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Edited by Scarlet Tie Editing





HAI-21

by

Zathyn Priest



PROLOGUE



Situated outside of Paris, Sortis took up an area space of approximately one hundred and twenty acres and hid behind a high wall enclave. Jon Rylor, CEO and mastermind behind Rylor Robotics – RR – named the futuristic city Sortis after a Latin word meaning ‘capitol’ and ‘fate’. In 2076, it became an independent country backed by multi-billion-dollar annual turnovers. With its own internal government system, headed by President Jon Rylor and Vice President Mitchell Rylor, Sortis locked its employee citizens inside while keeping all others outside. By 2080, it was a strict, stifling, totalitarian society with no way out for staff unless driven to exit by madness.



Chapter One

Year 2086



PCS: Premature Contract Severance. That was how Rylor Robotics signed out staff driven to insanity. For nine years and seven months, Luke Price worked and lived within Sortis, the enclosed RR City Complex. It seemed a perfect career option after dropping out of university. Despite a passion for animatronics, Luke couldn't make the grades needed to pursue it as a livelihood. Unemployment was widespread, education costs were high, and Luke's options were limited. He chose the military, opting for the police force, setting his sights on eventually landing a position with RR.

At the age of twenty, Luke joined RR's internal security police. A nervous stutter plagued him since childhood and crushed his confidence. No amount of speech therapy or medication helped. This didn't seem to be an issue for Jon Rylor, who employed Luke based on an impeccable military record, and the fact his job description saw him interacting with androids more than humans. He earned a coveted promotion to Police Commander at the age of twenty-seven. By the age of thirty, he struggled to keep one of those Premature Contract Severance forms ending his career.

Luke pressed his palm to a security screen and signed into his shift. Every citizen of Sortis had a microchip implanted inside their left hand. It gave the government immediate access to information on each person via the mainframe computer system. Name, age, medical records, citizen number, merits, demerits, everything. The government recorded and filed all data. To enforce the RR rank system, uniforms were colour coded. Those who wore pale yellow were not worth a glance. Cleaners or servants to government officials, considered as insignificant as worker droids. Those in orange weren’t given much more credit and worked menial public service jobs. Brown uniforms were technicians, blue and white were medical staff. Silver grey was worn by military police. Black uniforms belonged to government officials, and a splash of red meant they were worthy of reverence. As Commander, Luke also wore black, with silver to acknowledge a military role. Colour wasn’t the only symbolism used in Sortis military uniforms. Vintage style peaked caps, and an armband emblazoned with the RR logo, made undeniable references to the style of World War Two Nazi’s. Luke hated the connection but, like all staff, obeyed Sortis rules. No one defied President Rylor.

He removed the cap and ran his hand over his head. A buzz cut scratched across his palm. Luke spent most of his life in uniform, in oppressive conditions. Older worker androids didn't function reliably if the heat fell below twenty-eight degrees Celsius. Nice if you were outside in the sun. Not so nice when most staff rarely felt a cool breeze. Rylor Robotics embraced futuristic innovation with science fiction style offices, stark corridors, and high-tech gadgetry. If President Rylor wanted to replace older androids with newer models that weren’t temperature sensitive, he could have. The heat did not affect members of government or other members of the elite, who had cool air-conditioned offices.

Luke kept his gaze lowered to a clean white floor as he made his way to an elevator, avoiding eye contact with those who passed by. He didn't keep human friends at RR, and meeting a partner was out of the question. There were other gay men living within Sortis, but not many. Luke didn't stand a chance at getting a look in when others could hold dinner conversation. It wasn't often a new resident of Sortis was gay and, when they were, it took two seconds before they became the centre of attention. The latest poster boy causing a stir was none other than Dr Elliot Rylor, Vice President Mitchell Rylor's son and President Jon Rylor's nephew. For the past three months, since Elliot’s arrival, he'd barely been outside of medical facilities and technical laboratories. No one knew much about him, other than at twenty-three the guy was a skilled neurologist, psychiatrist, and bionics technician.

Luke stepped into the elevator and tried to divert his thoughts away from Elliot. Fantasising about the Vice President’s son wasn’t a good idea. But damn, he was beautiful. Tall, like his father, with the same blue eyes. Luke had watched Elliot via screens inside the security office, and he appeared as arrogant as the Rylor name suggested. He probably had a long list of suitors vying for his attention and would not look twice at anyone, male or female, who didn’t have an astronomically high IQ. Yet, there was something about the young doctor that Luke found magnetic. From his exotic beauty, to the cat-like grace he moved with, Elliot was divine.

Luke’s thoughts drifted away from Dr Rylor and onto Freddie. He swallowed hard to loosen a tight knot in his throat. Six months he’d worked side by side with Lieutenant Commander Freddie. Despite vowing he’d never fall for the simulated friendship of an android, Luke did exactly that. Freddie chipped away at his resolve. The seven feet tall HAI-19-M offered more companionship than any fellow staff member. Now he was gone. Recalled by President Jon Rylor, taken away by RR technicians, and de-animated. No reason given for Freddie’s destruction. Luke felt like he’d lost his best friend. He had lost his best friend. During long nightshifts it had been Freddie who shared his love for vintage television shows and old movies. They quickly influenced everything Freddie did and said, from his sense of humour to his somewhat retro speech patterns. At other times they forewent the television and opted for discussion. Luke typed his conversation in a relay message and Freddie replied verbally. It made for an obvious difference between Freddie and every other HAI-19-M. His artificial intelligence far exceeded that of any android Luke had worked with. Freddie didn’t just mimic human emotion, he experienced it. From opting for a name to personalise himself, and then quickly developing a strong personality, Freddie had a uniqueness that led to his demise. Luke did not need proof to jump to this conclusion. His friend was de-animated because he was different.

One of those PCS forms called Luke’s name louder today than ever before. He quickly stepped out of the elevator before anyone saw him this close to tears. If staff suspected another of cracking under pressure they were obligated, under Sortis law, to report it. Humans overlooked this law if possible. Android staff were not lenient. If employees saw out their contracts, they left RR with income entitlements. If they left under a PCS, all entitlements were void. Perhaps the final few months of Luke’s contract would be his downfall. Grief, depressive mood swings, and episodes of high anxiety grew harder to control. There had been an increase in Luke's shifts and a decrease in permitted social time. Rostered to work fifteen hours a day, from six A.M. to nine P.M., Monday through to Saturday, and be on call for duty on Sunday. He’d been threatened, intimidated, and pushed to breaking point.

