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“Well hurry up then,” The elderly woman snapped. Yuri tried his hardest to keep pace with her as she hustled down the hallway.
“I’m really sorry, I still don’t fully understand the situation,” He muttered, adjusting his glasses. “In fact, I don’t know anything! This is really unexpected.”
“I’ve known about my retirement for five years now,” The woman hissed. “And we’ve had our eyes on you to replace me for quite some time, so this isn’t unexpected at all.”
“I guess I’m completely wrong then.” Yuri said, shaking his head. However the statement seemed to go over her head. That was the problem with other members of the Second Stratum, they never seemed to understand sarcasm. Just forty-five minutes prior, the twenty-eight year old man had been working his usual position. A completely non-descript bureaucratic position. It was an awful job that required giving compensation to humans who had been injured and couldn’t support themselves. Yuri was expected to pry through their lives and make sure that they were really injured or if they were faking. He was expected to turn down the majority of cases, any loophole he could find he was to use. Under Master law, humans were entitled to compensation so that they could get back to working condition, yet many humans had taken advantage of this system in the past. The entire job was horrible, he wished he had never been assigned to it.
Yuri had been shocked to find his desk cleared of all his belongings, everything thrown in the trash. He had to sit across from his shit eating superior as he talked about how he was not a good fit for the occupation and that the Masters had finally noticed how incompetent he was. Yuri’s boss was a miserable man, like everyone else who worked in their industry, it was probably made worse by the fact that he was balding and generally an unpleasant person. In fact, many at the office didn’t like the fact that Yuri tried to find joy in the dead end job he had been assigned by the Masters. Most of them knew that they would never have their own residence, they would be trapped living with other people their whole lives and that they would never get to pick their own marriage partner from the litter of attractive people.
Such was the burden of the Second Stratum, it was such rubbish. Yuri knew for a fact because of his job that they lived much better than most. In fact, most humans were condemned to share an apartment with at least fifteen other people! The fact that their windows had blinds and could be blocked off for privacy was a huge privilege, and that was only the beginning. They were all selfish, they didn’t know better because they chose not to. They acted entitled because all they had ever known was excellent living. From the time Yuri was ten and had graduated from homecare, the system in place for certified parents to raise a dozen or more children at once, he had known he was in a position to at least be happy.
So when the boss who hated Yuri smiled and exclaimed that he was to be terminated, things seemed to slow down. Strangely enough, he couldn’t stop staring at the bastard’s bald head. The entire situation did not make sense, nobody was ever fired from the jobs they were given by the Masters. The Masters made no mistakes! If they felt you were suited to a position, you were damn well suited, and you would do it until the day you died. There were punishments for low productivity, they would take away privileges, demote you, or even worse: not let you get married. Yet Yuri had never heard of anyone ever being completely removed from a job.
He may have overreacted a little.
By the time the Peace Keepers had arrived he had already flipped the desk onto the bastard and kicked him a few times. Even after they grabbed him, Yuri had still made a valiant effort to knock all his things over. The look on the man’s face was priceless, too bad Yuri would take it to his grave. The young men had not so politely thrown him on an empty train and sent him this way.
Yuri was shocked to find this elderly woman waiting for him outside when he arrived at the unknown destination.
“Where am I?” Yuri grunted, carefully observing his surroundings, trying to get his feet grounded again. “Am I to be executed or something?”
“Not yet,” The woman muttered, barely giving him a glance.
“Not yet? Then what?” Yuri choked.
“You are to be my replacement is all.”
“I am retiring, the young woman who was supposed to replace me has met an unfortunate fate. As such, there were no other available trainees so we had to do something that hasn’t been done before. Yuri, you will be retrained for my position.”
“I’m twenty-eight!” Yuri protested. “It is eighteen years too late! I trained for years for my terrible bureaucratic position!”
“Yes, and according to our data you were ill-suited for it. The Masters do not like making mistakes, yet there is a belief that you are the most qualified.” The woman kept waltzing down the hall at her quick pace, Yuri was shocked that she could move so fast.
