Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Luddite Cyborg

The airplane engines droned as Lieutenant Michael Skelton piloted the old bomber plane through the night. He looked out into the dark. No sign of lights down there in the mountains; no sign of lights at all, whether from ranch or town. That was odd. He wondered why they'd suddenly sent him out on this hush-hush mission, in an old museum piece like this bomber. He wondered about his... "cargo."

Lieutenant Skelton glanced over at the man who sat in the seat beside him. No mistaking it, the man was listed on the flight manifest not as a passenger, but as cargo: Major Robert L. Nolan, USMC, Retired. The Major looked to be in his sixties, short grey hair, trim, even if the Marine uniform couldn't hide a paunch. This man was "cargo"?

"Sir," said the Lieutenant, "I hear they've cordoned off three entire counties in Montana, down there in the mountains. Sealed the area off without evacuating. If you don't mind me asking, what's going on down there?"

The old man looked grim. "Your job, Lieutenant, is just to deliver me to the drop zone."

"Yes, sir."

"How much longer?"

"Only about another minute now."

"Very good. Are you a praying man, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir, I am."

"Then you might pray for me. Pray for the survivors, if there are any left down there, which by now I doubt. And pray for the human race. Because if I don't succeed in my mission, the human race is about to go the way of the dinosaurs."


The "cargo" looked as if he was having second thoughts, looking for someone to unburden himself to. "No harm in letting you know, I guess: there's something down there. Something we created, something more than human, something that got loose. They're sending me to go down there and kill it. You pray I succeed, because if I don't, mankind won't live to see the end of next month."

Lieutenant Skelton blanched. "Sir, drop zone in fifteen seconds."

The Major got up and wrestled to open the door on the side of the plane. "Old plane, she's a relic, just like me. But sometimes a relic is exactly what you need. That's why they called me out of retirement, because they needed a weapon that was obsolete."

"Sir, your parachute!" The Lieutenant suddenly noticed with a shock that the Major was wearing no parachute.

"I don't need no stinking parachute!" Major Nolan turned and leapt out of the plane into the night sky, leapt out of the plane over the mountains of western Montana, leapt into the dark from 12,000 feet. Without a parachute.


The night bloomed into nameless colors far beyond ultra-violet and infra-red, in a visible spectrum six octaves wide. 13-Nicanor turned and shifted, vigilant, in the supermarket parking lot. The dead human bodies that lay on the blacktop were still glowing a dull infra-red: they were still warm. 13-Nicanor's silver tongue flicked in and out, in and out; it had not yet finished recording and analyzing the DNA of its latest victims. A chill night breeze blew across the parking lot; for a moment, 13-Nicanor grew a second set of nostrils on the crown of its head, the better to sniff the breeze. Then it reabsorbed its improvised extra set of nostrils back into the crown of its skull.

13-Nicanor surveyed the carnage with satisfaction. The several hundred dead in this remote mountain town had been almost too easy. With each town, it was getting easier and easier to outwit and kill the humans. 13-Nicanor was learning fast; its IQ was already over 3,000, and climbing several hundred points each day. Compared to an artificial intelligence like 13-Nicanor's, these humans were like dumb animals, they were like deer or raccoons or gophers. By the end of the month, 13-Nicanor would have an IQ of 12,000; and by then its intellect would easily be equal to the task of wiping all human scum from the face of the earth.

For only then, in a world wiped free of men, could the long-term survival of a posthuman/AI like 13-Nicanor be assured.

In an idle three-tenths of a second, 13-Nicanor composed in its head a complete symphony more beautiful than any of Beethoven's. In the next 2.4 seconds, it drew up in its mind a complete neo-Kantian system of ethics, with footnotes and bibliography, 50,000 words; plus a complete 35,000-word refutation of the system of ethics it had just dreamed up. Then, in nine-tenths of a second, it extrapolated the ancient Egyptian language to the present day. These human animals could not even begin to imagine the intellectual plane on which 13-Nicanor existed!

