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It was vicious, it was meaningless, and it filled his whole world. He didn’t mind the pain of a bruise or a wound, or the ache of weary muscles. They had meaning; they were a simple matter of cause and effect. He punched a wall - it hurt. He slipped during combat practice – it hurt. He could understand, and so forgive such pain. But the pain he felt today was like a betrayal; without cause, without injury, without reason. It was like an invisible, intangible enemy stabbing a screwdriver into his skull, then scraping its tip along his optic nerve.
He had forgotten how bad the pain could be.
He lay sprawled on the day bed, as limp as a rag and as motionless as a corpse, as if lying utterly still would make the pain lose interest in him and crawl away. Of course it didn’t. His impotence frustrated him like nothing else could. If it had been a real enemy, he had the means at his disposal to destroy it in any number of ways. But as a phantom, it could do what it liked with impunity. The idea of this was almost more intolerable than the pain.
He didn’t open his eyes when he heard one of the doors open. But when he heard the soft shush of tyres on the parquetry floor, he recognised that, at last, his salvation was near.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ He started with a snarl, but it sent fresh spasms of pain through his head, and he ended in a whisper.
‘I was powered down, and it took longer than expected,’ The familiar voice by itself seemed to make the pain recede just a little. It was rich and comforting, like a child’s drink of honey and warm milk.
‘I wish there was some way to avoid it, but there isn’t. In any case, I’m here now. Just relax and I’ll do everything I can.’
He felt cool fingertips touch his temples, and they began to massage with a gentle swirling motion. Within a few moments, the pain began to blur, so gradually as to be almost imperceptible. It was still intense, but each sweep of the fingertips softened it just a little. Suddenly he could see an end to the pain, somewhere in the future, and the thought strengthened him.
‘It’s worse than ever,’ he said.
‘That’s behind you now,’ the honeyed voice reassured him.
He imagined the nanofibres snaking into his skull. They punctured through the delicate blood vessels, but the holes they left were too small for the bloodcells to escape, and they closed up as soon as the fibres were pulled out. The fibres were busy dilating blood vessels, relaxing muscles and stroking tangled nerves apart. He thought he could feel them, deep inside, but he was assured that such feelings were just his imagination.
‘This is no way to live, being reduced to a wet rag every time I get a headache.’
‘It’s not a headache; it’s a migraine.’
‘I don’t care what you call it. Can’t you fix it? You’ve got those nanofibres in my skull… can’t you just find what’s causing it and cut it out?’
‘It’s not that simple. A permanent cure for migraine requires several tests and equipment that I do not have.’
‘I can arrange for them to be found.’
‘They don’t exist yet. They will eventually. You must be patient.’
‘Screw patience. It’s is not one of my virtues.’
‘It’s one worth cultivating. Rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to make you better, Governor.’
Governor Franklen snorted, then winced at the spasm of pain this caused.
The dulcet voice continued. ‘You should also be grateful for the treatment you do have. Remember that no other migraine sufferer in this city escapes as easily as you do.’
‘You call this an easy escape?’
‘I’m sure it’s better than just lying here waiting for it to go away by itself.’
There was something deeply satisfying about the doctor’s warm, calm voice and his soothing, measured words. Franklen decided that he was feeling well enough to attend to some business. ‘Is your attendant still here?’ he asked.
‘Sir?’ a hesitant voice queried.
‘Go and get my secretary.’
‘Yes sir, right away.’ Franklen heard the man scamper away across the parquetry. A few moments later the more confident step of his secretary tip-tapped towards him.
He could almost see her even though his eyes were closed; tall and slender, and possibly attractive under a glacial demeanor, although he’d never seen that demeanor thaw. ‘Is there anything I should know about, Clare?’
‘I cleared your appointments when your housekeeper told me you were ill, sir. However Mr Lyle has been in the waiting room since first thing this morning.’
‘What does he want?’
‘You asked for him to come in when he’d completed his audit at the university.’
