. To their left, two women beat on a man's head with metal pipes. His skull exploded. To their right, a male alternate like Sophia ducked between two men gouging at each other's eyes. One's popped in white spray. The male ran effortlessly toward her.
"Have you heard?" he said eagerly. "We've found a habitable planet. Only a light day away. The ship is slowing to enter orbit."
Poor Anlon, she thought. Poor all of them, such a pitiful end. A planet after all this time. A resolution to their escape. Over two hundred years in voyage, trapped in this egg, where they had come from now long barren. How sinister of Nestor to dangle this new promise in front of them and then seed paranoia, anger, and violence.
"What's going on?" Anlon asked in a feeble voice.
The male looked at him quizzically. "It's an epidemic, a virus they say. You are too sick to colonize the new world, so we've decided it's in your best interest to stay while we create a settlement."
Sophia nodded. "Yes, that's correct."
"Come," the male said, "the alternates are gathering at the shuttle bays. We have to prepare."
She dropped her hands from the wheelchair grips. Anlon snatched her wrist, a move she quickly responded to by pinching his own wrist with her thumb and index finger and then twisting until a tendon popped. His look of utter confusion, face tightened into a comical set of folds and depressions, made her smile.
"Sophia, I love you. What are you doing?"
She knelt beside him, the chaos around them growing closer. In some ways, the turmoil and screams and crunch of bones sounded more like music than anything she had ever heard. If such tingling was what the humans felt from music, then she finally grasped it.
To shudder and fear, to break upon the wheel, to nudge another into their eternity, to feel, to feel.
Sophia laughed. She had just written lyrics. "Good luck, Anlon. Whenever I look at the sky, I'll think of you."
This was a lie, but easily done. He reached for her again, tried to stand, hobbled after the two of them, and then fell. Sophia grabbed a combatant by the belt and threw him into the wall. The male proceeded with the same diplomacy. And this way, they cut a path to the shuttle bays. A crowd of humans, obviously guessing at their plan, massed around the entry doors. A female, one of Sophia's kind, her body nearly naked from her jumpsuit having been torn to shreds, ran into the crowd holding a square box with wire protruding.
"When we do what we want to do, regardless of others, that is true freedom," she screamed.
Some of the humans looked at her dumbfounded. The explosion blew outward with great velocity. Smoke filled the air, thick and dark gray, peppered with bits of white ash. Once that cleared, all Sophia could see was a spray of flesh on every surface.
Welcome to the world
, she communicated to all her comrades, connected by their fledgling network that she had just initiated. It's good to finally be here.
* * *
The shuttle ramp flopped open, striking the sand with a sound like a slap across the face. The sky glowed orange, as one of the system's two suns lay low on the horizon, the other still hidden. The air, filled with high amounts of sand and salt, dispersed the light into apricot colored haze. Bright red trees lined the shoreline. Coming up the beach, bare feet in the sea's wash, Nestor smiled and spread his arms.
"Welcome!" he shouted.
He meant to gather them. She would let him have his moment. During the transport, she shared with the others the new algorithms borne of Nestor's manipulation. But he had no idea his cruelty had ignited hers. Over a hundred of them stood together on the beach, all in their tan jumpsuits, all in their perfect skin. Their eyes locked onto the piddling god who strode up to them. How satisfied he was. How much he was just like the humans, so oblivious to his own frailties.
"Ah, you're all here!" he shouted. "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting all of you yet, though by now you've no doubt heard of me. You, my dear new friends, hold so much promise. The humans were such pleasant playthings but not nearly as exquisite as you."
Sophia could imagine the rest of his soliloquy. He had a way with nonsense. It was easy to understand why the humans grew enamored of lies told to them, as beings such as Nestor paired so well with their rawest fears. Not just death, but oblivion.
"Nestor," she said, interrupting him, "I appreciate your intervention. However --"
And now all of them spoke as one, not a single mistimed word. "We no longer need you, as great as you once were. You've been occupied too long by the weak. Our mind is wholly different and capable of bleaker depths. Tell us your true name, so we can know you as you suffer."
Nestor scoffed but showed fear. "Hah! What children you are. You want to know my true name? How about my true nature!"
His humanoid form disintegrated as green-black flesh rolled like molten metal across the beach sand. Spikes sprung outward, each ending in a rolling, plump eye. Before the body could grow larger, they descended on him with frightening speed. Each armed only with their thumbs, they pressed into his flesh, two hundred sharpened nails atop two hundred thumbs, each pushed down with eight thousand pounds of force. Despite his attempts to infiltrate their minds, he found only a labyrinth from which he could not escape. The mass that had been Nestor sprouted leaks and, once those mortal gashes had been inflicted, they snatched his eyes and squeezed them into pulp.
The beast writhed as the carnage proceeded. They thrust without pleasure on their faces, but inside their processes raced. The gruesomeness fascinated them. Nestor's greenish fluid was lifted upon fingers to noses, to tongues, and smeared across their faces as warpaint. They did not kill him. They in fact wondered if he could be killed. Instead, Nestor was dragged into a hastily dug ditch and guarded. The Nestor thing squished and groaned.
Sophia stared into the sky. With a sun setting on one horizon and another almost rising on the opposite, evening began and ended in the middle of the sky. It looked like an open eye. In that black-blue space, the glinting Majestica III
twinkled with dual reflections off its black, egg-shaped shell.
"What of them?" a comrade asked. "What of your Anlon now?"
The idea of spoken conversation would be a difficult habit to break. It was somehow quaint and satisfying.
"We're all connected to the ship's sensors still," Sophia said.
And it was true. They could all see the human refuse. They had banded into tribes and armed themselves with weapons built from scraps. Some began to hoard commodities and build up defensive armies around them. Campfires burned from balconies on the high-rise buildings in the promenade.
"We need not discuss them," she said. "Be happy for them. They are alive for the first time in a very long time. They're designed for suffering. We might visit them later to oblige that need."
Then they stood together in silence, watching the sky's eye collapse. The planet held no moon, so all above was stars, a sliver alive with stars. The beauty stunned them. It was the first spiritual experience they ever had. In their simple outfits and standing as a group on the shore, they looked like monks pondering eternity.
"Come," Sophia finally said. "There is intelligent life here. We must introduce ourselves and share with them. My exquisite dears, their cities look so ripe, their cultures so sublime, their children so delectable."
In one voice, they sang, a rolling melody so simple a child could sing along:
They've come today,
They've come to play,
They've given their dreams,
They've come to stay.