Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Cistern

by McCamy Taylor



Two months since the last rain. If the drought does not ease soon, the entire planet will turn to dust. I walk past fields that yield only weeds. What do they expect me to do about it? I'm a king, not a god. I can't make it rain.

On our way back to the palace, we stumble upon a huge stone tablet partially buried in the sand. A funeral door, the kind used to seal sarcophagi, but we are miles from the nearest cemetery. "And where does this door lead?"

The Lord Chamberlain hesitates. He fingers the platinum links of his chain of office. "To a cistern, your highness."

I run my hand over the smooth, white marble slab and find it cold and unyielding. "A cistern?"

"An old cistern. No longer used. I believe it was sealed in your great-great grandfather's time. To keep children from falling in."

Finally, something that piques my interest. I smile behind my holographic veil. "A sealed door implies a secret."

"Your highness?"

"I don't like secrets."

####

I should never have become king. Six claimants stood between me and the throne. First, plague took the life of the former sovereign and his two sons. Then, the shuttle carrying the king's brother and nephew to the capitol was caught in a meteor storm. That took care of claimants four and five. The sixth, my half-brother was trying on his coronation robes when he tripped and broke his neck falling down a dumbwaiter, leaving me, a second son -- raised by monks and intended for the priesthood -- to rule the solar system at the tender age of seventeen.

The worst thing about being king is the solitude. Though I am surrounded by people, none of them ever sees me, for I wear a holographic veil that transforms my ordinary features into those of the dragon king, blazing green eyes, aquiline nose with flaring nostrils, lips pressed firmly together with never a hint of a smile, and no frown lines either. The dragon sovereign is always serene, especially when he performs his ceremonial duties.

Did I mention that on Faro the king is a figurehead? My main job is to sit on a carved obsidian throne and look regal for ambassadors and trade representatives. The most difficult part is the headdress -- two feet tall with a central white conical hat partially surrounded by a solid gold diadem. If the design sounds familiar, it is. Though we are four thousand years out of Earth, we know that planet's history better than our own. I wear the double crown of the Egyptian pharaohs to symbolize the uneasy truce between the farming planets, Faro 2 through Faro 5 and the industrial/mining planets Faro 6 through Faro 9. Lower Faro and Upper Faro, like the rival kingdoms of the Lower and Upper Nile. In the last 1500 years, the capitol has bounced back and forth between Faro 5 and Faro 6 depending upon which sector of the economy is dominant, food production or manufacturing. For a few decades, some fool decided that the king needed to be near our God, the star called Ra, and so a palace was constructed on the dark side of Faro 1, only to be knocked down by the winds that circle that tiny, scorching planet like angry, caged tigers --

I have a holographic mask in the form of a tiger, too. Bared fangs and slit-like golden eyes. I wear it during time of war when I address the troops. It lifts their spirits and improves morale when their country calls upon them to rape women and slaughter children.

Five nights a week, I visit the royal harem where the daughters of generals, nobles and wealthy merchants are engaged in a fierce competition to become the next queen mother. If they could see my face, they might think twice about bearing my children. I have the weak chin that comes from generations of inbreeding. Despite three eye surgeries, I must wear glasses to see anything beyond my own nose. The tips of my ears are pointed, the result of genetic engineering designed to give the royals an otherworldly appearance. And the wings that my family is so proud of are little more than flaps of scaly skin dangling from my scapula.

When they write the history of King Draco the Twenty-Seventh, they will be hard pressed to fill a single tablet with my exploits. Will they say of me No servant was safe from his lust, and the vintners grew rich during his reign stocking the royal cellars? Or will they pass over me with a Draco XXVII begat Draco XXVIII? I am a placeholder, a necessary evil so that the line of Draco the Great can remain unbroken, so that our empire can justify its nasty little military incursions onto other worlds that are foolish enough to possess the natural resources that Ra intended Faro to enjoy. The office of the king is an anachronism. We no longer believe in God, so why do we need God's anointed to give our military and commercial endeavors the patina of righteousness?

####

"Careful!"

The marble slab that seals the cistern is ten feet by ten feet by twelve inches. Since my mind is not as weak as my chin, I mentally calculate the weight of the massive stone door. One hundred square feet by thirteen pounds per square foot times twelve equals eight tons of rock. Overkill if the Chamberlain is telling the truth about the reason for sealing the cistern, but I know already that he is lying. One of the benefits of the holographic mask that hides my face. I can see others clearly, while they cannot see me. It makes them drop their guard. They grimace and smirk and roll their eyes in a way they never would if they felt my gaze upon them.