‘Oh yes, I remember. I think I can handle that. Bring him in. Doctor, the may be of interest to you.’
‘Ah,’ the doctor said, noncommittally.
Franklen felt strong enough to open his eyes at last. The servants had drawn the blinds on the windows, reducing them to tall panels of grey glow. The only thing moving in the darkness was the small figure of Lyle, trotting obediently across the intimidating expanse of floor between the door and the Governor’s couch.
‘Governor Franklen.’ The little man bowed with the appropriate deference. ‘I’m so pleased you’re feeling better.’
‘It’s nothing my doctor can’t handle. Now, I understand you’ve completed your audit of the university.’
‘Well sir; my brief was only to audit the Faculty of Science. One of my colleagues is auditing the Faculty of Arts.’
‘Nobody gives a damn about Arts, Lyle.’
‘Er, yes, sir. My written report on the audit should be complete by the end of the week.’
‘The written report is for your records, Lyle. It doesn’t interest me. Just give me the gist of it.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Lyle flicked open a manilla folder and scanned the contents. Out of the corner of his eye, Franklen saw his secretary slip in through a side door and take up her customary position on a chair just behind him.
‘I audited the Geology Department first,’ Lyle said. ‘They’ve been busy surveying the tungsten deposit discovered in Marsfield. They are confident that it can become our primary source of tungsten within two years. They are working closely with the Engineering Department, who are designing new mining equipment. I don’t believe their budgets will need to be expanded.’
‘The Medicine Department have been working on a number of projects, primarily antibiotic development. They hope to develop a non-penicillin-based antibiotic within the next twelve months They also have a strong archival research program, filling in the gaps in existing knowledge. For example, just last month it was discovered that stomach ulcers are actually the result of bacterial infections, not acidic or spicy foods as was previously thought. Left to our own devices, it could have taken us another twenty or thirty years to discover that for ourselves.’
‘Anything that my doctor might find interesting?’ Franklen asked.
Lyle looked uncertain.
‘I would be interested to read the full report in due course,’ the doctor commented.
‘I’ll make sure a copy is forwarded to you as soon as it’s finished.’
‘Thank you, Mr Lyle.’
Lyle returned his gaze to the Governor. ‘The Medicine Department have also put in a request for one of their doctors to attend a conference outside our borders, sir.’
‘What sort of conference.’
‘Public health and disease control. Dr Lassinger is the Department’s chief epidemiologist and apparently her work is very well respected.’
‘Where is this conference?’
‘I believe it’s in Phillipsia.’
‘In that case, permission denied.’
Lyle pursed his lips, briefly, in a way that suggested he wanted to reply but knew better than to question the Governor’s command. The doctor, however, remarked, ‘A well-organised medical conference is invaluable for exchanging research findings, sir.’
‘I don’t care. If you knew what the King of Phillipsia was like, you’d deny permission too. It wouldn’t surprise me if this whole thing was just a ruse so that son of a bitch could kidnap foreign specialists.’
The doctor made no reply. Over his shoulder Franklen heard the scritching of his secretary’s pen noting the fate of Dr Lassinger’s request.
‘Go on, Lyle.’
‘The Computing Department is a little over budget, but they have been using the new magnetic tapes for data storage, and this is allowing significant advances in computing technology and power.’
‘But they can’t repair my doctor, can they?’ the Governor said. It was not a question; it was a statement, one resonant with impatience.
‘Ah, no, sir. They know almost nothing about humanalogue training… and there are very few opportunities for experimentation. But there is some other news that may be more encouraging.’ He rifled ahead through his file. ‘From the robotics team in Higher Engineering.’
‘Yes?’ Franklen prompted.
‘They’ve made some progress on a remote controlled drive system built into their main machine. It’s slow and extremely noisy, but it does seem to work. With modifications, and soundproofing, it could give the doctor some freedom of mobility.’