Luke walked another stark corridor, which led to a large, well-appointed security office. Once inside, he sat down at the main desk and stared outside the window. To anyone who didn't know better, the beautiful snowy landscape appeared a gift of nature. In truth, like almost everything else about Sortis, the view outside wasn't real. It changed daily. Sometimes a forest, sometimes a beach, sometimes a garden, or a mountain range. Today the frozen landscape held a strong resemblance to the cold emptiness Luke felt inside himself.

He couldn't remember exactly when everything changed from awe over RR's accomplishments to repugnance. In his first year of employ, RR launched their debut android available for commercial sale. HAI-1. Human Artificial Intelligence - Model One. A proud geek, Luke considered HAI-1 a product of sheer genius. It wasn't a glorified domestic servant. Its role in society had a deeper meaning than to clean homes. HAI-1 cost a small fortune. Several million dollars, and this put it out of the reach of ordinary people with average incomes. HAI-1's role reflected the corporation that created it. RR had then concentrated on manufacturing superior robotics and cyber-technical products for medical purposes. HAI-1 worked alongside surgeons, never tiring, never making a mistake, never taking a day off, and always reliable. HAI-1, like all working androids, wasn't aesthetically pleasing. It didn't have to be. However, it set a new challenge for RR. President Rylor wanted to create androids that interacted with humans convincingly enough to expand their usefulness.

Over the following years, HAI models quickly came and went. Some made it to mass production, some didn't. In 2084, RR created HAI-19. Their most successful model. An android with capabilities to mimic human emotion, empathy, and an advanced positronic brain to imitate personality. HAI-19 worked in psychiatric facilities, jails, and in non-combat military positions. It could be a friend, a counsellor, a negotiator and, like all androids, it did it without tiring. President Rylor was exalted as the god of robotics. A man whose secretive city of Sortis had no limits behind those high walls. Whatever went on in there, no matter the rumours of Rylor being a tyrant leader, he ruled android technology.

HAI-19 ended what little was left of RR's ethics. To expand its usefulness further, a military version rolled off the production line. Whereas the HAI-19-Standard had a stature of five feet four, the HAI-19-Military towered over humans at an imposing seven feet. A war machine, with all capabilities of a standard model, but with the ability to destroy an enemy if given an order to do so. It could, and would, literally tear a man’s limbs from their sockets. If its ability to rip a human to shreds wasn’t chilling enough, the HAI-19-M could shoot a firearm with pin-point accuracy to within a millimetre. So far, this war android had not gone into mass production. President Rylor kept it for Sortis and RR, relying on its imposing, frightening reputation to keep outsiders on the other side of enclave walls.

HAI-20 never made it into production. After billions spent on its research and design, it was deemed unsuccessful and work on HAI-21 began. Luke wondered if arrogance, money, and power finally went to President Rylor's head regarding what he believed himself capable of. Technology did not exist to construct ultrarealistic humanoids. Most of society, throughout the world, shared a united opinion on lifelike androids. Global laws were passed to ban cyborg creation, but these laws did not apply to androids. Society did not want human beings replaced by machines, and certainly did not want cyborgs. This global consensus wasn’t enough for President Rylor. He wanted to create the perfect human replica, and no one else’s opinions mattered.

Luke took a small, slim silver cylinder from his pocket, pressed a button at the top, and activated a blue hologram screen. He pressed an icon to message his mother. Lights on the screen flashed yellow and then changed to solid red. Denied. Another message scrolled across the screen. Communication access restricted. No further information at this time. It happened whenever Luke tried to contact anyone outside of Sortis.



***



The security office, where Luke spent most of his life, served as a constant reminder of Freddie’s de-animation. Now, standing in Freddie’s place, was RR’s state-of-the-art android prototype. As large as a Rottweiler, with its metal alloy fangs on constant show, the K9-4 barely moved. Android police and military dogs were nothing new. Armies throughout the world used them in replacement of real dogs. This latest model, stationed inside Luke’s office, looked more terrifying than its predecessor. Its appearance wasn’t what worried Luke the most. His concern came from being in the same room with an untested prototype killing machine. One slight malfunction and the K9-4 could shred flesh from bones. The fact it didn’t move much made it creepier. It just turned its head when Luke moved, teeth glinting as light bounced off them.

Every time Luke blinked, his eyes hurt worse than before. He was certain there must have been sandpaper lodged underneath his eyelids. He picked up an empty coffee mug and stood. The K9-4 reacted immediately, following every move Luke made with eyes backlit in red.

Commander Price. Message.

Luke moved his gaze from K9-4 and frowned at the robotic voice that spoke through his earpiece. He took a communicator off his belt and tapped the 'Relay' button.

President Rylor requests an immediate meeting with you in the Medical Bay. Level two, office one.

President Rylor rarely met with staff personally. Luke froze, unsure of how to reply.

Commander Price, confirm message or request repeat.

Luke confirmed the message.

A quick ride in an elevator to level two was far enough for his mind to fly into panic overdrive. Perhaps someone, or an android, or even K9-4, reported signs of his crumbling mental state. Luke stepped out of the elevator and headed toward office one. Like dictators of the past, President Rylor strategically placed large portraits of himself in hallways and offices. A massive banner of the man's face hung above an entrance to the main technology building. These images were a constant reminder he scrutinised everything.

A white worker android turned its head to watch Luke approach office one's door. "Place your left eye to the scanner."

Considering how many corporations would love to infiltrate RR, it stood to reason security measures were high. And, considering how many staff members would love to put a bullet in President Jon Rylor's head, it also stood to reason there was an Iris Recognition Scanner outside every door. Nothing fooled an iris scanner.

“Place your left hand to the security screen,” the android said when the iris scanner flashed green.

Luke followed the order. The screen changed from blue to green.

"Identity confirmed, Commander Price. Disarm and place weaponry into the holding capsule."

