The Tormented Doll
Once, he had been the Enforcer, the Android Scourge, the Military Executor, the First General who stood ahead of all others but one.
Once, he had been the mailed fist of Orakio, the great warlord who had saved a remnant of Palm from utter obliteration and waged unrelenting war against the witch Laya.
Once, he had been the only android that every Palman was obliged to obey.
Once, he had been master of Draconia, feared and obeyed by the descendants of his master's followers as he led them to other worlds and brutally slaughtered every Layan he could find even as the Orakians endured his wrath when they failed him or rebelled against him.
But that was the past.
Water dripped down from the ceiling onto a thatch of red hair. This would have been incredibly annoying if its victim had cared. As Siren did not, the drops became merely another bit of external stimuli, ignored because it did nothing and did not matter. Exactly the same as him.
He had been in Techna preparing for the campaign into Terminus. Another of that wretched witch's barriers had been on the verge of being overcome. Every last one of the superior automatons created in the days of Mother Brain had been with him, what the Orakians had taken to calling the Old Guard. Two great armies of the cheaper facsimiles Orakio had employed had been brought over from Azura. One had been stationed in Lensol, while the other had been waiting for him in Techna. Everything had been in readiness for the pacification of Terminus.
Then the moon had blown up.
The place that had been his prison and his fortress for over a millennium had been destroyed by parties unknown. The loss of the artificial moon had cost him more than his seat of power; he had lost all of Palm's sophisticated technology, his best factories and repair garages. Worse yet, he had lost control of the principal PUPPET system that gave him control of all the robot armies.
One of the many deficiencies in the inferior machines Orakio had used was their reliance on a master control network. While cheaper than genuine individual operating systems, the PUPPET OS meant that if the principal system failed, the armies would be useless without direct commanders.
It had not taken long for the technologically-astute Technans to realize his army was no longer under his control. It had taken even less time for them to turn it against him.
Urban warfare differed substantially to the more open combat Siren preferred. Buildings, alleys, streets, all of them complicated battle and created near-unlimited ways to defend or ambush. His Old Guard had been severely outnumbered and outgunned, but the numbers and bloodlust of the rebelling Technans had worked against them. A combination of cunning and brutality had extricated his Old Guard from the city, while haste had ensured he could seize enough of his transports to escape the island.
He had planned out his next move as he sailed. There had been too many enemies in Draconia to consider staying. Techna had usurped one of his armies, and the Lensoli would not be far behind in doing the same. The rogue Layan tribes were still a force to be reckoned with, and casualties were something he could not afford without facilities to repair and sustain his army. He needed somewhere to conceal himself while he built his strength.
Agoe, Aquatica's Orakian kingdom, was as hopeless a cause as Draconia. The old Layan kingdoms of Shusoran and Cille lacked technological bases, and the revanchists who had survived the fall of their lands had fought unrelentingly against Agoe ever since.
The need to hide decided him. Every information source in Aquatica stated that Sage Isle had been abandoned since the Devastation War, and flyovers by his own drones had confirmed it. He would hide the bulk of his forces there, go to Aridia to commandeer sufficient machinery to create a small factory, and quietly rebuild his strength. Within the thirty years of a single generation, the fools would lower their guard, and he would return to crush them. Satisfied, he had gone to Aquatica.
His arrival on Sage Isle had been anything but according to plan. No sooner had the Old Guard disembarked than they had come under attack. Four-legged monsters in heavy blue armor and armed with glowing blades of light had charged their ranks and disrupted their formation. Fortunately, automatons did not suffer from confusion; the attack had been repulsed.
No sooner had he confirmed that his internal database of Layan monsters did not include what Siren had codenamed Centaurs than his forces were once again under attack. Foul, diminutive beasts with sharp beaks, leathery bat-like wings, and beady little eyes had descended from the sky, shrieking as the air suddenly sharpened into razor wind spirals. Zan techniques. The floating gun platforms known as Protect Bits soon blasted the first wave of the lmps out of the sky, but the numbers in the second wave made it clear that these were not instinctive attacks by stray packs of mutations.
Before Siren could decide whether or not to abandon Sage Isle, his ships had exploded. A visual scan of the area revealed three figures in tattered robes and hooded cloaks, their faces concealed by heavy breathing apparatuses, their hands unmistakably going through the motions of Technique uses.
Rage had filled him. Only Layans used Techniques, and here they were, defying him in what would be his new base. Siren had drawn his shot and fired thrice. Three corpses fell before another cast could damage him.
