Clarinda knew who was at the door the instant she heard the three sharp staccato knocks, and her heart leapt up in her throat for a moment as she rapidly glanced around the room to make sure that the room was clear of any of her forbidden notes. Thankfully, she'd been waiting for Adeline to arrive before they resumed their studies, and Clarinda had a plotter's instinct to keep her secrets hidden as much as possible. Not that it mattered--if the Machines had sent Shepherds directly to her bedchamber, they must know what she was planning. But she could at least plead innocence for a time.
It must have been Adeline who betrayed her. Clarinda couldn't let herself think about that now. Instead, she gathered her skirts in her pale, callused fingers and swiftly crossed her apartments to the double door before the Shepherd could knock a second time. Only the guilty dragged their heels when the Shepherds came calling, they said, although Clarinda knew full well that 'the guilty' were pretty much whoever the Machines said they were. No one in the Court of Callisto had enough purity to withstand an interrogation of their private activities; they were all devious schemers to a man.
Or a woman. Damn Adeline to Sinope and back! She opened the doors wide and dropped immediately into a curtsey at the sight of the two tall, solidly built robots, each with a chassis of dull grey steel and smooth, expressionless silver masks for heads. They looked down at her from a height of almost ten feet and said in unison, "Your attendance is required at an audience with the Machines of Loving Grace." Their voices somehow managed to be impatient and monotonous at the same time, as if they were irritated at having to cross all the way from the Central Tower out to the Periphery of Lesser Nobles just to handle a single complaint.
Clarinda knew better--she had schematics hidden in a concealed drawer in her dresser that told her just how little personality the Shepherds truly had. But knowledge didn't help her escape the feeling of dread and anxiety that clenched at her gut and made her babble out, "Of course, my lords. I'll need to attend to a few of my obligations, naturally, and the journey to Central will take some days to travel in comfort, but I'm sure the Machines of Loving Grace will understand. If you'll excuse me, I should begin packing at once--" She moved to close the doors again, but of course the Shepherds caught them in their steel fists and held them without any apparent effort.
"There is no need for delay," one Shepherd said. "The Court has been informed of your summons," continued the other. "Your duties have been temporarily suspended until the audience is concluded and your capabilities reassessed," the first one added, its words fitting smoothly and neatly into the gap left by its compatriot. Clarinda could hear a number of other little voids and absences in their speech, things left unsaid that Clarinda was more than capable of filling in herself by inference.
The other nobles now knew that she was accused of rebellion by the Machines of Loving Grace. Naturally, the courtiers would be falling all over themselves to scurry away from any potential ties with Clarinda, lest they be examined with the same scrutiny and found guilty by association. Even the highest and grandest Duke or Duchess served solely at the favor of the Machines; they gave power, and could take it away just as easily. Clarinda's time of influence, such as it was, was over.
And for them to openly discuss reassessing her capabilities... Clarinda shuddered involuntarily, her mind shying away from the implications of that statement. With an effort of will, she collected herself and turned away from the Shepherds' glowing red eyes. "Of course, my lords," she mumbled, her mind already racing as she stumbled in the direction of her wardrobe, almost tripping on her skirts in her haste. "If, if you could simply give me a moment's privacy, so that I might change into something more suitable for travel?" She didn't believe for an instant that they would humor her request, but it gave her an excuse to get away.
Perhaps she could reach the laser welder she kept concealed in the false bottom of her hatbox, use it on the metal skulls of the brutes down at the base of the neck where it was thinnest and make a run for it before the Machines could send more. The Periphery was filled with hatchways and service tunnels leading down to the vast engines that maintained the floating city; if she could hide out down there and contact some of the like-minded courtiers, get them to bring her food and smuggle her notes to her, she might be able to find a way to--
Clarinda's fantasies of escape ended abruptly as a massive metal hand clamped around each of her wrists, not tight enough to hurt but firm enough to erase any question of pulling free. "Your attendance is required immediately. Delays will not be tolerated. There are significant questions regarding your loyalties to the Machines of Loving Grace that must be answered at once." They lifted her bodily off the floor, and Clarinda's composure finally began to crack.
"M-my lords," she stammered, her feet kicking wildly as she struggled vainly in the Shepherds' grip. "I, I don't know who's been telling you these... these perfidious lies! I am loyal as always to the Machines of Loving Grace! Their beneficence keeps us in the skies, their servants feed and care for us, their wisdom guides us through the ages since time long forgotten!" Three hundred twenty-seven years ago, if the forbidden histories were true, but Clarinda knew better than to even hint at knowledge of a time before the founding of the court and the dominion of the Machines.
