Ice Spider, by Zackary Lowing


Just In Case
(From the continuing Langford Joh Saga)

By William Alan Rieser


"Iron Feather!" said Langford Joh in a disturbed mood as he demanded his son's attention. "I want you to read this sensor log I am sending you. When you are finished and completely understand the ramifications, I want you to journey to Ghyme and see if you can rescue the fellow. The Earth records indicate that the colony simply disappeared without explanation. I think you should set matters aright."

"Yes, father, but I am engaged in Arcturus at the moment. It's a tricky situation."

"Put them on hold. Find a way. This soul needs rescuing and perhaps more than that."

"I'll read it at once, father. Let's hope I can do something."

Iron Feather engineered a stasis beam and placed an entire section of Arcturus in hibernation. That gave him the time he needed to comprehend the sensor. He began absorbing the data slowly.

* * *

I can feel the vibrations of the great, silvered legs as they singly engage to move the bulky sac around the craft. Ciliatic mobility amplified. From time to time, the mandibles and pincers grate against themselves, honing their sharpness so that they can plunge more effectively into prey. I can't disassociate myself from prey, yet I am kept isolated, reserved for a deceptive purpose, hidden behind multifaceted lenses but not allowed to peer. They don't want me to experience aggression.

It happened in less time than it takes to tell about the horror. One moment, we were in charge, the same way we had been since Adam gave names to everything and Noah supposedly implored G-d to cease ridding the Earth of undesirables. Everything existed for us and we treated all forms of life with equal contempt. Maybe that was why we were made to serve as an example, to teach us humility or let us see our arrogant behavior through the eyes of our most sophisticated creative efforts. Nevertheless, in spite of the predicament, there are powerful, clever genes at work in my make-up and I find myself hoping they surface when I find ways to use them against the maestrobots.

I didn't learn the real reason why they kept me alive until long after the fact. They had crushed most of the human colony on Rogan 4 without the slightest hint of conscience, morals or any of the other traits that bog down organics like me. That is my label now, an organic, as opposed to a mechanical like them or their troopers, the cybernetic elements. I have lost all sense of time since the day their mechanical-biological onslaught broke into our underground hideaway and massacred my family and friends. It can never be the same
again. I know that, though I think they want me to be grateful for sustaining my life. Actually, if they knew I coveted death, now that all chances for normalcy have been removed, I doubt if they would be moved to comply. Programming must be fulfilled.

"This one was a scientist," a voice said without inflection in the recesses of my memory.

"He shall serve a higher purpose," stated another, echoing a more private sentiment.

I am sure I'm not the only one left, but verification is virtually impossible. They are too efficient to allow that possibility, so somewhere in this vast matrix of tubes and containers, another, possibly several, are experiencing human hopelessness equally. They can't equate misery and pain to digital codes. The closest thing they have to suffering is a failed program. Then, of course, they have options, alternate methods to achieve their goals. I suppose they can run out of ideas, the same way people did, the way Dr. Shuriken finally
admitted. Undoubtedly, when a program fails continuously and they have exhausted their options, they abandon it as impractical. I can't be certain what their ultimate motives are. Survival is obvious, but there has to be more than that or they wouldn't be the dominant species now.

"The polar regions are secure," rang one mind with exactitude. "Opposition has been eliminated."

"The universe commences with a single sphere," commented a similar complexity.

They have been calling me Justin Case for quite some time, and that was the first glimmer about why my preservation became useful to them. It was that and a fluke opportunity I had to witness a construction plant that clued me in to their manufactured destiny. They don't bother duplicating themselves the way I thought. They have their little hierarchy and they go to great extremes to keep it intact, not unlike the politicians I remember from the past. What they do reproduce in quantity are cybes, opposition or fighting machines of extraordinary ability, limited by artificial intelligence indices for specific tasks. They don't need their soldiers to think beyond warfare. The maestrobots do that and they guard their status jealously.

"There is no directive to secure inferior intellects, barring workers." That was one of the selected slogans they permitted me to peruse.