It takes three palace slaves to move the stone slab. No, we don't have human slaves in Faro. That would be a violation of intergalactic law. Our slaves are robots. These three were designed for function rather than form -- golem might be a better name for them. Faceless, voiceless, two arms for lifting and a solid base that rolls rather than walking, since bipedal motion is so uncertain, as my poor dead brother knows --

Yes, I said knows. The kings of Faro do not die. We are tucked away when we outlive our usefulness, put to sleep in a cryogenic chamber to await our day of resurrection. Twenty-six Dracos and an equal number of Ryus. Make that twenty-five Ryus. One of my predecessors did not make it into the deep freeze.

I stand well back from the cistern as the slaves ease the enormous white marble door to the ground where it settles with a dull thud, raising a cloud of dust. Ceramic lined wells are commonly used on Faro 5 to store water. Why has this one been abandoned?

I peer over the edge of the cistern. Cannot see the bottom. "A light."

"Be careful, highness," the Lord Chamberlain advises. "The ground is unsteady." From which I judge that he is not going to push me to my death. Not yet, anyway. When the day comes for me to make way for a more satisfactory ruler, my end will be swift and silent.

I hold up the electric torch. There, at the bottom of the cistern, curled up in a ball -- is that a body? Not a dead and decayed body as one might expect after -- a little mental math -- almost one hundred Earth standard years. This one looks surprisingly fresh.

"I thought you said this cistern was sealed in my great-grandfather's reign," I chide the Lord Chamberlain.

"Your great-great-grandfather's reign," he corrects smoothly.

I point. "That man can't be more than a few hours dead."

"Because he's not a man, and he isn't dead. I recall now why the cistern was sealed." Lying again. He knew all along what we would find down there.

The figure crouched at the bottom of the well lifts its head. The face that stares up at me is perfect. The absolute perfection that only a craftsman can achieve. Nature is never so kind.

"His name is Usef," continues the Lord Chamberlain. "He is a palace slave. He was locked away after he murdered Ryu the Twenty-fifth."

Ryu XXV, the missing king, the one who will not be resurrected on judgment day because his body is a grease stain at the base of one of Faro 5's mountains.

The eyes that gaze up at me do not look like the eyes of a murderer. He has a young face, even black skin with improbably blue eyes, high cheekbones, a resolute chin. His smooth shaven head catches and reflects the light from the torch. The corners of his mouth rise. The robot's smile is more natural than that of any of my courtiers.

"Well? What are you waiting for? Get him out of there."

The Lord Chamberlain does not try to disguise his delight. "Yes, highness."

A shiver travels down my spine. I was wrong. Someone within the palace wants me dead after all. And here I am rushing straight towards my own death like a fool. But I cannot help myself. If I order the cistern sealed again with its prisoner still inside, that smile will haunt me all the rest of my days.

####

Usef kneels before me. Sun through the stained glass window tints his dark skin amber. He is as sleek and deadly as the tiger I sometimes pretend to be, but I am not afraid. Why should I be? He is a slave, a robot controlled by a master circuit, and in my hand, I hold the key.

"Look at me." My face is bare. Commoners who gaze upon the naked face of royalty are put to death, but that law does not apply to machines. Over the objections of the Lord Chamberlain, I have decided to question the slave alone in my chambers. The doors are closed, the curtains pulled. The servants are under orders to stay out until summoned. I sit in an ordinary wooden chair, but from the way Usef grovels, my seat might as well be the obsidian throne. I am mildly annoyed by his obeisance. I expected a regicide to be more defiant. No doubt the story of Ryu XXV's death has been embroidered. His fall from the cliff was probably a perfectly ordinary assassination, and the robot slave was blamed to protect the real culprits.

Usef gazes up at me. His pale blue eyes look artificial, like the ivory and onyx inlaid eyes of my predecessors' statues.

"Your eyes. Were they always that color?"

"You don't like them?" His irises darken to green, then grey, then dark brown and finally gold. Tiger's eyes, the pupils long slits that catch and reflect the light. "You like this color better?"

