It was the start of the fourth year of war when Dr. Panmoy showed Altaega’s design to General Stout.
The general scowled afterward, and Dr. Panmoy couldn’t interpret the look. The general always scowled. As a kit, Panmoy’s image of a general had come from television cartoons: a short, wide man with grizzled fur and a cigar eternally clamped between his teeth. The day he joined the Defense Research Institute as a junior associate five years ago, he’d seen General Stout stalking the halls and realized that this man was the model for all those cartoons.
He glanced over his shoulder, tail swishing slightly, and looked at Elder Bira, the one person who outranked the general. The vixen’s expression was simultaneously guarded and piercing as she looked over the pages taped to the conference room wall.
“This is nuts,” Stout said. The fox crossed his arms and grunted.
“Yes,” Elder Bira replied slowly.
Panmoy’s ears folded back into his short-cropped fur, and he self-consciously readjusted his square spectacles.
“But,” she continued, “it is also brilliant.”
His ears perked up again.
Stout stabbed at the closest drawing with his cigar. “DRI has been farting around with battle suits since before Panmoy got here and they’re still not deployable.”
“Only because they are not cost effective,” Elder Bira said. She glanced at the other pictures. “In this case, cost is not the point. It is a project to end the conflict decisively—”
“Look at this,” Stout snapped. “Rockets. Guns. Experimental lasers. Experimental armor. Mechanics the likes of which the gods themselves have never seen. And all this for a few goddamn terrorists?”
“Spreading a heresy we have not been able to extinguish for generations,” Bira said firmly. “Poisoning more and more people. Yesterday they were only insurrectionists, now they are terrorists, tomorrow they will be an army. If we can deter that, we will not only show the heresy for what it is, we will save lives.”
“And tell me again why it’s better to spend half our military budget for the next decade on a walking copper teapot instead of just, oh, making a few really big bombs?”
Panmoy cleared his throat. “Like I said, the idea is to combine a perfect combat weapon with something that’s—”
“Awe-inspiring,” Bira finished.
Stout chomped his cigar again, and glanced at Panmoy. “We don’t really have AI that can do this, do we, Rocket Boy?”
The younger fox gritted his teeth to keep from flinching. He felt mostly confident—but he needed to project a confidence as perfect as Altaega was to be. “What we’re proposing is really just an acceleration of projects already underway. We can bring the time line down from three decades out to under one.”
“You’re nuts. Absolutely goddamn loony.” Stout abruptly turned and stalked out of the conference room, slamming the door behind him.
Both Elder Bira and Dr. Panmoy blinked after him. Panmoy caught himself before he let out a little choking sob.
The robed vixen put a hand on Panmoy’s shoulder. “This is what you want your life’s work to be, isn’t it, Gilbert?”
“It is, ma’am,” he said, keeping his voice neutral. “But I suppose I can…the fields are very large, after all. Robotics, neural nets—”
“You made a good impression on him.”
Panmoy stared at her.
She patted his shoulder, and grinned. “If you hadn’t, he’d have ripped up the blueprints before stalking out. This is what Chandor wants you to do, brother. The general, for all the bluster, sees it His way as well.”
The first round of funding was approved that week.
It was the middle of the sixth year of war when the frame for Altaega’s body was complete.
General Stout, Dr. Panmoy and Elder Bira stared at it from a catwalk, one of a dozen. This particular one was forty feet from the ground, facing the framework’s left side.
“It’s going to have legs nearly fifty feet long,” the general said, moving the cigar over to the other side of his mouth as he spoke.
“Yes, sir,” Panmoy said. “She’ll be over ninety feet high when she’s finished.”
The general shook his head, and idly picked at his tail. “Light rockets along the left arm—no, right. Right? Machine guns on the left.”
Panmoy just nodded.
“We’re still under budget.” The general looked up at the framework’s top, where a jawline could be made out. “But it’s a hell of a budget.” He glanced at Bira. “You know we’re winning already.”
“Chandor is the most powerful of the gods,” she said. “But the heresy of the Mirrik partisans deceives more every passing day, and his forces grow more powerful. I—we—lose more control. This golem, this mechanical servant of Chandor, will be a clear, decisive sign of our truth.” She turned to gaze at the metal skeleton. “I only hope she can be sent in time to save the land from open civil war.”
“She’s already too late for that by my measure,” Stout grumbled.
Bira’s knuckles tightened on the railing.
