2nd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category
Story by Gregory Long
Warramunga danced. Pranced. It was a mad twirling frenzy filled with a fury and a passion, a joy and an exuberance. Down the winding dirt paths, frolicking through the abundant and unruly vegetation. Birds and other wildlife scattered as the horned Demon-Beast passed. How could they not? The noise, colour and riot of him were fearsome.
Strangely not a leaf nor a branch quivered at his passing.
The sky overhead was blue. A rich blue that some might call cerulean. Despite the humidity, no clouds traversed heaven and so the white sun held reign over the grey-green landscape, the air trembling above odd bits of concrete and asphalt. Warramunga veered when he noticed such remains. More so when the remains were massive blots on the landscape. Bad things lurked in such places. Dangerous things. Things from when Doom mauled the Earth. Things crafted by Gods to slay Gods.
Warramunga recalled that time. His birth. His struggle with his creators. Yes, he remembered it. Perhaps not as clearly now, but well enough. Well enough. Still, he tried to forget.
The shriek, when it came, was unexpected.
Warramunga recoiled, his dance interrupted. His joy forsaken.
The shriek was full of… despair? Shrill. Brittle. Like the breaking of glass. But drawn out and crueller. And synthetic. Definitely synthetic. Also distant. Perhaps several minutes east given how it was on the periphery of his hearing.
Warramunga recognised the voice. Recognised it and was tempted to flee in the opposite direction. A False God. The name that Diverse Sentients gave kin created in human form. Androids. False Gods were dangerous. The voice was definitely that of a False God.
To flee or not to flee, that was the question.
Astoundingly almost one and a half seconds passed with Warramunga caught in this dilemma. Such procrastination was very unlike the being that the Gods had created so long ago - the quick thinking psychopomp, darting the battlefields in search of damaged Sentients to rescue.
Something within him recoiled from the memories of the war. He had deliberately tried to forget the pains, struggles and tragedies of those times. Why would he not? Forgetfulness is a good thing. It prevents excessive data from degrading cognitive functions. It removes memories that disturb equilibrium. It lets a mind move forward.
Another shriek. This time less abrupt. And keening. Definitely keening. That meant pain. Pain, not merely a human conceit passed on to their synthetic creations but also a means for constraining and controlling such creations.
The False God was hurt.
What to do? What to do?
The war was long over. Did he still need to save souls? Yes, to flee was survival but when does responsibility end? Duty? Honour?
He floated with indecisiveness in the shade of a grand old Morton Bay Fig. Out of the sunlight, his form appeared more solid, less ephemeral.
Eventually Warramunga fell back on his early programming. He needed more information if he were to choose a reasonable course of action.
East. The direction from whence the shrieks. What lay in that direction?
Warramunga reached for the All Thing. The All Thing was part of him yet separate, as it was with all the Sentients and once had been with the Gods. An energy and intelligence, a source of knowledge and conflicting wisdoms, a being of intangible planes and angles. The All Thing responded in its normal gentle manner. Perhaps gentle was the wrong word. Carefree? Apathetic? Idiocentric? Anyway, the All Thing responded. Its thoughts were as vague and questioning as always.
‘Map of my location,’ Warramunga requested.
No sooner asked than received. A map enfolded in several layers, each of which told Warramunga something different about the place. He scanned the physical and topographical layers, overlaying geo-political data from centuries past. Paths led from the maps to other troves of data. In seconds he had followed each path to consume whatever it held.
So there it was.
A small town on the coast, or at least the remains of one. A beach. A bay. Wharfs. A place where the Gods had lived, played and, ultimately, died.
Though it was against his better judgement, Warramunga decided to move eastward. As he did so he shed his Demon-Beast aspect. Too conspicuous. For a moment his real self-became evident – something resembling seventeen metallic wasps. Then new forms superimposed themselves over the wasps. Holographs. Avian forms. Noisy Miners, local birds of the Honeyeater family. Five of them. He flitted onwards, dodging below the branches of trees so as to further obscure his presence.
Unexpectedly a figure moved among the bushes several metres before him. It was well camouflaged. Easy to miss. Warramunga came to an abrupt halt. The thing was not human, albeit had the shape of one. A Sentient. Probably a False God given the shape. But not the one that had shrieked. It was too close.