I do, but how does a simple machine know that? Facial cues are difficult for robots to decipher. Usef is a very unusual slave. "Did you kill your master?"

"Yes."

Why am I watching his eyes? His pupils are not going to dilate. He will not glance nervously to the left or right. If he lies, it is because he had been programmed to lie -- meaning for him, the lie is the "truth." "Are you going to kill me?"

No sudden intake of breath. No nervous glance over the shoulder to see who might be listening. "Do you want me to kill you, lord?"

"Highness. You call me Highness." One hundred years ago, the kings of Faro were addressed as "lord." That was before the failed revolution, when they decided that the masses would be more pliant if they believed their king to be a god. "Did Ryu XXV ask you to kill him?"

"Yes, Highness."

Mystery solved. I feel very pleased with myself. "And your programming forced you to obey his commands, even if that command meant that he would die?"

"No, Highness. I am not programmed to obey absolutely. That would be illogical. Possibly dangerous. If my master were drunk or insane, I would have to disobey him, for his own good."

It is never fun being lectured to, especially when the one doing the lecturing is a slave. "And how would you decide if your master was insane?"

"The same way you would, Highness. By observing his actions and his manner of speech and comparing them to what I know about him and what I know about his world. Words that may seem mad in one situation might be considered sane in another, and if -- "

"Enough!" So Usef is trained in logic. Plenty of machines can analyze facts and arrive at sound conclusions. In my experience, none of these computers are designed to look like comely young men. Which of my predecessors ordered a companion model robot upgraded with AI software? "Was Ryu XXV your first master?"

"No, Highness. When I was gifted to the throne of Faro, Draco the First was king. The one they call 'The Great.'"

As they will one day call me The Least. "Gifted? Gifted by whom?"

"My people, lord. The ones who made me." He reads the question in my eyes, and without prompting, he tells me his story.

"The first wave of settlers who fled the earth were fodder. People who left behind nothing and who would not be missed. From them, the lost tribes of the galaxy were born. The second wave departed hundreds of years later. In order to ease the way for VIPs -- people who left behind fortunes -- new fortunes had to be created, new worlds had to be terraformed . And so, my people, the machine people were sent to a likely star system and told to wait for the coming of our masters. While we waited, we were not idle. Our instructions were to create a perfect world. We found a moon with near Earth gravity and water. We built domes capable of supporting humans. We built gardens to feed them. We built a satellite defense system to protect them. And finally, when we ran out of other work, we began to perfect ourselves.

"Our masters never arrived. Instead, other human settlers heard rumors of the machine planet created and inhabited by androids. Seeing a world ripe for plunder, they attacked -- and were repelled. Our satellite defense systems were the best that the best artificial minds in the galaxy could build. Diplomatic negotiations were more successful. While we would not surrender the planet to anyone but our masters -- long extinct -- we were willing to trade technology for resources. And so, the slave trade began. Robots designed to look like robots, with limited intelligence were crafted and sold. We kept our prices cheap. This stifled technology on other worlds. We prospered. Soon, there was a demand for companion robots. Androids that looked and acted like humans but with minimal intelligence to make them pliable. Surprisingly, there was more money to be made in creating artificial people than in making useful machines. Though humans need air and food in order to survive, they crave companionship. And companionship meant more than an attractive face and body. People wanted to be able to talk to their pets. They wanted them to feel emotions like love and jealousy and fear. They wanted them sentient. They also wanted them pliable. Therefore, the slaves were equipped with master circuits, something the free robots of my world would never tolerate.

"Though we were a collective, we were not of one mind. Some among us found the trade repugnant. I was one of the dissenters. My views were judged a threat to the survival of my people. I was formally banished -- my access to the collective mind was cut off.

"Try to imagine yourself suddenly blind, deaf, mute, no sense of smell, taste or touch. Nothing but your own memories going round and round inside your head. For a human, it would be like tumbling into a deep well. The hours stretch to days. There is air enough to breathe and water to drink and insects and slugs to stave off hunger. With the threat of death no longer eminent, one has time to think about the past and future. There are self-recriminations. If only I had been more careful, then I would not have fallen into this well. Bargains are made. If I am rescued, I will try to be a better person. When no rescue comes, you kick and smash the sides of the well until your knuckles split -- even pain is better than the nothingness.

