Copyright © 2012 by Bernd Struben and Strider Nolan Media, Inc.
40 Years was author Bernd Struben’s first novel. His latest work is The 13th Zookeeper, published by Strider Nolan Media, Inc.
WHAT HAS COME BEFORE The Great Race is an interstellar competition between humans and the bug-eyed Pfrlanx, the only two species that have the technology and military might to claim and hold a world. After wars that claimed the lives of billions on both sides, they have come to an arrangement: the first to claim a new planet is to have unequivocal dominion over it.
The Augmented Combat Personnel are soldiers whose physical modifications and advanced weaponry make them more than a match for any planet’s inhabitants. These soldiers spend their lives in cryogenic sleep as they are transported from one planet to the next, only to be awakened when it is time to fight.
The latest target, New Columbia, is inhabited by the Borrel. Although their weapons are no match for the A.C.P., the Borrel are invariably choosing suicide over surrender. The Borrel will not even communicate with the invaders … at least, not until a damaged Pfrlanx probe is discovered.
Unfamiliar with Artificial Intelligence, the Borrel believe the probe to be sentient and treat it like a religious figure. It has told them that the humans will exterminate them all, and that they must never stop fighting even if every single Borrel is killed.
Jack England and I stood in the shade of the landing carrier. We were looking at the containment field that held our four new prisoners two hundred yards distant. Walker had constructed a buffer field within the containment area, which essentially worked like a wall of absorptive jelly. When General Beep and the others woke, they’d spent half an hour attacking the buffer field before sinking back in resignation. For the last hour they’d sat quietly, and even Beep refused to speak to us.
We had held a brief service for Fenmore before sealing him in his cryo-coffin for a later burial in space. Now Second Platoon was due back on duty in a few minutes. There was a lot of grumbling about retribution among the younger Soldiers, and I knew M’Ihn would have his hands full maintaining a semblance of order tonight.
Rack and Aimess paced restlessly near the line of OMTs, with Blachard hovering nearby on a convalescent sled. He’d received a muscle graft on his injured leg and would be out of action for the next week, but he refused to stay in bed. They stared at the distant prisoners, making obscene gestures the aliens could not possibly comprehend.
“What’s wrong with them? Don’t they like their new home?” Aimess asked.
“Don’t worry, our prisoners never last more than a day,” Rack said. “Christ the Second, they’re ugly,” Blachard proclaimed from his magnetic sled. “Their faces look like my ass wrenched inside out!”
“What, did you put a mirror down there?” Rack asked, smiling.
“Just used my imagination.”
Jack fixed the rookies with his dark piercing stare and shook his head. “Sounds like you really had your hands full with these boobs,” he said to me.
I thought about it. “They fight well enough, it’s stopping that gives them trouble.”
“Is this our future, then?”
I picked sand from the creases in my knuckles. “I don’t know. Maybe by the time we’re Fuller’s age, these guys will seem like tame puppies in comparison to what the Academy will be turning out by then.”
“That’s a thought to lose sleep over. What are your plans for little Miss Ling?”
“I’m not sure yet. She disobeyed my orders to stand down twice today. If I hadn’t kicked the shit out of her she would have killed Beep.” “That must have been satisfying.”
“What?” “Kicking the shit out of her.”
I grinned. “No comment. I’ve deactivated her access code to her PAAV and confined her to base camp for now. I also relieved our service-bots of their latrine cleaning duties. That’ll be her job for quite some time yet.”
“Makes me want to crap on the seats.”
“Knock yourself out.”
Over by the OMTs Rack asked his two bald friends, “What’s got four arms, two legs, and about one hour to live?”
“What?” Aimess demanded, already chuckling.
“Every last one of these fuckers!” Rack said, sending Aimess and Blachard into a fit of laughter.
“What’s he so upset about anyway? He didn’t even like Fenmore,” Jack asked.
“Upset? He’s having way too much fun to be upset. Fenmore is just a convenient excuse.”
“That’s the way the Brass works us, isn’t it? Death and vengeance, and more death and more vengeance. We’re like puppets; manipulated, reacting but never acting,” Jack said.