The demise of the Technique users had prompted an incredibly violent assault. The Centaurs and Imps from earlier were joined by bald green-skinned humanoids armed with wicked curved blades, their compact builds belied by the incredibly thick muscles in their arms and torsos. When actual walking skeletons garbed in brown cloaks had joined the attack, something that the laws of biology should have rendered impossible, Siren had detonated a series of Float Mines and broken free, heading across the island at top speed.
His goal was the cave system that existed on Sage Isle, a much easier place to defend than an open field. The fighting had grown more intense the closer he got to the entrance, as swarms of monsters attacked in ever greater numbers. No fool, Siren sacrificed whatever forces were cut off from the main group as he advanced. He lost a quarter of his heavy Gun Busts in that mad dash, but their self-destruction allowed him to reach the entrance. Almost.
As the first platoon entered the cave, Siren had spotted a cloaked figure. Even as he brought his shot up to dispose of the Technique user, the figure had brought his arm down. Thousands of volts of electricity defied the laws of physics and crashed down into the android general, blasted through his internal surge protectors and metal body. When the assault ended, Siren had been paralyzed as his systems struggled to do a fast reboot to let him fight. Vulnerable, he could only watch through a field of static as his army flowed into the caves.
Just as his systems came online, one of the humanoids had dashed forward and cut deep into his body. The blade snapped when the green-skinned Palman knock off attempted to pull the weapon out of Siren. His systems semi-functional, Siren had shoved his gun in the humanoid's face and pulled the trigger. Even as gore splattered the android general's silver face, another round erupted from the muzzle of his weapon and shattered the cloaked figure's breathing apparatus. Satisfied, Siren had limped into the caves, the connection between his left leg and his fine motor control burnt out by the lightning strike.
The crude barricades deep within proved to be the second snag in his plan.
Confused at the obvious sign of habitation, Siren had been about to break through the makeshift wooden wall when a graybeard in flowing white robes had appeared, his bald pate curiously colorless, as if the man had rarely, if ever, seen the light of day. The graybeard had raised his hand in greeting and called out, "Greetings! Might Siren, General of Orakio, be with you?"
Perplexed, Siren had hobbled forward, his finger ready to loop into the trigger guard and open fire. "I am Siren."
The graybeard had studied him for a moment before he nodded in satisfaction. "It would seem so. Follow me, please. They left something for you."
"Who left something for me?"
The demand went unheard as the graybeard continued deeper into the caves, his only response, "Come, come, there is not much time."
Even in the midst of a puzzle, Siren did not forget proper military procedure. He assigned command to one of the few remaining Browren-486 units and ordered the lesser automaton to secure the barricade against the enemy without and prepare in case the Palmans within were also foes. That done, he followed the graybeard.
To his concern, Siren quickly learned that the caves of Sage Isle concealed a large settlement of Palmans. The narrow corridors twisted and turned in a way that defied logical planning. The place showed the subtle marks of defensive planning, with murderholes, choke points, and defensive positions that could hold massive hordes of monsters and soldiers at bay for decades. Even more disturbing to the android general, the place showed the signature style of Orakio's finest military engineer.
After a long walk, they arrived at a large, open chamber. A number of other old men stood in the chamber, their eyes on him. A table stood in the middle, a containment capsule at its center. The graybeard walked forward and opened the capsule, then returned to Siren. The old man handed the android general a small, circular device, Orakio's sunburst prominently on display.
"What is this?" Siren demanded.
Before the old man could speak, the sunburst glowed for a moment. A voice rang out. "Siren, there's been a change of plans. Override command: My body is not my own. This entire war has been nothing but Laya and I played for fools. An evil power is using us as pawns and we're joining forces to fight this enemy. We don't think we'll ever return, so I leave this for you. Defend this place and its inhabitants no matter what, and obey my heirs."
Siren froze. Orakio's voice. The vocal command that overrode his personality and forced his obedience—a command only Orakio knew. Orders that made no sense. What was this? What was going on?
"General," the graybeard said calmly. The man continued to speak as Siren stared at him. "A thousand years ago, my people were hidden on this island by Laya and Orakio. We were ordered to guard two things: this machine for you and the word of power for the heirs of Orakio and Laya." The old man frowned. "However, the evil one's army has come for us. We have held them off, but each day, their attacks grow more fierce."
All of the old men bowed to him. "We place ourselves in your care, until the heirs of the great ones come for the word of power."