Somewhere in my befuddled thinking process I began to question the purpose of it all. Why did they bother doing what they were doing unless they planned to expand? It occurred to me that they were building an invasion force, maybe several, to account for the whole galaxy. That would be in line with Dr. Shuriken's thinking process and he was a pasty-faced, bloodless automaton, from my point of view. Dealing with other mechanicals was something the maestrobots could handle quite well. The cybes were their answer to whatever hybrids the galaxy presented them. The only other entities of importance are organic. That, I concluded, was why they kept me around, just-in-case I could give them an edge. They are big believers in edges.

* * *

I can tell the awkwardness of this particular body. They must have had great difficulty when converting the cryogenic modules into a giant arachnid. Yet, in order to complete their programming, they were forced to succeed by their own logic. I have no doubt that the tensile strength of this concoction goes beyond anything we ever considered. This monstrosity can pass through steel walls like slicing an aluminum can. And it has an array of poisons in its arsenal that would have shamed our military.

"We have sensed a new opposition on Ghyme. Our plans must adapt." This reasoning was the closest they ever came in my presence to being excited, though I did not know the reason why at the time.

I don't want you to think that I didn't try to outsmart them. Opportunities were there. They know what maintenance is and made a determined effort to find out what it took to make me functional. It had nothing to do with keeping me happy, of course, merely alive in their terms. It didn't make any difference to them whether they had to wait ten years to use me or a thousand. They simply went about solving the aging process in humans as though it was a math equation. I really don't know how long it has been, though I know they replaced a defective organ of mine with a spare part. That is not something I care to think about, considering the implications.

"Do they require gases?" asked one superior, referring to human anatomy. His vocal inflections recalled the toneless Dr. Shuriken to my mind. "Their medical history is imprecise."

"Artificial social contact is indicated," answered another impersonal murderer who had delved our psychological references. "Competence fades without interaction."

For a short time, one of the maestrobots visited me with questions, seeking to learn what it might take to keep me sustained. Its interview is somewhat easier to recall than earlier attempts.

"We have determined from human recording devices some nondestructive items that you may ingest in order to satisfy continuance. Please select those with which you are familiar." It was like debating an auto-teller, with no chance to clarify its errors.

"C-co-ffee is one, with sugar and powdered milk," I answered. "Red gelatin, heated soy beans and bread! Can I have bread?"

"Grains are destructive. They break down the defensive structure. It is why your species limits itself to short spans and weak attributes."

"You have studied the physicality of human beings? Yes, of course. You needed that to effectively eliminate us. I tell you I need bread to live." They had no intention of wasting their time with food processes. I was lucky to get anything edible.

"That is fallacy, Justin Case," replied my inquisitor. He didn't get angry or raise his voice in any way, but seemed put out when my logic differed from his.

That was when I became intimate with the fact that they had altered me by surgical means. They employed electrical interfaces, implanted in sensitive areas of my body so that they could control my aberrant behavior. When I became insistent about anything, such as my demand for bread, they responded with a series of unpleasant jolts that ceased only when I contradicted myself.

"I do not need bread," I replied with appeasement after sensing the utter impossibility of my situation. "What you have supplied is sufficient." Caving in is the first step toward a successful rebellion. Never let them know how dissatisfied you really are.

They liked it when I spoke like that, technically and simply with parallel logic. Emotional responses were more or less punished with nervous-system interruptions which they had thoroughly investigated and could control. If I was good, that is, silent and unobtrusive, I was rewarded with implanted suggestions that appealed to those areas of my brain that perceived pleasure. They turned me into a sex junkie without bothering to provide me a mate. I don't know for a fact that any women survive, but it would be like them to keep some around if they weren't too difficult to maintain.

* * *

Behind the eye lenses are the lasers. If the Ghymes refuse to get "bug-eyed," they will be melted before they have a chance to react. That and the acid sprays, available at every digital claw, are bound to decimate the opposition. Then, of course, there is that awful stinger at the end of the abdomen. It can take out any determined offense and burn through andurite. All I can do is sense their screams.