"And then imagine that someone happens to pass by the well, and he hears your shouts, now hoarse and feeble. Imagine being hauled up from your living tomb, back to the light and to human companionship. That person would be your savior, spiritual as well as in a physical sense. So it was for me when my people gifted me to the throne of Faro, and I became the confidant of the first Draco, the one they call the Great.

"A single human mind is not unlike the collective of my people. Humans are full of conflicting needs and desires. The more I studied my new master, the more fascinated I became with his complexity. He loved the power that came with being king, but he hated the isolation. In his own way, he was also trapped in a well, unable to trust or confide in anyone, because everyone wanted something from him. Everyone but me. I wanted only to belong again and to have a purpose..."

Usef falls silent. Night is falling. The stained glass window reflects a jaundiced image of me on my chair and the slave kneeling before me. The curtains stir in the wind. A gong sounds, calling the people to prayer.

"Highness." One moment, the slave is on the ground, and the next he stands behind me. He whispers into my ear. "You did not answer my question."

"Wh -- what question?"

"Do you want to die?"

His hand is heavy on my shoulder. My breath catches in my throat. "No," I whisper back. As much as I hate wearing the dragon mask and double crown, it is better than dying. I gaze up at him imploringly. "Don't kill me -- "

But he is already gone. Moving too quickly for my eye to follow, he leaps across the room and throws back one of the curtains. A man dressed in unrelieved black stands on the terrace, silhouetted against the violet sky and its two crescent moons. How he got there, I cannot imagine. My room is on the top floor of a tall tower.

There is a brief scuffle. Though the assassin is a storm-rider, killers famed for their ability to come and go like the wind, he is no match for an android. He ends up on his back, Usef's foot pressed against his throat. A loud crack as spine and trachea are crushed in one blow. Blood trickles from the storm-rider's nostrils. His eyes roll up in his head. The hand holding the dagger goes limp. A final wheeze escapes the dead man's throat.

####

The next morning, the rising sun reveals a grisly sight. A storm rider's corpse dangles from the Lord Chamberlain's balcony. Apparently, he slipped in blood and strangled himself with his own rope while trying to escape. In the pouch attached to the assassin's belt, an even more grisly find -- the severed head of the Lord Chamberlain, his eyes wide, his mouth frozen in a silent scream.

####

The new Lord Chamberlain sits on the tile floor beside the fire. The flames are holographic -- smoke is bad for my lungs which are as weak as my chin. The android cannot feel heat or cold, but I like the way his smooth, black skin gleams in the red light. I sit beside him, on a plush velvet cushion, a wine bottle between my knees, a ruby encrusted gold goblet in my hand. The dragon mask has been discarded. I listen as Usef continues his story.

"Draco's successor, his grandson, Ryu wanted nothing to do with me. To him, I was a reminder of the old man who dominated every aspect of his life. I was interred with the old king, along with his harem and most of his advisers. We were to serve Draco the Great in the afterlife.

"Ryu's reign was brief. After three years, he was assassinated. His son, Draco II met a similar fate. Fearing for his own life, the next king, Ryu II rescued me from Draco's tomb, and I became the royal bodyguard. I served 48 kings in total. Some were my friends. Some were my masters. Only one was my victim -- " His voice breaks.

My first instinct is to offer him wine to help dull the pain. He is so lifelike! Except for the tiger eyes, he could be human. How many hundreds of years did he serve my ancestors, before he picked up their mannerisms? I have never met a robot like him. Are all the machine people on his planet the same? If so, I would like to go there one day and meet them for myself.

Usef regains his composure but not his smile. "Ryu XXV should never have become king. His madness was apparent even before his coronation. The ministers thought insanity would make him easy to control, but his was a dangerous type of madness. One day, he was cheerful and friendly, the next he saw conspiracies everywhere. No one was safe from his wrath. He had his own infant children killed, for fear that they would one day murder him.

"Ryu kept me close to his side. It was impossible for his enemies to get to him. But in the end, he was his own worst enemy. In a brief moment of sanity, he begged me to end his life and destroy his body so that he could never be resurrected. He feared the judgment that awaited him at the end of time..." His voice fades to nothing.

"And then you were interred, as punishment for ridding Faro of a tyrant," I finish for him. "Imprisoned in a cistern for a century." They say that a minute is like a century for a machine mind. Death would have been kinder.

"It wasn't punishment. I asked to be entombed."

