A deep whine resonated along the length of the hull as the Matriarch decelerated. Otilija Podniss shoved the craft into gravity-spin and shut off the field generator. As she brought the nose towards the planet, searching for the traction field, the communicator burst shakily into life with a chorus of static.
“Welcome back, Citizen-Mistress.” Simultaneously the traction field opened its welcome embrace towards her.
Otilija shunted the craft into the zone. She flipped her Navigat onto auto-drive and pulled away from the console, stretching her tense shoulders.
“You have a long memory, control.”
The man laughed. “New system, Ma’am. It recognised your bio-field as soon as you were inside the moons, and said, here’s an old friend.”
Otilija was impressed, but she was not in the mood for small-talk. Her hands went up to her hair. “Bring me in at dock fourteen, would you?” She unpinned it, and shook it loose. “I’ll be in the shower.”
Twenty minutes later Otilija laid out her argon-layered gown. It was her last remaining clean outfit, and she had reserved it for this moment. Friovine was a planet where one was always expected to dress, despite its sometimes scruffy, new-world feel. The impossibly smooth fabric slipped frictionlessly around her limbs, shimmering.
The communicator above the sink winked; still, the red light, indicating the ship was in a hold pattern.
As the straps on her shoes interlocked with a pneumatic hiss, the Matriarch‘s atmospheric unit burst into life, whirring; the craft had passed into night-shadow, the hull tightening with the sudden drop in temperature. Otilija frowned. She should have still been in the hot white glare of Friovine’s F-type sun.
She stepped out of the cubicle and switched the hull to full-transparent, the universe bursting into visibility around her. No wonder; she had pulled directly along the night-side of a trading ship; Aunzod, almost certainly. Several miles in each direction, it occupied the entire field of her vision as if a moon had transphered out of nowhere.
There was no knowing in which direction the planet surface lay.
Otilija flicked on the comms unit irritably. “Control? How long?”
There was a pause.
“One or two hours, Ma’am,” came the same voice. “Our apologies. We have four of these Aunzod ships to deal with.”
Otilija frowned, pondering a moment. “Remember your duty, control,” she responded quietly.
“Ma’am.” There was an uncertain catch in the man’s tone, then a pause. “You know how these Aunzod are,” he explained, lowering his voice as if that would make his words any more secure on a surface-to-ship broadcast. “They don’t accept or understand our priorities. But the Council…”
His words ended abruptly mid-sentence as a senior wavelength cut across him. “Our apologies, Sister,” came a female voice. “The Aunzod are being their usual difficult selves. May we bring you in on the pole-docks? We can do so immediately. We will provide a free transfer back to Korrinath.”
Otilija scowled, then considered what she could make of the situation.
“It’s most inconvenient. Will you send me a drone? For the three days?”
Another pause. Then, “That is a little irregular, but – certainly, citizen-Mistress. With free-will?”
Otilija smirked in silent satisfaction. “Leave him his free-will. But why not send me the override key.”
Otilija decompressed the Matriarch’s living zone and stepped out into a bleak and deserted hangar. There was no-one to greet her. No matter; it had the most beautiful gravity. No ship, however sophisticated, ever managed to mimic a familiar planet’s gravity quite correctly. This, undeniably, was the real thing. Otilija arched her feet luxuriously in her heeled shoes, relishing the sensation of being properly human once again.
There was an acre of empty hangar in front of her, encircled by a bank of towering, deserted corridors. She switched her luggage onto walking pace and made her way towards the distant exit.
High up, a light flickered into life. Otilija could just make out a solitary figure, threading his way rapidly down towards the hangar floor. The light blinked off, then another burst into yellow-glare as he passed into the next sector. Whoever it was, he was running hard. Otilija reached instinctively for the stunner at her hip; at that moment, her armlet winked into life. It was the data of her new drone. A model seven, two years’ experience, with the latest Giga-wrap skin.
Otilija slowed her luggage to a halt as the figure emerged onto the hangar floor, still running.
“Mistress Podniss, Ma’am. I am sorry. Few drones are kept this close to the pole. I had a long way to come.” He was sweating; breathing heavily.
Otilija examined him for a moment. A nice looking example, not too tall, perfectly suited to her taste. She smiled. Someone, somewhere, must have had her preferences on file, all these years. She ran her hand over the drone’s muscular torso, felt his chest rising and falling with the exertion of his run down from the transporter. In the dim light of the distant star-lamps she could just make out the faint gloss of the Giga-wrap; the all-encasing second skin that linked directly into the drone’s neural cortex, giving her absolute control over his pain centres.
“Is this the new skin – what is it…”
“Giga-wrap 14, Ma’am, yes,” said the drone, his voice betraying his tension.