A panel in the wall opened and a drawer slid out. Luke unclipped a holster attached to his belt, removed the gun, and placed it into the drawer. It closed immediately.

"If you are found to be in possession of concealed weaponry, your employ with Rylor Robotics will be terminated immediately," the android continued with its pre-programmed speech. "When in President Rylor's presence, you will remain silent and stand at attention. You will speak when spoken to, and address President Rylor as Sir. You will show the same respect to guests in President Rylor's company. No exceptions. If you disobey these rules, your employ with Rylor Robotics will be terminated immediately."

Luke wiped perspiration off his brow with his forearm. He stepped through the door and into an office foyer. Another white android requested he follow it. They walked a short distance to another closed door. The android announced their arrival, the door opened, and Luke entered. He walked halfway into the room and stood at attention.

President Jon Rylor eyed Luke silently, pacing back and forth in front of him, arms folded over his chest. "When I require a response from you, I'll say the word respond. If you don't hear that word, you say nothing. You do nothing.” He pressed an intercom button on his desk. "The subject is here, Elliot."

The subject? What the hell was going on? Another door opened and in walked Elliot Rylor. A bad situation turned worse. Luke didn't look at him and lowered his gaze.

"He's mute," President Rylor said. "Can't string two words together. Nothing wrong with him, aside from psychological issues. It’s not a physical problem, it’s in his mind.”

Luke knew his face glossed with perspiration. His mouth was dry, his limbs trembled, and his heart raced.

“I’m aware of the difference between physical and psychological,” Dr Rylor replied in an abrupt French accent.

Luke stole a glance at Dr Rylor, who stood his ground in a glaring match with his uncle. The President’s lip twitched in annoyance. If Luke were to choose which one of them looked the most intimidating in that moment, he opted for the young doctor. Elliot folded his arms across his chest and waited. Everything about him exuded superiority. Yet, the way he challenged President Rylor, with a steely stare and unwavering conceit, was almost impressive. He stood at least six feet tall, lean and elegant, with the all the arrogance of his uncle.

President Rylor gave up the staring match first. "State your name, rank, and serial number, Commander. Respond."

Perspiration ran down Luke's temple, trickled over his cheek, and to his chin. He stood with his arms at his side, aware he had no option than to try and obey the order.

"Respond!"

The sweat dripped off Luke's chin. It ran down his arms to the back of his hands. The legs of his trousers were damp. Nothing forced a word from Luke's mouth. The 'L' of his name stuck and only a miracle would budge it.

"Respond!"

“You know he can’t respond!” Elliot snarled. “Send Commander Price to the clinic.”

Dr Rylor strode from the office without another word.



***



"Take a seat, Commander Price."

Luke sat down in a white chair, opposite a desk. He hadn't pulled himself together enough to face anyone, let alone Dr Rylor.

"I'm not going to place you under any pressure to speak." Dr Rylor picked up a computer tablet and leaned against his desk. "We’ll get started, shall we?

Luke nodded, refusing to shift his gaze from the floor. He could only draw one conclusion as to why he'd been summoned for a consultation. A PCS form could be signed, sealed, and delivered by the end of this meeting.

"I'm going to ask you a few questions. Nothing invasive. General questions I need answered before the procedure tomorrow. If you can answer with a nod or shake your head, please.”

Procedure? Luke's stomach lurched. He wanted to throw up.

Dr Rylor frowned. "Do you know why you're here?"

Luke shook his head.

"I was told you knew. I've invented a prototype device called a Speech Regulator. It may be a cure for your stutter."



Chapter Two



Being a lab rat for an untested device was something Luke wanted danger money for. Not that he would have got it. President Rylor tagged him to be the one to have the Speech Regulator fitted and there wasn't a damn thing he could do to refuse. As Luke sat on an operating table, he wondered if this could be the moment to change his life. Dr Elliot Rylor, despite his mysteriousness within Sortis, had a stellar reputation. On the other hand, he was twenty-three years old. It made Luke panic over how much experience he had in performing any procedure.

Luke exhaled a slow breath and closed his eyes. He'd barely slept and woke at five A.M. Now it was twenty after nine and Dr Rylor ran late. Luke's sleeplessness also revolved around the doctor himself. Tall, beautiful, raven-haired Elliot with blue eyes, brown skin, a husky voice, French accent, and sexy arrogance. Inside Elliot's office, which adhered to RR's strict colour scheme of white and pale blue, there had been a solitary potted plant. A splash of green in a pink pot. Luke narrowed his eyes in thought. Plants weren't a decorative feature in offices unless the occupant put them there. This meant Elliot chose the fern and chose the colour of the pot. Did that mean pink was his favourite colour?

Guessing another’s sexuality based on a plant pot was ridiculous. Luke didn't care. There wasn't any point fantasising if he didn't convince himself Elliot's favourite colour was pink and therefore that meant he was gay. In the real world, outside of Sortis, someone with Elliot's looks, intelligence, and superiority would have his pick of suitors. He'd also probably choose someone closer to his age, not a thirty-year-old mute military Police Commander. Even if he was single and gay, no one would dare hit on the Vice President's son. Not if they didn't want to face a firing squad.

"Bonjour, Commander Price."

The greeting snapped Luke out of one dream and flung him straight into another. He didn’t think Elliot could have looked more beautiful than the day before, and yet he did. The pretty ebony hair was in a messy bun, and a tight medic bodysuit hugged his lean body.

"I apologise for being late. I had to collect the SR from my father’s office."

Whatever an SR was.

"You look somewhat confused, Commander Price." Elliot approached a desk near the operating table. "SR is the abbreviation for Speech Regulator."

A female nurse walked into the theatre and Elliot sat down. Even though his bedside manner was gracious, albeit abrupt, the gorgeous doctor only had eyes for his computer.

"The SR is fitted inside your ear. Like an old-fashioned hearing aide," Elliot said without looking away from the monitor. "It's three millimetres by four millimetres, and one millimetre in thickness. You won't know it's there. A miniscule amount of a polymer-based glue will keep it in place.”

