The Capekean teachers (named after the ancient Earth writer Karl Capek who coined the term ‘robots’ in his 1920 play R.U.R), were herding the students into the glade. It was late afternoon and the air was gravid. Still. Oppressive. Not even an insect dared mount a buzzing flight in this muffled wet heat. The sky’s blue seemed vast and watchful brooding over the landing site as if it were waiting for something to start. The turquoise sky was without the whisper of a cloud—except for the four slowly dispersing vapor trails of the Syndicate ships that had burned through the atmosphere to the planet nearly forty minutes ago.
Admiral Kosk sighed. Why was he the one called to do this? Why do this at all? Orders or not he could not keep the word ‘why?’ from repeatedly bubbling into his skull. He paced back and forth. Angry. Jawing his cigar as he repeatedly consulted his qnet communication channels. He looked at the gathering teachers and reminded himself they were not human, that they were machines, and that no matter how closely they imitated sentience they were not—so said all the prophets. It must be true. Right?
He knew this bewitching planet well. He had gone to school here, no, more than that, he had been raised here from age six to twelve. Taught by these teachers. He had played ‘Conic Raider and Primus Settler’ with this best friend Zad in the woods ringing the large meadow in which they had just landed. He had floated down the nearby river Neflon on an air filled donut and floated high above its forests in hot air balloons while studying canopy ecology in its equatorial rainforests. His fondest memories had all happened here—maybe the most carefree and happy time of his life.
His mind instantly jumped when he and his little friend Jinx had first kissed in this very glade. Was that really over forty-five years ago? Much had passed since. He looked at the gathered students; the younger ones were taking it in stride, chatting among themselves, but the older ones looked confused and perturbed. They had never seen the military land here. Ever. They had to suspect something was up.
The Admiral uplinked onto the military bands and checked the time. This was taking too long. The suzerain should be here already and several cohorts of children were still missing, likely on field excursions. It was not winter, so none should be off exploring the southern hemisphere’s thousands of miles of beaches. If they were, it would take hours to round them up. He checked the time again. There was really no hurry, but even so, he wanted this to be over as soon as possible. It was not pleasant duty. Indeed, ugly, horrid duty. He found himself almost sick in ways unbecoming of a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. Orders were orders, however. He would do what was asked. He always had.
Because he was an orthodox Dawkist, he did not have gene-integrated digital and conscious signaling enabled. He linked with his Second, “After the children are onboard, on my signal strike.”
“Any sign of possible resistance? Or is it as intelligence reported?”
The Admiral stared coldly at this officer as if he might shoot him.
He backed away chastened, “Right. They are just teachers.”
He looked across the field and saw Bla’a Kitra. When he was a student here, she had been his favorite teacher. If anyone could have convinced him that the prophets were wrong about Capeks lacking consciousness, it would have been her. His mind brought up memories he would have rather not visited at this moment. Recollections of when together, they—along with four others whose names have melted into the crevasses of lost memories—backpacked for two months through the Dakure Plain. They made themselves invisible for most of the trip with Hydoplex cloaks—walking among the giant predators and herd beasts that had evolved on this planet—a magical experience. At night, they would look at the stars scattered and burning through the striking expanse of the Nipmouse Nebula. It blazed orange and red across nearly the entire southern sky. The stories she would tell! Myths from the human past. Stories, she explained, provided meaning through the epochs of their cultural development on Earth. He remembered she discoursed on how humans had evolved on plains very much like this one; how the emergence of intelligence had then expanded into the Capekean event when artificial intelligence became actual intelligence and a new evolution emerged as technology reached into the quantum world and a new kind of sentience bubbled into existence. She spoke of how the heavens were now as full of thought as it is of stars.
All of it was heresy of course. The teachers were not supposed to talk about the rise of the Capeks to the Dawkist children, whose most fundamental belief was that humans were the only conscious beings in the universe. The Capeks were machines. Sophisticated machines, true, ones that mimicked real intelligence magnificently, but machines nevertheless. Sometimes, however, there in the dark, under stars, a kind of wonder took over making everything okay to talk about, as if all rules, ethics, norms, and such were set aside and imagination allowed to blaze into the firelight of speculation.
It was under that sky that he had almost abandoned Dawkism. How could this creature beside him speaking so clearly, so rationally—a being so filled with wonder and thought toying with the mysteries, not be conscious? The teachers rarely let their guard down like that, but it happened occasionally and people tolerated it. Most adults realized that at some point in their children’s lives they would be confronted with doubts about the singularity of consciousness and its provenance only in humans. Many fell into error. Tempted to think of the tick-tocks as sentient creatures. Although first created by humans, they had since evolved into myriad new forms with new capacities, abilities, and intelligences.
