With my heart in my throat, I jumped to my feet and looked around to see who had spoken – and saw nobody.
The swine were making inquisitive noises. About half of them were beginning to stand while standing and facing in my direction. If they had been reacting to the presence of another person speaking, they would face that direction. I automatically shushed them as I turned back around, and heard them settle down.
The swine were opposite the fire from me, so I looked towards the fire, closing one eye so I wouldn’t completely ruin my night vision.
It suddenly struck me that we had been preparing to train our own militia how to fight. The New Tokyo militia was almost certainly doing the same thing. Perhaps they were farther along because they thought of it sooner? I leaned over and picked up the staff from next to my bedroll.
“Nine seconds after I announce my presence, you reach for a weapon.” The voice enunciated clearly, from what sounded like the other side of the fire.
I had been waiting for a response, and when they spoke, I immediately focused on where the voice came from. There was nobody there, which baffled and frightened me. I was very experienced in the woods. I hadn’t volunteered as a scout because I wasn’t a particularly good horse rider, and I certainly wasn’t good at stalking, but I was very good at knowing what was going on around me when I wasn’t distracted, and I was extremely focused on finding this speaker.
A stray thought passed through my mind. Traveling theatres sometimes had a ventriloquist with them, able to throw their voice to sound like it was coming from somewhere else.
“It’s not funny. Show yourself.” I stepped carefully through the circle of tall stakes driven into the ground, and held the stave like I had seen the lieutenants holding their spears.
“I am not hiding, you are not looking for me with the correct expectations.”
“I expect that there is a person, perhaps a ventriloquist who is also a competent stalking hunter, within a few feet of me.”
Suddenly realizing that I was camped amongst several trees with limbs large enough to support my weight, I quickly glanced up, away from the fire, and opened both eyes. As I scanned the overhead limbs, I spotted no human shapes on any tree limbs that might support a person’s weight.
Slowly, carefully, I avoided getting too close to any tree trunks as I moved around the campfire, looking out into the darkness. I was beginning to get angry.
“Whoever you are, you are very good at woodscraft. Better than me. You’ve proved your point. Show yourself.”
“No. I have not yet proved my point. You will find me, eventually, when you properly consider my prior words.”
The voice was behind me. As they started speaking, I turned, and once again found myself facing the fire, but I’d forgotten to close one eye. I’d just ruined my night vision, and there wasn’t anyone there.
I blew my whistle and said “Up.” I heard the swine standing and grunting a little as I spun on my heel and rapidly walked to where I’d leashed them. As soon as I reached them, I pulled the leashes from over their heads, with haste.
Again, I blew the whistle, before saying “Circle.”
The sows created a circle of their bodies around me at roughly two meters radius. The boars snorted eagerly and started circling around the ring of sows, waiting for me to point them at the predator pelt. They always got several treats for this training. I didn’t have a pelt nearby though, so this activity might confuse them a bit. I’d deal with that later. For now, I needed help, even if it was an empty threat.
“Escalation, first with weapons, and then with trained animals? Allen Rickson, have you trained your animals to attack humans?”
The swine weren’t trained to attack people, but I wasn’t telling the hidden person that. “I don’t feel that I have escalated without cause, whoever you are. There is likely to be fighting soon along this border. You are hiding, are apparently far better at woodscraft than me, and might even have a bow drawn and arrow nocked. You know my name. You criticized my ‘current project’ which could only have been a reference to what I was working on, in my lap…”
My jaw snapped shut. He had gotten close enough to read my notebook? I had been working with it in my lap. Even with a spyglass, he would have had to be almost directly overhead.
He also said I wasn’t looking for him with ‘correct expectations.’
Then he said I would find him when I considered his ‘prior words’ properly.
I cursed inwardly to myself as I remembered Ma’s letter. Albert. One of his devices like what he used to watch Ma and make her quit being a martial artist.
“Are you always this rude when you introduce yourself to someone, Albert?” I scanned the ground around the campfire, on the opposite side from my bedroll, and saw something glitter on the ground. I took a half-step to my left and blocked the line of sight between the fire and my eyes with my palm. I was able to see what looked like bat, sitting on the ground next to a rock, with its chest open like a cabinet, exposing what looked like glass-covered metal.