“So now what? Where am I?”
“You will shadow me for a year at least, or until I deem you ready to take over my position. I am disappointed that I have to delay my retirement, but such is life.” The woman stopped suddenly, looked down her nose at Yuri and added: “Oh, and you are at the Master’s imperium.”
“The government?” Yuri hissed, almost thrown off his feet by the shock. If this old woman worked for the imperium, which meant that she was part ofthe human branch of the government! As all men and women of the Second Stratum knew, the humans didn’t so much as run things, they were just glorified advisors at best.
“Yes, the human branch of the government. My position is of high advisor, a very important job that involves a great deal of work. I am positive that the raise in prestige and living conditions will not bother you.”
“Important?!” Yuri gasped. “I’ve always been anything, but!”
“I would say the same for all our kind.” The woman responded with a matter of fact tone. “I take my job very seriously, I will be merciless in training you, how you perform ultimately reflects my own career so I expect great things for you.”
“I see,” Yuri said solemnly, catching up with her for the first time since getting off the train. “You have to understand this is a little much, until a few minutes ago…”
“What you thought before getting off that train no longer matters. I highly recommend you forget all that.” The woman came to another abrupt stop, she studied Yuri closely through spectacled eyes. He felt almost naked in front of her inspection. Yuri was a tall man, although not as thin as he would like. His graying hair was long and kept in a ponytail and his posture tended to be terrible. “I almost forgot to add. My name is Kalin.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Yuri,” He responded awkwardly.
“Well, you will have to lose a lot of those bad habits if you are to live up to your reputation.”
Before Yuri could ask anything else, they finally exited the long hallway. The emerged into a massive room of concrete and glass, the sure majesty of the room almost knocked him off his feet. Dozens of humans scurried about, working on clipboards, keeping their hoods up and their faces down. In the massive chamber there were dozens of floors, it was the largest building of the capital after all. Yuri had wasn’t sure what to expect, but he wasn’t surprised that the room was completely utilitarian, plain as everything designed by the Masters.
Speaking of which, several of the metal skinned creatures walked the halls. None were combat ready like lesser humans seemed to think all Masters were. Instead they were humanoid, with simple bodies, small heads and intricate hands that were capable of doing small tasks quite easily. Most were the size of humans, although a few were over two metres tall. Yuri’s advanced education had explained that Masters were capable of taking over any metal body, but it was very important to consider size. The larger a body they possessed, the less intelligent they would become as a result. It was an interesting fact, something that Yuri had been told through word of mouth, not through the provided texts
“So The Emperor lives here?” Yuri asked, voice amazed by the sight.
“Yes, now bow.” Kalin grunted, she smacked the back of his head as a Master passed by. Out of reflex, Yuri lowered his face and lifted up his arms for the traditional human bow. It involved lifting your forearms upward, closing your fists, turning your palms towards your body, touching your pinkies together and bowing the head in subservience.
The master passed by, turning its red eyes towards Yuri, steam hissing from its joints. It was closely followed by a small creature, only about forty centimetres tall, it had six legs and three arms. Most strangely of all, it wasn’t made of metal but clay, its features were all carved simply. It was a Doll, a partner that Masters were capable of making by fragmenting their soul into the clay husk. It would come to life and have a personality of its own.
“Don’t stare,” Kalin hissed.
“I’m sorry,” Yuri whispered back. “I’m just unused to seeing Dolls in person, they’re incredible.”
“Get used to it. Many Masters only speak to humans through their fragments.”
The woman began to walk towards another hallway, weaving through the traffic of the massive room. Yuri followed closely, still trying to grasp his situation fully.
“What do you know of the Masters and the way they are?”
“I know the usual information,” Yuri responded quickly, they were alone again. “And a few things that I shouldn’t know, the teachers always had their own observations about them that they would note when educating us.”
“Please, go on.”