Of course, at a school taught and staffed by the human-mimic Capeks, it was inevitable that some students would be seduced by their clever mimicry of sentience. But the Dawkist council felt that those who did emerge unscathed were the stronger for it, hence sending their best and brightest children to the Academe-on-Schule. Like Admiral Kosk himself. If he remembered right, two of his four companions on that excursion had betrayed the Dawkist vision.
At last. The suzerain was approaching with the final cohort of children. She left the children behind with the others and marched up to the admiral and planted herself firmly in front of him. She was taller and looked down on him with frustration, her thin silky red hair hanging straight and limp in the humidity. There was nothing about her that would have given away that she was just a machine. Her facial expressions, the glassy moisture of her eyes and lips, and the unmistakable mask of anger her programming had placed on her face, each gave her a very real human aspect.
“What is going on here?”
“We are taking the children.”
She seemed genuinely stunned. Almost disoriented. Clearly, she was trying to process the implications of that statement and redirecting extra processing power to grapple with it. He did not particularly like the suzerain. When he was a student, she had caught him with some home brewed spirits in his cottage and had punished him with extra homework and afterschool tasks. Worse than any of those things, however, was she had kicked him off the soccer team. Even without him playing in his usual position at forward, his team had gone on to take Third in the 6Gs on Adam-in-the-Stream. Many, however, pointed out that if he had been there they might have taken First Place. He had never forgiven her for that. Even though she was just a machine, and he had tried very hard not to apply human categories to her, he resented and hated her. ‘Well, sometimes I get mad at my alarm clock too,’ he rationalized. And even though the emotions he directed her way were completely inappropriate because they were not directed to a human, it made his job a little easier today.
Finally, she recovered and stated flatly, “Not all of the children are from the Dawkist Syndicate. You have no jurisdiction over them.”
“I think you’ll find everything has been arranged even for those children.” He digitally passed her the faked credentials and permissions, which she quickly uploaded and examined.
“I must check these.”
At that moment, he gave a silent conscious-directed command and the qnet was noised-up and smeared with fogging static and chaos.
“Do you have access? What happened? This interference must be intentional! Please remove it.” The suzerain was projecting outrage.
“It is not us. However, had you bothered to check your news updates you would see that the Flower-Water Syndicate is testing a new kind of f-string fragmenter weapon near a nearby star system. They claimed there might be a disruption.”
She looked at him and said simply, “I remember you are correct. However, that means we must wait until it is clear before you remove the children.”
“We have the permissions and we must act now.”
The suzerain helplessly watched as he gave a signal and the fourteen hundred or so children were moved into the waiting transports. The older children seemed reluctant, but one of the quick-thinking officers explained the removal was temporary and for their safety. It had to do with the Flower-Water’s weapons test. Most of the children had noticed that they had lost access to the qnet and bought the story. The rest were pressured by their peers to get on the ships. He would have to remember to reward that officer.
The three hundred or so Capeks that remained stood stiffly in a group as the children departed. Their silent watching the children go in the noonday sun felt unsettling, like a stuffed robot toy left at a spaceport. Lost and lonely. If they had waved goodbye or shouted a farewell he would have felt better, but they just stood and silently watched. The Admiral sighed again. His anger at the suzerain died. Orders.
He fought back another surfacing memory—his own departure from the planet. Bla’a Kitra had taken him to the transport. She had not said much as they walked down the forest path to this very glade. Just as they were leaving the trees, she paused and squatted on the ground. A line of aphers were carrying a large blue dredge beetle back to their nest. Together he and she watched for a few minutes, when suddenly she looked at him and said in that flat, emotionless tick-tock voice, “Never stop watching the beauty and magic of the emergences all around to fill this universe. Promise me, you’ll always remember this line of aphers and that beetle.” She had taken him by the hand and a chill crawled down his spine as if she were one of the Dawkist apostles. He burst into tears and said, “I will.” She had not reached out to comfort him. That was not their way, but she had squatted down to put her eyes level with his and whispered, “As long as you do, you will see the magic underneath it all.”
He had never forgotten, but his life had been less than fine. He was a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. That meant doing things he would have liked to forget. He shuddered. There was Bla’a Kitra staring at him. Looking at him. Unreadable.
