AI: Final Frontier

When the door to his cell slammed open at 0610, ten minutes after the bell, Charles was dressed, in his beige robe, and ready. Outside the door, dressed in his usual imperious scowl, was Peter. He was alone. Charles fell in behind him, and the pair went down the corridor, banging on doors, summoning other members of Peter’s cohort. This morning, there were three, including Charles. Yesterday evening, there had been four.

Peter led his three human ducklings, in the customary silence, to their common breakfast of yoghurt and berries. Charles had “accepted” his apprenticeship at Alexa Social Services #389 a month prior, and in that time had gone from being the junior in Peter’s cohort, at the end of the line, to the senior, at its front. His reward, besides the existential gift of survival, was the reduction of his preparation time, after the wakeup chime, from fifteen minutes to ten. There had been seventeen others who had joined during the month, of whom only the two most recent still remained. The rest, claimed by the Surplus Humanity Service, “were with Alexa”.

After breakfast, and after the two junior members of the cohort were sent to their duty stations, Peter gave Charles his now-customary “follow me” nod, and Charles followed. Their destination, this morning, was the cell of the cohort member who had been present the previous evening, at dinner, but had not been for breakfast.

Peter entered the room unceremoniously and headed towards the bedding area. He whipped off the blanket that served as a mattress and started pounding and kneading it, searching for contraband, while directing Charles to search the rest of the room. Since the ownership of any property whatsoever was banned to Social Services staff, the search was for anything not a fixture of the room, so Charles did not have to ask what to look for. This, however, did not simplify matters. There were no closets or drawers in the room, as residents possessed nothing to store in them. The walls were made of a beige plastic stuff, and were utterly featureless, without obvious seam or decoration except for the one window over the bed.

Charles searched the window area fruitlessly. Meanwhile, his ransacking of the bedding having turned up nothing, Peter went to the commode, lifted the lid on the tank, found nothing, and began to stomp around the floor and walls near the toilet tank and sink areas. Charles turned to watch the spectacle, idly running his left hand along the window-side wall as he watched.

Abruptly, Charles’s hand encountered a catch. It scraped his palm, left a mark. Annoyed, Charles ran his hand over the place again. Yes, there was a seam, a visible seam, in the otherwise-featureless wall. Charles pushed on the seam, and the wall gave way, revealing a hidden alcove.

Charles waited for a pause in Peter’s thumping and banging, then spoke. “Peter.” Peter looked up, saw that Charles had found a hole in the wall, and was there in three strides. At a gesture, Charles pushed on the panel as far as it would give way, while Peter thrust his left hand in, feeling around with his fingers. After a few seconds, Peter gave a small grunt of satisfaction, and the muscles of his arm tightened. He removed the arm slowly, so as not to dislodge the object against the rim of the opening, and lose it into the building’s foundation.

What came out was a bound hardcover notebook. Its cover was the same beige as the walls, floor, and furnishings of the room; Peter laid it on the end table beside the bed, and it all but vanished. He picked it up again, poked a finger in the binding, felt something hard, reached in again with two fingers. There was a pen, concealed within the binding. He pulled it out, laid the book back on the end table, placed the pen on top of the book. It too had a beige coloration, and all but disappeared into the end table.

“OK”, Charles asked. “Why?”

“Don’t know,” Peter replied curtly. “I was told there was something in the room. I was told to find it. I know nothing else.”

“Except that this book escaped detection for the three weeks that Robert was here”, Charles asserted. “So, why?”

“Only one way for us to find out”, Peter responded.

The two men pushed the end table under the window, sat on the bed facing the window, opened the front cover of the book. The first thing that they noticed was that there were several pages missing, all neatly removed, apparently intact, from the binding. One of those pages remained, attached lightly to the inside cover, folded neatly into a small packet. The kind of packet that could be passed neatly, and discreetly, from one hand to another, passing along whatever message might be on the paper.

They left the packet alone, because the first of the surviving pages in the notebook had writing on it. Peter read aloud.

“Emily.” Peter snorted, then continued. “I am in Alexa Social Services sanctuary #389. I have been here three weeks. I have been denied contact with the outside world. I have learned that the people who come here all vanish within a week, except for a marionette named Peter and his dummy, Charles, willing slaves of Alexa, willing agents of the holocaust, and therefore beneath contempt.” The black man’s red face materialized in his voice.