Luke watched Elliot roll the chair away from the desk, then dig his heel into the floor to propel toward the operating table. He halted in front of Luke's legs. Cologne wafted from Elliot's skin, aromatic and sensual. Luke's nostrils flared. He hadn't smelled cologne on a man in so long. Expensive aftershave was something he used to indulge in, and something he found alluring on another guy.

"You’re a little flushed, Luke."

I bet I am, Luke thought with a silent nod.

"Understandable. I can imagine the thoughts going through your mind."

I hope you can't.

Elliot picked up a small torch. "Look straight ahead for me.” He leaned in and shone the light into Luke’s eyes. “I can’t see your brain through your pupils. Always a good sign.”

Luke smiled. Dr Rylor didn’t.

“Now, I must reiterate this SR is a prototype device. In theory, it should work. Should work doesn't necessarily translate into will work.” Elliot patted the operating table. "Lay down on your side, please."

Elliot plainly didn't get emotionally involved with patients. Which, in a professional sense, was exactly how any skilled doctor would behave. For his age, he came across as years older. He'd probably been one of those genius kids who graduated university at the age of eleven and medical school by the age of fourteen. The type of guy who considered nanotechnology casual conversation.

"Prep his ear, Helen," Elliot said to the nurse.

“Which ear, Doctor?” she replied.

He narrowed his eyes at her. “The one that isn’t currently pressed against the mattress.”

She blushed and nodded.

Elliot stood, walked over to a sanitiser, and placed his hands beneath a blue light. "This will be all over before you know it, Luke. Implanting the device is the easy part.”

Easy part for Elliot, maybe. Having a microchip inserted into your ear was more than a slight cause for concern. This was the way of Sortis. You did what you were told, when you were told to do it. Elliot explained in layman's terms the day before, however it didn’t comfort Luke at this moment. He closed his eyes when he saw Elliot heading back to the operating table.

"Okay, Luke. Relax. It won’t hurt."

Luke tensed, pressed his lips together, and took a deep breath in.

Less than thirty seconds later, Elliot spoke again. "Done."

What? How could he be done? Luke opened his eyes in time to see Elliot snap off gloves and toss them into a receptacle.

"This is where the hard work begins.” Elliot sat back down in front of the computer. "Helen, pass him the computer tablet."

"Yes, Doctor."

Helen handed over a small tablet and Luke peered at a screensaver of Dr Elliot Rylor, out of uniform, sitting cross-legged in an armchair. The shirt he wore was unbuttoned at the neck, showing off enough of his smooth chest to make Luke's heart beat a little faster.

With a small nod, Elliot gestured to the door. "Thank you, Helen, you can leave now.” Once she'd gone, he peered back at Luke. "For your comfort, I've asked her to leave. To calibrate the SR, I need you to read out loud."

Luke wouldn't be able to read out loud. Verbalising anything was impossible. Not only that, he'd make a fool of himself in front of the guy he wanted to somehow impress. Luke hoped the implant would give him confidence over the following days and Elliot would suddenly find him irresistible. A stupid fantasy, yes, but one he wasn't prepared to let go of just yet. He sat staring at Elliot, hands gripping the tablet, too scared to move.

"I know this will be difficult. It doesn't matter if you can't speak the sentence, as long as you try."

It must have been catatonic fear because Luke couldn't move a muscle. He felt a trickle of sweat roll down the side of his face.

"Give it a try.” Elliot looked at the computer screen again. He tapped a few buttons on the keyboard. "Read the sentence on the tablet."

Read the sentence? Like it was that damn easy! Maybe Elliot was a Rylor through and through, and his bedside manner a fake attempt at being pleasant. It seemed all he cared about was the SR device and another technological notch in his belt. Luke couldn't read the sentence. That was the whole point of the SR.

"Try, please," Elliot repeated, gaze glued to the monitor.

If Luke didn't try, if he walked out, his employ with RR would be terminated. Perhaps this was President's Rylor's game the entire time. Perhaps he knew Luke would crack under the pressure, be too weak to see it through, and fail. A PCS Form ending his career after all. He glared at the sentence on the tablet. Seven words never seemed so long. His heart pounded, and his throat tightened. He attempted to speak the first word and immediately the cruel, uncontrollable stutter sank its claws in.

"Keep going."

Humiliated, Luke threw the tablet onto the bed. Nothing was worth this. He wouldn't lose any more pride than he already had. If he lost his employ, so be it.

"No!" Elliot propelled himself across the floor on the office chair again. "Don't quit now. You're doing really well.” He took hold of Luke's hands. "It doesn't matter if you stutter. All I need is to get the read out from the SR so I can calibrate it. I can't do that unless you're trying to speak."

He'd had enough of this bullshit. Luke shook his head and pulled his hands out of Elliot's grasp.

When Luke tried to stand, Elliot grabbed at him again. "Give me a chance. I wouldn't put you through this if I didn't truly believe it would work. It's just you and me here, and I'm not judging you. Don't get upset with the stutter. Instead, think of it as it maybe being the last time you'll fight with it. Think of it as saying goodbye to staying silent."

A dedicated genius put his effort into creating something that could turn Luke's world around. The least he could do was repay Elliot's kindness by trying to read one sentence. Or one word. Luke inhaled a deep breath and nodded.

"Thank you.” Elliot rolled his chair back to the desk. "I'll be as speedy as I can be calibrating this. No matter how much you stutter, please don't stop until I tell you to.”

Droids fly past gates on blade skates. A stupid sentence with letters most likely to trip up someone with a stuttering problem. Luke knew he'd never get further than the D in droids.

The sooner he did this, the sooner he could leave. He inhaled, exhaled, wiped sweat from his brow, and tried again. "D...d...d...d...d..."

"Very good. Keep going."

It was like having a seizure. Luke's body twitched as he tried to force the word out.

"A few more seconds. Very good.” Elliot's fingers moved fast on the keyboard. "Take a break, Luke. Well done!"

Luke felt like he'd run a marathon. Elliot walked over and handed him a glass of water. Luke's hands shook when he took it.

"Have a rest while I input more data into the SR. Then I'll have you read that sentence again."

Once was bad enough. Twice and Luke thought it would kill him. For the next few minutes, Elliot worked while Luke stared at the floor. He needed to psych himself up for round two battling with the sentence from hell.