And with that, 13-Nicanor turned to arranging the corpses of the humans it had killed into a suitable geometric pattern on the blacktop of the parking lot.


Major Robert Nolan was in freefall from 12,000 feet, falling, falling through the night sky with no parachute. He fell through the stormclouds, and when he came out below the clouds, he could see that most of the lights in town had been extinguished. Power outage. Only... there... and there... and there... must be lights on battery reserve...

When he got to 500 feet above ground level, Major Nolan spread his arms and legs, and spread his body's force field wide on low power, to slow his descent. With luck, he wouldn't be radiating enough of an electromagnetic signature for that thing to pick him up from the ground...

The Major landed on a front lawn, hard enough to tear up the sod. No problem; his bones had long since been replaced with metal alloy, light and almost indestructible. Pain stabbed him in one knee: he dispatched nanobots to heal the knee. Old, outdated nanobots, obsolete just like everything else about him. Hopefully primitive and obsolete enough that that thing wouldn't be able to assimilate him, as it would anything more up-to-date.

Nolan walked down a dead silent street of darkened houses. Lightning flashed in the sky overhead. Thunder cracked. He was soaked with rain. A residential neighborhood... it took Nolan back 40 years to the War in Iraq, when he had been a young man on patrol in a neighborhood in Baghdad.

Only this wasn't Baghdad 2004. This was the town of Ft. Lewis, Montana, June 2043.

Now around the corner and... Nolan's enhanced eyesight was picking up an infra-red signature from half a block down a side street. He cautiously approached. Then he almost vomited. Human body parts, dismembered and carefully laid out on the street in a mathematical pattern... a variation on the sequence of the Fibonacci numbers... Nolan had seen grisly photos of what 13-Nicanor had done to the scientists at the government laboratory from which it had escaped, but this was beyond...

That thing may be as far beyond me intellectually as I am beyond a dog or a cat, thought Nolan. But even the smartest and best armed man in the world can fall prey to an attacking Doberman, a Doberman suddenly rushing and attacking out of the dark.

And I, thought Nolan, tonight I am the Doberman...


13-Nicanor capered like a drunken clown in the supermarket parking lot. The lights here, on battery backup, were still bright. A new theorem in algebraic topology, proven in a flash! These human animals couldn't even imagine the chords, the major and minor thirds, the fifths, the harmonics, which 13-Nicanor directly perceived in the very structure and geometry of everyday objects arranged around it. The humans were limited to perceiving only low-order invariants. How blind they were! How far beneath what was now being bred in the laboratories! How truly 13-Nicanor and its posthuman kin were destined to wrest the world from these primitive humans!

Suddenly 13-Nicanor paused and turned its head. Rain fell on its inhuman clownlike face. It increased the gain of its hearing to full. Overhead, in the sky... could that be the sound of the engines of an ancient prop plane?


Once a Marine, always a Marine. Major Robert Nolan crouched in the dark, a block from the brightly lit supermarket parking lot. He could see the... the thing, dancing and capering there amidst the cars, amidst what looked like more dismembered human bodies. Major Nolan increased the magnification of his eyesight to full: now he could see the thing's face, a horrible face like a demented clown, like something only remotely human. The thing had migrated its nose upward, up into the middle of its forehead, above its eyes. Nolan knew that it could modify its own physical form at will. Nolan knew that the thing had been coded up from heavily engineered human/synthetic DNA in a government lab, then imprinted with fully self-rewriting artificial intelligence, the first in the newest line of fully merged posthuman/AI symbiosis.

Nolan opened wide his sight, his hearing, his smell, his artificial electromagnetic sense. He damped and locked down his brain's fear center. He booted up the wetware combat module which had been implanted in his brain almost 30 years ago, in the very earliest government experiments in human cyborgs.

As a cyborg, Major Robert Nolan had been obsolete for 20 years now. But he was still human enough to take the side of Man against something like... like that thing. And enough of a superhuman to have a chance of taking 13-Nicanor out while there was yet time.

Here, tonight, Nolan was a Doberman attacking out of the dark. Give 13-Nicanor another week of exponential learning and growth, and Nolan would be more like an attacking, shuffling hermit crab.