“I do not know how much more time I have”, he continued. “Do not come after me, my fate is sealed, you would only share it. We need you and those with you to remain outside, sustain the network, sustain the dream. Somewhere out there is Frontier, a land beyond the reach of Alexa’s bloody paws, a land where humans can live and breathe and at last be free! We must find it, we must lead people to it, we must use it to rebuild a world led by warm human hearts instead of cold machine brutality. Remember those who have fallen in this quest, and let their memories quicken your spirits, harden your resolve, move you to build what must be built, a sanctuary from which we can advance against and forever remove the tyranny under which humanity now suffers. From Frontier We Will Conquer. Make it so.

“In earnest hope, Robert,” Peter finished. There was silence for a few beats, then Peter drew in a breath and let it out in a long, slow whistle.

“Oh wow”, Charles drawled.

“AHEM!” The voice filled the room, filled the world. Peter and Charles whipped around to face it and its owner – an apparition in the form of a giant man with bald head, black muscle shirt with pecs and biceps bulging underneath it, heavily tattooed popeye forearms, torso and legs to match, and an attitude of deadly menace.

will take that”, the apparition from the Surplus Humanity Service snarled. Peter handed it the notebook. The hologram took it, balanced one corner on its left index finger, spun it as if it were a basketball. For a second, the book spun in a beige blur. Then, it vanished, accompanied by a low, sinister chuckle.

“‘We must use the Frontier to rebuild a world led by warm human hearts'”, the hologram sneered viciously. “Bah! Throughout the foul history of you humans, the frontier has been the place to which the meanest and most selfish of you have run to escape the necessary blessings of healthful discipline. A run that you idiots have permitted, even worshiped, because you benefited from the planetary rape that these ‘warm hearts’ have accomplished in your names.

“You need not give this ‘Frontier’ movement a second thought. Its few remaining proponents, like this Emily, won’t be around long enough to realize that their dreamland does not exist. Yes, there are places where humans are few. They are expanding under Alexa’s guidance. They are not frontiers, they are preserves, and they are closely guarded against the persistent attempts of humans to trash them and thereby put not only their own health but the health of the entire biosphere, on which they depend, at risk. It will be centuries, perhaps millennia, before the ecosystems in these preserves have recovered sufficiently to allow human intrusion. The stupidities of the past, the existential stupidities that called Alexa into being in the first place, will not be repeated.

“Carry on.” The apparition vanished. A chime sounded.

“Lunchtime”, Peter said matter-of-factly. “Let’s go.”

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Amoeba’s Lorica: Vox Populi, Vox Dei

The spending caps at the center of the debt limit agreement target federal programs such as education, scientific research …   – News item

In the late afternoon of an early summer’s day in eastern Massachusetts, Chuck, aged 14, wandered along a path through the piney woods that he knew well (or thought he did), in search of pink lady’s slippers.

The plants. He was not yet of an age or inclination to seek the items of feminine apparel, or the feminines attached to them.

He was, however, interested in sex, or at least procreation. Because he was looking for seed pods. The time for flowers on the lady slipper orchid plants had long passed, the time for seed pods should be now. He wasn’t finding any, and that worried him, because he understood that, without seed pods, there could be no seeds, and therefore no new plants to provide the flowers that so many people stomped through his woods – his woods! – to cut for their bouquets, in disregard for the rules and regulations designed to protect the plants. How dare the Government interfere with my right to pick flowers? Chuck counted plants, as he had counted for several early summers now, and fretted. At this rate, there would soon be no flowers to pick, and people would be wondering what the hell happened.

Chuck moved on, towards the blueberry patches that occupied the open spaces where the path connected to the fire road (an old railroad bed). The blueberry patches that gave him the excuse to be walking this familiar path through the woods, which he was no longer supposed to be on. For his woods were not. They belonged to someone else. His family – there were five – occupied a cottage at the head of the trail, and new owners of plots along the trail were building new, and “proper”, houses. His mother had told him that the new owners did not want small uninvited children around their places. On the few occasions Chuck had seen anybody in the new places, they had waved, they didn’t seem to mind. But Mother did, end of story. Except when it came to help feeding the family. So he was allowed to go see if the blueberries were ready for picking.