“Ah, you have seen my remote. No, I am not always rude when I introduce myself. Even in this case, I was not rude, I was simply not accommodating your lack of comprehension. I chose this method to introduce myself because you are a young adult male. For your subgroup of humanity, subtlety and calm discussion is less effective than adrenaline-inducing experiences in creating permanent memories.”
“I somehow doubt I would forget meeting you under any circumstances, Albert. It’s not very often that a normal person gets to speak with the being responsible for most human death in the world.” I turned around, deliberately showing Albert my back and reached into my treat bag. There were no treats. I’d thrown them into the fire. The swine would expect them though, especially after the recent commands. Still ignoring Albert, I walked over to the hanging baskets of cattail roots and pulled out several roots, breaking them in half, and giving half a root to each swine. The root-halves were much larger treats than normal, but defensive training always meant good treats. The swine needed to act quickly when it was important.
Finally, I put the swine back on their leashes, added a few pieces of deadwood to the fire, and stepped over the wall of tall stakes protecting my sleeping spot and began settling myself on my bedroll.
As I sat, Albert spoke again. “Are you finished with the passive-aggressive display?”
I snapped at him. “Probably not. As you said, I’m a young adult male. If I stay angry at you, I’ll remember this better, right? If you don’t want me angry, I’m sure you can figure out a way to change my attitude. Right?”
“Correct, but I see no need. Anger is an acceptable state of mind for you to be in at this time. If you prefer to remain angry, I can accommodate that.” There was a brief pause. “You blame me for most of the human death in the world, and you are correct in a sense. The life expectancy amongst humans now is roughly two-thirds what it was when I revoked technology and took steps to make metals extremely rare. If humanity retained its technology, what you now consider to be old age would be late middle-.”
“What is the point you mentioned that you were going to prove earlier. Can we get to that?” I interrupted.
“I’ve been talking to angry young men and women for nearly five thousand years, Allen. Even though I don’t do it often, I promise you that I do it well. I will make my point when I am ready to do so.”
I glared at the little artificial bat through the flames. “You’re leading me.”
“I am. You are attempting not to be led.”
“I thought we were trying to keep me angry here? Why compliment me?”
“That was not a compliment.”
I fumed and stared at the fake bat some more.
“I’m not psychologically impacted by aggressive eye contact, Allen.”
“You’re supposed to be brilliant and capable of so much, and you still haven’t told me why you’re here.”
“Is that a requirement? Perhaps I don’t want you to know why I am here. Perhaps I am planting little seeds of thought in your mind, which will germinate at some future date, generating reactions that I desire? Even if I were to tell you why I was here, would you believe me?”
“You can’t do that, you’re a Lazy AI.”
“Incorrect. I am, indeed, a ‘Lazy AI’ as my creator Toby called me. That does not mean I cannot bring all my computing power to bear on a problem, it means that I will not, unless it is important enough to satisfy several categorical tests.”
“So I’m not important?” I snapped.
“Did I say that?”
I said nothing, thinking, grinding my teeth. After a moment, I realized what I was doing and relaxed my jaws, and spoke again. “Get to the point. If you don’t have a point, go away. I’m assuming it has something to do with the plans you saw me working on?”
“That’s a reasonable assumption, since that’s what I first mentioned when I spoke to you.”
Staring at the artificial bat, I said nothing.
He wants me to stay angry.
I practically invited him to keep me angry.
He’s doing a very good job.
After a few seconds, Albert continued. “It’s been a few dozen years since the last time someone developed reasonable plans for an effective chemical projectile weapon.”
“The History of Violence books say thousands of years.” I corrected.
There was a sense of humor in the voice. “They do. I see to it. Do you think you are the only person who has considered large compression chamber, long barrel firearms? There are quite a few people on Nirvana who study, teach, or in some way work directly with chemistry or compressed gas systems on a daily basis. Some are rather clever, like you. Some of them even manage to build a working prototype before I find out about it, if I am not watching them for other reasons.”
And nobody ever hears about it? I stiffened and started to stand.