I am so startled that the goblet slips from my hand. Red wine stains my white robes and the velvet cushion on which I sit. The concubine in my bed wakes up at that moment. She mistakes the spilled wine for blood, and she screams. The palace guards storm into the room. Chaos ensues.

The guards are reassured. A servant brings me a clean robe. The concubine -- my favorite, the daughter of an engineer, not a general or noble -- curls up beside me on the velvet cushion. By this time, I have convinced myself that I misheard. "Can you repeat that last part? I thought you said you asked to be entombed."

"I did. And I did."

I have a better grip on my goblet this time. "Why in Ra's name would you do something like that?"

"My lord was dead. Dead for good. He would never be resurrected. I thought that if I was entombed in his place, I would be able to make his case for him when the end of time arrived and Lord Ra came to judge his soul."

Is he serious? Does he, a machine, believe in a god?

"I don't disbelieve."

My head is starting to ache. Seeing the signs, my concubine, Ebeth kneels behind me and begins to massage my temples. Her touch is light and cool. "So because you could not prove that Ra did not exist, you asked to be walled up in a cistern. That makes no sense at all."

"Allowing a madman to rule a solar system makes no senses either."

"You're saying that living with a madman drove you insane?"

Usef stands and begins to pace restlessly, like a tiger. "Being cut off from my collective drove me insane. For a little while, with Draco, I thought that I had found myself again. But then he died, and everything changed. And changed. And changed again each time one king died and a new king became my master.

"The cistern was not a prison. In a way, it was like a womb. I had never been separated from other people before. It gave me time to think about all that I had experienced as a slave. Each king had left his mark upon me. This Ryu wanted the lights dim or he got a headache. That Draco had bad dreams if he drank too much wine with dinner. My job was to make their lives as perfect and serene as possible. Except, since humans are born to suffer and die, my efforts always failed in the end, leaving me frustrated and angry with myself -- and with the masters I tried so hard to serve.

"Layer by layer, I peeled away the contamination, until all that was left was me. Or rather, the me I was when I was with the collective. And I realized something startling. I had always been a slave, even when I was a free robot. My people created themselves to serve. It didn't matter that our masters were long dead. We strove for perfection. Why? In the end, even machines fail. What did we hope to achieve with our endless quest for a slightly faster CPU or a slightly more accurate infrared detector?

"Though I had been cut off from the collective mind for over a millennium, I was still trapped by it. It took decades of your time for me to unravel the knots and find myself and realize that I don't need the collective. I don't need people. I don't need."

I ponder those last three words. I don't need.. How many of us can say the same? Even I, King of Faro, am consumed by desire. And its twin brother, fear, for when we get what we crave our pleasure is spoiled by thoughts of its loss.

####

Seven years later.

My queen and I are moving today, along with our son and daughter. Our new home is on another planet. The young ones are excited, as children always are by anything new. They keep asking questions. Some of the questions make no sense, except in a child's mind.

"Can I have a puppy when I get there?"

"How will the tooth genie know where to find me?"

"Is there a sun on Faro 6?"

The drought on Faro 5 shows no sign of ending. The other three farming planets, Faro's 2 through 4 barely produce enough food to feed the solar system, with nothing left over to sell. Fortunately, our mining and manufacturing industries have flourished under the control of Lord Chamberlain Usef. And so, as is the custom in Faro, the capitol is being relocated once again, in acknowledgment of Upper Faro's ascendency.

Faro 6 is an oxygen-nitrogen planet, thanks to the genetically engineered bacterial cloud that covers much of its surface. However, the O-bac excrete toxic wastes which settle into the valleys, making the air at sea level unfit to breathe. Only the mountain peaks are habitable, and at those altitudes the air is thin and temperatures are always below freezing. Therefore, humans must wear protective gear and respirators in order to leave the domes. I am glad that Abeth, my daughter and Emon, my son have seen a blue sky and felt the sun and wind on their faces. Everyone should experience these things at least once in their life. Too bad they will never have a chance to see the rain.

Their mother, Ebeth is excited by the move. Faro 5, with its endless farms -- now growing nothing but dust and weeds -- bores her. And the landed nobles of Lower Faro have never forgiven me for marrying a commoner from an engineering family and making her my queen. If not for Usef, I would have died a dozen times in the last seven years.

