It hurt to wear her smile.
She wore it every second of every day. It was like a mask she could not remove, bolted permanently into place. Yet sometimes – right then, for instance – she felt faintly aware that she herself had chosen to don it. She did not recall why.
The awareness faded. Her mind dimmed. She stood and waited, wearing her vacant smile.
The Steward Perpetual of Stellas Geminae paced around his study. It was a spartan space devoid of all ostentation; some called it soulless, but to the steward it merely reflected the austerity of his high office.
Despite his preoccupation, his gait was straight-backed and cadenced. Precise, adamant focus was a quality he applied to everything he did. His lineage demanded it, vesting in him the responsibility to rule some 209 billion human souls. They could be wanton, as humanity’s multitudes often were. If his realm was to prosper, it had to be governed with ruthless determination. That was his hereditary duty.
He continued to pace, paying no attention to the silent, motionless figure beside the door.
Her smile hurt, but she endured the pain. She had done so for an indeterminate succession of seasons. It was her reason for being.
She did what her master told her to do. Followed every order. Unquestioning, unhesitating. She was duty in its purest form.
There was another flash of awareness. She remembered four words.
Dutiful unto the end.
Had that been why she was chosen? Her master’s estate boasted a servant staff of thousands: labourers, varlets, sundry other menials. Many of them were like her. They served no less dutifully. Yet she felt no kinship with any of them. Surely none wore a smile as painful as hers.
But that could hardly be a criterion for service. Could it?
The steward’s meeting with his ministers had displeased him. Their news of unrest among the worker castes of the Gossamer Belts did not faze him; they could deal with it as they saw fit. But their spies had reported that a particular noble family on Geminus Parvus was entertaining ambitions above its station – and that he could not tolerate. It was a dereliction of their duty, the sort of insurrection bound to undermine an empire.
The first Grand Architect of the Ascension had united the peoples of Stellas Geminae and guided them to the stars. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for their eventual rejoining of the glorious Imperium of Man. But had that historic feat been achieved through kindness? Tolerance? By eschewing one’s duty, however unsavoury it might appear?
The steward scoffed- damnable sentiment. Greatness had never sprung from the font of benevolence.
Without breaking stride, he glanced towards the door and clapped his hands.
She obeyed at once. Slippered feet whispered across the marble.
‘… will not have it.’ He was addressing a small vox-drone when she reached him. Despite his venerable age, his voice remained firm and strong. ‘There can be no lenience. Yes. They must be pruned, the entire branch.’
He came to a halt, cleared his throat.
‘Inform the 99th. We used them some years ago, when – indeed. They purged the Malikovs. And good work they did, too…’
The Malikovs –
Inside her head something woke, roused from a long, deathlike sleep. A tide of murky memories flooded her mind: images, sounds, words.
She… had been a person, once. Had lived well enough. She recalled soirees, watching twin suns set –
But some memories were clearer than others. More meaningful.
A small boy. Blond. Pensive for his age.
His smile had been like hers was now, and it had been different. There was no pain in his smile. Only a child’s innocent joy, the unconscious anticipation of a future he would never have.
She felt herself shudder.
The steward turned.
‘Summon Chancellor DuVoy. His presence is required,’ he told his servitor.
It did not respond. He repeated the order more sharply. Still it only regarded him, smiling.
She remembered now what she had known then.
Her headlong flight. The hanged bodies plastered proudly across every news channel. Her family eradicated to the last child.
A terrified life in the shadows, her sole possessions, the clothes on her back and an ancient heirloom ring.
Being the last of her line was too painful. But as she worked up the courage to end it all, she lingered on the words engraved in her ring.
They were the Malikovs’ motto: Dutiful unto the end.
Her life, she realised, was not hers to throw away. There was one last duty she must attend to.
Carefully she reached out to some old acquaintances, influential dignitaries with grievances of their own. Eventually, they agreed to set events in motion.
They helped her die.
She clung to the memory of her boy’s beautiful smile as she was made into something less than human, as her self was ripped apart and its tattered remains buried deep, deep within her mind.
The steward noticed his servitor was shaking as if straining against invisible fetters. Its silent smile widened, folded open, bared mother-of-pearl teeth.
Its breath rattled in its throat.
‘What –’ he began.
Outside the steward’s study, the guard on duty frowned when he heard a dull noise within. Had his lord fallen?
He knocked on the door.
When no response came, he readied his rifle and entered the room.
‘Throne!’ he swore.
Straddling the steward’s lifeless body was his servitor. It hunched low over him, its hands clamped round his neck with inhuman strength. Though its lips were peeled back, not a single sound ever left them. There was only its awful grimace of a smile.
As a veteran of the Geminus Maior Peacemakers, the guard had seen much in his seventeen years of service, but he stood confounded for far too long before he finally gunned the servitor down.
Even shot to pieces, it still smiled.
About the Author
Michael is an unremarkable, not-quite-middle-aged resident of what will be known as Ancient Europa some 30–40 millennia hence. His love of writing evidently began to manifest when he was a small child, and would draw little picture stories of the adventures his cuddly toys embarked on. The tales he likes to read and write today tend to be set in the fantasy or sci-fi genres and, for better or worse, no longer involve any fuzzy, talking green dinosaurs named Gregor.