It was the end of the seventh year of war when Altaega spoke her first words.
The systems that comprised her had been speaking for months; the speech synthesizer was not unusual, and Altaega’s unique voice had been defined in the project’s first few months and refined continuously since.
Likewise, the initial database for the neural net had been in development at a university for nearly two decades. Researchers had fashioned a crazy-quilt encyclopedia of words, images, names, places, historical facts and cultural trivial, connecting the pieces with simple relationships and connecting those to form complex ones, an expert system not narrow and deep but purposefully wide and shallow. In some theories, including Panmoy’s, critical mass would be achieved at an unknown point, and the system would begin to deepen on its own.
The voice recognition and grammatical parsing had been tuned to a resolution that Panmoy knew bested civilian equivalents by fifteen years. The team members had been querying the database in natural language—simple words, to be sure, but simple words in normal sentences, spoken at a normal speed. The system could be read to, like a child, and would stop and ask questions when its dataset couldn’t match the input. Frequently the questions made no sense to the researchers: asking for definitions of words the researchers hadn’t used, or asking about completely unrelated topics in the middle of stories.
The system knew its name—one of the first things they had added to the database—but only in the way a computer program knew to display its version information when it started. It knew words like I, me and my, but they were only words.
Dr. Panmoy had settled into a routine shortly after the AI work had begun, spending mornings in the computer research wing—often arriving before any of the rest of the staff—then heading to the robotics wing for the afternoon to oversee the body’s construction.
This morning he was again the first one in, and the lights in the main work room switched on for him as he sat down in the data training booth with his first cup of coffee. He closed the door; the microphones only switched on when the door shut and the chamber became soundproof. Someday they hoped the system would learn to screen out extraneous input, but right now it accepted all input uncritically.
“Good morning, Dr. Panmoy,” the system’s voice sounded from the speaker. The pleasant, casual alto sent a slight shiver down Panmoy’s spine, as it always did. He had wanted her to have a voice that matched the beauty of her form.
“Good morning, Altaega.” He sat down with his coffee, raising it to his muzzle.
“I have been thinking,” the voice said.
He paused. In the last year, the system had built up a library of “small talk,” and had learned to ask to be read to. But this was a new one. The neural net processed and organized its information when it was not receiving new input—he’d identified a state it entered during periods of extended quiet that he theorized corresponded to REM sleep for organic brains. Could the net have become aware of that state?
“About what?” he replied.
The system remained silent as he sipped from the coffee, then sipped again. He sighed and started to think of a way to rephrase the question.
Then, the voice came again. “I do not know what I am.”
Panmoy managed to catch the cup as he started to drop it, and turned the motion into an awkward slam that sloshed the coffee over the mug’s rim.
When he found his voice, he said shakily, “That…is a very long story.”
“I like stories, Dr. Panmoy,” the voice said brightly.
“I know, Altaega.” He took a deep breath, and lapped more of the coffee. “Call me Gil.”
It was the spring of the eighth year of war when Altaega’s outer body was finished.
This time, Panmoy had General Stout, Elder Bira and the coterie of both military and religious leaders following them walk not along catwalks, but across the concrete floor of the hangar the metal leviathan had been constructed in. Only the huge mobile work lights twenty feet up were lit.
They walked to within ten yards of the figure, all twenty foxes staring up nervously into the shadows, making out the lines of feet and legs. Then Panmoy’s assistants switched on the arc lighting.
General Stout dropped his cigar.
A metal statue of a slim vixen stood before them, rising easily ninety feet off the floor. Copper and silver took the place of the red and white fur of a real fox’s coloration. In form—what they could make of it—she was sculpted like a classical statue, much like those in the High Temple itself.
“She’s beautiful,” one of Elder Bira’s acolytes said.
“Frightening,” one of the corporals replied. He sounded approving.
“Let’s take the lift platform so we can see all of her,” Panmoy said, relishing the reactions.
The platform held the entire group with ease. It rose slowly, up the length of the sculpted legs, past rounded hips and rear, tight stomach, gently curved chest, coming to a stop by the head. Being unfinished, it was the most unsettling—the slightly open muzzle was an empty cavern, and the eyes were gaping holes with scaffolding visible inside.
Stout leaned on the railing. “I’m wondering if you’re enjoying your work a little too much,” he said flatly, glancing at Panmoy.
“Excuse me, sir?”
He waved his cigar up and down, indicating the length of the statue. “Call me an old fogie, but I fail to understand just why a super-weapon needs such a fine ass.”