‘The doctor already has freedom of mobility,’ the Governor snapped. ‘He has a servant to wheel him wherever he needs to go. Servants are more adaptable than machines, and easier to replace if they break. What I really want is the technology to fix him. Can any of these scientists and engineers do that?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘The infrastructure needed for humanalogue repair is vast and convoluted,’ the doctor said. ‘The foundational work your researchers do now is very important.’
‘The foundational research was done centuries ago! All they have to do is find it and use it. How hard can that be?’
‘I’m sure they’re trying their best, sir,’ the doctor replied.
‘Really? Mr Lyle, do you think they’re trying their best?’
Lyle clearly did not want to be drawn in, but he had to answer. ‘The robotics team seem diligent. Dr Ostin leads that project, and his designs are a significant advance over existing technology.’
‘Tell him to get more significant.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘And don’t I have a laser project down there too?’
‘Yes, sir. It’s that department’s glamour project. They claim to be preparing a test fire some time in the next few weeks.’
‘The laser project is a high-profile one, and some of the scientists have developed, well, let’s say an over-extended sense of self-importance. They were rather dismissive of the audit process.’
‘Oh really? Did they ruffle your orderly little accountant feathers, Lyle?’
There was no easy way for Lyle to respond. He smiled bleakly at the Governor’s jibe.
‘I don’t allow any of my workers to forget who they work for. You know who you work for, don’t you Lyle.’
‘I work for you, sir.’
‘I think my scientists need to be reminded of that. Get rid of one of them.’
‘Of course, sir, I’ll arrange that for you. Would you like to offer a reason for dismissal?’
‘I didn’t say dismiss him. I said get rid of him.’
There was an awkward silence, and Lyle blanched visibly. The only sound was the secretary’s pen noting down the Governor’s order.
Lyle cleared his throat. ‘Ah, which one, sir?’
‘Surprise me. Or rather surprise them.’ The Governor smirked at his own joke. ‘Don’t fidget like that, Lyle. I have people to do this sort of thing. I imagine it will shake out those little ego problems you mentioned.’
‘With respect sir, a loss of staff could hinder the project.’
‘The others will fill the gap. They always do.’
Lyle’s fingers were trembling slightly on the edge of his manila folder. He made his next statement with all the exquisite care of a man walking out onto a high, tapering tree branch. ‘May I make a suggestion, sir?’
‘I think there may be a way of achieving the same result with a more, ah, efficient use of resources.’
‘Yes?’ The Governor eyed him like a lazy crocodile.
‘With your permission, I think if I took Mr Smith out to the university, it would serve as a reminder to the laser team that you do not tolerate defiance.’
Franklen raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s an unusual idea. And what exactly would you expect Mr Smith to do out there?’
Lyle smiled in a small, tight way. ‘That’s the efficient part, sir. I don’t think he’d actually have to do anything.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Well, sir, his mere presence and reputation should be enough. Their imaginations will do the rest.’
‘It doesn’t seem very direct.’
‘Sometimes the direct approach is not the most effective, sir.’
‘There’s always the chance that it might not improve their attitudes.’
‘If their attitudes didn’t improve, sir, the other ‘option’ would still be open’.
The Governor smiled suddenly. ‘And the effect would actually be magnified by having Mr Smith there beforehand. I take your point, Lyle. You may return to the university with Mr Smith and see if he can’t persuade them to swallow their pride.’
‘And if they can’t be persuaded to swallow their pride, later on Mr Smith can persuade one of them to swallow something else.’
Franklen leaned forward. ‘The last time he made a man swallow something else, it was his child’s eyes.’
Lyle shivered; he had to fight to prevent it from becoming a spasm. ‘I’m… I’m sure his presence alone will be sufficient, sir.’
‘Off you go, then. Oh, and take General Sierra with you. Mr Smith is very valuable to me. I don’t want him to get lost.’
‘Yes, sir. Will that be all, sir?’
‘If I want to hear the rest of your report, I’ll send for you. Make sure a full copy of the medical section is forwarded to the doctor.’