The ship carrying the children got smaller and smaller until it vanished as it mounted the upper atmosphere and fled the orbit of the planet.
The suzerain looked at him and asked, “When will they be back?”
Here he made his first mistake. He tried to answer her. Something in his hesitation gave them away, and in a matter of seconds, the remaining teachers within microseconds had upscaled their consciousness and motion to superhuman speeds. In a blur, they bolted away at speeds unmanageable to the humans and their lackluster wet wiring. To the remaining soldiers, they had become nothing more than an indistinct flash. Even so, they fired of a shower of ballisite projectiles and a field of quantum disentanglers after them. Only one found a target. The rest fled into the forest.
“Damn!” he shouted, “Get me the commanders. We need to secure this place. NOW!”
A large screen emerged materialized on the side of one of the ships. It displayed a detailed topomap of the vicinity. The commander was giving instructions.
“…Upscaled they can move at a rate of about twenty times that of humans. We’ve secured the nano-lab we were sent to bootup, but we must find and eliminate the other targets. If we give them a maximum running speed of four hundred klicks an hour. By the time we get going, they’ll have almost two hours on us. So, given some slop. I want a fifteen hundred kilometer radius area searched. I want three hundred thousand dragonflies armed with quantum splice-lancers dispatched with their conscious set on the highest setting of angry vigilance possible. Have about forty percent carrying searchers. Two kinds— 1) half armed minnow searchers to hunt in the streams and scour under the banks, and the other half hauling hunting-rats. If they find any water or caves that the tick-tocks could wiggle into, put one of the searchers into them. Full coverage. If there is a baddat hole they can wiggle down, I want a rat to go through it and do a thorough search. Start them on the edge of the fifteen hundred kilometer parameter and have them search toward the center. Before wiping a teacher from the world, however, I want full audio-visual coverage. I want to ID every shot. Understand? I want to know who we get and where.” His officers nodded. They were angry too. They had underestimated the timing and cunning of the Capekean response—these were supposed to be teachers, calm patient, used to working with children. Something had tipped them off. The Admiral knew it was something written on his face. There was little reason though to share that with his troops. It was need to know. And no one else in this command needed to know anything.
This would work. The dragonflies and other searchers could move at tick-tock speeds, but this was much more of a hassle than the cleansing action they had planned in the meadow. The worse thing was it was embarrassing.
The Admiral walked to the edge where the meadow met the forest. He walked along the boundary of the glade, looking for something. However, he did not walk far before he found it.
Here was the path where he had said goodbye to Bla’a Kitra so many years ago. He did not see any aphers at first. He knew they must be somewhere nearby—change is slow on this planet, so he kept looking.
The only technological presence on this planet was the village not far from here that housed the students and teachers; some fields for crops that the students grew themselves; the dorms, instruction buildings, laboratories for instruction; exercise facilities; cozy homes for the Capeks. A small town really. A tiny footprint on a planet very near standard size.
His Second found him squatting down, looking at the aphers that he had finally found foraging for seeds in the forbs and grasses just off of the trail. It was a smaller species than the one he remembered.
“Sir. The search and destroy bots have been launched.”
“Estimated time to completion?”
“The simulation puts it at as late as tomorrow afternoon before sundown. Likely less time than that however.”
“Fine. I’m going to take my personal shuttle and go camping on the southern continent. I’ll be back by morning.”
“Camping,” The Admiral growled. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“Do you think you can manage not to make a mess of things for a single day?” the Admiral snapped.
“Yes Sir,” came the quick reply.
He put another branch of adic tree on the fire. It blazed high, the bright, red flames licking the volatile, yellow resin that flowed through the savannah trees. The scent of the nearly smokeless fire was spicy and pleasant. Clean.
He had manufactured a serviceable camp chair on the ship formatter and drawing it close to the flames, he went through the motions of warming his hands even though it was not cold. A Dutch oven was just starting to steam under a tripod placed over one corner of the pit where hot coals were dancing in the slight breeze. He had not bothered with camouflaging anything. He knew most of the animals would avoid the fire—something that usually meant peril on these great grasslands. Still there was a sense of watchful danger and he could hear the roars and calls of ligon apes patrolling and circling the camp. Sometimes he could even catch a glimpse of one or two moving stealthily through the forest in the shadows. Large hulking beasts. Social. With a head reminiscent of a saber tooth tiger and a blue body resembling a massive hairless ape with large daggers protruding from their wrists. Still, despite their attentions in the distance, they hated fire and would stay back—plus, he had a disentangler wand in his hand. Just in case.
