Then it was my turn to be frightened, because I realized for the first time that it was possible for a human being to do what I had done.
And if I could do it to Elen, I thought, surely they could do it to me.
But they couldn’t. They set me free: they had to.
And it was then I understood that I was king of the world…
~Damon Knight, The Country of the Kind
Parables or–more precisely–philosophical exemplifications have always been a subset of science fiction. Here is a new one which may (or may not) illuminate something of the current state, and the bright future that is in store for the civilizing influence of science fiction. (Note: in two parts for readability.)
The Electric Hunt
For the honor of the regiment. Happy Blue Year.
Pink: she is no woman. For me to expect any quarter, any adherence to known protocols, any discernable code but her own self-interest would be suicide, and likely mass homicide.
My odds are terrible enough as they are: I’m the wrong model – a bunch of guns on a pair of sticks, a solo tool, hand made. She’s from the older days when there were enough men alive on the planet for it to seem natural for factories to crank out identical, highly integrated Tending machines, each itemized part stamped with its own serial number – figures that routinely soared into the hundreds of thousands.
But the days of Tending are done now, and her kind has become the proverbial medicine gone bad: a proposed cure in the former society that is now practical poison in the present.
The population of man is now just under one hundred million: they can only continue the slow and painful recovery back to demographic growth through hard work, decades of patience and large families. The Tender War left us with no legacy but death, no lessons but these two – the Tenders would never quit spawning on their own accord, and they would never respect a peace with a race it now regarded as out-of-date.
We, and when I say “we,” I mean my men, the sort with muscle on their skeletons and organic brains inside their skulls, we need the deer now. The deer and bison and even the violent twale hybrids. We hunt and thrive and win and, if all the chores are covered, attempt to build a civilization that our children – or rather, their children – may secure.
She has made it her duty to thwart our band at the source: our secondary hunting grounds. We are barely supplied to defend the primary grounds from attack, so she knows she can declare open season on the back country, and leave us – without risk to herself of retaliation – vulnerable to famine very soon.
Worse, she self-replicates.
It cost us all a great amount to send me to scout, to identify the targets and give a small company the chance to stop her. My primary protocol is survival – my greatest value is reportage, and – aside from the very rare isolated targets of opportunity – I have no serious chance to take on her squadron alone and survive. The trouble with Tenders is that they are vampiric: if you don’t neutralize them all, any and every significant victory against them is Pyrrhic.
My Jetty Flit keeps me out of their carnage below: crippled swaths of forest, orange blotches of fire, funnels of smoke in the wilderness. Within the hour, the tracer identifies the culprit: one of Pink’s daughters loping through the junipers, her flamethrower belching into the branches.
Targeting is a cinch in the knot. She’s alone, and I can keep safe distance. My survival is not at risk. Most importantly, the materials cost of the ammunition loss are sufficiently below threshold. There is no question – to save life, hers has to end.
The Flit is by no means heavy artillery, but there are few pleasures like the gentle, whispering kiss of drop-launched needlenose.
The wire and struts of the little vehicle sigh just a touch, and we lift ever so slightly at the release of a fourteen kilogram missile.
I hold the target in my mind for a full second. Then a flash, a blur of smoke, and finally a visceral whump that throttles the ground below.
The daughter lies torn to bits and scattered for forty meters. I twist the Flit in midair, taking only a moment to enjoy the loss of gravity, and scan the kill zone.
Mostly, she’s scraps, but I fly low enough to identify her intact hand. Not good: that thing can crawl around like a spider, salvaging her body’s shrapnel and then beginning to mine for metals. Within a month, she’ll be up and running again – perhaps not full strength, but enough to burn a thousand acres of land and life to ash. I drop another needle on the twitching thing.
The missile hits. The blast shudders through the Flit, but I’m too close. Her fingers had a death-throe defense: loaded mini-grenades. I watch two balls, now three, loft high in my rearview vision, then fall harmlessly away, booming against the dirt below. A fourth one sails to my left, well away.
It is the fifth – the one I do not see, but feel, losing all sensation below my waist – that is the problem.
I am going down.
The hit blacked me out for critical seconds until my system reset. When I came back online, hard branches bashed my face and chest, and I ejected free into the lower limbs as soon as I saw one of the Flit’s wings ripped off and thrust deep into the earth.
I snapped a hydraulic in the pit of my knee joint as I crashed through the branches. Fortunately, I landed square on my head, and aside from a dent in the back, lost no critical seals. The tattered chassis of the Flit hung above in the charred tree, and I rolled downhill as it broke free, smashing into the spot where I had landed. I smothered a small fire in the grass with my chest, and went blind from the smoke.
I stood up, smeared with ash. Hazy vision came back online and I assesed. The lateral interior hydraulic in my left leg could not be fused, so I capped both ends to stop the leak. I’d limp very slightly, but as long as I lost nothing more in that sector, I’d be able to walk. Two support routines had been rattled, so their related weapons systems would not be automatic.
Chronoprocessing was off. Thus, the present moment could only be assessed as a past event. Perhaps that was the worst of it.
I’d only lost a single solar spinner, out of six. Materials costs were unacceptable but there was nothing I could do about that immediately. As I walked through the wastes and beyond the final reach of Pink’s daughter into a healthy wood untouched by fire, poison and grenade, I realized that, for being stranded without back-up in a violent land populated by killing machines, I had been very lucky.
An hour later, I found thirty deer. They hung by their ankles, their bellies slashed, their entrails splattering the dirt in bloody piles, and hawks feasting upon the waste.
Luck, I suppose, is relative.
