"Thirteenth floor." In response to the butler's spoken command, the elevator clanked and shimmied a bit before finally ascending amid the groaning of rusty gears.
Even the elevator is a piece of macabre. Ueda was trying his best to rationalize the situation, but the more he saw, the less sense it all made.
When the door at last slid open again, the butler ushered Ueda out into a slender corridor leading to a lacquered wooden door. The bot walked to it and rapped twice, prompting a voice to call from the other side.
For Ueda, this was the moment of truth. The bot pushed opened the door and gestured for him to go ahead.
Ueda walked into a windowless office. Bookcases housing various tomes of scientific interest lined the walls. Opposite the entrance was a wooden desk, stacked high with various official-looking documents. Next to the desk was a marble pedestal, upon which sat a sort of odd cylindrical aquarium.
"Where is he?" Ueda asked the bot in the doorway.
He turned and scanned the room a second time. Books, desk, aquarium...wait.. He froze, his eyes fixed on the murky vessel. That's not an aquarium.
If someone had told Ueda that someday he would see the sort of thing he was presently gazing upon, he would have commended them to therapy. Resting on the pedestal was a tube of liquid, roughly one meter tall. But this isn't what astounded him. Rather, he was more distraught by what was floating inside the tube. There, within its glass casing, was...a brain. A disembodied human brain.
"Surprised?" a voice asked. "I wonder how good you'll look at two hundred."
"Two hundred and six," the butler corrected.
Ueda gawked at the thing in the tube. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a brain, just the first time he'd seen one like this. It was completely submerged in murky liquid. The microscopic nanomachines charged with keeping the fluid free of bacteria lent a slightly greenish aura, casting a dull neon glow from the soft light of the climate controller. Beneath the casing, a plastic pump chugged away, keeping the fluid in a constant state of simulated bloodflow. Wires extended from the forebrain, connecting the shell to a small camera, the eyes and ears of the thing.
"I'm not always like this." Through its external voicebox, the brain sounded about halfway between Stephen Hawking and HAL9000. "I do have a prosthetic body. Several, in fact. For tonight I wanted you, Professor, to see me as I truly am."
As Ueda stared, his amazement was slowly being replaced with revulsion at the vile looking thing. I really wish you hadn't bothered. "Uh, thank--"
"There should be no secrets between us," the brain interjected. "I want to build this relationship on...trust." If Tsunku had had eyelids, they would have narrowed to a slit. "Mutual trust. Why don't you have a seat?"
For a moment, Ueda managed to peel his eyes off the tubed abomination. To his left there was a chair, the first that he had seen since entering this awful place.
"We had it brought up especially for you," the brain clarified as Ueda slumped into the seat. "Here in my part of the house, I have no need for such things. How about some coffee?"
Ueda gestured to the full paper cup in his hand. "Actually, I--"
Once again, the brain wasn't listening. "Remus, bring some coffee, would you?" The butler slinked away with a grimace. "Now then, you're probably wondering why I brought you here."
Ueda didn't try to answer. He was starting to understand how this worked. The brain was waiting for him to say something so that it could deliberately interrupt him again. It was a common tactic among egocentrists. To test this theory, he said nothing at all.
Tsunku waited. A minute of silence passed, then another.
Well, maybe it's just my imagination. "Why did you--"
"Have you heard," the brain interrupted, "Morning Musume's latest single?"
"...Not exactly, no."
"Of course you haven't. No one has. I haven't even listened to it and I produced the damn thing. Our sales are the worst they've been since the Aika incident." Here the voice grew scruffier. "It took us decades to recover from that," Tsunku muttered ruefully.
"Deceiving people like that was bad idea, I guess."
"What the hell are you talking about?" If Tsunku had had teeth, they would have chewed a cigar bitterly. "The only mistake we made was getting caught. You really think Aika was the last borg we made?"
Actually, Ueda had thought that. "What do you mean? After Aika, they were all human, right?"
The brain answered his question not with words, but a laugh. An evil, taunting laugh.
"How...How many more were there?" Ueda asked sheepishly.
"After Aika...hmm, let's see here. If I had to estimate, I would say approximately...all of them."
"All of them?" He felt like a kid that had just learned the tooth fairy isn't real.
The butler lumbered in with two paper cups. He gave one to Ueda, who now had a full cup of coffee in each hand, and set the other on the desk for Tsunku. He then hulked back out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
"Kusumi Koharu was the last human being inducted into Morning Musume," the brain continued. "What, you think we were going to keep paying real performers? Dealing with their scandals and their egos? Humans stopped being a profitable investment for us long ago."
"Illegal? Ha! Those impotent old geezers at the Justice Department wouldn't know a real girl from a cyborg if it snorted all their Metamucil and shit in their beds. Once we worked out the design kinks, the borgs were undetectable."
Ueda sighed. It wasn't the first - or last - disillusionment of his life. "I don't get what this has to do with me. Automatons aren't my specialty."
"Of course not, you're a biologist. There were, however, twenty-two living members, the real flesh-and-blood goddesses of the old days. Do me a favor, open the top drawer of that desk."
Ueda slid the drawer open with his knee, as both hands were occupied. Inside, he saw a neatly-arranged set of numbered cannisters, each about the size of a tuna can.
If Tsunku had had lips, they would have been turned up wryly at the corners. "DNA samples."
Ueda had a dreadful premonition. "How exactly--"
"Don't ask how I got these."
I wasn't. I was going to ask how you expect to drink that coffee with no mouth.
Through his work, Ueda had learned to revere nature as a delicate apparatus, infinitely more complex than any instrument of mortal device. Human cloning was an especially foul transgression, typically resulting in shattered lives at the very least. He pushed the drawer closed. "If you're about to ask me to clone those old members for you, you can forget it."
"Don't be stupid. I wouldn't ask you to do that..."
Oh thank god. Maybe he's not completely insane, after all.
"...because we've already done it."
At that moment, far below Tsunku's office, Remus the butler clanked noisily down a narrow hallway lined with steel doors, each affixed with a brass nameplate. The hefty bot examined each name as he passed...he could never remember who was in which room. At last, near the end of the hall, he found the one he was looking for. He cracked open the door and cautiously peeked inside.
Darkness. Answering a silent command from the castle control center, the room lights flickered on. This looked like a girl's bedroom...Rows of stuffed toys rested on the lacy pink linen of a double bed. Near a standing wooden dresser, a closet door stood slightly ajar. Not a soul to be seen.
Remus opened the door wide. "I know you're in here," he pronounced. "It's no use hiding."
All remained still. His eyes focused on the closet door. "I'll find you, you know." Slowly, carefully, he crept toward the door. "I always find you."
With one swift movement, he jerked open the door and maneuvered his legs into a balanced fighting poise, ready for any possible retaliation.
The closet was empty.
An instant later he ducked...too late. A plasma whip lashed out and stung Remus in the back, leaving behind a snake-trail of crackling electrons. Before the whip could recoil, he gripped it with a titanium fist, a feat that would have dismembered a lesser bot. Giving a firm tug, he yanked the unseen assailant from her hiding place beneath the bed.
She looked to be about twenty-one years old, with medium-length brown hair. She was gowned in loose pink pajamas, the sash wrapped tightly around her slender waist. On her back was emblazoned her personal emblem, a cutely-drawn white bunny.
"Tough as ever, Remus," she said, retracting the whip. "But slow. If you were anything less than a niner, you'd be in pieces."
"I didn't come to play." Remus's expression hardened. "Get dressed. You've been summoned."