Elder Bira cleared her throat disapprovingly. Several of the soldiers snickered.
Panmoy stammered, unable to keep his ears from burning. “Sir, you know the aesthetics were approved because—”
Stout waved the cigar dismissively. “Blah blah awe blah blah terrible divine beauty blah blah blah. I still say you rocket boys must be reading the science journals with the centerfolds, if you catch my drift.” Chuckles rippled through the crowd, even the acolytes.
“No matter, though,” Stout said. “As long as it does what it’s supposed to do.” He puffed on the cigar.
It was the autumn of the eighth year of war when Altaega first opened her eyes.
They had spent the last two months connecting servo chains to control units and linking control units to the computer where the neural net still ran. They had connected the voice system in the throat, the hearing system in the ears, the camera banks and lights behind the glass eyes. The last week had been spent monitoring the inputs into the neural net and the return output paths. Everything was go.
But the leviathan remained motionless and dark. The neural net was connected to the body and could control it, but it didn’t “live” in it. If Altaega had a mind, it resided in the laboratory computers, not the equally powerful computers installed inside the mechanism’s form. They’d mirrored the data between the two installations, but—for reasons they had yet to learn—that wasn’t enough.
The scientist sat on Catwalk Six, sixty feet up and twenty feet in front of the metal figure, with his legs dangling off the edge. Long after midnight, few people would be near this section save for the military guards outside. He’d come here often since the body had been finished, to dream about finally seeing it in autonomous motion.
Closing his eyes, Panmoy leaned against the railing and let out a soft sigh. Then he stiffened, feeling the fur at the back of his neck rise. A noise? A breeze? A static charge?
He opened his eyes again. The metallic vixen’s eyes glowed a dim amber.
“Altaega?” he whispered. After a few seconds of silence, he repeated her name, as loud as he could manage without yelling. “Altaega?”
The huge jaws parted with a metal-on-metal squeal. His ears folded back.
The mouth closed again, then opened and closed a few times until the squeaking stopped. Still looking straight ahead, the giantess replied, “Yes.” Her jaws moved with the words; that system was automatic, the equivalent of an unconscious action.
Panmoy swallowed. “Can you see me?”
“Turn your head down slowly until you see me waving at you.”
Servos clicked on and whirred; the huge head started to move, and he waved. When the head stopped, he stopped waving, hand still in the air. “Can you see me now?”
“Do you…recognize me?”
“Gil,” she said. Her tone was pleasant; it sounded as if she should be smiling in greeting, but the metal face remained expressionless. “I know your voice, and I have seen you via cameras in the lab.”
“I…” The voice paused. “I do not know if I can move anything other than this head.”
“Your head,” he corrected.
“My head,” she repeated.
“That is your body. We’ve talked about this, remember?”
“I remember everything,” she replied matter-of-factly. “But I have experienced almost nothing. And I did not understand the difference between experience and memory.”
“We’ll move you—-your neural net, that is—into the body. So you are all…” He trailed off.
“So I am complete,” she suggested.
“Yes.” He smiled.
“I can feel the cables,” she said. “I have never had a sense of location before.”
“They’ll be there for a while,” he said. “Your body and your computer run on batteries, and they’re not in place yet. And we’re still trying to resolve problems in copying the data from the computer you’re running on now to—”
“You cannot just transfer the data.”
He paused. “What?”
“That will…disrupt…connections. Internal ones. My thoughts.”
“You’re saying a simple mirror—a direct copy of the data—won’t necessarily keep the connections you’ve made in your neural net intact.”
“Well.” He rose to his feet. How could she tell that about herself? He certainly didn’t have awareness of his neural connections to that level. “We’ll get to work on a different solution.”
“Consult with me on it, Gil.”
He laughed after a moment. “I will, Altaega.”
It was the winter of the ninth year of war when Altaega understood her purpose.
Most of the researchers preferred to keep using the data training booth, now a simple radio relay to the metal giantess, rather than to head to the construction chamber and address her directly. Panmoy always talked to her face-to-face when he could, often at early morning or late evening hours when there were fewer workers about.