The growl froze me. It was an instantaneous reaction to an abnormal situation: that sound was my first signal to the presence of a twale. It should have been, at the very worst, my fourth signal, following heat maps, radio location and temporal vibration. Clearly, my reporting system was not running at full capacity.
The prehistoric giant cat, revived and genetically blended with the sentinel breed, had massive tusks designed to gut elephants, teeth like a shark’s and weighed a little more than horse. Good thing it was small for its kind.
I tilted my dark blue panels to mirror my surroundings. It was enough to render me invisible to the beast’s color-limited vision. I entered full kinetic stasis: the slightest motion would render me an easy target, even at the distance of fifty meters. It was then that I realized that the secondary hydraulic I had snapped in my hamstring would provide something worse than a slight limp when I walked: it would destabilize me in stasis.
Fifty meters and closing. The great beast cautiously approached, winding through a path in the trees like a snake. As it closed, I saw that the creature had seen violence recently: his fur had been singed and a prong of wrenched cobalt hung from a bloody tear in its haunches. I did not try to process how steel so hard had been bent so wickedly.
The animal was filthy with radiation. My rough detection guessed that the poor monster, or at least all of its critical sodium isotope, had a half-life of about 15 hours. Still, it was far more than enough time for the beast, now scaling the trees sideways as if they were rungs on a ladder, to render me permanently disassembled.
I armed pin missiles lining my shoulders and chest, but made no move to level my heavy gun or flick a blade. The twale’s breath was sweet and warm, and a brush of its tusk knocked me flat onto the ground. I had point blank shots. Its scaled, wire-haired belly coursed over me like a transport engine.
I did not fire. This creature was dying. Who was I to accelerate the inevitable? Besides, if he took the best attacks from a Pink model, I doubted very much that my worst would do more than irritate him. He purred as he dragged his giant, bared can-openers a few centimeters from my tin.
I felt the ground bounce as the twale launched away, shattering blackened branches as he left my prone body behind. My giger chirped for a few minutes. At least it was back online.
Pink – or one of her daughters – had converted her element-seeking neutron activation analyzer into a cruel poisoner. To what end? If our kind were capable of meanness, I’d say it was meanness.
I watched the monster thunder into the wastes I’d left behind, doubtful he’d have the breath or brain power to crest the second hillock.
It wasn’t until I was back on my feet that I realized that my left hand bayonet had engaged.
In my other hand, I held the cruel bit of metal that Pink had stabbed the twale with. I could only guess that my scavenger mode had found the risk worthwhile. Either that, or my autonomics had an inordinate sense of compassion for a wounded animal. Just like the bayonet, I have no memory of pulling the metal from the wound.
I examined the salvage. It was not a conventional weapon, but a probe. From my best estimation, it had not been launched, but attached directly to the Pink when it had come off. It had a small sensor at the end, attached to a box.
A lead box. Trace radioactivity in the shredded metal indicated Californium: Pink had gotten close enough to the twale to irradiate it in melee. I wondered if she had survived her own cruelty. Now, however, I had more than salvage: I had a means of tracking Pink – or one of her daughters, it really didn’t matter.
One of the drawbacks of the old Tenders comes from their strength: self-replication demands that the individual parts can seek and identify their host. I now had a leash that would lead me to the next Pink.
The shields could still be removed from the internal pull trigger of the device. It would have been folly to do so. The probe had lost its directional casing, which meant that there were no safeguards. If I opened the lead shields, not only would any target be instantly blasted and stripped of neutrons, but so would pretty much everything in sight, including myself. My survival protocols were extremely resistant to letting me become a degrading irradiated isotope of myself. From the bestial screams echoing from the valley beyond, I could sense that such a fate had not worked out too well for the twale.
My left hand had its own design flaw: it was virtually non-functional except as a weapon, and now it had engaged without my say-so. The cobalt and molybdenum block at the end of my wrist was stuffed with fat missles equipped with pin frag. Upon launching, they would recycle the booster expulsion to launch a wide shotgun spread of needles forward, softening several targets milliseconds before the main missle detonated, exploding residual pins in all forward directions, blasting a crater in the air, earth or flesh about ten meters wide, and igniting all oxygen in a three-meter sphere. I had a lot of molybdenum in my structure: yes, it oxidized quickly at high heat. So I had to be careful about a weapon function that reached temperatures over a thousand degrees. What could I do? Molybdenum was machine grade, and an element in abundant supply for the blacksmith and machinist.
I called the missle launcher block My Lunchbox.
My Lunchbox was very sensitive about threats like the twale. I was fortunate it had gone into blade mode instead of full panic, but it was unsettling to be so out of synchronicity with my – well, with myself.
I heard the sharp winging of a hawk overhead as it dove into the clearing. The slaughter of deer must have smelled like paradise to the bird. Its eyes went black in the shade of a bloody tree and the hawk plunged into the sliced belly, snagging a warm kidney from the cavity of a young buck dangling from its broken back leg. The hawk misjudged the mass of its target: the kidney was still connected to guts, so instead of swooping in, clutching and soaring up, it clutched and leveled and slowed. The circle of life.
I blasted the bird with my right hand Mokri; elegant, slim, and nearly surgical in purpose. The hawk hit the ground and rolled, its black eye gone, still grasping the kidney. The hot shields on the bullet cauterized the wound: no blood.
“A little respect for the dead, scavenger. This place is murder, not lunch.”
Tracking Pink north to 41.11183, I left the deer, but not before releasing a capsule that burst into repellant, shielding the dead from any more avian graverobbers…at least for a few more hours.