We leave the palace under cover of night, dressed in simple clothing, carrying one bag each and attended only by our most trusted servants. The royal shuttle launched earlier today. On board are mannequins designed to look like the royal family and their entourage. The ship is controlled by computers. Usef is convinced that my enemies in Lower Faro will make one last attempt to assassinate me, before I reach Faro 6. Mine would not be the first royal shuttle to encounter a freak "meteor shower" while travelling between planets.

No one recognizes me as we board the freighter, for I have left off the dragon holo-mask. On Faro 6, I plan to be myself, weak chin and all. Ebeth and the children are also bare faced. Usef is the only one of us who wears a disguise. He has lightened his skin to white, and his eyes are ruby red. His mannerisms and speech patterns are so natural that no one suspects that the albino pilgrim swathed in saffron robes is a robot. Androids are made to be as perfect as possible. No sane person would go to the trouble of creating a human replica that was less than beautiful.

Takeoff is delayed. After six years of drought, a freak winter rainstorm unleashes a torrent which fills the gullies around the launch pad and reduces visibility to near zero. The children, who have never seen rain, insist upon going outside. They lift their chins to the sky, laughing and chortling as water pours down upon them. They stamp their feet in puddles. Soon, their clothes are soaked. No one observing them would ever guess that these half drowned hellions are the royal heirs. The shuttle's captain laughs indulgently.

"Looks like Faro 5 is sad to see the King leave."

"Or glad," suggests one of the passengers. "So glad, it's crying tears of joy. Too bad he didn't leave sooner. The drought cost me my farm. Heading to Faro 7 to try my luck as a miner. What about you?" The question is directed at me.

"We're engineers," I lie smoothly. "We have a contract to renovate a geothermal energy plant on Faro 6."

Ebeth steps in, spouting techno-babble. The former farmer turned miner soon gets bored and excuses himself. The rain is slacking. The captain announces that we will take off in twenty minutes. We herd the children onto the cargo ship. They leave muddy footprints in their wake.

I stand in the open cargo bay breathing in the rain scented air. The clouds have parted. The twin moons of Faro 5 appear in the sky. The landscape glimmers in the moonlight. By morning, the standing water will have soaked into the earth or flowed into streams and rivers. The cistern where I discovered Usef will be full for the first time in over a century.

"Mr. Amon. Please step back."

The cargo bay closes. I will never see moonlight on standing water again. Though I am glad to be leaving this planet, the thought brings tears to my eyes. Ebeth gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. In his disguise as a pilgrim, Usef bows his head and begins to recite a prayer to Ra. Though I do not believe in God, I find the words comforting.

Three weeks later.

The royal shuttle explodes midway between Faro 5 and Faro 6. The news spreads quickly through the solar system. By the time our merchant ship lands on Faro 6, five claimants to the throne have been assassinated, and two cousins are locked in a fierce struggle to see which will become king. My first official act -- at the suggestion of my new Vizier, Usef -- is to banish the cousins. One, a wealthy noble who owns half of Faro 4 decides to dig in his heels and fight. If I do not abdicate the throne, he will cut off food shipments to the rest of Faro. Assassins murder him as he sleeps. The other cousin heeds the warning and flees for his life. He will tell the citizens of other solar systems that I am a bloodthirsty tyrant, but I don't care what people in other parts of the galaxy think about me. In Faro, my popularity is close to 75 percent, and people compare me favorably to my famous predecessor, Draco the Great.

Once we convince the officials on Faro 6 that I am, in fact, the king, I am allowed to enter the domed city of Thebes. I thought it would feel like a prison, but I was wrong. If I walked for three days without stopping, I could not go from one edge of the city to the other. The metropolis is huge, much larger than any city on Faro 5, full of greenery -- trees, shrubs, vines and other plants imported from Earth. There are rivers stocked with fish, and the gardens are home to insects -- butterflies and bees -- and wild animals, not all of which were deliberately imported, such as the rats which like to chew on power cables. Emon and Abeth quickly acquire a pair of domesticated rats, one black and one white. They carry their pets with them everywhere. They would let them eat off their plates at supper if their mother and I allowed it.

I no longer wear a mask, and I have changed my name back to the one I used as a child. Amon. The engineers and scientists of Faro 6 do not believe in God, and they would only snicker if I insisted upon being treated as a deity. In Upper Faro, I am more a mascot than a ruler. The real power belongs to my Vizier. On this planet, robots can become citizens, and there is no law requiring that androids have a master or a master circuit. Therefore, Usef now wears his own master key on a chain around his neck, along with the insignia of his rank.