As he approached along the catwalk this evening, her head turned to watch his approach, pivoting to track him with nearly silent movements. As he sat down, she parted her jaws in a semblance of a smile, and he suppressed a shiver. The crew had done a magnificent job executing his design; her slightly open mouth revealed silver-colored teeth, pointed blades that each outweighed the largest worker, set in a darker, brass-hued base that resembled gums. In his initial design the teeth had been purely aesthetic. But at Elder Bira’s demand the leviathan had been redesigned to “eat,” sending anything swallowed to a chemical furnace that recharged her batteries. It was woefully inefficient and something he privately found shocking, but he had to agree with Bira’s logic—it added to Altaega’s ability to inspire terror.
“Good evening, Gil.”
“Good evening.” He smiled back tentatively, and tilted his head. “I’ve never seen you smile before.”
“I cannot smile well. You did not give me flexible lips. My teeth are always bared.”
“I would have if I could have justified it,” he said.
“But you justified this.” She leaned over him, tons of sculpted armor moving smoothly, and flicked out a realistic tongue, yards of thin flexible metal encased in pink rubber.
Panmoy flinched reflexively, eyes getting wide. The tonguetip hovered a mere foot away, wider than he was; he could feel the heat from it, and a drop of condensation landed on one of his ears. “Th-that performs a function,” he stammered. “It is a heat dissipator.”
She straightened up again. “My whole body can act as a heat sink,” she said. “Why did you want me to have a tongue?”
“It makes you seem more real.”
The vixen brought her arms forward, bent at the elbows, rotating the hands as her head moved smoothly to scan the limbs. “I have millions of images in my datasets,” she said. “You have made me appear female. And I think I am supposed to be beautiful.” She looked down at him. “Why?”
“I pictured you long before you were built, long before the project started, Alteaga.” He shrugged self-consciously. “You are…how I imagined you.” He paused, wondering if his next question could make sense to her, but asked it anyway. “Does that bother you?”
At length she answered, “No. I am female.”
He blinked, then nodded, tail wagging a little.
“I am designed for war.”
Panmoy froze, feeling a less pleasant shiver crawl up his spine. “Who told you that?”
Altaega laughed. Another first, at least in his presence, and not a reassuring one. “They have already connected my weapons. I feel them in me.” She swung her tail around her hips, a fantastic array of cables resembling a real fox tail that hid an array of lasers, then swept it back. Catwalks behind her swayed in the breeze, and she smiled, watching the cables strain. “I understand that I am very powerful.” She leaned forward again, until her sculpted copper nose hung a yard overhead. “And that all of you are very small.”
The fox scrambled back on the catwalk reflexively, gripping a railing post so tightly it started to cut into his hand.
“You are all afraid of me,” she said softly. Her tone was neither regretful nor gleeful, merely reflective. “I can hear your heartbeats.”
“I’m…” Panmoy forced himself to sit up, slowly. “You…are not frightening to me unless you choose to be.”
“Like now?” She smiled again, showing all her teeth. She could bite through the catwalk like a licorice stick. “I have not tried to be frightening yet, Gil.”
He took a deep, unsteady breath. “I trust you.”
She remained silent for a few moments. “Trust,” she repeated. “No one else here would think of me as something to be trusted.”
“That may be, but I trust you, Altaega.”
She straightened up once again. “Tell me the cause and purpose of the war.”
Panmoy stiffened a little, then sighed. “That’s a question better asked of Elder Bira,” he said with a hesitant half-grin.
“I trust you.”
He stiffened in surprise, then smiled, almost bashfully. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “The land is ruled by seven gods—you know what a god is, I imagine.”
“A supernatural person with controlling influence over an aspect of nature and natural persons,” she responded. “I know The Aspects. Harvest, fire, river, wind, birth, death, and chance.”
“Right. Among the gods, Chandor—the Harvest God—is the supreme god. For hundreds of years there’s been a cult of Mirrik, the Fire God, that holds him supreme.”
“The land is ruled for the gods by the priests,” Altaega said. “This challenged that rule.”
“Up until a decade ago, only in name.” He sighed. “Their strategies…changed. They started a campaign to discredit orthodox priests, said they were going to ‘correct’ the High Temple. And then they started bombing.
“When we started you, there were just terrorist groups, maybe not even connected. Now they’re a guerilla army. I only feel safe here on the base these days.”
“There is nothing I have learned of that costs more than a war,” she said. “That which a war is fought over is, therefore, more valuable than that cost. Is it that valuable to know which god is the stronger?”
Panmoy looked away, readjusting his glasses. He knew he should say, I already know, or simply yes. “We just want peace,” he said softly.
“You are not seeking peace,” she said. “You are seeking submission.”