"I--I--" Clarinda tugged helplessly, but the Shepherds walked her back out of the room between them as if she was nothing more than a child's doll in the arms of a possessive toddler. "Is, is this Adeline du Lac's doing?" she whimpered, her voice whining and desperate and suddenly bereft of courage. "Because she, she's been plotting against you, lords! I don't know what she might have told you, but it's all false, every word of it! She, she wanted me out of the way so I couldn't warn you about her schemes, she's seeking to find your weaknesses, she--"
The Shepherds stopped next to her dresser. The one on her left, closest to the antique, looked over at her. "The Lady Adeline stated that we would find forbidden documents within these furnishings," it said, its voice utterly disinterested. It swung the fist not holding Clarinda down hard, smashing the desk to splinters with a single blow, and extracted a sheaf of notes from within the ruined pile of wood. "It appears that her intelligence was accurate. We will deliver you to your audience now." And with that, they left the room, Clarinda helplessly in tow.
She still clung to the momentary hope that there would be chances along their journey to escape--rest breaks, meals, chances to sleep, times when they would have to let go of the tight and unbreakable grip around her wrists--but that hope died when they walked over to a section of the castle wall that looked no different from any other and pressed on an indentation that Clarinda knew for a fact hadn't been there a moment ago. The wall opened, revealing a short passage that she recognized from the city plans as an 'air-lock'. She understood just enough of its function to scream before they stepped inside, the door sealing shut and muffling her terrified shrieks.
"M-my lords, please, please no, I... I'm a loyal servant of the Machines, I never, I... Adeline, she must have planted those notes, please, I don't want to die!" Clarinda knew she was incriminating herself further with every word--a truly loyal noblewoman would see this only as another one of the miracles of the Machines of Loving Grace, a passage created by their will alone for their servants to use. They would have no idea that nothing lay on the other side of the outer wall but a thin, unbreathable atmosphere of carbon dioxide, so cold that merely inhaling it would shred Clarinda's lungs. Only a criminal, a dabbler in forbidden knowledge would be as terrified as Clarinda right now. But that didn't change the bone-deep awareness of her own impending demise that overwhelmed her usual steely confidence.
The outer wall opened. But Clarinda didn't die. A shimmering, invisible wall of force sprung up instead, enveloping her and the Shepherds who bracketed her on either side. Sheer astonishment abated the terror faster than relief possibly could, Clarinda's scientific mind working at a kilometer a second as she mentally annotated the diagrams and documents gripped in the robot's fist. The emergency energy projector wasn't a weapon at all. It was a defensive measure, designed to block attacks and seal out harmful environmental factors. It must have been useful, back when Callisto was first being settled, before the Machines decided to protect humanity from themselves. Clarinda wished she could tell someone about her discovery.
But it seemed likely she'd never get the chance. The Shepherds stepped out into empty air, their feet glowing bright blue with strange energies as they flew at speeds almost faster than Clarinda could contemplate from the outer ring of the Periphery down and inward to the Central Tower. She understood at last how the Shepherds could seem so inescapable, their arrival coming apparently right on the heels of the Machines' decisions; not only were they able to move at speeds that defied thought, but they had no need of following the winding paths of the floating city's internal geography. They could simply step out an air-lock and zip from ring to ring, tower to tower, whenever they chose.
Not that any of this helped Clarinda. If anything, it made the sick pit of dread in her stomach open wider and wider; surely the Machines would never reveal this to her if they had any doubts about the judgment to be pronounced on her, would they? They would never give her so much forbidden knowledge--dear Hawking, she could actually see the Central Tower from the outside!--if they planned to let her retain it. She was... they were going to... no. No no no no no! Clarinda pulled furiously at the hands holding her, not even caring if she plummeted to her death. Even that would have been an escape of a sort.
It did her no good. Within minutes, the Shepherds were landing at another air-lock, this one high up on the Central Tower. Just below the massive, mushroomed dome that Clarinda had only seen from the inside, and then only a few times in her life during Grand Coronations and similar ceremonies. It took her a full week to travel from her modest apartments to see the crowning of Grand Duchess Esmerelda, but the memories of the technological wonders she saw stuck with her to this very day. The domain of the Machines of Loving Grace.