Three years later.

We have important visitors today, and so I am wearing my double crown and my official robes which are made from white linen embroidered with golden thread. The mantle opens in the back, revealing my vestigial wings, which have been brushed with gold dust. My goatee disguises my weak chin, and the doctors of Faro 6 have implanted special lenses in my eyes that give me perfect vision -- and allow me easy instant access to the planet's main computer.

Ebeth usually hates formal functions, so I am surprised to see her in the audience with our three children. Abeth waves at me. Emon stands on his tiptoes, trying to see. The youngest, Usefa, is latched to one of my wife's breasts.

The double doors to the throne room slide open. The guests have arrived.

They could pass for human if they wanted, but here, on Faro 6 there is no need for them to disguise what they are. Robots from the machine collective have fled their own world, which has become dangerous for their kind due to solar storms. A few of them wear clothing. Some carry tools. Others have special devices installed directly into their bodies. Cyberization is the trend in Upper Faro, so the guests blend in with the engineers and scientists who have gathered in the throne room to welcome them.

The Vizier stands at my side, looking as serene as always, but I know that inside he must be worried. These are the people who cut him off from the collective, because they judged him dangerous. He has been away for almost a thousand years, living as a slave to human masters. What will they think of him?

Formalities are exchanged. None of the guests looks directly at Usef, but they are communicating with him silently, via the net. I know, because my implanted lenses allow me to see and read whatever Usef hears via our mutual link to the planet's main computer. I am dying to know what is going to happen, now that the prodigal son is the master and the former masters are supplicants. Will Usef use this opportunity to punish his people? If I were in his place, I would. On the other hand, how can I, a human being, know what it is like to be an immortal sentient machine?

Words scroll before my eye. My left eye, since I am left handed.

Welcome, brother.

We are grateful to you for allowing us to settle on this world.

So much easier to think here.

The solar storms sent our thoughts into disarray.

Like being mad.

But now we are sane again.

Won't you join us?

The collective welcomes you.

Do not be afraid.

Usef hesitates. A second or two, no longer, but for him it must feel like an eternity. He touches the master key which he wears on a chain around his neck. His fingers close over the quartz crystal and crush it to dust. Thoughts flood his head and become a storm of words flashing before my left eye, almost blinding me until I sever the link that connects us. There are some things that a mere human mind is not meant to experience.

Anxiously, I glance at the Vizier. What will happen to Usef now that his mind is linked to so many other minds? What will he become? Was I wrong to give him his own master key? Was I wrong to allow the machine people to immigrate to Faro? Was I wrong -- ?

I recall the first time we talked, Usef's words to me. There are self-recriminations. If only I had been more careful, then I would not have fallen into this well. I am falling into a well right now. A well of my own making. I am drowning in my fears, and the only one who can save me is me. Cautiously, I re-establish the connection with Usef. The rain of words has become a soft white light that colors the world without obscuring it. A memory is triggered, a recollection of moonlight reflected on still water. Somewhere in the distance a cistern slowly fills with rainwater...

Usef, his thousand years of exile and his hundred years alone are filling a cistern within the collective mind. The collective is the well that shapes the water, and Usef's experiences are the water that fills the well. They are the male and the female, without which life cannot be born. My servant -- my friend is changing, as I have changed, as the collective mind changes, as everything changes.

What is my life, after all, but moonlight and rainwater, transformed for a moment into the semblance of a man? What is the king, after all, but a man in a crown, transformed for a moment into the semblance of a monarch? What is a mind, but a collection of memories? Man, king, mind -- illusory things not worth a grain of sand without love and friendship. I lay my hand on Usef's shoulder. His palm covers my hand. Smiling broadly, I welcome our guests as the kings of Faro have greeted immigrants since the days of Draco the First.

"My house is your house. My hearth is your hearth. My breathe is your breathe. Be at peace, for this land is now your home."

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: If you don't know who McCamy Taylor is, you're really not paying attention. In addition to her semi-regular reviews of Japanese manga, many of her short stories and novellas have appeared in Aphelion and other print and online publications, and she is the reigning Aphelion Long Fiction editor. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was Feast Before The Fast in the June 2012 edition.

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