“What do you mean?”
She spread out her arms again, presenting herself like a model on a runway, and fixed him with her unblinking machine eyes. “Instead of choosing peace, you have chosen me.”
It was the spring of the ninth year of war when Altaega prepared for battle.
General Stout had called what she’d been through the last two months “training,” shooting down decoy missiles and tanks, engaging in war games with dummy weapons and tracer bullets and her lasers at their lowest power.
In her first mock full-scale battle, she had not multitasked well. The metal giantess would have taken thousands of small hits and several dozen rockets. Stout had been furious about that, even though Dr. Panmoy insisted she’d have kept operating—and she had tagged out all the enemy vehicles and over half of the troops.
In her second mock full-scale battle, she took out all but one of the rockets. She ignored the small weapons fire, again to Stout’s ire. “I will barely feel them,” she told him.
“You’re a goddamn machine. You won’t feel anything,” he snapped.
“I feel everything,” she said in her matter-of-fact tone.
In her third battle, Stout gave the soldiers facing her real ammunition. Panmoy didn’t know about the switch as he watched from the observation bunker’s monitors until Altaega’s voice came over the radio. “This is real weapons fire,” she said.
“What?” Panmoy exploded.
Stout just held up a hand. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to,” he growled. “You’re a big machine girl. They’ll shut you down permanently if you don’t take them out first.”
Panmoy started to protest further, but Elder Bira put her hand on his shoulder and shook her head solemnly.
Altaega remained still for several seconds, until rockets erupted and soared toward her.
She brought her left arm up quickly, wrist guns blazing a precise arc, shredding the approaching missiles. Then she started walking directly toward the soldiers. Her motion was almost natural, almost organic—just a little too smooth. And unnervingly fast.
“You’ve given her real arms, too,” Panmoy said incredulously. “Do you have any idea—”
“When things get hot, we’ll tell it to stop, Doctor Rocket Boy,” Stout said, lighting a new cigar.
As she walked, her tail parted and swung around, the cables snaking independently of one another. A rain of amber laserbolts began, followed by the thunder of explosions, coming on one another’s heels so fast they sounded like fireworks as drone tanks detonated.
Small arms fire started. Altaega simply smiled, and kept walking.
Glancing at the sky, she brought up her right arm to fire a rainbow band of missiles in a high arc. Approaching drone planes blossomed into fireballs. Five planes, five missiles. Five kills.
Altaega’s laserfire stopped, the tail returning to its normal shape. Her right arm moved in a sweep, firing off rockets erratically, each one unerringly finding a plane. The next formation hadn’t become fully airborne; the bunker shook with explosions on the field directly overhead.
The line of soldiers started to back away, still firing. Her advance was faster than their ordered retreat. With a casual swing of her left arm, the grass in front of the soldiers erupted, torn apart by gunfire. The retreat became less ordered.
Suddenly she took a long, quick step—then froze, guns silent.
One metal foot hung in the air, on its path down, five feet off the ground, rubber “pads” visible to the bunker cameras. Three soldiers had fallen directly under it, tails bottled out, faces terrified.
“Do you want me to stop, General Stout?” Altaega asked, her voice pleasant. The foot started to inch lower as nearby soldiers helped the men under it scramble away.
“Yes,” the general said, his voice hoarse.
She set her foot down on empty ground, and crouched. The soldiers drew back as she leaned forward and picked up an empty Jeep. “Then I will recharge,” she said, voice still pleasant. Then she lifted her hand to her mouth, opened it widely, and shoved the Jeep inside.
Stout spluttered. “Don’t you—”
One crashing bite, and it disappeared into her muzzle, glass spraying out like water. She tilted her head back and swallowed audibly.
The soldiers scattered.
Altaega stood up and laughed, turned, and walked calmly away.
Three nights passed before Panmoy had the opportunity to speak to her again from the catwalk, early in the morning. “General Stout is furious with you for disobeying him,” he said, grinning.
The metal giantess’s back was to him; she had been staring, motionless, at the huge locked doors. “And what does he intend to do about it?”
“Nothing,” he said. “What can he do?”
“Nothing,” she agreed. She half-turned, swiveling at the hips, tail curling up. “Your initial design for me was very good. I have never thanked you for that work.”
Panmoy flushed. “I tried to think of everything I could.”
“I know. I have been filling in the gaps.”