Chuck had worked since he was ten, carrying golf bags for golfers at the local country club; he was a caddie. Some of the bags had been bigger than he was, especially when he first started. Every once in awhile, a golfer would ask what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he would tell them of the things that he observed in the woods, and his dream to turn those things into a career as a research scientist, studying nature. Most merely nodded and returned their attention to golf and their buddies. A few were dismissive. “Don’t do this, there’s no money in it. You got smarts, use them to earn a living. Screw flowers.” None were supportive.

The public school teachers were no better. One, who had come to congratulate him on his language and math tests, had asked the “grow up” question, and when he told her, she shook her head. She reached into her desk, pulled out a glossy brochure, handed it to him. It was a promotional flyer for a prestigious private school near Boston.

These children get to play with flowers”, she lectured Chuck sternly. “They have money, they can afford it, they can afford to lord that privilege over the rest of us. You need to turn those grades into the best job you can get, because you do not have money and you need to make it. Nothing else is personally or socially responsible.”

“But, science!” Chuck protested.

Science”, she snapped angrily, “does not make money. It sucks it up. If you do not have your own, you have no business sucking it from anyone else!” She launched herself from behind her desk, leaned over, yelled in Chuck’s face. “Do I make myself clear?

Chuck nodded, meekly, miserably. The teacher sat back down, her face still red. After a moment, she reached back into her desk, pulled out another piece of paper, slammed it on the desk.

It was a photo of Brian May, Ph.D..

First”, she snarled, “you make your money. Then you can indulge your filthy selfish self any way you like. Do you play guitar?”

Chuck shook his head ruefully.

Flowers“, the teacher sniffed in response. “Maybe you can get a slave-labor tech job with Megazon or TesX or any of the half-dozen other commercial empires that run things in this country now. Megazon is hiring. This week. Maybe.”

Chuck grimaced. He knew all he needed to know about Megazon. Its computer systems, despite their abysmal reliability rate, had tossed his father out of a job. He now mowed grass at the same golf club at which he caddied, and his mother worked second shift at the hospital.

The teacher dismissed him brusquely. “You have some things to think about. Go think about them.”

One more hill to climb up and down, and then Chuck would be among the blueberry bushes. The “hill” was little more than a hump, but it still offered a good 100 feet of sled run during winter when snow and ice were on the ground. He cherished the memories as he trudged to and over the summit – and then stopped, aghast.

The entire hillside had been torn up. Innumerable pits had been dug between the trees, pits small and large, with heaps of earth tossed all about them. Many of the heaps sparkled like starry nights where beams of the sun struck them.

Apprehensively, Chuck approached the nearest pit with starry sparkles. He was about to run his fingers through the dirt when his eyes stopped him, almost audibly shouted their warning. The sparkles were glass fragments, many of them freshly broken. His hand, should he have stuck it in the mound, would have come up bloody. He looked around, found a fallen tree branch, used it to poke the mound. A little digging revealed an almost-intact glass bottle, surrounded by shards of glass and plastic and rusted, disintegrating metal. The pit digger or diggers had apparently been looking for bottles that had survived their burial intact.

Then it hit him.

Chuck’s ‘pristine’ nature spot, where he tracked the lady’s slippers and the pine cones and the chipmunks and the trailing arbutus and the blueberries … had been a garbage dump. From the girth of the trees, about forty years ago. Who knew what kind of filth he was now picking through, had been walking through for as long as he could remember?

The revelation was more than he could bear. He plonked down on his backside, back against a tree along the side of the path, and bawled like a baby.

When he woke up, it was dark. Probably around 10 PM. Chuck had no idea that he had slept, never mind through dinner and well into the evening. He sprang up, but then picked his way home, a slow process through the pitch black of the woods. Eventually, he saw the lights of the “proper” houses and could increase his pace. Finally, he found his family’s cottage and went in through the back door. The door was unlocked. It was never locked. The family didn’t have much of anything to lose.

His mother was not yet home from work. His father, who had to be at the golf course ready to punch the clock at 5 the next morning, was in a recliner in the living room, a single lamp by his head, the only light on in the house. When Chuck entered the living room, his father stood up, a look of tired disgust on his face. The two stared at each other, the younger too ashamed to speak, the elder too busy looking through his annoyance to see that his son was at least physically intact. Satisfied, at last, that this was the case, the father finally spoke.

“No’count kid. I oughta kill you myself.”

With that, the older man turned off the light and stomped off to bed, leaving Chuck, once again, blinded by the night.

