(Note: I discovered in looking back that my journals became a running narrative while I worked through these first, difficult weeks. I think that by telling myself a story – making it a kind of novel, if you will – it moved me slightly to one side of the drama and made it easier for me to understand.)
“That’s what you’re for,” Kestrel said again, “to nudge the Dragonhorse. If nudge is the euphemism you choose.” He went to the stove, poured himself a cup of tea and glided with a kind of oily smoothness into the chair across the table from me.
I just stared at him. Maybe it was Harrier’s hand on my arm, telling me I wasn’t alone, maybe it was an unexpected reaction on my part to the whole shocking situation – a defense mechanism kicking in – but I felt the first little surge of anger welling up in me. “For?” I replied. “What do you mean by, ‘That’s what you’re for’? I am a citizen of Equus. I have free will.”
“You just don’t get it,” Kestrel said. “I suppose we should have been more careful to make sure you were smart, not just beautiful. Maybe you’re just not listening because you don’t want to hear the truth …”
“Or maybe we hadn’t gotten around to it YET,” Harrier drawled.
“Well, she can’t be away from her regular Lycee classes for too long,” Kestrel snapped. “They’ll get suspicious or kick her out, and then we’ll be stuck with ten years of higher education – here, at this table.” He turned to me, or on me, is more like it, and said, “You are a creation of this place. You belong to this place. You have spent twenty-six years in a virtual reality situation so that you could have a normal childhood to see what normal people are like. You’re the first one to go through it, and I’m not at all convinced it was a good idea, Harrier.” Their eyes locked, and I knew it had been Harrier’s idea.
“I was happy … until this morning,” I ventured. “My family really …isn’t?”
“They really aren’t,” Kestrel said, clearly annoyed.
I absolutely cannot understand why he thought I’d just … I don’t know … snap into place … into a completely new role, without hesitation, question or regret. I realized I was a little angrier than I’d been a few minutes ago. “You killed my family,” I said, rather through my teeth. “You just killed my parents, my brother my sister, and the man I’d planned to marry, and you expect me to be fine with that.” I felt the tears well up. “I am confused, and grief-stricken, and you’re acting like I’m … property.”
He just rolled his eyes. “You are property,” he said. “We’re all property.”
“We all belong to the mission of this place,” Harrier amended. “That mission binds us through time, but it is a bond, not bondage. Each of us was created to fill a certain role – to further a purpose, to guard something or someone …”
“And I was created to nudge the Dragonhorse,” I managed.
“Finally!” Kestrel exclaimed. “Yes. You are an insuperable, immortal being …”
“I’m a robot … aren’t I?” I whispered, and then vomited my tea onto the floor. I wanted to beat my head against the table until I passed out. I truly in that moment wanted to kill myself. The only thing stopping me was the insane notion of taking Kestrel with me.
“You are absolutely in no way a robot,” came Lark’s voice, and her hands were warm on my shoulders. She kissed the top of my head and joined us at the table. She waited until Harrier had thrown a towel over the mess I’d made and rejoined us at the table before she continued. “Yes, you are immortal, and in that sense you are a machine. But tell me – have you ever, ever had the sense that that’s what you were? Has there ever been a moment when you felt some sort of artificial mechanism or intelligence at work in you?”
I gave her a look that was none too pleasant, I’m afraid. “Apparently I haven’t had any real ‘moments’, so I’m not really in a place to judge, am I?”
“What are you feeling?” she asked.
“Anger!” I snarled, and caught my breath. “And fear, and grief and confusion.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Those are very real emotions, and you’re not in a virtual reality situation now. You weren’t in a virtual reality situation last night when you realized your friends weren’t going to show up for school. You were confused, and frightened. Also very real.”
She put her hand on my arm, and gave it a little pat. “Wren, while your situation may not have been real, you, and your place in that situation, your reactions to that situation, the lessons you learned and the relationships you formed while you were in that situation, are most certainly real. You, most certainly, are real. You have been specially bred to live a very long time – to become an integral part of the continuum of this place – and that very small part of you, is a machine. But you, are not. You are a product of Androtechnology, and yesterday you were animated – given full life – and set in motion in the real world. You eat, you sleep, you relieve yourself of bodily waste. You have a heart, and lungs, and skin. You are a person with feelings, and talents, and shortcomings and preferences and dislikes, just like any other person.”
“Mmmm,” I said, or gasped. I suddenly had the worst headache of my life … and I realized, I’d had a life. I looked at Harrier. “It was a good idea,” I said. “I loved my life.”
“And you will always have those memories to go back to,” he smiled.
I braced myself, took a deep breath and looked around the table. “And my place in all of this is …?”
“To nudge the Dragonhorse,” Kestrel said.
“Oh, be quiet,” Harrier snapped. “That tells her nothing. Wren, we have realized now that the Dragonhorses are surviving to fulfill their time in office, we need someone next to them to help advise them, and to report to us what their proclivities might be …”
“Just tell her,” Lark advised, and Kestrel raised an eyebrow and glared across the table at me.
“You’re going to be their sexual companion – either as wife, or …”
“As whore?” I exclaimed. “I’ve been brought this far to become a whore?”
“Not just any whore,” he said smoothly. “A Dragonwhore.”