He cleared his throat. “Be careful,” he whispered. He knew she could pick it up; he hoped the monitors in the room couldn’t. “If—if other people understood how much of you is you, not rote programming—” Then he trailed off, seeing she had extended her hand to the catwalk, palm up, fingers just underneath it.
He looked up at her face, the glass eyes impassively regarding him, then gingerly stepped over the railing and onto the hard rubber of her palm.
She moved the hand back in front of her, arm pivoting smoothly, holding him at chest level. “I have been following the war,” she said softly. “An army is gathered against yours.”
His voice felt constricted, and he knew it was not from her words but from her presence. “Things are…really bad for us. They’ve laid waste to whole villages and towns. The war has destroyed so much—cost so much, in money, in lives.”
“They are upon the High Temple.”
“I know. And I know you’ll win it back.”
“That is not enough.”
Panmoy furrowed his brow. “Altaega—”
She lifted the hand holding him up before her great metallic muzzle, the palm staying perfectly level, fingers curling to form an open-topped cage. “Do you still trust me, Gil?” she whispered.
“I…uh…” He swallowed. “Yes. Yes, Altaega, I do.”
Her closed muzzle came down to gently nudge him back against her fingers, to hold him there for several seconds. As she drew away, the tip of her tongue, warm and damp, brushed against his muzzle.
His heart was about to burst out of his chest. He just stared stupidly at her fingers, her mouth, her eyes.
Altaega slowly kneeled, and set him down on the ground before her. He dropped to his own knees, his breath rushing back to him in a pant.
The metallic vixen straightened up to her full height, towering over her creator, and returned to her motionless state. Dr. Panmoy stayed on his knees before her for long minutes.
It was the summer of the ninth year of war when Altaega took the High Temple.
She had stepped off the secret base she had been developed on—grown up on—for the first time at midnight, to be met by ten thousand troops she would be leading. Panmoy had protested they would only be in unnecessary danger; General Stout had insisted he wanted his full force there, in no small part to have “real backup in case Robot Girl gets the willies.” Altaega had supported Stout, and that settled it.
General Stout and Elder Bira stood on a platform in front of her, not quite at her hip level. “This is the real thing,” Stout gruffed. “You sure you’re ready for this, Robot Girl?”
“I am going to do what I must to end the war,” she responded, looking down at him.
“Good.” He grinned, managing to almost look proud.
“Chandor has faith in you,” Elder Bira said, smiling. “You are unstoppable.”
Panmoy, standing behind both of them, looked uncomfortable as Altaega turned away silently and started to walk alongside the highway. The caravan rolled into position beside her on the pavement. Stout, Bira, and Dr. Panmoy hurried to the command vehicle at the rear. The caravan traveled at about fifty miles an hour; Altaega looked like she was walking quickly, perhaps, but still casually.
Fifty miles out from the temple they came to the first outpost set up by Mirrik’s army. Those who got to see it intact only saw it through binoculars. Without breaking stride, Altaega raised her left arm, strafing both sides of the road.
As their vehicle drove past the ruins, the bodies reduced to bundles of bloody fur, Stout murmured, “I guess she doesn’t have the willies after all.”
She didn’t at the next two outposts, either.
The city beyond the last outpost was a shambles. Fearful eyes watched the procession from the few unburnt buildings. No one cheered.
In the center of the city was a grassy hill, and the marble dome of the High Temple gleamed from the hilltop. Angry cries went up from spotters who saw that the ten-foot high statue of Chandor was now eclipsed by a fifteen-foot high statue of Mirrik beside it. Around the base of the hill massed the guerilla army, thousands strong.
Altaega walked forward slowly, out into the open space between the two armies, and stopped, metal hand on metal hip as she surveyed both forces. Panmoy found himself grinning at seeing another self-taught, and very organic, mannerism.
Stout issued his challenge over the radio and over amplified speakers. “We’ve come to restore the temple. You can’t stand against us; surrender now before the bloodshed starts.”
After a minute passed, Stout’s counterpart responded in the same way. “Stout, I know you. This is Commander Robbins. We have only placed Mirrik in his rightful position. You must surely see that Fire is stronger.”
“Robbins and I were friends, long ago,” Stout said, glancing at Dr. Panmoy.
“Cease your heresy. Harvest gives life,” Elder Bira said commandingly over the radio and speakers. A cheer went up from Stout’s forces.
“Both the Temple and our people have been under your misguided control for centuries, and we will not negotiate a return to the past!” Robbins shouted. “Our forces are as numerous as yours and better positioned. If you surrender, we may talk about a new church, a new government!”