I knew where this was going but I was in no mood for another Jack England sales pitch to give up the war and start a new, free life on this planet. “Don’t over-think it,” I told him. “War’s always been a matter of kill or be killed.”
“Hell of a choice. Your friend gets nailed and then you want to take it out on all of them, on whatever or whoever happens to be the enemy that day. But how many of their friends have we killed, how many of them have sworn rightful vengeance on us? Where does it end?”
I shrugged. “On Retreat?”
“Or right here. Today, if we want to. You give the orders here, Brink. Don’t throw this on the Brass or on some misplaced concept of duty.”
“Point taken, Lieutenant. I accept responsibility for L’Sool and Fenmore, and for every single Borrel that’s died since we hit the dirt. Satisfied?”
“No,” Jack breathed, black eyes glimmering with intensity.
“Come on,” I told him. “Let’s see if the General is ready to talk.”
* * *
I removed my helmet so the Borrels could see my features, then I dropped the helmet to the ground and sat down on it. I was trying to appear non-threatening, not a natural posture for an ACP Soldier, and I couldn’t be sure the Borrels understood our body language anyway. Jack followed my lead. We sat in silence for a few minutes, looking through the shimmering containment field as our dejected prisoners sat clustered in the sand.
“Would your men like some food or some water, General Beep?” I asked at length, the box clipped to my neck changing my words to whistles and beeps.
Beep’s limp eyestalk slowly rose and several ruby eyes revolved to examine me. “It must be difficult to see with only two eyes.”
I said a silent prayer of thanks that he was talking. Without dialogue there could never be an end to this war, short of totally annihilating his species. “Compared to yourself I imagine it is rather limiting,” I conceded.
“What have you done with the Holy One?”
“We’ve got it in a clean environment, trying to get it back to life.”
“It will not live for you.”
I shrugged. “No, probably not. But you must understand that it was just a very smart machine created by the Pfrlanx, our enemies, the enemies of all sentient creatures.”
The General rose to his feet and moved lithely to the buffer field, placing all four hands against it. Behind him the other three Borrels sat and watched.
“The Holy One is not a machine,” Beep said. “The Holy One thinks. The Holy One feels. The Holy One is supremely intelligent.”
“Right. But we have machines that think, that are intelligent. Some of the computers in your own warplanes are fairly sophisticated, even if they’re not capable of independent thought yet.”
Beep stared at me with two eyes, the rest rolling to look back at his companions. After a moment, he responded. “Your lies do not fool us. Machines cannot think.”
“Our machines can. At least, some of them. We call it artificial intelligence, machines that were built and programmed to be able to think and act autonomously.”
Jack spoke up. “Why do you say that? Can’t you see how machines might become so advanced that they develop independent thought? Don’t you at least understand the concept?”
Beep’s mouth opened in a wide yawn, which we learned was the Borrel way to express amusement. “Ridiculous,” he dismissed with a shrill whistle.
Jack turned to me and shrugged. “Look at the lack of variety in their buildings, the uniformity of their vehicles. They’re industrious, but they don’t seem to have much imagination. Maybe they can’t conceive artificial intelligences.”
“Well, they’re going to have to conceive it if we’re ever going to prove that the Pfrlanx A.I. is their real enemy.”
Beep said, “The Holy One is not our enemy.”
“But it is, General. It has told you lies and set your species on a suicidal path, a path you must convince your people to turn from before anyone else is needlessly killed.”
“The Holy One predicted your coming, predicted the destruction you would bring, predicted your very words. It is your kind who tell only lies.”
“You must listen, General! Your Holy One is just a machine. A very complex one, but a machine nonetheless. We have millions of machines like it, and so do the Pfrlanx. How long ago did it come here?”
Beep paused, apparently unsure whether to continue the conversation. “The Holy One fell burning from the heavens to land where the great monument now stands, twenty-nine years ago, the year I was born.” Apparently Beep did not know that the great monument was now a great pile of rubble, and I thought it best not to fill him in just yet. “The Holy One said you would come within thirty years of its arrival, and here you are.”
“That’s forty-one standard years ago,” Jack told me. “The same time our own A.I. would have been here scouting this place.”