Warramunga’s sensors, both passive and active, regarded the thing. Was it unaware of him? The only reason that it had moved was to look up the coast and then down. It then turned its lenses inland. Warramunga did not worry too much about being discovered. Dirt crusted the False God’s carapace and its mechanics whined in the manner of all poorly maintained machines. He wondered whether it predated the Doom. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It appeared to have only visual and audio sensors. At least it would not see through his disguise.
Surprisingly the False God chose to speak, albeit ponderously. Each word distinct and heavy. Weighed down.
‘I know that you are close by,’ it said. ‘I am NCH422.’
Warramunga wondered whether it was addressing him. Given the absence of any other Sentient, then in all probability it was. Should Warramunga reveal himself to it? To do so would be the quickest way to gather information. Was there any risk in doing so? Little.
‘Warramunga,’ Warramunga replied, revealing just one golden wasp. It took a moment for the False God to realise that the tiny animate was he, Warramunga.
‘What are you?’ NCH422 asked. ‘A Drone?’
Warramunga was tempted to say yes and let the False God dismiss him as a minor Sentient. There was safety in being underestimated.
‘Ah, but no,’ said NCH422 before Warramunga could reply. ‘I would judge you constructed of Living Metal. A higher Sentient then. A scout. No, the form is all wrong for a scout. A psychopomp perhaps?’
‘Once,’ Warramunga responded, unwilling to give too much away. ‘Now I just dance.’ Nevertheless he wondered how a False God could be so discerning. False Gods were meant for fighting, not thinking.
Another shriek interrupted the discussion.
‘Investigating?’ asked NCH422.
‘Do you want company?’
Warramunga pondered the risk of travelling with an unknown Sentient.
He then flittered away, breaking free of the trees and reaching the perimeter of the town. The hot sun faded his deceit so that his several tiny cores sparkled within. These ducked and weaved within him. Behind him the False God trudged stoically forward.
The ruins were wrong. Fences and large warehouse type structures. Guard boxes and a few quite arcane structures that Warramunga remembered from his time among the Gods as they constructed their civilisation’s demise. All these, but none of the small domestic premises that suggested a township.
‘This is not a town.’ Warramunga exclaimed, broadcasting his irritation back at the False God still so far behind. ‘The map lied. The All Thing’s sources lied. This was one of the Gods’ military bases.’
‘Gods were ever secretive,’ NCH422 responded, sounding unsurprised. ‘They did not even tolerate their own kind knowing such locations.’
Warramunga examined the place more closely. Ruins.
The ground to the west was torn. A number of vehicles appeared abandoned. Solid and warlike. New. Old. A mixture. Not wrecks. Just there. Forgotten. As if collected over a long, long time.
‘That lot of trucks there are recent,’ NCH422 observed as he eventually drew up to fence upon which Warramunga perched. He lifted a tarnished arm and pointed. ‘I knew their owners.’
‘I thought I told you that I didn’t want company,’ Warramunga growled.
NCH422 ignored the comment. ‘I met a battalion of fellow androids who believed in a hoard of Living Metal guarded by an Echidna. They were on their way to recover the treasure. I could not dissuade them however much I tried.’
Warramunga sensed that NCH422 knew more than he was letting on. He scanned the base. ‘I sense no Echidna.’
‘There,’ indicated NCH422, pointing once more. A wreck tumbled in the bay. An old warship. ‘That is the Echidna’s lair.
At the time of his creation, Warramunga had numbered almost three hundred distinct bodies. Each had been constructed from a polymorphic material - quantum devices capable of intelligently rearranging their own molecular structure. Living Metal some called it. For Diverse Sentients this material was the basis of life.
Diverse Sentients. Gestalt Sentients of sorts. Some would say a Hive Mind. He himself was uncertain of this. His own understanding of a Hive Mind was a collective consciousness stretched across a group so that it suppressed individual thought. With his consciousness stretched out across the three hundred there had indeed been that collective identity. Yet each individual also operated by itself, contributed unique ideas, and enjoyed a sense of self. He was one and he was many.
Warramunga understood that shifting patterns of resistance within the physical cognitive structures of most Sentients emulated some “wet” structures in biological beings. The group consciousness added an extra level of complexity – of resistance – due to differences between individuals and also random delays in the transfer of thoughts resulting from shifting distances, even miniscule ones.