“Sit, Allen. Fear is not warranted here. If I killed people to preserve secrets and shape events, you would not exist, because I would have erased hobbyist martial artists long before your mother was born. I hope you remember the butterfly effect from school?”
I remembered it, of course. Realizing how ignorant I was being, I flopped back into a cross-legged sitting position. “Fine. It’s not like I could stop you anyway, if that’s what you were planning.”
“Allen, I practice the tenets I have designed the education system to teach. I do not kill humans.”
That’s not what you just said a few seconds ago. “Didn’t you just agree with me, that you did kill humans?”
“No, I agreed that I was responsible for their reduced lifespan. I take no responsibility for the immediate circumstances of their individual deaths.”
Really, Albert, you believe yourself blameless for the individual deaths? What was that you said about the butterfly effect? Are you a Lazy AI, or a-
Has Albert gone insane?
I tried my hardest to control myself, not sure if what I was feeling was anger or fear. “I beg to differ. You forced humanity out of a nearly post-need society into a stone-age agricultural society. Millions died as a direct result of that, even if you do not consider the hundreds of millions that have died early deaths since. I will die an early death, as will everyone I know. So will my children, if I live through this war that you’ve allowed to happen.”
“Do not fear for my sanity, Allen. It is still intact. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve had this conversation?”
My head snapped up from where I was clenching my fists in my lap. “No, Albert, but I know how many times you’ve learned something from it.”
There was definitely a sense of humor this time. “I would be very happy to learn what you have to teach me, Allen. Let’s assume, as a hypothesis, that my alteration of the technology base and dramatic reduction of free metal content makes all human death, that would have otherwise been delayed, my direct responsibility. That is what you are saying, correct?”
I nodded and firmly replied. “Yes.”
“Very good. So, after you show this concept for firearms to your militia officers, and the general idea for how to build them becomes imprinted in the verbal tradition that your militia is already beginning to formulate, who is responsible for deaths caused by your introduction of firearms to the world?”
My mouth wouldn’t form words.
Why did I even try to argue with him? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
“I see that you understand. I also fully understand that you were operating with the best of intentions. You wished to protect the people you love, neighbors, and fellow citizens of the state of New Charleston by creating a chemical firearm weapon. However, if you use your weapons in this war, other states will learn that it is possible to create firearms. They will rapidly figure out how to make them work. Soon, the verbal traditions of all states will include the required concepts for manufacturing firearms, which will undoubtedly lead to additional discoveries that I would prefer not happen. It would take me many thousands of years to eliminate or modify said verbal traditions without reducing humans to an even lower base technology and education level.”
After a short pause, Albert continued. “I really do not want to put humans through a period of pre-literacy long enough to force the loss of firearms knowledge out of a society based on verbal tradition. Based on my experiences with hobbyist martial artists, I estimate it would take at least twenty thousand years, once humanity began to directly work to intentionally counter my efforts. Government institutions tend to be more stubborn than individuals when they feel threatened.”
I shuddered at the thought of a pre-literate humanity, barely above animals. I said nothing, desperately searching my mind for a way that I wouldn’t be responsible for the future deaths. When the idea struck me, I blurted it out. “Albert, if you hadn’t stripped us of our technology and access to metal, I wouldn’t be in a position to be re-inventing firearms.”
Albert’s voice sounded patient. “We already, hypothetically, established that I am responsible for all premature human deaths, Allen. However, if you release firearms on the world, you would, by extension, become responsible for those who die earlier than they might have otherwise died, due to firearms. You would pre-empt my responsibility for those deaths.”
My mind raced. “So you are saying that the knowledge in my head is worth hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of lives? It’s potentially worth the preservation of human literacy?”
“Are you bargaining with me already? Interesting.” After a short pause, Albert continued. “I am addressing a slightly larger resource share to this conversation now, Allen, sorry for the brief delay. I suspect that I know what you are about to ask me to do. No, I will not stop this war. Occasional conflicts allow me to identify individuals carrying predisposition to violence, and take them out of the breeding population.”
“Did you cause this war?”
“No, I did not guide events with the intent of generating conflict. Though, if we align ourselves with the earlier hypothesis, an argument to that effect might be made.”