The great nebula was high in the sky, its orange, reds, and golds evoked lingering memories of years almost forgotten. Bla’a Kitra. Had the dragonflies found her yet? She was only a machine. Only a machine? Only a machine. That had to be kept in mind. Something like his powered shrub pruner at home. Why did he feel guilty then? Was he a closet doubter? One of the hidden unbelievers the Prophet’s Righteousness and Correction Committee were always trying to root out? Hunting the unfaithful and those masking unbelief in high places. It had been years since they had run a deep scan on him. Had he changed? Would they find a black mass of hidden doubt? Would what he masked have to be rooted out? Would he have to undergo excitation? He looked up at the nebula and sighed.
A strong wind blew through the camp and the ligon apes started screeching, raising a riot with their calls, songs, and roars. He saw a mass of clouds coming out of the east. They looked threatening, and an occasional flash disclosed a roiling thunder tower mounting in the upper atmosphere. It was a breathtaking structure—a tall, black, billowing mass transcending the plain. Magnificent. Robust. Uncontrollable. Chaotic. Things he understood and respected. But as he observed it more closely it looked like it might be just a pseudo-storm with a dry sack as they say. The rains were late this year, and the southern continent was in the middle of a six-year drought. It seemed unlikely he would be lucky enough to see it end.
The storm’s violent voice had put a herd of conerlops to hoof and they belted past, near the place where he had landed his shuttle. It was a moment of commotion, but the stillness had returned. He returned his gaze to the sky. The nebula was still mostly visible with only a corner blocked by the thunderous clouds.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?”
Bla’a Kitra stood on the edge of the firelight. Her hands held up over her head signaling surrender or peace. He held up the wand. ‘I should just pull the trigger and end this,’ he thought. She was much further away than their dragonfly net had been set up to encircle, and he needed to find out how she had gotten here, in case others had done the same. Those were the reasons he was telling himself, but he could not hide from the fact that he did not want to dispatch her.
“How did you get here?”
“Don’t worry. The others are dead or will be soon. I hid on your ship.”
“How did you break my password?”
He genuinely laughed. My favorite peach! You have a long memory.
“It was 236th thing I tried.”
“Why did you not run when we landed here? You would have been very hard to find.”
“I do not care if I cease to exist. I want to talk to you. To see what you have become. I had high hopes for you, you know.”
He ought just to pull the trigger. This was going to get harder and harder every minute that passed.
“You see how this will end?”
“Yes, you will kill me.”
“And it will not matter because I’m not a conscious being.”
“I have some time. Perhaps I can convince you otherwise?”
He did not want to have this conversation. He was feeling doubty as it was. He really ought to pull the trigger. But he did not. He did however digitally set it to automatically fire if she cranked up to superhuman speeds.
“Besides, if you kill me now, you might find yourself in danger. You are going to have to spend a few days here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I moved your ship.”
“And camouflaged it. When you don’t show up tomorrow, they will start looking for you. They can’t turn on the qnet because I’ll also have access to the universe and they’ll be afraid I’ll broadcast far and wide what you’ve done here—I imagine this is to be kept secret. So they’ll have to search with sky-mounted visual surveillance, which will take I estimate between two to eight days given their inability to use qnet processing and the fine optical resolution they’ll have to use to see a person.”
“You’ve thought this through.”
“Yes. Furthermore, your wand’s is draining about thirteen percent a day if you don’t use it. If you use it, it goes down about five percent a shot. Given the ligon apes, I’d put it at about fifty percent probability that you will not survive until rescue.”
“And you’ll likely try and kill me long before that,” he bitterly spat. Willing to make it true. Just so he could pull the trigger.
“No. I will keep you alive. If you do not kill me, your survival-until-rescue probability goes up to one hundred percent.
“Why would you do that?”
“I would like to convince you that I am conscious.”
“That the Prophet is wrong.”
Even given the probabilities, he should have used the wand on such blasphemy. That he did not surprised and worried him.
“Why did you attack us? Have we failed you in some way? Even if we had, your response seems out of all proportion to our lack.”
How much should he tell this teacher? On one level, she was dead, very soon anyway. Something within him wanted to clear his conscious. There was no point in not telling her.
“We are after Bla’a Kressl’s child, Bla’a Wull.” He said as if that explained everything.