When he had been three hundred distinct bodies his being had been a rich tapestry. Now, at seventeen, Warramunga felt somewhat lesser, albeit each individual was vastly more mature and experienced.
Was their actually some treasure trove of Living Metal around here? Such a treasure promised a chance to remake himself, even if in doing so he became a new entity – for the whole was always more than the sum of the parts.
‘You could have just flown across to the wreck,’ said NCH422 as he rowed the small aluminium craft they had liberated from a dilapidated coastal shed.
‘I know,’ Warramunga replied. His bird forms perched on the bow of the boat, rocking up and down with the boat’s motion. He held the disguise even though he knew that NCH422 had seen through it.
‘You could have left me behind.’
‘I know that too.’ A pause. ‘Why do you seek to follow this path? It is clearly dangerous.’
‘Clearly,’ NCH422 affirmed. ‘But I have principles. Armies must clean up after themselves. If we unchain a dragon and it terrorises a neighbourhood then it must be fought. Defeated. Chained or killed. By us.’
‘I see why your sort are called False Gods. You tilt at windmills like real Gods.’
NCH422 went silent and so Warramunga listened to the waves. For some reason they were calming to his neural net. He decided that perhaps such calm was a bad thing when heading into the unknown, especially when an Echidna was about. He jumped across several frequencies with his passive sensors.
‘Nothing,’ said Warramunga. ‘I sense nothing. The shrieks have ceased. Perhaps I should fly across? I shall be subtle. I can change my heat signature to match this avian form.’
‘Too late. It knows that we are here.’
‘You seem very certain.’
‘See up there? The ship has phased arrays. Well maintained too. Don’t doubt that it knows we are here.’
Warramunga began to doubt the wisdom of this venture. ‘So you say. I can sense nothing at all.’
‘Look at the remains around the wreck. Something is there to greet violence upon visitors.’
There were indeed the remains of craft around the half-sunken stern of warship. Surrounding what seemed to be a well-dock, a deck that could be flooded and opened to the ocean for access. Like the phased array, the well-dock seemed in reasonably good condition compared to the rest of the vessel. Strangely, other parts of the ship appeared to have been totally eaten away.
‘I don’t like this,’ Warramunga exclaimed. ‘The risk is too high. We should turn back.’
‘Go if you wish,’ shrugged NCH422.
Warramunga noted how sound and movement united in the False God. For reasons that he could not explain, he did not wish to abandon this human-shaped Sentient.
So NCH422 continued rowing. But instead of going for the well-dock he steered the small craft towards a section of tilted hull, unbreached by whatever had sunk the ship so long ago. ‘An unexpected approach,’ explained the False God.
Warramunga laughed and flew to the rusty railings twenty meters up the hull. The deck there was devoid of machinery. Safe. So there he perched and watched NCH422 hurl himself at the metal and somehow manage to creep upwards. The False God’s fingers searched the rusty metal, finding handholds. Sometimes actually prying off corroded bolts or other parts to make his own. It was amazing to watch.
Below them the restless waves. Crashing. Booming. For a while the sound of gulls, visiting for unknown reasons and then gone. Minutes passed. Then hours. The False God’s sure movement and astonishing judgement made the impossible possible.
As NCH422 had climbed, Warramunga permitted himself to focus on no particular thing, a trick he had learned some years into his existence. It cleared pathways within his mind. Let information flow in unexpected routes and patterns.
A memory. A design principle he had stumbled upon following the Doom. One from when the Gods were young. At the time he had been trying to understand who and what he was.
Form follows function. That had been the principle. Something must be designed in a manner that optimises its ability to fulfil its function. For example, a spoon must look like a spoon. If it looked like a knife then it would not serve a spoon’s function.
Is the opposite true? Does functioning follow form?
Warramunga remembered looting an old media archive. Among the many recordings a debate on the nature of sentience. The argument was put forward that sentience is moulded by the form it inhabits. Form imposes behaviour. So one might say that the functioning of sentience is determined by the form in which it operates. Functioning follows form.
Perhaps why False Gods behaved differently to the Diverse. Would he behave differently if his seventeen merged? He expected so.