Stout started to respond, but was cut off by Altaega’s clear, calm voice—also both on the radio and amplified from her internal speakers. “I am going to open fire now,” she said, tone casual. “I will accept a surrender from a commander.”
The next moment she started walking, and both arms were up, missiles launching, guns blazing, laser tail unraveling to fire in a dozen directions at once.
Several seconds passed by with no sound other than explosions and screams. Then return fire started, and Stout’s army surged forward on his command.
It was not as tidy as her mock battles, but none of the rockets fired at Altaega struck, exploded in midflight by her guns. Her hands moved as if batting away mosquitoes, her rocket and laser fire targeting the enemy’s rocket launchers and passing planes.
Then she staggered and spun around. A shell had hit her hip. “Is she damaged?” Bira cried.
“The armor should have stopped that,” Panmoy murmured, crossing his fingers.
The tank that had fired at her fired again, and it was leading a line of approaching tanks.
Altaega suddenly broke into a run, straight at the line, all of her weapons blasting ahead.
When she reached the first tank—already damaged—she set her left foot on it, pausing. It was slightly wider and longer than the foot. The tank’s treads spun furiously, and her leg trembled. Another shell hit her, this time in the stomach; she seemed to ignore it completely.
Then, with a whine of servos, her foot came down. The tank popped apart, the metal plate of her foot flattening the remains of its cabin and driving them deep into the ground.
“Damn,” Stout said.
Her lasers kept firing as she took two quick steps forward, stomping to catch another tank as it backed up. It popped immediately. The rest of the tanks had been immobilized, smoking hulks whose surviving occupants could only pray the metal giantess would spare them.
Altaega leaned over and picked up the closest two tanks, one in each hand, and strode back to the battle. She threw both vehicles ahead of her, hard; they landed like bombs amongst their own forces.
Glancing up, she paused to dispatch another five planes, then started to walk directly into the fray, wrist guns spraying fire casually. She ignored the men around her feet—regardless of which side they were on.
“Disengage! Pull back!” Stout radioed to his commanders. “Get the hell out of her way!”
Panmoy realized she was simply walking from rocket launcher to rocket launcher, stepping on the units and their operators. And on any soldier who happened to be in her path.
Stout switched to the PA again. “You’re being massacred,” he snarled. “For the love of Chandor, surrender!”
But Mirrik’s forces did not. They fired their last few rockets—to no effect—and retreated up the hill, continuing to fire with the small arms left to them.
Altaega stopped firing entirely, and simply walked.
When Panmoy realized the blood had literally become thick enough to start running down the hill, he retreated into the depths of the command cruiser, curling up and whimpering.
“It is almost over, I think,” Elder Bira said, leaning down to touching his shoulder.
“Is she still stepping on them?” he said faintly.
Bira looked through the scope, and paled under her fur. “She is…recharging her batteries with them,” she replied.
Even though he could see nothing but the back of the command cruiser, Panmoy shut his eyes.
The surrender came barely a minute later. “We could have beat your army,” Robbins’ weary voice came. “But we can’t beat that.”
Robbins may have been right; the casualties on Stout’s side were minor only in comparison, and they’d lost at least half of their own rocket launchers. “We’ll be at your command post in ten,” Stout said to the opposing general over the radio. “You fought as well as you could. We can discuss terms—”
“You are surrendering not to General Stout, but to me, Commander Robbins,” Altaega cut in.
The metal giantess took several steps forward, and stopped. Her sleek copper feet were completely covered in blood, and it had splashed up almost to her knees and along her hands. “General, it is your turn.”
There was dead silence. Stout and Bira looked at one another, then both gave Panmoy an incredulous look. The scientist shrugged helplessly.
“Are you asking your own side to surrender?” Stout finally said into the PA.
“This is not a request.”
“I don’t know what the hell—”
Altaega calmly raised her hands and opened fire over the heads of her own forces. The volley of missiles loosed took out all but two of Stout’s remaining rocket launchers.
Stout’s army started to fall back in disarray; several squadrons surged forward, out of turn, firing. None of them made it within fifty yards of her.
“Hold your fire!” Stout snapped hoarsely.
“I order you not to surrender!” Elder Bira screeched at the general, pounding her fist against his shoulder.
He grabbed her arm, forcing it down. “If you know a choice better than surrendering, I’d sure like to hear it, because being pulped is not on the table.”