"Alright, in a moment I'll ask you to try again for me. First, I'll explain what I've done.” This time Elliot left the chair and approached the operating table. "Your speech problems aren't physical, they're psychological. When you try to speak, your brain has an overload of reactions. High anxiety, loss of regulated breathing, and a complete loss of speech rhythm. When these things mix together, it's a disaster for you."

This Luke already knew. Elliot leaned against the operating table, his hip resting close to Luke's thigh, pausing for a moment to lick the corner of his top lip. If he'd looked in Luke's direction, it could have been mistaken as flirtatious. Unfortunately, Elliot gazed vacantly across the room and probably licked his lip because it felt dry.

"When you tried to say the sentence," Elliot continued, returning his gaze to Luke, "I collected the stress response in the form of data from your brain. I put that data into the SR. The SR's job is to reverse that data and reprogram your brain with a positive readout via electrical currents and impulses. It does this in one thousandth of a second, or thereabouts.”

Elliot made it sound simple, as though he couldn't quite understand why someone hadn't thought of this and invented it before. Luke predicted massive advances in medical science and technology would be due to Dr Elliot Rylor.

"Say the same sentence, please. I'm sure you've memorised it by now."

The damn sentence would be burned into Luke's brain for eternity. It was worse this time because Elliot stood in front of him, giving no personal space.

"When you're ready, please try."

In other words, get a move on. Luke clenched his fists, gritted his teeth, counted to five, exhaled, and tried again. "Droids fly pa...” He slammed his hand over his mouth, stunned.

A smile lit up Elliot's face. In over ten years, Luke hadn't heard his own voice speak one intact word, let alone more than one. A torrent of emotion hit him. Overwhelmed with shock and gratitude, Luke cried too hard to speak the thank you he could finally say. Instead, he reached out, wrapped his arms tight around Elliot's narrow waist, and buried his face into the doctor's chest. Years of mute silence, of never being able to speak to peers, family, superiors, and of crushed self-esteem were over. He didn't think anything could pull him away from holding tight to Elliot in gratitude.



***



It was bad enough he'd made a fool of himself by crying like a baby in Elliot's arms. It was worse when Helen walked back into the room and witnessed it. Elliot showed no hesitation in chastising her for re-entering prior to an order to do so. Luke felt sure she would have received another stern lecture once he left. Dr Rylor's assertiveness made him more than a little intimidating. He held Luke with compassion and didn't rush his patient to leave. However, once Luke did gather his composure, Dr Rylor said goodbye with a firm handshake. He wished Luke well, advising no follow up appointment unless the SR caused pain or malfunctioned.

The strangeness of being able to speak an effortless sentence hadn't yet sunk in. When Luke listened to his voice, it seemed as if someone spoke through him. In his content dreams, he spoke fluently. In his nightmares, he had no voice. Maybe he was now stuck between both those things. Loneliness hurt more when he'd been gifted a voice and had no one to share it with. Each time Luke attempted to contact his family, he received the same error message. Denied. Communication access has been restricted. No further information available at this time. Being home again with family still seemed a long way off. His parents would be worried they hadn't heard from him. They had no way to contact him, and Luke was positive access had also been denied for incoming personal messages.

By the time Luke left the security office that night it had gone past 9.30P.M. Anger pulsed through his veins. For almost a decade he’d served Rylor Robotics and Sortis. Given up ten years of his life at the expense of everything he left behind in England. Family relationships suffered, friends drifted away, and for what? For it to end with a mental breakdown and a PCS form that stripped his earnings? The long, relentless work hours left him exhausted. He barely had time to eat let alone sleep. With his face cast downward and eyes to the floor, Luke didn’t want cameras recording his rage. He didn’t want to give the President any more fuel to add to the fire. As he strode up to the elevator the doors slid open. Barely slowing his pace, Luke stepped in as someone stepped out. They collided hard in the doorway. Elliot stumbled backward, hitting the elevator wall. A computer tablet crashed to the floor as Elliot landed on his rear.

“Ow! Putain!”

Horrified he’d accidentally knocked the Vice President’s son over, Luke took hold of Elliot’s elbow. “God, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

“No!” Jerking his arm out of Luke’s grasp, Elliot reached for the tablet. “Fucking idiot,” he muttered in a strong French accent.

Luke figured the best course of action now was to apologise again and get the hell out of there before Elliot totally lost his temper.

“I’m sorry,” Luke repeated, without the conviction of prior.

“If you’ve damaged this computer tablet, I’m going to...” Elliot fixed his hair and looked up. “Oh, hello!”

The swift change of temper surprised Luke. “Let me help.” He offered his hand and Elliot took hold. “I truly am sorry.”

“No apology needed.” He stood. “Papa always tells me that I need to look where I’m going.”

Luke smiled. Seeing Elliot up close and personal made his palms clammy. He wanted to disengage their hands before Elliot noticed. They stood at almost the same height, and those clear blue eyes were captivating. The sexy French accent added to everything else Luke found beautiful about him. It seemed Elliot was not a tyrant like his uncle. Or, at least, not toward those he decided to be gracious to.

“The SR is working well,” Elliot said, releasing Luke’s hand.

“Yes.” A chance to converse with a guy he found attractive and Luke struggled to think of anything to say. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well…” This chat died a slow death and Luke decided to bow out before it became too awkward. “I’ll let you get back to what you were doing. Have a good night, Dr Rylor.”

“You, too. Goodbye, Commander Price.”

“Goodbye.”

The elevator doors closed the instant Elliot walked away.



Chapter Three



The Dark Quarter was what residents called the outskirts of Sortis. It held little resemblance to red-light districts or dingy parts of real cities. Steal a wallet in Sortis and you'd be arrested within seconds by police androids or hunted down via thousands of security cameras. Residents knew better than to risk it. Buildings and streets in the Dark Quarter were immaculate. The nickname referred to places of entertainment. Bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Where citizens bought alcohol, socialised, and scored one-night stands. Yet even here, in the so-called sleazy part of town, drinks were rationed and strict curfews applied.

