“Yeah.”

“They must know,” Klia said. “They seem to know everything.”

“I don’t want to be quiet,” Brann said. “I want to shout and pound and jump allover--”

“The room?” Klia suggested, and drew herself up on the cot, playacting at being demure.

“Yeah. To show you what I feel.”

“I can hear you. Feel you. Feeling something...But it doesn’t seem to be the same flavor as what I feel.”

“Nothing is the same flavor for people. Everybody tastes different inside, the way we taste them--hear them.”

“Why don’t the words exist for what we can do?” Klia asked.

“Because we haven’t been around for very long,” Brann said. “And someone like you, maybe never before.”

Klia reached out to touch him, still his lips. “I feel like a kitten next to you,” she said.

“You jerk me around like you had me on a chain,” Brann said. “I’ve never known anyone like you. I thought for a while you hated me, but I still felt you calling me--inside. With a taste like honey and fruit.”

“Do I really taste like that, in my head?”

“When you think of me, you do,” Brann said. “I can’t read you clearly--”

“Nor I you, my love,” Klia said, unconsciously falling into the formal courting cadence of Dahl’s dialect.

This seemed to stun Brann. He let out a low moan and leaned forward, nuzzling her neck. “No woman has ever talked like that to me,” he murmured, and she held his head and wrapped one arm around his shoulders, feeling his chest against her drawn-up legs. She let her legs relax, and he pushed onto the cot to lie beside her. There was not room for both of them, so he lifted her gently up onto him. They were still fully clothed, but in the posture of making love, and she felt a lightness in her head, as if all her blood were draining elsewhere. Perhaps it was. Her thighs and breasts felt full to bursting.

“Woman must be stupid, then,” Klia said.

“I’m so big and awkward. If they don’t hear me...If I don’t make them feel affection for me--”

She tensed and drew back. “You’ve done that?”

“Not all the way,” he said. “Just as an experiment. But I could never follow through.” She knew he was telling the truth--or rather, thought she knew. Another uncertainty around another corner! Still, she relaxed again.

“You’ve never tried to make me feel affection for you.”

“Sky, no,” Brann said. “You scare me too much. I think I’d never be able to--”And here she felt him tensing, in the same way she had. “You’re very strong,” he finished, and simply held her, lightly enough that she could lift up and break from his arms if she wanted to. So intuitive, this man as tall and broad-shouldered as the domes!

“I will never hurt you,” Klia said. “I need you. Together, I think we might be unstoppable. We might even be able to team up and persuade the robots.”

“I’ve thought about that,” Brann said.

“And our children...”

Again he sucked in his breath, and she hit him on the shoulder. “Don’t be a sentimental idiot,” she said lightly. “If we fall in love”

“I am,” he said.

“If we fall in love, it’s going to be for life, isn’t it?”

“I hope so. But nothing is ever certain in my life.”

“Or in mine. All the more reason. So our children--”

“Children,” Brann said, trying out the word.

“Let me finish, damn it!” Klia said, again without any sting of true anger. “Our children may be stronger than both of us put together.”

“How would we raise them?” Brann asked.

“First, we have to practice at making them,” Klia said. “I think we can take off our clothes and try that, a little.”

“Yes,” Brann said. She climbed down from him and stood beside the cot, doffing her shift and underslacks.

“Are you fertile?” he asked as he removed his own clothes.

“Not yet,” she said. “But I can be if I want to be. Didn’t your mommy tell you about women?”

“No,” he said. “But I learned anyway.”

He slid back onto the cot. The cot creaked, and something cracked alarmingly.

Klia hesitated.

“What?” Brann said.

“It’ll break for sure.” Then, resolutely, “Get on the floor. It’s not too dusty.”

53

Sinter worked quickly. Already he had appropriated the old Hall of Merit in the south annex of the palace, a place of hallowed traditions and dusty trophies, and cleared it for the site of his new headquarters. From all comers of Trantor, he had hired a hundred Grey Monks hoping for just such a chance to actually serve in the palace, and had given them tiny cubicles, where they were already hard at work drafting the rules and mandate of the Commission of General Security.

Now, for his first guest, he had Linge Chen himself, and the thin, tough old bird--younger than he looked, but perhaps even more sour--had arrived with two servants and no guards. Chen had waited patiently in the antechambers, suffering the dust and racket of the remodeling.

Sinter finally condescended to meet with him. In the main office of the new headquarters, surrounded by crates of furniture and machinery, Chen presented the newly appointed Chief Commissioner a box of rare Hama crystals, those delicacies which never dissolved and never lost their flowery scent or taste, or their mildly relaxing effect.

“Congratulations,” Chen said, and bowed formally.

Sinter sniffed and accepted the box with a small, crooked smile. “You are most gracious, sire,” he said, and returned the bow.