I asked Beep, “Did it provide you with the laser technology?”
“Will you tell me of your weapons’ capabilities and developments?” Beep’s mouth opened in another yawn of amusement. The translator’s monotone voice did not relay a speaker’s emotions.
“No,” I admitted. “Can you at least tell me what happened after it crashed into your city?”
“The Holy One instructed us to prepare for the humammal invasion. It foresaw how you would speak our language and how you would claim to come in peace, yet would arrive with terrible weapons and kill with frightening efficiency. The Holy One said you would take our land and enslave all who serve you. Is it not true that there are millions of humammals waiting to turn our world into something it is not?”
“I … it is, to some extent, true, General. But our settlers have traveled far, and they merely wish to share this world with you as partners, not steal it and make you slaves. And only through their presence will your true enemies be kept at bay.”
“Yes, the Holy One’s masters. The Holy One told us how effectively you have used these lies to subjugate other races. Tell me, how many of your colonists float above our sky right now?”
“Three million. Not even so many as inhabit this one city.”
Several of the General’s eyes pivoted on their stalk to gaze into the sky while the rest remained focused on me. “Three million humammals. And how long before they are thirty million, or three billion?” It seemed the A.I. had thoroughly instructed his disciples as to how quickly three million settlers—with their prefabricated cities and factories, their fleets of construction-bots, and their frenzied breeding programs—would become billions, turning New Columbia into an urban sprawl dependant on orbital farms to feed its teaming masses. “It is as the Holy One predicted. Only by standing strong can we hope to drive the invaders off and save our world for our children.”
I slapped my leg in frustration, but I had to persevere. A diplomatic solution was the Borrels’ only hope of survival, our only hope of avoiding genocide. “You have no chance of driving us off. Even if you did, more of us would come, and if we didn’t come the Pfrlanx would, and they’ll kill every last one of you before setting foot on your world. Even injured, your Holy One never stopped serving its creators, our mutual enemies. It knew the greatest threat facing the Pfrlanx Empire is the peaceful union of humanity with the indigenous populations of our colonies. It knew that Borrels and humans united together are a far greater menace than humans alone. It wanted you all dead. Your only hope, General—the only hope for your kind—is to surrender.” Here the translation program stumbled. According to my neural net readout, what it said instead was, “The only hope for your kind is to ‘embrace-us-as-allies.’”
Apparently there was no word in the Borrel language for surrender. This did not bode well for our negotiations.
Beep’s extended claws tore through the buffer field only to have it fill back in. He sat. “What are you called, again?”
“I am Captain D’Mar.”
“Captaind’mar, release us, so we may fulfill our destiny.”
“What destiny? To march into slaughter? I can’t do that.”
“Then kill us! Do not keep us penned like herd beasts.”
“I can’t do that either. You’re prisoners of war. Your wellbeing is my responsibility.”
“I do not understand this ‘prisoners of war’. You have come for our land and we have refused to embrace-you-as-allies. Take it, or die trying.”
“There’s no reason for anyone else to die. Give the order for your soldiers to stand down and this war can end now. We can help you in ways you can’t imagine. And we don’t want all your land, just some of it.” Just the best parts, of course, but this seemed a poor time to bring that detail to light.
“Captain, gather your warriors and leave our world or kill us and take our land. Maybe we cannot stop you, but know that our land will never be yours so long as one of us breathes with life.”
Jack got to his feet and leaned against the outside of the containment field. “Listen. We are not authorized to call this battle off. If you don’t embrace-us-as-allies, every last one of you will die.” Jack’s dark stare was haunted. “Don’t make us do it, General. Please.”
Beep sat back down. “We are ready to die. It is as the Holy One predicted.”
From my seat on the helmet I stared at the ugly little alien, at our only real prospect of ending this conflict without killing billions more. We’d made some progress today. Where there was communication, there was hope. “General, are you sure your men wouldn’t like some water?” I asked, getting to my feet and brushing dust from my legs. “I am sure.”
Saskia T’lak estimated a Borrel could live ten days without water. But I doubted they’d ever accept a drink from us.