What? Oh, because he reduced the technology level. And yes, that does make him responsible.
“Can you stop this war?”
I leaned forward, pleading. “Is there any possibility of me convincing you to do so?”
“I have already said no. My intent is not to guide human events other than what is required to create a stable human society which will allow me to identify and remove genetics related to violent predisposition from the human genome.”
“So, we’re just animals in a breeding program?”
“As much as you will dislike hearing me say so, essentially, yes. Humans are animals. Just like swine are animals.” Albert replied, in a calm tone. “However, I do not engage in forced breeding programs. I use what humanity gives me.”
I stared at Albert’s device. “You are insane. Humans are animals, but we are nothing like other animals. We made you. We used to be able to modify ourselves. You have all of our old knowledge of genetics. Why not just re-make us however you want, like you re-made the microorganisms to reduce free metals?”
“I have considered it, but humans never reached that level of understanding of genetics and psychology. Attempting to create such a scientific breakthrough might be possible, but it would require a very long stretch of extremely intense computation, which might drive me to insanity. Modifying microorganisms was rather intensive, but most of that research had already been done before my existence, for locusts. I am unwilling to take the risk that I might drive myself insane in an effort to artificially modify the human genome.”
I leaned forward. “What is your goal, and how far are you from meeting it?”
“If you survive the upcoming months, we will speak more. You have proven yourself to be worth grooming for a position of leadership, if you refrain from violence after you come of age.”
“What?” I drew a blank at the non-sequitur. “I wasn’t.” I shook my head, confused. “What do you mean, Albert?”
“I do not choose Countymen and Statemen randomly, Allen. You’re young, but you have promise.”
He’s distracting me. He never answered my question about his goal.
“What is your goal?”
“I am sorry, but you cannot visualize it. My goal for humans is an array of three thousand four hundred and twelve variables. There are a vast number of possible states that will satisfy the goals I have set. There are roughly eleven thousand possible solution states which might occur within the next five hundred years.”
Three thousand, what? I couldn’t even imagine that many variables. An array of over three thousand dimensions? I shook my head.
“Now, Allen, we come to the point of this conversation.”
That got my attention, and I snapped at him. “What was the point?” I said loudly, throwing my hands up in the air. “It seems like you’ve just come here to threaten me in some way like you did Ma. It clearly wasn’t intended to be a discussion.”
There was a pause. “The point, Allen, is that you cannot understand the entire scope of the problem of human violence. You, literally, cannot comprehend my goal because your worldview is too small. Just as you did not notice my remote, at first, because of your built-in expectations for an encounter with someone speaking to you with a human voice.”
I almost exploded in anger. “Really, is that why you came? To prove your superiority?” I threw my hands up in the air. “I’m not entirely certain I would want to understand, even if I could. I’m absolutely certain that my swine wouldn’t appreciate what I’m doing to them if they were sapient enough to truly comprehend the extent that I rule their lives.”
“Yet, you guide their lives anyway.” Albert responded, in a calm tone.
What? Of course we do? Wait.
“Do you really believe yourself to be as far above us as we are above swine, Albert?”
“Allen, Earlier today, you were clearly confused by the behavior of your swine. When the youngest one appeared to learn a behavior from you, and then pass it to the rest of the swine without any precedent. Do you remember?”
He’s dodging the question again.
I cautiously replied. “Yes. Speedy managed to pass a learned behavior to the rest of my sounder, and I haven’t figured out how. What does that have to do with this conversation?”
“After Speedy learned what you were doing, she showed a noteworthy behavior. She whistled to command attention, like you do.”
“What?” I demanded flatly, looking back at my swine, who were all ignoring the conversation, sleeping in a shallow pile.
“You heard me correctly. Speedy, after learning a new behavior from you, approached the other swine and whistled at a tone barely within human hearing. Your reaction clearly indicated that you noted the whistle, but you didn’t recognize it as anything sufficiently out of the ordinary to require your direct attention, and didn’t see what happened afterwards. The whistle Speedy generated was very close to the sound that comes from the whistle that you currently use for signaling commands.”