“You knew, of course, that I would want to test it?”
The drone nodded in mute, helpless acquiescence. He held out his hand, surrendering to her the control unit, and then stood tense, almost at attention. A field of tiny sweat droplets gathered at his temples.
Otilija slotted the control into her armlet, switched the drone’s vocal setting to mute, and transmitted a burst of mid-range power – lower agony, concentrated around the genitals, delivered with an unwavering, brutal punch direct into his nervous system.
The drone’s knees gave way immediately, and he sprawled thrashing in silent hell on the hangar floor. Otilija frowned, fiddling further with the controller. She was always irritated by an update in design, and this model was even less like its predecessor than usual.
The drone’s limbs locked rigid in a sudden spasm, Otilija cursing under her breath as she experimented with the unfamiliar controls.
Then, there was a scream; raw and overpowering in the metallic void. Otilija winced, cursed under her breath, and fumbled again with the dial, shutting down the drone’s vocal cords. So that was how to do it. She smiled, and switched off the pain field, watching indulgently as the drone recovered and staggered to his feet.
“Twenty-six, Citizen-Mistress.” He was gasping for breath, still in shock at the pain, but nevertheless did not pause a millisecond before responding. It was a key element of the brainwashing. Otilija found it vaguely unsettling, how rapidly came a drone’s reply. It was somehow not like normal human speech.
“Where were you droned?”
“Here on Friovine, Citizen-Mistress. Two years ago. I was brought here from one of the Siderian moons.”
“Two years? Your natural skin must be altogether dissolved?” She ran her hand up his arm, pinched it. “Impressive. You would not know, but for the gloss finish, and the drone mark on your forehead. Irreversible now, then?”
The drone’s gaze had stayed down. “Ma’am.”
“I don’t recognise that drone-mark. What was your crime?”
“Cowardice, Citizen-Mistress.” Again, the catch in his voice. He could not hide his shame.
“You avoided the draft?”
“Ma’am.” Otilija detected a sight tremble in the drone’s limbs. No doubt he had learned to anticipate pain in response to that question. She did not deliver it. Her own brother had avoided the draft, and had got away with it. It was hardly a big deal; all the rich families did it. But then, occasionally, someone got very, very unlucky.
Still, the more drones, the better.
“Then your fate is well-deserved, coward. Display.”
Otilija looked him over as he locked into position. He had been worked hard, there was no doubt; the physique was first-class. “I will permit you your free-will, for now,” she said. “Give me occasion to regret it, and I will use the override without hesitation. But you will pay the price.”
No harm in testing it, though. She pushed the override key into the control unit and overrode the free-will function in the drone’s brain.
“Kneel. Salute. Dance.”
Her words activated his body as surely as if it were his own brain issuing the commands direct to his muscles. It was amusing, but she enjoyed too much the experience of the willed service of a defeated male to find much pleasure in a drone stripped of his free-will. She removed the disc, transferring the data into her armlet, and watched as he regained control of his own movement. There was a better way. Otilija fingered the small vial hanging from her necklace. Fear overcame the drone’s expression for a moment, but his self-control was admirable.
She looked him directly in the eyes, showing him with her glance what she was about to do. But his eyes were locked upon the vial. Did he dread it? Probably; it was said that most of them did. Still, he stepped forward, bowing his head as Otilija opened the receptor unit under his arm and slid the vial into the empty slot.
“You have been besotted before?”
The drone could not look at her. “Once, Citizen-Mistress.”
She smiled, placing her thumb on the release of his control unit. “Forget her, whoever she was,” she said blankly as she squeezed the release, inserted the vial and pumped her DNA into the drone’s skin. The Giga-wrap took it up, pumping it through the neural centres, over and over, flooding the brain, till all personal choice, all judgment of other women, was overrun and erased. He staggered, stumbled and looked up, confused, before the expression in his eyes wiped clean and replaced with that of helpless, overwhelming devotion.
He was in love. Crushing, agonising love.
Otilija was impressed. No more that four or five seconds. The new skin was as good as they said.
The drone rubbed his eyes, grimacing. Otilija was confused for a moment; was he in pain? But that was it – she could hardly miss the distended genitals, throbbing with the new-found adoration of her – locked in their unyielding titanium net. She fiddled with the armlet, found the control, and released the tension on the net a fraction.
And – on with the vocal mute. Otilija knew better than to listen to a besotted drone’s protestations of love. They never had anything new to say.
“Carry my bags.”
Otilija turned towards the edge of the hangar and went off in search of the city-transit.
i would like to get round to writing a science-fiction novel, one day. As a genre, it has a venerable history of expressing Gynarchic ideas.