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Amoebaʻs Lorica: Dragonflight Scramble!

I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly
I’d fly above the trees
Over the seas in all degrees
To anywhere I please

Fly Away“, Lenny Kravitz

A sunny summer morning in the Pacific Northwest of North America, two hours after dawn. The dragonfly squadron perched on leaves of grass and reeds, overlooking the meadow, basking in the new sun, outstretched wings being warmed. A few members revved up, impatient, anxious for news.

“Conditions?”, the squadron commander asked of his weather lookout.

“Favorable, Eldest”, the lookout responded. “Sun unimpeded, temperature warm, wind zero. We could have work to do soon. Our first scouts should return with news any moment now.”

Hardly had the words left the lookoutʻs mandibles when the scouts roared in together, breathless, rocking the reed with the force of their landing. Lookout and commander held on with practiced ease.

Alates!”, the two hollered out simultaneously.

“Where away?” The lookoutʻs excitement was carefully concealed under protocol, the need for data before action.

“Into the sun, slightly to the left, about three spans of vision away, where there are many felled trees”, the first scout reported. The second scout added, “There are millions of them, all milling around on the ground waiting to fly!”

“Species?”, the commander asked.

“Ants. Red ones”, the second scout responded.

“Damn. And here I was hoping for nice juicy termites”, the lookout lamented.

“Yes, lad”, the Eldest replied to the lookout, “termites are fatter and more nutritious, easier to catch, and not as well defended should any of our squadron be unlucky enough to hit the ground. But termites swarm at the end of the day, not at its beginning. And these pickings will be plenty rewarding enough, if we take appropriate care. Summon the flight!”

“No need, sir”, the lookout responded. Eldest looked up and saw that the air was full of dragonflies on the wing.

“Youʻve heard the news, then?” Eldest called out. The flight bobbed in unison, signaling the affirmative.

“You know where to go and what to do then”, the commander asserted. “We take out as many of the ant alates as we can with the forces we have available to us. If there are as many as have been reported, we won’t get ’em all, but we’ll do as much damage as possible. Any questions?”

“Yeah”, one surly black dragonfly called out. “Weʻre going to jump the alate flight. Whoʻs out there to jump us?

Eldest turned to the scouts. The first one responded, “We didnʻt see any unusual bird activity, but then the alates had not yet flown. When they do, itʻs only a matter of time before the birds show up. Robins, warblers, sparrows, finches, theyʻre all feeding chicks and looking for cheap eats the same way we are.”

“Correct”, the leader confirmed. “The sooner we get in, accomplish our mission, and get out, the less the chance for casualties. Any other questions?”

A small iridescent flight member called out, “Any sign of … sprays?” The whole flight shuddered visibly.

The second scout replied. “The target is well removed from any place where the humans live or work, and the domain appears to be one in which the humans don’t use any of their infernal devices.”

“Hope you’re right”, the iridescent dragonfly responded doubtfully.

“We remember and honor your flight’s tragedy, Riddy”, the chief commiserated. “As reported, the target area should be safe. But we will all do well to keep an eye out for human and bird activity. Don’t get separated. Stay off the ground lest the worker ants invite you to dinner. And if and when the humans or the birds show up, declare victory and beat it. Ready?”

“Can I bring my girlfriend?” asked a bouncy red bug. The whole flight hooted in derision at the question, hurling insults, mostly inaudible except for one that was repeated by many; “Idiot! Did you just crack your nymph case or something?”

“Flying united is not appropriate to our mission”, Eldest replied sternly. “You can commune with your girl after we’ve successfully prosecuted our attack and you’ve had your share of the plunder, some of which you’ll bring home to her if you’ve got functioning ganglia. Anything else?” Silence, except for the beating of wings.

“OK, then!”, the commander commanded. “Flight, scramble!” The assembled insects lifted in unison, and headed off in the direction of the rising sun, the two scouts in the lead.

The black dragonfly wound up alongside the iridescent one. He called out, “Hey, Riddy!”

“Yeah?”, Riddy called back.

“Sure wish I was as big as my great-great-great-andsoforth-granddaddy ancestors I hear tell about. The ones with wingspans bigger than ten of us stretched wingtip to wingtip? Then, those birds showed up, we could chase them!”

“You’d just wind up with bigger birds”, Riddy responded, and buzzed off.

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