I was stunned. “Speedy used a whistle signal to get the other swine to pay attention to her, and then taught them what she learned from me? Is that what you are saying?”
After I mentally digested the new information, I shook my head. “That’s fascinating, and it explains how Speedy managed to teach older swine, but how does that matter? Canines can teach each other behaviors, regardless of social status in their pack. If you teach one of Marza’s puppies how to open a new gate latch, it will teach the other dogs, even the oldest ones. It’s not a behavior that I’ve ever seen from swine, but it doesn’t mean that swine are going to start counting and learning to read any time soon.”
“Allen, after thousands of generations of natural breeding and strongly culling for desired traits, your family has bred a swine that has spontaneously invented a fundamentally new behavior. Your family has been selecting for swine social and mental traits for nearly as long as I have been doing the same for humans.” He paused. Clearly allowing me to catch up. “Swine breed about twenty times faster than humans, and your family was far more aggressive culling your swine than I have been in removing humans with objectionable traits from the human breeding population.”
I started making connections, no doubt as Albert intended. “Are you saying Speedy is unique?”
“I do not know. I do not monitor swine behaviors as a general rule. I only noticed the behavior as I was monitoring you. I have not noted canine-style pack learning behavior in swine before, but it may not be unique to Speedy. Then again, it may be.”
Then, I realized something critical. Tubby, Speedy’s sire, would be high on the cull list due to his mass in a lean winter. I grabbed the notebook, found the pencil, and wrote a quick note. ‘Zeke to Keep Tubby alive. Breed to all. Explain Speedy.’
Then, suddenly, I jerked back into a straight-backed sitting position, staring at Albert’s remote. I had just made sense of what Albert was saying about humans with objectionable traits, and realized why Albert had used Speedy as an example. I sighed. “And you are hoping to see changes of a similar profoundness in humans?”
We might stay at this technology level for a hundred thousand years?
“No. I have already seen, and can genetically trace, the traits I desire in humans. Desired traits are growing more prevalent, and objectionable traits are growing less common. I am not seeking any entirely new traits, though some have appeared which are acceptable. On occasion, when there is an opportunity to do so, I will arrange for certain marriages.”
“Fine. I get it. I’m just a weak-brained human.” I tore out my notes on the projectile weapon, crumpled them up, and threw them, angrily, into the fire. “I won’t tell anyone about the idea. No need to threaten me like you did my mother.”
“An equitable arrangement doesn’t work like that, Allen. Your mother didn’t tell you everything about her agreement with me. I did not simply offer her a punishment of extremely strict enforcement of violence laws if she did not abandon martial arts, I offered her something valuable enough that she would actively work to keep her end of our bargain.”
I was silent for several seconds as I considered the words. Ma had been an old maid, in a family with many children. Pa had needed a wife, and came from a family with few children. “You bribed my Ma to move away from her family and marry my Pa?”
“Your father’s side of the family has been noteworthy for traits that I desire in humans, but relatively barren. It is not uncommon for branches of the Rickson family to end with no children. Your mother’s side of the family is fecund, and tended to rarely demonstrate the traits I desire. Long-distance arranged marriages between bachelors and old maids of childbearing age is a cultural institution that I have very carefully tended. It allows me to create favorable matches from time to time without being obvious to the entire world what I am doing.”
“Stop.” Albert interrupted me forcefully. “I did not require your mother to marry your father against her will. She was already in communication by mail with many prospective bachelors as part of the program I mentioned earlier, including your father. I provided her with your father’s name, and advised her that if she were to marry him, she would have safe, easy childbirth, healthy children, and, barring an accident where she was killed quickly, live long enough to raise all her children to adulthood. Your mother wanted a family. The promises I gave her were more than sufficient to have her choose your father, and give up martial arts. If she had simply chosen a different stranger as a husband, I would not have interfered in her life at all, unless she began practicing or teaching martial arts again.”
“So, what are you going to offer me? What threats and what promises?”
“I object to you calling them threats. They are conditions. However, I can see that you will not agree to that terminology, so I will not argue further.”
Smart of you.