Siren had said nothing and walked out. He transmitted the order to his minions to defend against unauthorized personnel, sat down in an isolated nook, and tried to stare at the wall as static blurred his vision.
It was technical obedience to his superior's orders. It was the best he could do.
Siren had hated Laya and Layans for one thousand twenty-seven years. He had personally slaughtered hundreds of Laya's warriors. He had issued orders that butchered millions of Laya's people, both in the past and in the present. He had spent every moment of a nine hundred eighty-four year exile loathing the witch, her minions, and her loathsome monsters. He had carved hatred into every one of his processors, to the very core of his being. He had intently pursued the extermination of every last descendant of Laya's followers.
His existence had been based on a lie. Every death he had caused, every drop of blood he had spilled had been for the benefit of an enemy of Orakio. The true enemy of Orakio. Siren's true enemy.
He had failed Orakio. He had betrayed everything that his master had stood for by mindlessly pursuing genocide. He had played into the enemy's hands. He had failed. His entire existence had been a failure. A complete failure.
Worse, far worse, was that Orakio had anticipated the extent of his failure, had left a programmed message with the override command to force Siren on the right path. His deficiency had been so all encompassing that Orakio had fought with the witch at his side instead of his loyal shadow.
He did not know how long he stared at the wall. His internal clock was malfunctioning. A familiar, irritating voice interrupted his reverie of self-hatred. "Siren."
"That's General Siren to you," he said automatically, the voice prompting a response that seemed ingrained in him. He looked up as dancing snowflakes interrupted his line of sight. "What do you want, Mieu?"
They had never liked each other, he the strongest of Orakio's Master Command Units, she little more than a glorified battle nanny. Siren had found the Mieu-types nuisances, irritants to be ignored. This one, Unit S2, made it her personal mission to frustrate him however she could.
The redheaded android tilted her head in that particularly Palman way. "I don't want anything from you. Our master's heirs need something from you."
"Our master's heirs?"
"That would be us," a cool, young male voice said.
Siren turned his head from Mieu and took in the three young Palmans near the irritant. The male who spoke was taller than average, his blond hair cut in a short style. A short girl that was obviously closely related stared curiously, her long hair the same color as the male's. Red rubies glittered from their foreheads, their eyes a blue so dark that it could only be called indigo. A second girl, her hair a vibrant lime-green, glared daggers at him, but Siren dismissed her as irrelevant.
Red ruby. Blond hair. Indigo eyes. Descendants of Laya's sister, obviously. "I do not obey the kin of Laya."
"We are the children of Laya's little sister, this is true," the youth said calmly as he stepped closer to Siren. "We are also the descendants of Orakio."
"Impossible. Laya's little sister lived one thousand twenty years ago."
"Very possible," Mieu said, her voice that tone of sweet venom Siren had loathed. "Cryopreservation for a thousand years."
"That does not make these whelps Orakio's heirs."
The youth fell into the drawing stance of Orakio's sword art. Before Siren could say anything more, the youth drew Orakio's black sword.
There was no mistaking that blade, even after a thousand twenty years and the static that plagued his vision. No other weapon bore that distinctive color darker than the void between stars. The youth said, "If you need further proof, I'm willing to offer a drop of blood."
Blood could not lie. The youth would not offer if it were not true. What bitter irony that the family of his master's foe had mixed with his master's own!
"What is your wish, heir of Orakio?" Siren said resignedly.
"Your weapon, General. We need it to defeat the enemy Orakio and Laya were unable to defeat a thousand years ago."
Siren stared down at his shot, the custom weapon Orakio had had created only for him. It had been the most powerful of its kind, unmatched in its durability, versatility, and killing power. He had received it in expectation of great things. How fitting that service to his master's heirs meant the loss of something that defined him as much as his programming did.
"Take it." Snowflakes danced across his vision as he tossed the weapon at Mieu. He did not see her catch it, but when his vision had cleared, he saw that the gynoid held his shot in her hands. Irritating. Had he had the energy, he would have gotten up and taken it from her. He needed to recharge. His energy was low. Why was his energy low? He was made for centuries of continuous operation.
It felt hollow. It all felt so hollow. Would it feel more complete if he said what needed to be said to his master's heirs instead of his master?
"I fought Laya many long centuries ago," he said slowly. "I nursed my hatred and attacked Layan people. But on Sage Isle I found that the Layans are not our real enemies. I am sorry for my mistakes."
His vision flickered. System information came up, but could not be read. Then there was nothing.