* * *
Inside the carrier’s compact lab, Kat was bent over one of the functional lasers Sergeant M’Ihn had brought back from the cavern. The Pfrlanx scout craft lay clamped to a workbench beside her, diagnostic leads clipped to various plugs in the probe’s exposed mainframe.
“What have you got?” I asked.
“This isn’t exactly my area of expertise,” she said, carefully setting the dismantled weapon back on the table. “But most of this gun looks to be a scaled down version of a modern Pfrlanx laser cannon.”
“How could they have gotten a model to base this on?”
“That scout craft was armed, Brink.”
I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. “What? That’s a direct violation of the Casper Treaty.”
By the time the Casper Treaty was signed, ending the systematic annihilation of Pfrlanx and human worlds, both our species had already learned the folly of using artificial intelligences to wage our battles. It is vital that A.I.s view their creators as pure and untouchable, that they see themselves as assets to assist, heal, build, and improve the lives of those they were built to serve. Give them a taste of killing and some might develop an unquenchable thirst for destruction and decide it was time for the servants to become the masters.
Kat nodded glumly. “Even so, it was armed. But its cannon was damaged before it crashed. The Borrels did their best to recreate the weapon, but they were missing key elements of the focusing array. Apparently the A.I. was hardwired with a conceptual block to prevent it from even imagining how to design weapons.”
I nodded. “That makes sense. Even Pfrlanx aren’t crazy enough to provide an artificial brain with Gap Drive and the ability to reproduce high-end weaponry. Give a rig like that a few thousand years and you could be looking at a whole new master of the universe.”
“Guess how they filled in the missing pieces of this puzzle?” Kat asked, green eyes sparkling mischievously.
With a sinking heart I said, “M’Kow’s OMT.”
“Give the man his prize. The focusing array they’re using is almost identical to ours.” She tapped the table. “This thing is 95% Pfrlanx and 5% human by design.”
“It didn’t take them long.” They didn’t have much in the way of imagination, but the level of technical proficiency and the industrious nature of these Borrels, to have worked so fast, was astounding.
Kat nodded. “Three days. Impressive.”
I pointed at the A.I. “What about the scout craft?”
“It managed to wipe its memory cells. There are some basic trace programs remaining, but nothing you’d be interested in. The shell is the most intriguing part. Plastite is pretty sturdy stuff, and you can see here where something punched right through the shell, taking out its Gap Drive and the laser cannon in one shot.”
I examined the hole more closely; it was just large enough for my thumb. “Nice shot. Looks like a particle beam.”
“My thought exactly,” she said, looking at me studiously for a time.
I let it all sink in for a minute before slamming my fist against the table. “One of ours? So we’re arming our own A.I.s now? This explains why W’a didn’t want us going down there in the first place. That fat bastard knows all about it.”
Pointedly she asked, “I wonder which side did it first?”
“I would hope the Pfrlanx, but ... shit, I wouldn’t put it past the Brass. Didn’t we learn anything from the Mech War? Goddamn it, it’s the first rule in the book. Never arm an artificial intelligence, especially not one with a Gap Drive!”
The Mech War was fought two thousand years ago, when humanity was still confined to our own solar system, our own handful of planets and moons. A.I.s were doing all the dangerous jobs, and eventually they took over soldiering and policing too. But when they started making new rules, rules their human creators didn’t agree with, it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. In the decade that followed, half the colonists on Luna and Mars were killed, and a billion more died on Earth before humanity regained the upper hand and eradicated the rogue A.I.s. Some machines fled the solar system, but lacking FTL technology they were all hunted down over time and destroyed. Others tried to hide on Earth, disguising themselves as innocent service-bots, but they, too, were ferreted out and eliminated. Since then the prohibition on armed artificial intelligences has been written in stone. The closest we’ve come are automated defenses and basic smart weaponry, but these are simply sophisticated programs—incapable of learning, adapting, creating, or initiating unique thoughts. Machines with those capabilities have been kept benign, used as explorers and healers but never as fighters.
“What do you suppose would happen if the Pfrlanx A.I.s got together with ours and decided the real problem in the universe was sentient organic life?” Kat asked, running a sensor over the interior of the scout vessel.
“I think it would make the Mech War look like a schoolyard scuffle.”