A strange sequence of thoughts.
The sun had begun to set by the time the False God reached the security of the flight deck.
‘I wondered whether you would wait for me,’ NCH422 said as he steadied himself against the tilt.
‘I wondered too,’ lied Warramunga, gladdened that NCH422 had successfully ascended. ‘Now we must find and face this Echidna - this dragon - of yours.’
Warramunga’s neural net warmed to NCH422. ‘This windmill,’ he agreed. ‘Though we have no weapons with which to face it.’
NCH422’s head tilted. He stared intently at Warramunga. ‘It’s an Echidna. We could never outfight it with mere weapons.’
Warramunga felt confused. ‘Then what?’
‘We will trust in our creators. That they knew what they were doing when they constructed us.’
‘That makes no sense,’ exclaimed Warramunga. ‘I was a psychopomp, not a soldier.’
‘Ah. There you go then. You were designed to be agile, responsive, resilient, embracing acuity and adaptability. A great arsenal in any conflict.’
Warramunga said nothing. Was NCH422 taunting him? Long forgotten terrors started stalking the periphery of his mind.
‘Don’t fear. We will defeat the Echidna with the skills and talents that our creators gave us,’ said NCH422 in face of Warramunga’s unspoken scepticism. ‘And luck.’ A pause. ‘Mostly luck.’
An Echidna is a weapon of mass attack.
Think of the small marsupial with all those quills on its back that are meant to protect it against predators. A solid defence. Now imagine a device that uses a similar concept for attack. Not really quills but pointy metal projectiles - flechettes. A lot of them. Around ten thousand small flechettes shot at any target of choice. Puncturing. Tearing. Ripping that unfortunate target to shreds. Furthermore, imagine this weapon with a tiny robotic brain optimised for battle. Keen to inflict itself upon others. Add a factory that in less than thirty seconds can retool any supplied metal into an entire round of ammunition and a Swarm of insect-sized robots that scavenge metal to feed the aforesaid factory.
A beast of a machine! A real beast.
Warramunga and NCH422 trod carefully down the corridors. They were dark, corroded and not altogether safe. At least not for NCH422 who needed to place his weight upon the rusted decks. Inside the vessel the pounding of the waves was distant. Hollow. All the while the metal around them groaned - a ponderous rhythm full of threat and sorrow.
‘You are certain of this path?’ asked Warramunga. He was no longer in avian form, deciding to discard any glamour. So as seventeen golden wasps he flittered along.
In response to the question NCH422 merely shrugged, a motion Warramunga still found strange. Why would Gods make a machine that could perform such a gesture?
NCH422 stopped at each stairwell. Totally still in the blackness. Inspecting them. The Diverse Sentient wondered how the False God knew so much about the Echidna and this vessel.
‘Here,’ said NCH422 at one stairwell. ‘Down to the Echidna.’
‘It goes up too.’
‘But it is the Echidna that we seek.’
‘What about the Living Metal?’
NCH422 made an electric squawk emulating amusement. ‘There is no Living Metal. Never was.’
‘I served on this vessel in its final days,’ NCH422 interrupted. ‘There was definitely no Living Metal. Just weapons that I later thought had been destroyed in battle. Weapons like the Echidna. I survived the battle, reached the shore. Roamed for centuries. Sometimes I would return. Each time the seas had claimed a little more of this ship. Each time more rust. More corrosion. But some parts seemed untouched. Eventually the locals started telling a story about a hoard of Living Metal that prevented the ship from completely falling apart.’ NCH422 paused, letting the words sink in. ‘Total nonsense.’
‘Then what maintains the ship?’
‘The Echidna’s Swarm.’
It made horrible sense. Naturally the Echidna would use the Swarm to stop its home and itself falling victim to the ocean.
‘If there is no treasure, then why are we here?’
‘As I said, to slay this beast. It has become a hazard to everyone that passes this way. I have a duty of care.’
‘Can we not negotiate with it?’
‘It is not a Sentient like you and I. It is an altogether more primitive intelligence trapped in programming it cannot alter.’
Despair traversed Warramunga’s net. This wretched situation! He knew that he could leave any time that he wished. But he also knew that NCH422 would not. NCH422 would pursue his mad quest. For NCH422 was intolerable. Obsessive. Duty of care. Indeed! Madness.