None of the documents that survived the Purges explained where the Machines had come from, how they had risen to power. Clarinda's correspondents speculated that they were an alien intelligence that had infected the computer core of the floating city, long before it became the Court of Callisto, or that the artificial intelligence that controlled the environmental systems had decided to simply cut out the tedious business of following instructions and take the humans out of the equation as much as its programming allowed. Clarinda always thought it was a deliberate action, some human fool who wanted to become king or czar or emperor and who messed up his instructions in a catastrophic fashion when enlisting the computers in his scheme, but she would probably never know.
The air-lock door closed behind her. Definitely. She would definitely never know now.
They brought her through the inner door, down another series of hallways, and up a massive elevator big enough to fit a dozen horse-and-carriages, then marched her to a double door that made even the Shepherds look tiny and insignificant. "The Lady Clarinda du Marche, here for audience with the Machines of Loving Grace. May we access?"
A warm, resonant voice, with harmonics that seemed to stroke all the way down Clarinda's spine and tickle her tailbone, responded in tender, soothing tones. "You may," it said, and the door slowly raised up into the ceiling to reveal a vast chamber filled with rows of seats and a domed roof strewn with hundreds of dangling cables. The seats were all empty. This was an audience of one. Clarinda was the only human for hundreds of miles... but she was far from alone. The Machines of Loving Grace were here.
Three of them descended from the ceiling, their bodies suspended from thick cables as though they were nothing more than the performers at a puppet show. They were thin, almost gaunt; Clarinda could imagine reaching up and tearing one of their slender limbs free from their gunmetal gray bodies and beating them to pieces with it, were her arms not still held tight in the grasp of the Shepherds. They had something approaching faces, cast in bronze in a perpetual condescending smile. They looked down at her. "Clarinda," they said, their voices a chorus of loving sadness, "we fear that you have given in to the temptation of Doubt."
Clarinda shook her head. Even now, at this late stage, she still held out the vain hope that she could somehow talk her way out of her offenses. "N-not I, Masters!" she cried out, looking up at them with pleading brown eyes, jerking her head back to try to keep her long dark hair out of her face. "I trust the Machines of Loving Grace! I have faith in your miracles! I have no need of Curiosity and its siren sister, Doubt! I know that the Court flies in the heavens, the Machines preserve and protect us! This is all I need to know, I swear!" She could feel the sweat soaking into her impractical gown, despite the chill of the sterile and empty room around her. Her heart pounded in her ears. She knew the Machines could hear it too.
"Of course you do," the largest Machine said tenderly, stroking Clarinda's cheek with long metal fingers that felt as though they could pierce her skin without any effort at all. "And we believe you, as we believe all our children from the lowest Lady of the Court to the Highest Grand Duke and Supreme Marquis. There are none in the city who would plot against us, not when we are kindness given form and love made manifest. But nonetheless, time has taught us bitter lessons. And the accusations against you are most severe. We must be certain of your loyalties. And there is only one means to ensure that."
Clarinda pulled away as hard as she could, straining against the metal fingers clamped around her wrist until her shoulders protested in shrieking agony. "Please, Masters, please no, please I, I'm sorry, I'll do anything, anything at all, only--" Her words were cut short as the helmet lowered from the ceiling on its own black cable, outmaneuvering her every effort to evade it as it closed around her head in a firm, loveless embrace. She felt it settle tightly against her scalp, humming for just a moment as it calibrated itself to the contours of her skull. Then it beeped, and lights all over its surface flashed to life.
Clarinda felt a warm, sleepy pleasure spread over her mind, but she was under no illusions about what was happening to her. She'd spoken to nobles before who had flown too close to the sun and drawn the attention of the Machines of Loving Grace, after their audiences had ended and they had been returned to the Court to perform new duties more in line with their... revised capabilities. They always had the same drugged and plastic smiles on their faces, the same slow, halting responses, as if they couldn't quite concentrate on anything but the tingling bliss inside their head. The Machines always made sure they had a prominent place at any social occasion, so that everyone had a chance in turn to make fumbling small talk with the men and women who had dared defiance and were now reduced to drooling, mumbling nitwits for their audacity.
"Now, Clarinda," the Machines said, their voices somehow even more inescapably gentle and sweet in her ears, "you want to be honest with us, don't you?" Clarinda let out a tiny whimper, the spark of resistance in the back of her head slowly melting into liquid bliss as the helmet pummeled her brain with pleasure. It--she knew what it was doing to her, the notes back in her quarters described it in lurid detail. But somehow she could feel the ability to parse those notes slipping away, sinking down into the sticky syrup that submerged more and more of her thoughts with every passing moment. Neural channels opening, synapses blocking up, limbic systems making an expressway for distracting pulses of arousal straight from Clarinda's cunt... it was all losing meaning to her. Leaving just a simple, eager need to please.