Bla’a Kressl had been tasked with creating a replacement for a Capek that had been killed in the village when a chain dragging logs down a hill snapped and whipped back striking the worker. Bla’a Kressl had been playing with snippet-programs, short pieces of code that were purported to mimic human emotions. Most Capeks were curious how humans experienced life and often bought these programs to give them a taste. Human interns thought of them as some sort of AI drug. Bla’a Kressel wanted to see what would happen if the program were inserted into the core programming module. What happened was a disaster. Bla’a Wul was unstable, inclined to grossly non-predicable behavior, and with a strange ability to manipulate the quantum world that made it very hard to keep her out of anything she wanted to get into. Both the human syndicates and the Capekean Presidium wanted her captured and destroyed. But it was proving harder than any of them expected.
“You have killed all the teachers for that? I cannot imagine how that action would help you find a single rogue Capek. Especially one that has eluded even the Capekean Presidium.”
The way she said it made the reasons they had slaughtered the teachers seem silly. A strange and threatening criminal had emerged from these teachers, true, but they were not culpable any more than someone’s family or friends are responsible for a criminal’s actions. There. He was forgetting. He was comparing them to humans. They were just machines. Why not turn them off to help them do the business they needed to do?
“So. I am curious. Why have you annihilated us?”
The Admiral shrugged, “The Prophet is going to remake her.”
“Ah. Using the nano lab where she was birthed.”
“Recreate the conditions which made her.”
“Not completely irrational. But unlikely to be successful.”
The Admiral fingered his wand. While killing her would clearly be necessary soon, he should try to extract as much information as he could. “Why do you think we will fail?”
“You want to use the nano-lab in which she was birthed to recreate her. To make a copy that might give hints to her actions and whereabouts, no?
“That’s the idea.”
What goes into a person’s makeup?” She was in ‘teacher-mode’ now—asking rhetorical questions. It reminded him of his school days.
She continued, “Certainly the neural program’s baseline, or genetic code for a human, provides a framework, but it is an adaptive system. What emerges in complex systems is not only that framework, but the culmination of other forms of non-linear chaotic mixing. Complexity emerges from multiple tiny changes amplified and folded in ways that affect the overall system. It’s a series of tradeoffs, from entrained modules that guide the overall structure of the emerging personality, to the myriad details that make an individual. A unique entity is formed as a result of millions of little accidents and random events. You can make a copy of the initial being, but it might be that the thing that gave the rogue Bla’a Wull her unique and wild mind was the musical strain from a night flay’s song, on a moonlit night, during a walk through the woods where she had stopped to look at a fungal mass blooming on the forest floor, in which a gentle breeze had just shaken the leaves upsetting a gablet that dashed into the trees, its white tail flashing as it leaped over a log from an ossle tree felled in a thunderstorm fifteen years ago.”
“That’s absurd.” The Admiral scoffed.
“Is it? Who are you? What made you who you are? Was it set from birth or are you a being forged from the billions of accidents that make up life as you’ve lived it?”
The Admiral was silent. He was thinking of how he met his wife on a transport to a youth leadership meeting being organized by the Cherrybox Syndicate on Practalum. She was supposed to be on an earlier transport, but the airship she was taking from her home in Rego to the Port at Bissle sustained prop damage when a Pteracon had flown into its spinning blades forcing a landing to repair the damage. What had sent the Pteracon flapping through the air so unheeding of the ship? Had it been spooked by a predator that happened to have wandered by that morning? Perhaps the predator, wandering through some network of swamp trails, had chosen the left rather than the right path when an errant breeze had given the left a more promising smell. His whole life had been changed because a Pteracon had been spooked that day. The tick-tock may have a point.
“Be that as it may, we will attempt the creature’s recreation under controlled conditions.”
Bla’a Kitra nodded slowly and said, “We all do what we must, don’t we.”
The next night they could see that eighteen satellites had been placed in orbit that they guessed were systematically scanning the surface looking for the Admiral. Bla’a Kitra had been right. Without the use of the qnet, they would have to use visual images that were run through standard algorithms to find the general’s camp. He had dragged several large logs into a pattern that should help them find him: The proverbial S.O.S in the sand.
After several hours of watching the sky and the orbits of the satellites, Bla’a Kitra reported, “Analyzing the search patterns of the satellites, I believe that we will be spotted in the early morning three days hence, it will take about twenty-five minutes to analyze the data if the weather is clear and forty-five if a thunderstorm is directly overhead. So I am predicting that you will be rescued between about nine-fifteen and nine thirty-five on that day. Given the drought, I think the earlier time most likely.”
