The queen sniffed dismissively. "That doesn't look so tough. Bet if I kicked it down it wouldn't get back up." She poured herself a little more brandy. The smell was just sweet and strong enough to counteract the oily stink of assorted greases and lubricants in the small machine shop.
"They're not supposed to be tough," Devaraja said. "Or, well, they're not supposed to be dangerous. An important distinction! These things are shot up by trainees every month. They have to be durable if you don't want to go through them like training dummies. We can spare more padding than we can bullet-resistant steel."
Lying on the table was a training automaton. Six foot zero, five hundred pounds, most of it armor plating. It looked like a statue of a fieldball goalie, a bulky humanoid core girded with an apron of layers of stamped steel. Its joints were shielded with rubber and reinforced, its hands simple clamps with a trigger finger. Empty black eyeholes stared at the ceiling. They didn't need eyes to see; the empire ants bound into it did the seeing for it.
"Ah. One of those 'knock me down, I stand back up' types! Never saying die. I like that." She offered Devaraja a sip; he declined. "Noriko's daddy was one of those types. Decent guy... Noriko's dad was." She savored a sip of her own. "Wonder who he was again... somebody from Flatland, senator I think. The no-hard-feelings approach."
"It's useful, yes. But for our purposes, there is still some difficulty." Devaraja inspected his project's arm, noting the motion of the joints. "For small batches of a few dozen robots with modular parts, seeing a predictable amount of action against predictable arms, it's a perfectly efficient design. But what we are working towards is mass production. The present difficulty is that each machine would be roughly as complex as a tank, at least in terms of man-hours and repairs, when they are intended to function on the infantry level. Infantry are relatively simple to take care of, but that's because all they need is protein and time to repair themselves. Steel soldiers are a different beast entirely."
"Mhm. And not just because they're made of metal, right?"
"Oh, more than that. Animating them with empire ants raises a logistical concern as well. While empire ants exist in profound numbers in the spirit wilds, they are essentially impossible to breed and difficult to establish contact with. Again, not a concern when there's only two dozen order a year, but crippling with the numbers we wish to obtain." He lowered the arm, inspecting a leg instead.
"I'm hearing a lot of problems, dear, and that suggests to me that you have one heck of a solution waitin' ahead!"
"You are correct." The leg he was confident with. "In fact, I believe I have a solution to a number of problems. You can keep a secret, yes?"
"I'm a queen. I'm made of secrets."
"Of course. Silly question." He set the leg down.
"So what's the big secret? Gonna beat around the bush? Or come out with it?"
"Agnieska..." he said. "What would you say if I told you it came to me in my sleep?"
"I'd say lots of good things happen in our sleep."
"What if I told you I had fallen asleep with the radio on?"
Agnieska tilted her head. "So... just to head you off at the pass here. Did this idea come from the Star Maiden, blessed be?"
"I believe it might have."
The prototype war automaton lay draped across the extra workbench; lean, smoothly articulated, its lines organic, its design an improvement on nature. More stable proportions than a human, simpler articulation than a human, nearly the same range of motion. Enough to carry it across a battlefield, say. It had four fingers and a thumb on each hand; two flexible mechanical toes on each foot; and proper glass eyes, black, staring, in its head.
In his laboratory, not quite mute, a radio hummed and buzzed, tuned to static: the dream-speech of the Star Maiden.
(In her sleep, the Star Maiden prayed to her father.)
(Somewhere across space, Hunger whispered his beautiful secrets.)