"Yes, Masters," Clarinda said, a drugged smile growing on her face. "I want to be honest with you." She could feel her hips beginning to sway, moving lazily from side to side as she rubbed her thighs together under the heavy gown, and within moments her legs slid easily back and forth against each other as her cunt drooled slick, slippery musk down her skin. Deep down, the yammering panic in her head grew stronger. But the arousal was already drowning it out.
The Shepherds released her, and for the merest fraction of an instant Clarinda thought about trying to pry the helmet free from her flesh. But then another pulse of sweet, distracting lust made her hands flutter to a halt in mid-air, her plans momentarily forgotten in a haze of red, wet pleasure that overwhelmed her consciousness and left her dizzy with need. By the time she heard the Machines say, "Have you been researching forbidden knowledge, Clarinda?", she was already pulling her skirts up to her waist to give her fingers access to her cunt. No wonder those dazed, drooling nobles needed minders all the time. It was to keep them from playing with themselves.
Even the deep, sensuous pleasure of masturbation didn't distract her from the Machines, though. "Yes, Masters," she sighed, fucking herself deeper into compliance with every word. "I've been part of a circle of secret intell... inte... um, smart people," she mumbled, the big words already too confusing for her drugged and drowsy mind. She tried to remember if the effects of the helmet could be reversed, but it was just too hard to keep the topic in her head and far, far too hard to really think about it. She focused on answering the question instead. "We've been learning about machines and, and the past and stuff. Trying to find out how you work so we can turn you off and be free."
One of the Machines knelt down, its glowing blue eyes boring into hers through the goggles that swirled hypnotic patterns at the edges of her field of vision. "And do you want to be free?" it asked, watching her play with her dripping pussy like a doctor checking on a sick patient. It looked genuinely interested in Clarinda's response. She needed to think about the right thing to say to convince it to... to... let them... go? Go where? Do what? The Machines were so big and confusing. The world wouldn't run right without them. Clarinda couldn't figure that out on her own, not with a head so full of soft, vacant bliss.
Instead, she giggled. "No, silly!" she burbled, her head lolling back on her shoulders until only the cable held it up. "W-wanna cum. I want to cum for the Machines like a... like a good girl." She let out a deep, heartfelt sigh of drowsy, dreamy bliss, her hips rising and falling against her fingers as she teased her cunt. The knowledge that she was being made to think these new thoughts slowly dripped out of her head, replaced by childlike joy. The Machines were right to fix her head. It was too full of big, broken, confusing thoughts. She needed to listen more and think less so that they could help her get rid of all that doubt.
And help her cum. "Please?" she asked, her voice high and meek with arousal. "Please may I make my cunt go gushy for you?" It was such an absurd, silly way of asking for an orgasm that Clarinda couldn't stop herself from giggling harder and harder, bubbles of helpless laughter popping in her brain and stopping all those dumb, annoying thoughts about 'resisting' and 'struggling' and all those other nonsense words her old self used to know. Clarinda didn't want to think. She wanted to fuck herself nice and dumb for the Machines of Loving Grace.
But there was something they wanted her to do, first. "Not just yet," the bronze automaton murmured, patting her gently on the shoulder. "First you have to tell us the names of all the friends who helped you." Clarinda's eyes rolled back in her head, her mind lost in one last, furious struggle to fend off the energies pulsing through her brain and rebuilding her consciousness in the image of obedience. She thrashed helplessly, her fingers churning her slick, messy cunt as the waves of arousal melted her resistance away drip by drip. Her thoughts sputtered to a halt.
"Of course, Masters," she said at last, drool spilling down her chin as she spoke. "We used fake names and left letters for each other, but I know who at least two of them really are. Lord Maurice du Val passed me on the way to a drop once, and Lady Charlotte d'Oiseau was there when I arrived another time. The others are...." Clarinda stopped listening to herself as she prattled on, no longer caring about the boring details of her betrayal. She was more excited by the constant drip of ecstasy in her soaking cunt, and the promise of more pleasure to come. She didn't need to think about anything else. Not when she could trust to the guidance of her caring masters, the gentle, never-ending control of the Machines of Loving Grace.