Luke walked the pavement, heading toward Centrum Park. A place citizens visited when they needed to be with nature. Based on New York's Central Park, Centrum neither stood in the middle of Sortis nor was it a true park. Housed inside a massive warehouse, much of the scenery wasn't real. Small plots within the structure had paths to follow or lawn to sit on. Even in its deceit of reality, it calmed Luke's soul. On nights like this, when loneliness set in hard, he doubted his ability to see out the next few months. Despite Luke’s hatred for everything President Rylor stood for, his job as Commander meant others distrusted him. Staff saw Luke as a man who ran the Sortis military with the same ruthless mindset the government used. But there had been plenty of times Luke risked his own job by not reporting staff for indiscretions.

On arrival at Centrum Park, Luke scanned his palm and waited for two tall doors to open. Scanning before entering any building gave Sortis government complete knowledge as to who was where and when. The only privacy anyone had was inside their own room. Plenty of Sortis citizens took advantage of this with the opposite sex. Luke knew it would only be a matter of time before private rooms and dormitories had cameras fitted. The Rylor regime strengthened each day.

Centrum Park’s doors closed as soon as Luke walked through. A wide path led him forward. The park could be forgiven for its illusions and lies based on beauty. Sounds of night birds and crickets came from hidden speakers. Further on, mechanical koi swam in a crystal-clear pond, and robotic frogs hid among reeds. Overhead, a sky dome replicated daylight or moonlight, cloudy or clear. Machines recreated fog. Weather conditions changed according to temperature adjustments. It never rained or snowed in Centrum Park, though, for excess moisture interfered with technology.

In Luke’s opinion, Centrum Park was most beautiful at night. When old-fashioned style lampposts radiated golden light onto branches of realistic looking fake trees. The ground, phoney grass, and counterfeit fallen leaves took on hues of yellow, blue, purple, pink, and orange. Here one could forget they were trapped in Sortis, even though Centrum Park was a true example of President Rylor’s work. As Luke followed the path toward the koi pond, his mind wandered to the mysterious Elliot. Just like his father, Vice President Mitchell Rylor, he kept to himself in Sortis. Vice President Rylor never interacted with staff members. His fearsome reputation was based on his despot brother. Mitchell Rylor invented the Sortis mainframe computer system. It ran everything from a basic bathroom light, to the security system, and everything in between. Every android obeyed a core programme stored on the mainframe. Every twenty-four hours, at midnight, all androids rebooted off the computer system. The process took 0.0001 seconds. Not even enough time for a man to blink before androids downloaded fresh data. In Luke’s opinion, the real genius behind Sortis was not Jon Rylor at all, it was Mitchell Rylor. The President designed and created androids to bring in multi-billion-dollar revenue, but the Vice President kept the city running. Elliot took after his father, both in intellect and mystery.

“Does anyone in that family have an IQ below one thousand?” Luke muttered.

He walked past another section where the path sectioned into two, offering a choice to visit a small white ornate wrought iron gazebo. Oftentimes, Luke chose to take this option, appreciating the sweet Victorian era feel of the structure, and the way it nestled in amongst greenery. He glanced in its direction and did a double-take. Someone sat alone in the gazebo. Their gazes met, and Luke froze mid-step.

Elliot stood and ambled toward Luke. “Bonsoir, Commander Price.”

“Good evening, Dr Rylor,” Luke replied cautiously.

Mid-length hair hung loose around Elliot’s shoulders, shining like black silk beneath golden lights. Even while alone and dressed casually, he gave off a strong air of superiority. As if he found everything tedious, boring, and annoying.

“Would you mind escorting me on a walk through the park?” Elliot asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay. Have a nice night.”

Luke rushed to clarify. “I meant yes... yes, I’ll escort you.”

Elliot smiled. “I like assertiveness, but even I thought that was outrageous.”

When Luke managed a return smile, Elliot responded with a teasing wink. Luke tried to think of intelligent conversation. Nothing came to mind. All his brain seemed capable of was thoughts of Elliot naked. He’d always looked sexy in uniform, but out of uniform, dressed in black, Elliot looked more like a rock star than a doctor.

“This is my first time here,” Elliot broke the silence. “It’s lovely. What a shame it isn’t real.”

“I like the koi pond.”

Luke rolled his eyes at himself. A million replies he could have given and that was the best he came up with? Even when he attempted to find something to add to that dazzling response, nothing sprang to mind.

“There’s a koi pond?” Elliot asked.

“Mhm.”

“I like koi.”

“There’s frogs, too.”

“Is there?”

“Yes.” Keep going, Luke thought to himself, he’s captivated. You’ve got to do better than this. “They’re not real.”

“The koi and frogs aren’t real?”

“Any animals you might see here are animatronics.”

“It might be the same with humans here soon, if that HAI-21 android is a success.”

Curiosity over HAI-21 burned. Elliot should have known better than to bring the topic up. No matter how much he may have wanted to talk about the new android, as Commander it was Luke’s job to inform him to abide by confidentiality rules. On the other hand, he didn’t want to reprimand the Vice President’s son. He opted to let it slide and hope Elliot moved onto another topic.

“That’s why I’m at Centrum Park tonight, Luke. I was supposed to be home, enjoying dinner with Papa. Then Jon ordered him into his office to talk about HAI-21.”

“Dr Rylor…” Luke started cautiously. “I can’t discuss HAI-21 with you. It’s confidential information.”

“Call me Elliot. And who’s going to know?”

“I can’t discuss it with you.”

“You’d report me if I talked to you in confidence?” Elliot’s expression turned to a mix of surprise and confusion. “Why would you report me?” His voice grew louder. “You can’t forget you’re a Police Commander and be a person?”

This put Luke in a terribly compromising position. “HAI-21 is bound by confidentiality laws. You cannot discuss it.”

“Fuck you, Price!” Elliot spun on his heel and Luke grabbed his elbow. “Let go of me!”

Luke leaned in close to Elliot’s face and lowered his voice to a whisper. “There are cameras and microphones hidden everywhere. You cannot discuss HAI-21 here.”

“Invite me to your room,” Elliot whispered in reply. “Where it’s private.”

“I can’t.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.”

Releasing his hold on Elliot, Luke narrowed his eyes and stepped away. This could be a set up. After all, he didn’t know Elliot. A brief meeting did not automatically gain trust.