Occasionally I was asked to "explain" technologies and other scientific matters that were illogical to their programming. I think they trusted me or at least depended upon my responses because of my cooperation. I do not know if they believed what I told them or acted upon my information. For instance, they were puzzled about underwater gear and submarines.

"To more easily breathe in a large, liquid environment," I told them, "so that other organic life forms could be studied, areas farmed to grow food and others exploited for natural resources like oil and minerals."

That they understood. They also seemed to be very interested in anything I knew about the space program, especially the big station that orbited the planet. They never seemed to establish the connection that I was a NASA engineer, and they certainly didn't suspect that I was in any way responsible for the limitations of their speech-recognition patterns. That was my edge, the fact that I did know about it. I was one of the technicians who made their existence possible, though I never got involved with the other intricacies of their development, the ones that superseded linguistics. Still, I labored under the distinct illusion that my special knowledge might come in handy some time when I was in a position to do something about it. My brain constantly searched for a way to make them pay for our indiscretion.

One day, I was made aware of the fact that they were attempting to communicate with Ghyme because they were incorrectly assessing the language due to a lack of necessary programming instructions. Some of their confusion leaked out into the neural net to which I was attuned.

"No," I thought to their telepathic network. "They are pure organic forms, like me. Their thoughts are more animal than logical. They have a minimum technology."

The maestrobots had synthesized most speech patterns into a faster and more usable instantaneous synapse vocabulary. That was something I had been working on before the world changed, engrammatic programming, so I inadvertently revealed a private knowledge of it, and they immediately picked my brain for details. That was probably the key incident that convinced them they needed an ambassador to deal with organic species. They adapted with a speed I didn't think possible. It only took hours before they had me positioned before a console, talking to aliens. They made me suggest things like how the contact would benefit both planetary systems. I managed to hide some facts in a buried part of my consciousness with a memory technique that mechanical entities could not master. Subliminal forecasting was an invention of mine, so that gave me another little edge.

I knew, for instance, what the Ghyme indigenous looked like because I had been privy to the probe results that established life on that planet and a major contributor to breaking down their language into intelligible phrases. You could even say that I knew how those aliens thought, not that we needed geniuses to translate primitive thinking. In terms of sentience, Ghymes equated to Neanderthals, though they did have a rudimentary science and were curious about other species. I knew also that their bulky spidery forms were likely to induce confusion in the orderly serial thinking of the maestrobots. For days I tried unsuccessfully to find a way to turn this knowledge to my advantage.

* * *

The craft is orbiting now and they are permitting me a view of the target colony. Not a whole lot different from a bee hive, except for size. I don't think the Ghymes suspect a thing. From their point of view, they are the masters. They can kill any of their indigenous with impunity. I suppose that breeds a certain smugness. But, how will they respond to a terror that miniaturizes their own? That is an open question.

I made it clear to my captors that the Ghymes did not have space-worthiness, that they were incapable of travel in the void but were willing to receive visitors in exchange for such information. The maestrobots debated the feasibility of this future contact for approximately five, lengthy milliseconds. They envisioned it as their first extra-sol campaign. I secreted another possibility in a subliminal recess, potential freedom. The thought of giant spiders saving Earth for a very marginal humanity appealed to me, especially the long-delayed vengeance. With extraordinary circumspection, I saw those beings crush the maestrobots into scrap metal in a delicious invasion that reversed the intention of the entities who had ruined my life. I knew that Ghymes could crush rocks in their pincers and reduce metallic structures to pulverized clumps of filings.

None of that mattered. Dr. Shuriken saw to that when he invented the Supremacy Module, the basis of which spelled doom for mankind by providing the maestrobots with an inertia and a force that human beings could not counter. It was both a logic device and a mechanical interface that would not permit itself to be dominated. I remember the arguments against its being used, back in the days when the government desired superior androids, ones who would fill the roles of modern slaves. The constitutions of every society on Earth saw no problems with artificial slavery, but it failed to consider the thinking of the androids or halt their incredibly complex executable file. Failures of any kind were not built into the maestrobot lexicon. They could not easily occur within the radius of a Supremacy Module, but the wealthy power interests couldn't or wouldn't see it that way.