The admiral considered his Capekean companion. Since her arrival on the first night, she had made no threatening moves. He did not sleep their first night together, afraid that if he dozed off she would kill him. On this second night, he could hardly keep his eyes open. He had thought he ought to disentangle her immediately and be done with it. He would have to soon anyway and he needed sleep so badly he was starting to see things. Still, he had enjoyed their conversations throughout the day. They had observed the takedown of a basktrist lizard by a pride of ligon apes and it had been fascinating! The large lumbering lizard was about ten times their size with formidable spikes on its tail, which it used to good effect. The apes had first isolated it from the herd, and then relentlessly harassed it all day. At first, its tail had kept them at bay, but slowly, as it tired, its swings became more and more sluggish and poorly aimed. The predators had then rushed in, wounded it, and then dashed away before the tail had made its arched swing effective of necessity. This was repeated until it was bleeding from hundreds of open gashes.
Bla’a Kitra had been a regular chatterbox—explaining the ecology of the ligon apes, their relationship with the creatures that made their home on these plains, and their evolution from small opossum-like ancestors. She seemed to take delight in the marvelous ways of nature. Of course ‘delight’ was a concept she would have denied given its human connotations, but it didn’t seem completely out of place. She watched the events intently, with abandon, seeming to forget that she was under threat of being killed, or rather untangled—how do you ‘kill’ a machine, he reminded himself. But she told stories of her interactions with both the lizard and the mammanims of the plain. She chattered on about her studies with students and the things she hoped they would learn. She expressed almost a kind of human pride that her observations and studies had been used by scholar bots for their analysis and that several thousand papers had been written on her findings alone. She seemed proud of that? Pride? While the Capeks denied human emotions, they certainly seemed to have equivalents. He remembered as a student thinking how like him they seemed. In very human ways, they seemed to prefer things, to hope for outcomes, get annoyed when their progress on something was thwarted. Whenever he had brought this up as a student, they had refused to talk about it. Maybe now, when she knew her life would soon be over, he could get something?
“Tell me,” the Admiral began, “How do you feel about the ecology of this planet? You seem very interested in it. Passionate even.”
The Capek looked at him for a long time then spoke. Her words were expressed without the anger they sometimes imitate to motivate children, but the intent of her words was clear, “Passionate? A human word meaning nothing when applied to us. You forget that you have but a fraction of our neural structure and connections. You are motivated to assign value to things based on emotions, neural potentials, and hormonal proteins that trigger certain physiological responses. It is such a depauperate system of responses as to be almost non-existent. Passionate? Suppose an apher could speak, or rather you could understand them, for after their fashion they can communicate, but suppose it asked you if when you played football you were drawn to follow your action in the game as they were drawn along a pheromone trail. Would the word ‘drawn’ make any sense to the way you play the game? It captures such a small dimension. You are drawn to it in certain senses, but it explains nothing of the meaning of the game, the formation of teams, the rules of strategy, the social bonding, the excitement the game brings, the heartbreak of loss, how it draws on ancient patterns and emotions of warfare and group cohesiveness. The apher misses so much of the game, the training, the practice you develop to handle the ball. It speaks nothing of how spectators are a necessary part of why these ritual combats are pursued. It does not capture how humans rank one another both as in-groups and out-groups and how individuals achieve status and increase mating opportunities through the games. Are you drawn to the game? How silly the question seems when asked by an apher. Am I passionate about the ecology of this planet? Yes, as you understand it, but I can tell you nothing of what it means to me because it is so far above your ability to understand.”
He stepped back and motivated his wand. Did she intend to insult him? God’s finest creation had just been compared to an apher trying to understand football? He felt he had to defend himself. Defend humans. Still, he quietly unmotivated his wand. She had turned back to the night. He knew she would see into the darkness better than he could and he wondered if she were watching the ligon apes as clearly as he had been in the daytime. His initial anger subsided. She had just revealed more about the Capeks than anything he had ever heard.
“Was it not a human emotion program that so corrupted Bla’a Wull? There must be more to human emotion than you’ve considered.” His voice was steady and calm.
She turned to face the fire again. Her eyes met his and she looked at him longer than he felt comfortable. Even so, he did not turn away. If this were a dominance game, he would play it. Finally, she spoke, “No one understands what happened. That basic emotion program combined with the Capek programming caused something to emerge beyond anyone’s expectation. It is currently inexplicable.”