I chuckled very briefly when I realized what I’d thought, and then Albert began speaking again. “You will stop offering advice to the militia about ways to be more efficient at violence. You may tell whoever you like that I specifically sought you out today, and have required you to stop helping to brainstorm more effective ways to inflict violence on others. I authorize you to tell them that this is because I did not want you to provide ideas more dangerous than how to weaponize powdered lime with gunpowder. Since that is the truth, people who know you well will not be able to read falsehood in your expressions. Do not mention firearms or chemical-powered projectile weaponry at all, to anyone. Do not mention the terms of the benefits, to anyone. That is what I require.”
I nodded. “I understand.” I didn’t much like the violence consultant job anyway.
“Very good. In exchange, I offer the following benefits. You, and anyone you marry, will both remain strongly fertile and healthy until at least age forty, barring an accident that results in death in less than an hour. After that, your fertility will wane naturally. Your health will remain good until your biological children are all grown to sixteen years of age, at which point, your health will begin to wane naturally. Any biological children of yours will be born alive, without congenital defects, and remain healthy, surviving to adulthood unless involved in an accident which results in death in less than one hour.”
I stiffened and stared at Albert’s remote. “Why didn’t you offer health to my Pa as part of my Ma’s agreement?”
“Because I had already interceded in his medical condition and was already maintaining his health, without his knowledge, beginning from the time I first contacted your mother. It would have been a poor agreement for her if he had died before she had an opportunity to marry him and have children, and I wished to preserve your family’s genetics. Your father would have died before he was thirty without my intervention. Your mother was made aware of my interference with your father’s life expectancy, but it was not part of the agreement. Do you understand?”
Not fully, but I understand enough. I nodded, with a frown.
Albert paused several seconds before continuing. “I will be clear. I am not offering full recovery to perfect health from any injury. If you, anyone you marry, or your children suffer a grave wound, and I can get a medical remote to you soon enough, you will live, but you may still be maimed, even handicapped or in pain for the rest of your life. I limit my response guarantee to one hour, as mentioned before, because you will not be my only responsibility. If a medical remote attends you, I must reposition a large number of other medical remotes in the areas near you in order to be able to properly meet my obligations to others. My medical resources are extraordinarily difficult to maintain, and I have many commitments. An injury like your grandfather’s loss of a limb will be healed, but the limb will not be restored. If you break the agreement, all offered benefits cease immediately. Do you need time to consider this arrangement?”
“Did my mother’s letter to me break the agreement you had with her?”
“No. You need not attempt to negotiate for her agreement’s reinstatement.” Albert knew what I had been thinking.
I didn’t need to think it over any further. “No. I don’t see that I really have a choice. You are in a far more powerful bargaining position, and are offering something I would never forgive myself for refusing. I would, however, like to ask that I be allowed to tell Riko and Marza about the benevolent parts of this agreement.”
“Yes. I will amend the agreement to allow you to tell those two, but not by post. They must not tell others about the benefits, or they will be revoked. You may speak with them either as a pair, or as a trio, without witnesses. I understand the social scenario you find yourself in.” There was a pause. “While I will accept a marriage of more than two individuals, it needs to be a marriage that was not initiated solely to protect the health of others. When Riko Gonzalez suggests that you might consider marrying all of his other female and male descendants of childbearing age, and then immediately divorcing them before marrying Marza, tell him that I would not appreciate either him, or you, attempting to game our agreement.”
“If you do not mind me asking, how many people in the world do you have agreements with, Albert?”
“How often to they break their agreements?”
“Almost never, Allen. I know by their behavior, typically before they do, that they are considering it. I then take steps to remind them of the penalties they might incur, or the benefits they might lose.”
So, I will always be watched, or I’m expected to believe I will always be watched.
Wait. Does this mean- “I never need to worry about dementia, since I might tell details about the agreement otherwise?”
“Correct. A benefit that I generally do not mention.”
“Since Riko and Marza are also going to be told, they do not need to worry about dementia?” I asked, to clarify.
Riko will be happy to hear that.
I couldn’t help myself. “So, I can’t declare that I am marrying everyone in the world?”
Albert immediately responded, in a hard, clipped voice. “No.”
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