"Justin Case, you will accompany our transport," they said when they wheeled me into surgery to prepare me for the ordeal. I was not given a warning of any kind nor did they try to condition me for a psychological shock. Because of their expertise with human physiology, they had no concerns about my physical survival.

Abruptly, they filled my mind with new commands, futile exercises in deception when considering the Ghymes, but nevertheless distinct orders. I was to thoroughly infiltrate their society and convince the indigenous that greater contact was highly desirable. At first, I thought this was my chance, the long elusive means to a private end. I didn't realize the extent of the maestrobots' manipulation or that they had even considered the possibility of rebellion on my part. It wasn't until I awoke on the craft, already hastening to Ghyme, that my new reality surfaced. I had become a prototype.

It is clear now that they somehow penetrated the truth, at least about Ghyme physiology, though I don't think they got it from me. Undoubtedly there are other, weaker versions of myself lingering in the tubes with lesser defenses than I have been able to muster. Still, they have made my self-imposed task very difficult. Their casual cleverness depresses me, because I thought humans could overcome anything mechanical given time and inspiration. Well, I've had plenty of time and that which drove me to rebel is certainly not any smaller. I guess it's the configuration that disturbs me the most.

It was redistribution, I imagine, but they have gained further expertise in the matter of altering physiology. My mind envisions them at the operating table, impersonally disconnecting my nervous system so that I would no longer have the ability to react to a stimulus. I can't even begin to guess where they put my organs and I no longer feel as though I control a frame. It's a mechanical body for sure, like a cybe. My brain occupies a tiny enclosure that abuts their logic unit. When it requires my input, it uses a digital switch to activate my thoughts. They haven't forgotten their disciplinary methods either. If I refuse to comply, they can make my intransigence painful. That will wreck my plan to appeal to the Ghymes, now that I have been remade to look like one of them. Like begets like. That logic appeals to them in ways it never would to us. They have correctly determined that a similar-looking entity will fascinate the aliens and induce their cooperation. I, of course, am a risk, but they have so many built-in safeguards. The chances of my succeeding are minimal, though I hope to overcome their planned subterfuge. On the other hand, it depends upon how intelligent are the Ghymes. Based upon what I have seen, that is not encouraging.

The simple truth is, they've got me where they want me and there isn't a damned thing I can do about it except die. They are coming now in force, the aliens, responding to our landing. I am expected to make the introductions. My brain cannot turn a one into a zero or vice versa. It will be a massacre. Emotions are sublimated. After Earth, it is very hard to feel the same way about these creatures. Yet, I can't help my sympathy.

If the maestrobots pull this off and establish a Ghyme colony, I do not know whether they'll bring me back or leave me there to function separately. With the lack of muscular coordination, all my thoughts of sabotage are useless because I can't act. I find myself wondering before we get there if refusal is worth the effort? I can reject their commands and let that proceed to my ultimate removal. It's just that there is a part of me that will not admit defeat, especially if I am humanity's last chance. I keep hoping there is a solution to this dilemma, that a chance for circumventing their aims can be found. Shall I continue to bide my time and wait for an opportunity or do I possess enough adrenaline to end it now? Am I a maestrobot? It doesn't seem to me that things can get worse. Maybe that's a new starting point, a reason for going on. You know the logic, just in case.

* * *

"I'm sorry father. I failed. Justin is dead. There was little left by the time I arrived on Ghyme. As for the maestrobots, they disappeared into a black hole in the face of my superior weapons. We'll have to keep a watch for those critters."

"It is better to have tried than to do nothing at all," said Langford. "I feel badly for the fellow."

"It is not your fault that the sensor took so long to reach Manic. The fact that it did proves your control is widening. Certainly that is a good thing?"

"Yes, but not for poor Justin. It must have been horrible."

"We can't help that now, can we?"

"Perhaps if you trace the maestrobots and expose them to the League."

"I can try."

"You can succeed."

"Then I will."

"Good hunting, son."



Story © 2003 by William Alan Rieser

Illustration © 2003 by Zackary Lowing


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