“Papa wasn’t happy when he knew I walked to Centrum Park, through the Dark Quarter, alone.” Elliot shrugged. “He’ll be unhappier if he knows I walked home through the Dark Quarter alone.”

“When you’re ready to leave, I’ll arrange an escort vehicle to get you there safely.”

“Unacceptable. I want you to escort me home personally, Commander.”

Luke wasn’t falling into this trap. “I’m off duty.”

“You’re never off duty if a Rylor requests your services.”

Charming one moment, abrasive and arrogant the next. It confused Luke’s attraction, making him wonder if this side to Elliot was sexy to him or bloody infuriating. Apparently, Elliot had no problem reminding others of his name to get his own way. A typical spoiled brat.

Elliot took a communications device from his pocket. He tapped out a message, hit send, and waited. Within moments a reply was received. Elliot sent another message and received a reply as quickly as the first one. Smirking, Elliot held the device up so Luke could read both messages on the hologram screen.



Elliot Rylor-Message sent: Commander Price needs your permission to escort me home from Centrum Park.

Mitchell Rylor-Message Received: Why are you at the Park with Luke Price?

Elliot Rylor-Message sent: We ran into each other here.

Mitchell Rylor-Message Received: Tell him permission granted to see you home safely. Do not leave the apartment again, Elliot!



“That’s that sorted,” Elliot announced with a lop-sided grin. “Escort me home, Commander.”



***



After an almost silent walk through the Dark Quarter to the presidential suites, Luke stood inside Vice President Rylor’s apartment. He’d envisioned the same stark, sci-fi inspired décor that furnished the government offices, and was taken aback to see this wasn’t the case. The apartment had a comfortable, homey appeal.

“Take a seat, Luke.” Elliot gestured to the sofa.

“I should go now.”

“Papa knows you’re here.”

“He knows I walked you home,” Luke corrected.

Please, Luke. I’m trying to be friends with you. It’s not easy for me to meet people here in Sortis. It’s lonely with no one to talk to.”

Loneliness. Something Luke did understand. He weighed up his options. It’s not that he wanted to refuse Elliot or miss a chance to spend time with a guy he’d fantasised about for three months. The fact remained that he was no ordinary guy. He was the Vice President’s son, the President’s nephew, and it made Elliot royalty.

“I’ll get you a drink.” Elliot headed over to a well-stocked bar. “What would you like? We have everything, I think.”

This was an argument Luke wouldn’t win. He edged further into the apartment. “Water is fine. Thank you.”

Elliot poured two glasses of water and carried them to a coffee table inside the lounge room. He then sat down on a large sofa and unzipped his boots. Luke hesitated before sitting down.

“Relax, Luke.” Elliot set his boots aside and reached for one of the glasses. He took a sip and replaced it down onto the table. “Papa won’t mind you’re here.”

Elliot turned sideways to face Luke, tucked one leg beneath him, rested his arm on the back of the sofa, and his head in his hand. He looked to settle in for a chat rather than prepare to seduce a man he’d brought home.

Luke took a seat beside him. “I can’t discuss confidential government information with you.” Assuming this may be where Elliot intended to go, it was only fair Luke gave another warning. “Anything like that is off limits. I could get in a lot of trouble.”

“I understand.” Elliot shrugged. “When Papa gets home tonight, he’ll be stressed and upset. Every time he has a meeting with Jon about HAI-21, it upsets him. Upsets him terribly.”

Luke widened his eyes, lifting his hands in question. “What did I just say?”

You’re not discussing it, I am.”

Obviously, no one told Elliot what he could and couldn’t do very often. Therefore, he paid little attention when it did happen. It seemed senseless now to worry about letting Elliot talk of HAI-21. By morning, it could very well be the least of Luke’s concerns.

“The only reason I’m here is to be with Papa,” Elliot continued. “Otherwise, I’d be gone. I hate this place. Did you know Papa left Sortis four years ago?”

“What do you mean left?” Stunned, Luke spoke before censoring.

“Resigned. Walked out. Do you know what brought him back less than two hours later?”

Luke shook his head.

“Plans for HAI-21. Not that it was HAI-21 then. But Jon knew what he wanted to create, and Papa came back to try and make sure it never happened.” Exhaling a long breath, Elliot ran his fingers through his hair. “HAI-21 will be the death of my father, Luke. He couldn’t stop it. Even though he’s still trying. He’ll keep fighting it.”

Stress and worry covered Elliot’s beautiful face. Luke couldn’t sit there and ignore how upset he was over his father. He truly did need a friend to talk to.

“Papa is nothing like Jon. Papa is a good man. The reason HAI-21 hasn’t been revealed to the public yet is because of Papa. It has nothing to do with HAI-21 being a failure, like the rumours around Sortis are saying.”

“HAI-19 was the most advanced android in the world. As it stands now, it still is.” The geek in Luke’s personality appreciated this conversation even if laws didn’t. “HAI-20 was scraped. Even so, a jump in technology from HAI-19 to what President Rylor says HAI-21 is…” he half laughed, half scoffed. “It’s impossible.”

“It’s not impossible, it’s terrifying.”

“RR have an android that looks human?”

“Luke, it’s much worse than that!” Pushing out of the sofa, Elliot wrung his hands together, pacing back and forth in front of the coffee table. “Let’s imagine for a moment that HAI-19 had a makeover and Jon made it look human. Let’s imagine he could walk past you in the corridor and you could not distinguish him from the next person. If he sat next to you, and you began a conversation with him, how long would it take you to guess he was android? Keeping in mind, Luke, he looks completely human.”

“Depending on the conversation, about thirty seconds to two minutes.” Luke had interacted with HAI-19 many times. “Hmm… maybe longer if the conversation wasn’t challenging. Definitely within five minutes.”

“Why? What would give him away?”

“Lack of emotion.”

“HAI-19 has artificial emotions. The most advanced ever.”

Artificial.” Which Luke, and anyone with half a brain, could spot a mile off. “It doesn’t matter how advanced it is, it’s still an android reacting on a program.”

“What about Freddie?”

The question made Luke tense. “Freddie was different.”