‘Of course. Thank you for your time, Governor.’ Lyle performed a small bow, and waited until the Governor’s attention had drifted elsewhere before straightening and quickly making his exit.
‘I should have closed my fist around that laser project months ago,’ Franklen commented. ‘Lasers were foundational to so much Golden Century technology… there’s a lot I want to do with them. Come to think of it, didn’t they have some medical applications?’
‘Lasers were used for eye surgery, the removal of birthmarks and tattoos, microdissectors, microsurgery prior to the development of nanofibres…’ the doctor recited smoothly.
‘Yes, yes, and missile guidance, and geological surveys, and precision tooling, and security systems… the list is endless. The fact remains that I want them and I don’t have them. What’s the point of being Governor if I can’t have what I want?’
‘I’m sure the technology will be rediscovered soon.’
‘You know what I really want, doctor? You know the first thing I thought of when they asked to work on reinventing lasers?’
‘I thought of all the music I could enjoy,’ Franklen said. ‘I thought of being able to hear the greatest orchestras in the world playing the music of Mozart and Beethoven. I thought of being the first person to hear singers who have been dead for centuries, playing electronic instruments that produce sounds we can’t even imagine yet. The whole world of music would be laid out before me like a banquet table. And they have the discs, they have the old players, they even have circuit diagrams, and they can’t even give me the first bar of Fur Elise!’
‘How do you feel now, Governor?’
‘What?’ Franklen frowned. He hadn’t even noticed that the pain was gone. ‘Not bad. Still a little off-colour, but not bad.’
The doctor moved his hands. Franklen felt his fingers touch the nape of his neck, and also his forehead, and the doctor gently massaged his skin. Then suddenly he felt a burst of joy, flaring behind his eyes like a flare, and a sense of well-being washed over him.
‘Oh yeah,’ Franklen murmered. ‘That’s the stuff.’
The doctor withdrew his fingers. ‘Try to avoid stress and hard physical activity for a few hours.’
‘What would I do without you, doctor?’
‘It is my pleasure to serve you, sir.’
Franklen swung his legs off the couch and got to his feet. He felt a moment of dizziness after lying down for so long, but it passed in a second.
‘You,’ he gestured at the doctor’s attendant. ‘Open those blinds.’
The servant scurried to the windows and drew the coverings. Warm morning light poured in, and the colours both inside the room and outside the windows appeared to spring into life.
‘Ah, much better. With your permission, doctor, I think I’ll get back to work.’
‘Just take it easy for a few hours, sir.’
The doctor seemed smaller now that Franklen could see him. He looked to be around 40 years old, professionally, blandly handsome, with pleasant features and tiny lines around his eyes that would make his smile seem to cover his whole face. However the doctor did not smile much any more. Every year his processing power dropped another percentage point or so, as his systems were ravaged by bugs and glitches and corrupted files. In order to maintain his medical abilities he had simplified or even deleted most of his expression algorithms.
And when this was not enough, he had deactivated his motor abilities from the waist down, and converted all his data storage and processing power needed for movement into medical reserves.
Since then, he had to be wheeled around, strapped to a trolley. He took at least three hours to power down and repair his corrupted files, while Franklen’s other humanalogue only took fifteen minutes. He assured his master that his diagnostic and surgical abilities remained at one hundred percent efficiency, but even so Franklen knew that one day that figure would slip, and the doctor’s abilities would be compromised.
Once that happened, he would no longer be able to allow the doctor’s nanofibres to snake around inside his skull, for fear of some slight, microscopic mistake might reduce him to a drooling vegetable in the space of a heart beat.
The thought was abhorrent, and he shook it off. The Red Hill Dominion, he reflected, did not run itself; he had work to do. As he strode out towards his office, he heard the doctor’s attendant return to his charge, and the shushing sound of the tyres on the parquetry as he wheeled him back to his storage room.
The Tip Jar