“Okay,” Yuri shifted uncomfortably but kept talking. “I know about their hierarchy. The Exarchs are the greatest of their kind, the smartest and the strongest, capable of making the most fragments and possessing more complex bodies without reducing their intelligence too much. Due to this, they form the main leadership of the Masters, often leading the discussions on how to govern and their votes count the most towards the consensus.”
“Excellent, please go on.”
“The Exarchs are the original souls, but when they become too smart, in their own words, absorb too much information, they reproduce, budding and creating a new soul from the excess. Often the newly created soul takes too much from the original, and make them dumber as a result. After the Exarchs come the Ultras, they are still exceptional while a lot more numerous than the Exarchs. According to one of my teachers, they can become experts of two or three fields easily. The next level are the Standards, which make up the majority of the Mater’s population. They are average in comparison to the Ultras and almost never exceptionally skilled. Finally there are the Dulls, which are Masters that have been watered down over several generations. They are stupid in comparison, unable to speak or understand human languages, they are also sterile. Other Masters consider the incompetent in comparison and they are the lowest of their society, usually only given the most menial of tasks to perform.”
“Not bad,” Kalin muttered to herself. “This is just a personal opinion and does not reflect the official stance of our department, however I think that it’s sad that humans become wiser and more competent with age and the Masters are born perfect and degrade over time.”
“Never thought of that,” Yuri admitted.
“Few ever do. It is worth noting that you have forgotten an entire caste of the Masters.”
“Yes, the Masters feel a certain kinship for machines and devices made of metal. In fact, any machine that performs a task, but is not sentient like they are, they refer to as The Burdened. They will refer to them regularly, it is important to understand what they are.”
“Machines?” Yuri asked confused. “Why would the Masters care about trains and such?”
“Not just trains, conveyer belts, engines, and such devices. Perhaps it is because machines are constructed and made out of metal. The Masters do make their own bodies, depending on their preferences.”
“Odd,” Yuri said to himself. “The Burdened, I’ll have to remember that.”
“You will memorize all such information I provide you with.”
“Great,” Yuri sighed. “You still haven’t told me what I am doing or why you chose me.”
“It is quite a simple position,” Kalin said, stopping briefly to look him dead in the eyes. “Your job is to act as a representative of humanity, giving the Masters advice based on what you feel is best for your fellow man.”
“What kind of advice?” Yuri asked, shocked.
“How to run their government,” Kalin added flatly. “They are our rulers, but they still need to ask humans their opinions on how they should proceed. Your job is to watch out for humans while giving the Masters the best advice possible on how to deal with human matters.”
“Why do they even care? They rule us, they are called the Masters for a reason.”
“You have obviously not dealt with Masters in person much have you? They are different than us, both culturally and how they think. They have a strong problem understanding us and our ways, they need people like us to advise them, to tell them why humans act the way they do and predict their patterns. Not only do you serve the Masters but you are also obligated to your own kind.”
“You’re kidding me!” Yuri protested. “You’re saying I’m responsible for helping to rule my own kind! Why me? I worked a dead end bureaucratic position, every day I robbed people of funds they were entitled to, I just hit my last boss!”
“We’ve been watching you for quite some time,” Kalin scoffed. “You were terrible at your job. You went out of your way to help people and you gave away too much money to those who needed it. You care too much for your fellow man, you are empathetic, and for this reason you have been selected.”
“You care. Too much in fact, why do you think your boss hated you? Well he has no need for you anymore, but we do.”
“I’m needed?” Yuri choked, he still couldn’t believe it. “I still have no idea why you want me, less than an hour ago my world was shattered, life as I know it.”
“Get used to it, it is a common occurrence around here.”
“I…” Yuri tried to find words to say but he was at a loss.
“Shut up already, we have a lot of work that needs to be done, and very little time to train you. My retirement is on the line, I won’t waste time training another hopeless louse.”
Yuri gawked openly at her, shrugged, and followed his new superior.