His Master’s Voice
“Yes, you are.”
“You should at least have made yourself a woman,” said the wrong master in a knife-like voice. “It might have been less frustrating.”
I did not hear the blow, I felt it. The wrong master let out a cry, rushed out and almost stumbled on me. The master watched him go. His lips moved, but I could not hear the words. I wanted to comfort him and made a little sound, but he did not even look at me, went back to the cabin and locked the door. I scratched the door, but he did not open, and I went up to the deck to look for the Ball again.
* * *
Finally, the cat finds the master’s chamber.
It is full of heads. They float in the air, bodiless, suspended in diamond cylinders. The tower executes the command we sent into its drugged nervous system, and one of the pillars begins to blink. Master, master, I sing quietly as I see the cold blue face beneath the diamond. But at the same time I know it’s not the master, not yet.
The cat reaches out with its prosthetic. The smart surface yields like a soap bubble. “Careful now, careful,” I say. The cat hisses angrily but obeys, spraying the head with preserver nanites and placing it gently into its gel-lined backpack.
The necropolis is finally waking up: the damage the heavenly hacker did has almost been repaired. The cat heads for its escape route and goes to quicktime again. I feel its staccato heartbeat through our sensory link.
It is time to turn out the lights. My eyes polarise to sunglass-black. I lift the gauss launcher, marvelling at the still tender feel of the Russian hand grafts. I pull the trigger. The launcher barely twitches in my grip, and a streak of light shoots up to the sky. The nuclear payload is tiny, barely a decaton, not even a proper plutonium warhead but a hafnium micronuke. But it is enough to light a small sun above the mausoleum city for a moment, enough for a focused maser pulse that makes it as dead as its inhabitants for a moment.
The light is a white blow, almost tangible in its intensity, and the gorge looks like it is made of bright ivory. White noise hisses in my ears like the cat when it’s angry.
* * *
For me, smells were not just sensations, they were my reality. I know now that that is not far from the truth: smells are molecules, parts of what they represent.
The wrong master smelled wrong. It confused me at first: almost a god-smell, but not quite, the smell of a fallen god.
And he did fall, in the end.
I slept on the master’s couch when it happened. I woke up to bare feet shuffling on the carpet and heavy breathing, torn away from a dream of the Little Animal trying to teach me the multiplication table.
The wrong master looked at me.
“Good boy,” he said. “Ssh.” I wanted to bark, but the godlike smell was too strong. And so I just wagged my tail, slowly, uncertainly. The wrong master sat on the couch next to me and srcratched my ears absently.
“I remember you,” he said. “I know why he made you. A living childhood memory.” He smiled and smelled frendlier than ever before. “I know how that feels.” Then he sighed, got up and went into the Room. And then I knew that he was about to do something bad, and started barking as loudly as I could. The master woke up and when the wrong master returned, he was waiting.
“What have you done?” he asked, face chalk-white.
The wrong master gave him a defiant look. “Just what you’d have done. You’re the criminal, not me. Why should I suffer? You don’t own me.”
“I could kill you,” said the master, and his anger made me whimper with fear. “I could tell them I was you. They would believe me.”
“Yes,” said the wrong master. “But you are not going to.”
The master sighed. “No,” he said. “I’m not.”
* * *
I take the dragonfly over the cryotower. I see the cat on the roof and whimper from relief. The plane lands lightly. I’m not much of a pilot, but the lobotomised mind of the daimon — an illegal copy of a 21st Century jet ace — is. The cat climbs in, and we shoot towards the stratosphere at Mach 5, wind caressing the plane’s quantum dot skin.