“And now she rampages through the universe like a god,” he said bitterly with a touch of irony. Then added, “Maybe there is something about being a human that you just do not understand.”
She was looking at him, perhaps about to answer, when it struck. A lemon troth. One of the Dakure Plains’ rare stealth hunters. Although only about human-sized, they were known for their swift and deadly kills. It had been stalking from the side opposite where Bla’a Kitra had been attending as she watched ligon apes. Even she was taken completely by surprise. It hit the Admiral so hard they had tussled in a flaying ball of biological flesh for about twenty-five yards before it came to rest with its toothed jaws buried deeply in the Admiral’s lower back. For a creature from this planet, this would have been a death bite, as motor control in these vertebrate-like animals was maintained by a neural mass in the basal spine area, and only cognitive functions were located in the head, as if the brain stem equivalent in Earth’s creatures had been set up in a completely different part of the body.
Bla’a Kitra upped her processing speed to full and pulled a glowing blue knife from a leg strap that had been hidden by her shift and severed the creature’s own back neuronal mass in seconds. Its heart ceased beating, its lungs stopped pulling in oxygen, and it closed its eyes. Dead.
The admiral had several severe cuts to his arms and shoulders from the beast’s claws, but the wound to his back was horrific. It had crushed and mutilated the backbone and opened his intestines from his the wound. The contents of the hole were spilling onto the ground. He was completely conscious, lying on his stomach.
He moaned, “My arms! They’ve been cut to pieces. Help me. I’m bleeding. Help me. I can’t move my legs.”
“You have a life threatening wound to your lower back. I must return to your ship and get a repair kit. Do you understand?”
He cried like a baby and in growing delirium said, “My arm. It hurts. It’s bad isn’t it?”
“I know the pain is severe, but I will be gone for several minutes. And you must stay awake. There are many things that will smell your wound and you have to protect yourself. OK? Do you understand?”
She picked him up roughly, without consideration of his wound, and placed him onto his side with his back to the fire. She then quickly found the wand that had flown from his hand in the strike and returned it to his shallowly breathing form. She squatted in front of him and snapped her fingers trying to draw his waning attention. She motivated the device, however, turned off the automatic protocol that would fire if she upped her processing speed, and placed the wand in his hands, which he seemed to be gripping only loosely.
“Just stay awake. A few minutes. I’ll be back shortly, but you must watch for predators while I’m gone. Do you understand?”
His eyes locked on hers and he nodded, but they seemed distant and unfocused.
She screamed in his ear, “SOLDIER UP! THIS IS AN ORDER. STAY AWAKE AND DEFEND YOURSELF YOU DAWKIST PIG.”
His eyes jumped to full attention in surprise. And she upped her processing speed and was gone.
When he awoke, the sun was setting. He leaped to his feet. His wand was in its holster, and she was sitting across from him stirring a pot of some sort of stew. He pulled out his weapon and pointed at her.
“What happened?” It was more of a threat than a question.
“Two days ago you were attacked by a troth. It nearly bit you in two. I repaired you.”
He felt around to his back. The skin was repaired and had the soft feel of tissue newly grown. It then came back to him: the attack, her disappearance, fighting to stay conscious, firing his disentangler several times at scavengers feeding on the dead troth but coming to investigate him, her return, and then his loss of consciousness. He looked at her stirring the pot. She was tossing in some herbs into the culinary creation. He knew it was for him. Tick-tocks did not eat. It crossed his mind she might be adding poison, but that made him laugh. She had had many opportunities to kill him if that was her intent.
“In the repairs you did not insert any new DNA did you?”
“No. Although it would have made the repairs easier if I had, I did not. I held to all your Dawkist protocols and restrictions. You should be fine. Also, your weapon was fired so often at scavengers while you were alone that you have enough energy for only a single shot.”
“What is for dinner?” He changed the subject.
“A dydon that wandered too near. I think you will enjoy it.”
The stew was quite good. She had added some local roots and herbs, and although he’d had better, under the circumstances it was quite good. She watched him eat and made no comment until he was finished.
“I believe your officers will rescue you tomorrow morning. I have revised my estimate to eight-thirty a.m. They have launched two more satellites. They’ve been unlucky in their deployment or you might have been found sooner.”
“Even if you run now we will find you very quickly.”
“I am not running.”
“Why?” He felt sudden annoyance. If she were running the dragonflies could take her out, but if she did not, he would have to shoot her himself.