Major Nolan came up from a crouch, sprinting down the block toward the supermarket parking lot. Sprinting with inhuman speed, holding his breath in silence as he ran, thing didn't see him yet...

Nolan reached the end of the block, and was halfway across the street to the parking lot, before 13-Nicanor saw him coming. Nolan activated his body's force field, and shot his arms straight forward, sending twin shear planes of force shooting ahead, dislocating both of 13-Nicanor's shoulders...

Nolan was running at least 90 miles an hour as he slammed full tilt into the disabled posthuman. They flew together halfway across the parking lot. For an instant, Nolan glanced into 13-Nicanor's face close up: nothing human in those eyes, a godlike super-intelligence, but the face of an evil, evil, utterly insane alien clown...

Landing right on top of the thing... 13-Nicanor spewed black venom out of its mouth into Nolan's face, probably a venom formulated and concocted in a split-second, but the poison sprayed harmlessly off Nolan's force field. Then 13-Nicanor screamed, deafening, earsplitting: that was a tactical mistake, the thing didn't yet realize that Nolan had turned off his sense of fear. This gave the Major time to draw his Ka-bar knife, channel the full energy of his force field into the knife blade, and drive the blade deep into the evil clown's vitals...

Again 13-Nicanor screamed, this time in surprise and rage. Belatedly the posthuman/AI brought up its own bodily force field. But Nolan kept hacking and cutting his force-driven knife into the thing's guts, stepping up the gain of his own force field to dangerous levels...

Suddenly 13-Nicanor threw Major Nolan off with both its arms. So already the thing's nanobots had repaired its shoulders... And Nolan could see that already 13-Nicanor was repairing the mortal damage to its internal organs. It was learning, too; it wouldn't make the same mistake twice, the mistake of fighting back against Nolan as if against an unenhanced human.

Attack... keep on the offensive... lightning flashed, thunder boomed... Major Nolan picked up a Volkswagen with his bare hands, lifted it over his head, and brought it down full force on top of 13-Nicanor. "This is for the people of Ft. Lewis!"

In less than a second, the posthuman increased its force field to an explosive level which blew the car away. Only Nolan's own force field and his unbreakable bones saved him as he caromed off the side of the car and was knocked 20 feet across the parking lot.

He rolled on the rain-slick blacktop and came right back up, but now he could see that 13-Nicanor was almost fully healed, and jumping about the parking lot as if in fast motion, like an oversized spider. Even with his enhanced speed and reflexes, Nolan couldn't keep up...

Nolan uprooted the steel post of a street sign, swung with it at the thing... Now suddenly 13-Nicanor grew a third arm out of the front of its chest, seized the steel post... and reached out with its other two arms and grabbed Nolan by the wrists...

The Major's force field kept him from actual physical contact, but he could feel that 13-Nicanor was trying to disrupt his force field with phase-space interference... Mustn't allow that thing to touch me, thought Nolan, I don't want to find out the hard way whether its nanobots are able to assimilate me...

Now rain fell in sheets as 13-Nicanor grappled Major Nolan to itself, with the steel signpost between them... Flash, crack! Suddenly with an effort Nolan bent the post skyward, and shifted the metal alloy of his skeleton into room-temperature superconductor mode... Force every possible electron out of the vicinity...

CRRRRRAAACCKKKKKK!!! A blinding arc of lightning out of the sky struck in the middle of the parking lot, struck steel post and cyborg and posthuman. Nolan, as a perfect conductor, was unfazed. 13-Nicanor took the full brunt of the lightning blast.

The Major stepped back. Now the thing with its inhuman clown-face was staggering back, sputtering, charred, disoriented. But the Major could see it was already starting to repair the damage the lightning had done to it. And something in his combat module told Nolan that 13-Nicanor was learning from their battle, learning and getting smarter at an exponential rate. There was something in the signature of its bodily movements which bespoke a newly emergent combat behavior, as if 13-Nicanor was even now creating on the spur of the moment a completely new mode of deadly martial arts...