“Come now, Sinter, we are equals, and need not resort to titles,” Chen said. Sinter’s eyes widened at Chen’s respectful tone. “I look forward to many useful conversations here.”

“As do I.” Sinter drew himself up to the effort of matching Chen’s dry, effortless grace. He did not have the old aristocratic training, but he could at least try, even in this moment of triumph. “It is my privilege to have you here. There is much you can teach me.”

“Perhaps,” Chen said, looking around with piercing dark eyes. “Has the Emperor visited yet?”

Sinter raised his hand as if making some point. “Not yet, though he will be here shortly. We have a matter of mutual interest to discuss, and some startling new evidence to present.”

“I am intrigued to hear that something startling still exists in our Empire.”

Sinter was at a loss for a moment how to react to this jaded cliché. He, at least, had always regarded life with a kind of bitter enthusiasm, and had never ceased to be surprised, except perhaps when things went wrong. “This...will startle,” he said.

Emperor Klayus entered without ceremony, accompanied by three guards and a hovering personal shield projector, the strongest available. He greeted Sinter briefly, then turned to Chen.

“Commissioner, today I cease being your creation,” he said. His shoulders twitched nervously even as his jaw jutted defiance and his eyes glittered. “You have compromised the safety of the Empire, and I will see to it that Commissioner Sinter puts the situation right.”

Chen assumed a solemn expression and nodded at this severe reprimand, but of course, did not quail or tremble or beg to know what the lapse in his duties might have been.

“I have placed myself under the official protection of the Commission of General Security. Sinter has shown himself quite capable of keeping me alive.”

“Indeed,” Chen said, and turned to Sinter with an admiring smile. “I hope to correct any errors my Commission has made, with your help, Commissioner Sinter.”

“Yes,” Sinter said, unsure who was having whom for a repast at the moment. Is this man incapable of emotion?

“Show him, Sinter.” The Emperor backed away a step, his long cape dragging on the floor.

He could not help his looks, Sinter thought; at least he was not wearing the ridiculous platform shoes he had affected months earlier. “Yes, Your Highness.” Sinter whispered into the ear of his new secretary, a dry little Lavrentian with lank black hair. The Lavrentian walked away with exaggerated formality, like a child’s doll, and passed through half parted dark green curtains.

Chen’s gaze swept the ancient polished floor, also dark green with golden swirls. His father had once had many trophies in this same hall, before Sinter had appropriated it; trophies for services to the Empire. By class, the elder Chen had been forbidden from joining the meritocracy, but many meritocrat guilds had given him honorary passages and appraisals. Now...all those acknowledgments of his father’s achievements, removed, hidden, he hoped safely stored.

Forgotten.

Chen looked up and saw Mors Planch. His face hardened to an almost imperceptible degree.

“Your employee,” Sinter said, moving between them, as if Chen might strike out in anger. “You secretly sent him to look for the unfortunate Lodovik Trema.”

Chen neither confirmed nor denied Sinter’s accusation. It was truly no concern of Sinter’s, though the Emperor

“I admired Trema,” the Emperor said. “A man of some style, I thought. Ugly, but capable.”

“A man of many surprises,” Sinter added. “Planch, I will let you initiate the sequence you recorded, on Madder Loss, just weeks ago...”

Miserably, avoiding Chen’s eyes, Mors Planch stepped forward, and his fingers fumbled at the small raised panel on the new Chief Commissioner’s desk. The image came to life.

The sequence played through. Planch stepped back as far as he could without attracting attention and folded his hands before him.

“Trema is not dead,” Sinter said triumphantly. “Nor is he human.”

“You have him here?” Chen said, his cheeks and neck tense. He relaxed one fist.

“Not yet. I am sure he is on Trantor, but it is likely he has changed his appearance. He is a robot. One of many, perhaps millions. This other, this tall robot, is the oldest thinking mechanism in the Galaxy--an Eternal. I believe he has held high office. He may have inspired the tiktok revolt that nearly doomed the Empire. And...he may be the fabled Danee.”

“Demerzel, I presume,” Chen muttered.

Sinter glanced at Chen in some surprise. “I am not yet sure of that--but it is a distinct possibility.”

“You remember what happened to Joranum,” Chen said mildly.

“Yes. But he had no proof.”

“I assume the tape is authenticated,” Chen said.

“By the best authorities on Trantor.”

“It is real, Chen,” Klayus said, a little shrilly. “How dare you let this go on, undetected! A conspiracy of machines...Ages old! And now--”

The feminine robot entered under its own power and guidance, flanked by the four guards. Its limbs were worn, the flesh hanging in tatters in places around its arms and neck, one jowl sagging alarmingly, threatening to expose the socket of one eye. It was a frightening apparition, more like a walking corpse than a machine.

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