“Exactly!”

The grief was still raw. Tears sprang into Luke’s eyes. He lowered his face and hoped Elliot hadn’t noticed.

“Please know Papa and I had nothing to do with Freddie’s de-animation. In fact, Papa fought on Freddie’s side.” Elliot took hold of Luke’s hand. “Freddie wasn’t an ordinary HAI-19-M. His brain was HAI-20.”

Luke jerked his head up. “He was a prototype?”

“In a way, yes. Jon wanted to test the HAI-20 brain one more time, to see if it advanced military androids. A stupid thing to do because he should have known Freddie would learn from his surroundings, in the same way as a child does. Papa warned Jon, but Jon wouldn’t listen. Jon never listens.” His thumb stroked Luke’s fingers. “Freddie was programmed to spy on you and report back to Jon.”

One shocking announcement after the other. Luke stared, speechless.

“Instead of doing that, Freddie overrode his program when he decided he liked you. He made false reports to Jon. Made up lies to cover for you. Jon knew he had to get rid of a military android whose loyalties were with someone else.”

Luke’s voice strained when he replied, “Freddie was more human than most of the humans in this fucking place!”

“Yes!” Elliot snapped his fingers. “Do you see now how HAI-21 is possible? Jon found a way to replicate the human brain with a robotic one and make it far more advanced. Now, he can even replicate the look of a human body. But, what he could never do in the past was supply an android the memories it needed to pass entirely as a human. Especially if they were to be manufactured en masse.”

Luke shuddered. “Thank God for that.”

“It’s been done with HAI-21.”

This had to be impossible. A chill ran through Luke’s blood.

“RR didn’t have a human Cryogenics Unit until HAI-21 started assembly. You tell me, Luke, am I out of my mind to think it’s connected?”

Sucking souls out of cryogenically frozen dead people to somehow put into HAI-21? Luke hoped Elliot was completely insane. “Umm… Elliot? If HAI-21 ever went into mass production, RR would need thousands, if not millions, of people in the Cryogenics Unit.”

If HAI-21 went into mass production. This is a technology race for Jon, and he’ll win it any way he can. My father will try and stop it any way he can.” Clearly, Elliot believed everything he assumed and it frightened him. “Stop thanking God, Luke. Not when the twisted god in Sortis is Jon. HAI-21 is a narcissists combination of android and a dead man’s memories.”

RR and Sortis had a reputation worldwide of being a science fiction style city. This took that reputation to entirely different level. Making Luke feel like he’d been pushed into a sci-fi movie where wars broke out when androids turned against people.

“Papa can’t do this all by himself, Luke. Please… please help me help Papa. We have to stop production of HAI-21.”



Chapter Four



Reaching out for help in Sortis showed a massive leap of faith. Elliot’s concerns over his father’s health were desperate enough for him to take a risk. According to Elliot, the Vice President tried to reassure his son that everything would be okay, not to worry, and they would leave Sortis when production of HAI-21 had been halted. Luke knew no one simply left Sortis. Not even the President’s brother. Blood was not thicker than water. Vice President Rylor tried it once before and lasted two hours before Sortis had him prisoner once again. Elliot believed his father returned of his own accord, due to HAI-21. Luke wasn’t convinced.

“Feeling a little better?” Luke took an empty mug from Elliot’s hands and set it down on the table. “Do you want more tea?”

“No. Thank you for listening.”

“Any time.”

As Luke gazed into those magnetic blue eyes, he wondered what it would take to keep Elliot happy long-term. If Vice President Rylor did leave Sortis, where would they go? Elliot wasn’t English, he was French. Of course, he’d have dual citizenship and could follow his father to England if the Vice President chose that option. Perhaps Elliot would choose to remain in France and find employment at any one of the top research hospitals. When Luke left Sortis, his options were limited. If Elliot were interested in a boyfriend, he’d want one who could at least be around for a while and not be extradited to England.

“What are you thinking?” Elliot asked.

Luke dropped his gaze and shook his head. Embarrassed he’d been caught out imagining what type of man Elliot needed in his life. Even assuming Elliot did need a man at all was embarrassing. Career orientated, brilliant men with large bank balances did not need a partner.

“Nothing,” Luke lied.

“I could have sworn you were thinking something. Your face has flushed.”

The way Elliot spoke, low and a hint above a whisper, reddened Luke’s face brighter. He didn’t need a mirror to see that. With confidence, beauty, and intelligence to seduce any man into his bed, Elliot probably had far more notches in his belt than Luke had.

“It’s all in your body language, Luke. The way you look at my mouth…” The sofa creaked a little when Elliot moved in closer. “You want to kiss me.”

A ribbon of hair fell loose from behind Elliot’s ear as he leaned in. It framed his face like strands of raven silk. Luke moved away until his spine hit the corner of the armrest. He gripped the back of the sofa.

“Your pupils have dilated. You’re breathing heavier. And, despite your nervous retreat, you’ve changed your position to face me, placed one foot on the floor, and lifted your hips.” Elliot’s face was inches from Luke’s face. “All clear signs of sexual arousal.”

There were even clearer signs if Elliot looked at Luke’s crotch. Not that he needed to. Elliot knew damn well Luke burned for him. He noticed how it turned Elliot on, too. The dilated pupils, heavy breathing, and expression of desire. Luke saw it all. Except with him, it was shameless.

“You want me, Luke.” The direct statement sounded like a wildcat purr.

Every time Elliot spoke, sweet hot breath teased Luke’s lips. Every time he moved, luxuriously scented aftershave stole rational thought from Luke’s brain. Tight black clothing made Elliot look like a panther stalking prey.

Elliot edged away, keeping Luke pinned under his gaze, moving with sleek feline poise. The tip of his tongue licked the corner of his lips. One hand pressed to his thigh, gliding upward against shiny black leather, until his fingers skimmed past the zipper of his pants. Luke watched every move.

He arched an eyebrow. “You weaken, Commander Price.”

Luke covered his eyes and stifled an uneasy laugh. It was like having the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. A virtuous voice told him to keep his sanity, his job, his reputation, and resist the Vice President’s son’s sex games. And an evil voice told him to throw restraint out the window.


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