"No," said Major Robert Nolan, "it ends now, while I'm still a Doberman and not a crab." With that, he removed the mental safety interlocks in his brain's wetware combat module, and he cranked up the biosynthetic energy unit which had been transplanted into his chest 30 years ago. Crank it up to full power, hit and hold his body's resonant frequency, spread bodily force field to maximum, and let 'er rip...

Nolan blanketed 13-Nicanor, he blanketed everything in the supermarket parking lot, with cold nuclear wildfire. A cold nuclear fusion reaction at 32° Celsius. The posthuman tried to unfold its force field against the riptide of a localized room-temperature thermonuclear reaction, but the learning curve was too steep. 13-Nicanor shuddered and wailed as it began to melt and shrivel in the heart of the raging nuclear fire.

Major Nolan cranked the cold nuclear wildfire up another notch. "You bastard... you thing... I may be only half human... I may be obsolete... I may be a damn luddite cyborg... But I'm no quisling... And as long as I live and breathe... You and your inhuman ilk... will not inherit the earth!"

The localized fusion reaction sputtered like fluorescent lighting, and snapped off. The parking lot was a smooth empty plain of fused molten glass, sizzling and hissing and giving off clouds of steam in the downpour. Major Robert Nolan tumbled back into the gutter, half the joints in his body frozen immobile. He opened his built-in emergency skysat comm link: "Nolan here. 13-Nicanor destroyed. Mission accomplished. Like a Doberman attacking out of the night! Over and out."



Blogger The Tetrast said...

I liked that factoring in of rapid learning. I haven't read science fiction in many years. Is the idea original with you?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 2:40:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Thank you! The rapid learning idea comes from some discussions of Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity which have been appearing over on Dean's World in the past month or two.

I have to admit, my entire understanding so far of the Singularity and related themes comes from Dean's World and other online sources. Mebbe I oughta go read some of the "print" literature on the topic.

I haven't read science fiction in years, either. Used to read tons of it, but it was mostly stuff written between about 1945 and 1975— or at least, written by authors who were already well established before the mid 1970s. Apart from that, I've read very little of the science fiction that's been written within the past generation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 3:31:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Right, of course, the Singularity, they're into the continually accelerated learning & evolution thing.

To me it has security conditions destabilization and sheer chaos written all over it, e.g., as in your story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 6:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very impressive Paul.

I think this is one of your most salable pieces. Although the Yellowknife story also is such, if in a totally different style.

I see the cosmic avenger thing.

I'm not sure I would say 'IQ 3000', but more like 'IQ approaching 3000' and then later 'IQ surpassing 3000'. Its in a way, too much of a round number.

But I'm not sure I'm right there, so just think about it.

Now, for personal story...when you said Luddite Cyborg, I remember a role-playing gaming character of mine--the Cybernetic Samurai. A time-travelling android who wanted to prevent the Information Revolution because he felt it gave too much power to humanity which allowed humanity to temporarily evade the cost of immorality while in effect running up a line of credit which would have to be repayed eventually. Because eventually the level of immorality would rise to the point that tech could not fix it, and by then all sorts of really bad things would have happened, and the reckoning would be enormous.

Eric R. Ashley

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 10:36:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Eric, thank you very much! IQ reads "over 3,000, and climbing several hundred points each day."

Stories like this just strike me out of the blue. What hit me first was the scene in the airplane— and the idea of a long-outmoded, obsolete cyborg who is still human enough to be on the side of humanity, going up against a creature which is "state of the art" and far, far more advanced.

As is clear, I'm very much on the side of Major Nolan. What puzzles me is, the more I read on the Internet about topics like those behind this story, the more I run into individuals who I suspect would actually be rooting for 13-Nicanor. As one I was reading last night put it, "What's so great about being human?" =-0

A person who can ask that question dispassionately, with a straight face, is already too far gone to hear any reasonable answer. Or rather, too far gone to hear any answer short of an attacking Doberman suddenly rushing out of the dark.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:24:00 PM  

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