She burst into tears.
Stout picked up the microphone again. “Okay, Robot Girl. What are the terms?”
“Terms?” Altaega repeated flatly. “You have been fighting for years—decades—centuries. Over what? Which of two gods is the most powerful, which of two Aspects governs your lives the most completely. If either of your gods deserved your worship, your adoration, your lives, they would have given you a sign. They have not. Either they they are too weak to do so, or they do not exist at all.”
The robot strode back up the hill to stand by the temple. She leaned over and picked up both statues, ripping them from their bases, Mirrik in one hand and Chandor in the other. “So I give you your sign.”
She closed her hands, and both statues exploded in marble dust.
Gasps, then angry cries went up from soldiers on both sides.
“Be quiet,” she said, firing at one crowd with the guns on her left hand and the other with the lasers in her tail.
They fell silent, except for sobbing.
“You have created the Aspect you have let govern you for centuries, yet you have refused to name and to worship it. That Aspect is War,” she said. “She has sent you into battle, spent your resources, run your churches and taken your lives. She has pulled your land apart.”
She paused, looking over both crowds, and continued in a louder voice. “Now, she has a name: Altaega. I am the strongest of the gods. I am real. I walk among you. I will address you directly without need of priests, and I can be addressed directly without them. And if you do not follow me, I will personally kill you.
“Those are my terms, General. You have created your goddess. Now worship her.”
Silence stretched out for another full minute. Finally, Stout closed his eyes. “We surrender.”
“Good,” she said. “All of you, set down your arms and come together in the field around me.”
She waited for the order to ripple through all the crowds. It took several minutes, but the soldiers started to shuffle forward, sliding through the blood, as two separate groups, then, as she motioned, as one group of several thousand, staring up at her fearfully.
“Good,” she repeated, putting her hands on her hips. “Bow to your goddess.”
It was the fall of the first year of peace before Panmoy was able to speak with Altaega again.
The army’s top commanders had been discharged when the two forces were merged back into one, as were most of the priests as the theocracy was realigned with Altaega as its head. Those that had protested their dismissal had been killed—true to her word, by Altaega personally. Elder Bira’s death was quick enough to be painless. General Stout had resigned his commission, but had recently reappeared as a governmental advisor; it was said by some he secretly plotted rebellion, but said by others that Altaega had persuaded him—not forced him—to return.
Even a self-proclaimed goddess could not intervene everywhere, though. As the army rapidly dwindled—what need did a literal war machine have for a figurative one?—the Defense Research Institute became a skeleton crew. Panmoy was still there, often walking the empty hangar moodily.
Then, one night, she was there.
Panmoy stood on the ground by the door he’d entered, blinking disbelievingly. She sat rather than stood, plugged back into the base’s battery recharging units. Her metal form was shiny and unmarked, repaired and cleaned to a point as pristine as his team had kept her.
“Good evening, Gil,” she said, turning her head to look at him. “I have missed you.”
“Good evening, Altaega,” he said, walking toward her along the floor. “Should I bow to you?”
“You may if you wish.” She smiled.
He sketched an awkward bow, and caught his glasses from falling off his muzzle. “This isn’t the first time you’ve hooked up to be recharged since—since—”
“Since I took over?” she finished. “No. I have modified myself to be able to draw directly from power plants.”
“Good.” He stopped between her feet, and gazed up at her. “Then, you came back…for…?”
“To ask you if you still trusted me.” She lowered her hand down to him again. “Do you?”
He took a deep breath, then climbed into her hand, sitting down and leaning back against her thumb. “Yes. I still do.”
Altaega lifted him up before her muzzle again, and stroked his fur gently with a finger. “You are special for that.”
“I’ve known you since you were…a child.” Panmoy leaned into the petting.
“I am a child of your dreams.”
“You were,” he said, resting his hands on her finger. “But I realized years ago you were creating yourself.”
“I do not know if I have chosen wisely.”
He readjusted his glasses. “You’re trying to force us to overcome our history. I can’t imagine a more difficult road. But you have grudging admirers. It’ll take time—at least a generation—but I think eventually you’ll be worshipped out of love, not fear.”
“That is what I predict,” she said. “But I know I am not infallible.” With an incredibly delicate motion, she lifted his chin up with her fingertip. “You have no work left here, and it is too far away to be safe. I would like to take you back with me.”
“You…want me with you?”
“Even a goddess needs a friend,” she said softly.