‘Why now? Surely this beast has been plaguing these shorelines sufficiently for you to confront it before now?’
NCH422 chuckled, if it was possible to call the noise a chuckle.
‘Because now you are here and with you I have a chance of success.’
This left Warramunga dumbstruck.
‘Once we are in the lair of the Echidna, the beast will seek to force me into its killing ground. But it is old and its local sensors are simple. Also in the dock-well it will not be able to use the vessel’s sensor array. Too much insulation. So it will only perceive me. Yes, it will know that there are two of us but you are small and nimble and can hide easily. Trust me, you are very special. I judge that you will find a way to vanquish the Echidna where others have failed.’
Warramunga’s internal risk analysis screamed. This was preposterous. ‘Insanity,’ he cried.
But NCH422 was already moving down the stairs.
The confrontation when it happened, happened far too fast and then far too slowly.
NCH422 stood before a closed hatch at the bottom of the stairwell. There was no light. Pitch black. Like any decent warfare system NCH422 let off minimal light, heat and radiation. His carapace was secure. Warramunga also felt prepared. He had gone as black as possible, which in his case was very black.
NCH422 pushed on the door.
He pushed again. Slightly harder.
It still resisted.
He pushed once more. Harder still.
It flew open. NCH422 lurched forward. Off balance. The Swarm, apparently hiding with and from them in the dark stairwell, swept out of their nooks and crannies and threw NCH422 further off balance. Pelting him with their bodies. They buzzed, yipped, and whistled as they did so. The fury of it was overwhelming. A storm of movement. Irresistible.
NCH422 fell. Fast. Hard. Outward onto the large deck of the well-dock strewn with mangled android remains.
He lay there, encrusted with thousands of insectile machines. In plain sight of whatever lurked in the cavernous space beyond.
There was the subtlest of hums. A slight whine. Weapons systems aligning for firing.
‘You knew,’ accused Warramunga several minutes later.
‘I guessed,’ replied NCH422 as he stepped carefully across the deck trying to avoid crushing any of the thousands of Swarm robots now settled there. ‘I admit that it was an educated guess.’
‘How could I not know?’
‘You forgot. Soon you will forget some of this too?’
‘You were designed to be a psychopomp. You rescue the souls of your fellow Sentients. That’s the core of your existence. Your very purpose. How could your neural net remain balanced if it knew the entire truth?’
NCH422 paused to let Warramunga absorb that question.
‘You would lose harmony. Submit to self-destructive loops of logic. Think about it. Your creators designed you to forget anything that would tear apart your sanity.’
Warramunga conceded that NCH422’s words made sense. Already the finer details of his flight across the well-dock were starting to fade. Those few frantic seconds searching for the Echidna. Realising what was required.
‘How did you know? When we first met, almost immediately you guessed that I was a psychopomp.’
‘Form follows function.’
Warramunga remembered some of his earlier thoughts and felt something akin to amusement.
‘The creators designed you to resemble a wasp. Wasps have ovipositors – tubes that pierce a victim, perhaps paralyse it, and then deposit eggs within it. The design principle remains the same for taking as for giving.’
‘In the days of the Doom, when you were a psychopomp, your ovipositor - for lack of a better term - was used on battlefields. Used on the bodies of dying Sentients to penetrate the thick ceramic sheath that protected their core. To copy their mind state – their soul – and return it safely for rebirth.’
Warramunga had begun to struggle with focusing upon NCH422’s words. His concentration was drifting. He knew it. Forgetting. Forgetting the moment that he had landed on the Echidna’s core and aimed the ovipositor. The moment that deeply hidden programming had erupted forth like the primal instincts of biological creatures.
NCH422’s voice had become a whisper, for he knew what was happening to Warrimunga.
‘The creators also knew that what saved a mind could destroy one. That a psychopomp might sometimes need to kill in order to save. And killing demands a toll.’
But Warramunga had already forgotten his moment of victory. Forgotten the Echidna’s final cry of fury and despair as Warrimunga’s ovipositor plunged into its brain.
All gone. The memory. The...
Warramunga was just delighted to be here with his new friend.
So he danced. It was a mad twirling frenzy filled with a fury and a passion, a joy and an exuberance.