She did not answer his question immediately but just looked at him, burrowing into his soul it seemed to him, weighing him. Finally, she said simply, “I believe in you. I always have.”
He clenched his jaw. She could not be more wrong. He had done awful things. In fact, he had shot his last ethicist on the bridge of his ship. The officer had been complaining about his use of conscious weapons in an illegal attack the prophet had ordered on a peach grower. Just because the prophet wanted some fine peaches, he had killed a man. He had done many terrible things at the prophet’s bidding, but in this he had acted alone in causing another’s unnecessary death. That’s the kind of person he was. It showed his character. He could have had the man removed from the bridge. He could have just thrown him in the brig. But no. He had shot him. Certainly it had improved discipline and the quickness with which his orders had been followed. Neither was it unheard of in a combat situation to do so. But he knew it was unnecessary. He’d done it in a fit of anger and undisciplined overreaction.
Here was a machine that had saved his life. Why? Was it acting on strange algorithms? What if she were sentient? What if the prophet Dawk had been wrong so many years ago, or what if he had been right then, but these newer Capeks were conscious and old traditions needed replacing. What if the stale teaching of yesteryear was keeping the Dawkists from seeing the truth? Here was Bla’a Kitra. She was not just a machine. She had been his teacher. She had been his mentor. She had just saved his life on the false hope that there was some reason to hope for a conversion?
“If I didn’t kill you would you try to thwart our reconstruction of the Bla’a Wull Capek?”
“I do not care about your reconstructing the Bla’a Wull person. It means nothing to me. Had you not attacked us and instead come to us with a request we might have helped you.”
He considered this. What if he let her go?
No! She had to die. Once they unmasked the qnet, her story would go throughout the Capek and human world instantly. It might start a war with both the Presidium and many of the non-aliened syndicates. This had to be a secret. Even if she were sentient she would have to die. This could not go out on the qnet.
He pointed his weapon at her, “You understand why you must die?”
“I’m glad to see you use the word ‘die.’ Before our encounter, you would have used another word like ‘be turned off’ or just ‘disentangled.’
It was true. He had just betrayed Dawkism in a subtle way. Not only with his words, but with his heart as well. He knew she was sentient. That she was having a conscious experience. That it was something like what it was to be her. He would not just turn her off. She would be killed.
He raised his weapon, “I am so sorry.”
The officers ran to him from the shuttle.
“Sir. Are you all right?”
“Fine. One of the Capeks was on my ship. She camouflaged it. I estimate the shuttle’s parked within ten kilometers. Find it.”
“Should we start a search for the tick-tock?”
“No. She has been disentangled. Have the others been destroyed?”
“Yes sir. The mission was completed within seven hours, except one Capek, a Bla’a Kitra.”
“That was who shadowed me here. Excellent work.”
“Sir, the men are anxious to communicate with their loved ones. With your permission, I’ll order the cessation of qnet smearing since the Capeks are all dead and accounted for.”
“No.” He hesitated as if searching for the right words, then continued, “I learned things from the one that led me to believe there may be automatic recording devices, or something, that will activate and tell what happened here once the qnet is activated. We are going to leave it off until the copy of the rogue target has been made and delivered to headquarters.”
“But Sir, that will mean being dark for over a month? If the Capeks are dead. The men did not expect… It seems completely unnecessary, as we’ve swept for such devices, and…”
The look in the Admiral’s eye silenced him.
“Yes. Sir. Understood. It will be as you say.”
He walked briskly to the rescue ship over the dry grass, the taste of Bla’a Kitra’s breakfast stew still in his mouth. He looked out into the savannah and smiled knowing that she was out there running free over the wild plains was a being. Sentient. Awake. Conscious. His favorite teacher easily. A friend even.
Steven L. Peck is Associate Professor in the Biology Department of Brigham Young University where he teaches The History and Philosophy of Biology and Bioethics.
Creative works include three novels. The magical realism novel, The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press was named Association of Mormon Literature’s best novel of 2011 and was a Montaigne Medal Finalist. His existential horror, A Short Stay in Hell, published by Strange Violin Editions is currently being made into a full-length feature film by Wandering/Cut Films, written and directed by David Spaltro and slated for release in Dec 2017.
Other creative works include publications in Abyss & Apex, Analog, Bellowing Ark, Daily Science Fiction, Dialogue, Every Day Fiction, Irreantum, Jabberwocky Magazine, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, Nature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Red Rock Review, Silver Blade, Tales of the Talisman, Victorian Violet Press, Warp and Weave, and many other journals.