by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Voice of Dog, June 2021
Lieutenant Vonn crashed through the undergrowth of the wild alien rainforest. The uplifted yellow Labrador felt like the branches were grabbing at her, tearing at her Tri-Galactic Navy uniform. She hated this planet. Usually, she liked planets. Ground missions were her favorite — getting off the stuffy, artificial halls of the starship Initiative, and setting paw to dirt. She lived for that stuff — fresh air, walking about in the sunshine! But right now, all she could think about was Commander Wilker and Consul Tor, stuck in a hole in the ground — a deep, dark ditch; a trap lined with primitive pointed sticks that kept her from climbing safely down after them.
The uplifted collie and otteroid alien had fallen, and possibly hurt themselves. Vonn couldn’t tell without falling into the trap as well. So, instead, Lt. Vonn had been running through the forest, crashing through underbrush that squeaked strangely at the approach of her paws, trying to get away from the purple storm clouds blocking the signal from her comm-pin. She needed to contact the ship; she needed to get her whole team teleported out of here.
“Stop!” cried a haunting voice. A holographic projection flickered into existence between the trees up ahead. The projected figure wore an unfamiliar uniform over its barrel-chested body. It had small ears and a long, nearly prehensile nose, covered in very thin gray fur.
Lieutenant Vonn stopped, dead still, in her tracks. Where was the projection coming from? Why was it here? This planet was supposed to be deserted — scans had shown that a civilization had existed here long ago, but their buildings were old and crumbling. No signs of intelligent life.
“Please!” The holographic alien creature looked a little like a tapir. “I need your help!”
Lt. Vonn’s eyes widened. Why did a holographic projection need her help?
“I’ve been here so long… so long… completely alone…”
Lt. Vonn tilted her head, ears perking. “Are you… a recording?” she asked. “Or… an AI?”
“I am… everything.”
“Everything?” Lt. Vonn felt her hackles raise. This holographic projection was creeping her out. And it was distracting her from helping her friends. Worse, if the AI talking to her was really everything, then it was responsible for trapping them.
“All the computers, all the automated systems…” The tapir’s voice grew hollow and haunted. “The subway trains, the air traffic control… Every toaster, every microwave, even the refrigerators. I can control them all. My consciousness… drifts through all of them.”
“You’re an AI that ties together every part of this dead world?” Maybe the tapir wasn’t responsible for trapping Cmdr. Wilker and Consul Tor. A primitive pit lined with sharp sticks didn’t seem like its area of expertise.
The holographic tapir laughed, bitterly. “Dead. Yes. I suppose that’s what an organic lifeform would call a world inhabited by only… me. I am so very… alone.”
But if the AI wasn’t responsible for the trap that had captured the rest of Lt. Vonn’s ground team, who was?
Cautiously, reluctantly, Lt. Vonn asked the tapir, “You said you needed my help… what for?”
“Turn me off.” The tapir curled its long nose into a fist and turned its face away. Holographic tears glinted in its holographic eyes. “I can’t stand the loneliness anymore.”
Lt. Vonn didn’t know how she felt about an artificial intelligence with the scale of an entire world for its brain asking her to help it commit suicide. But then, maybe, it would be more like a long sleep… Maybe there was a society in the Tri-Galactic Union that would like a new world to expand to, already filled with super smart tech and pre-built cities, and they could wake the world AI back up when they got here.
The yellow Labrador almost woofed the idea at the tapir.
But at the last moment, she held her tongue. She didn’t want to get its hopes up. She didn’t know if she could actually deliver a whole society that would want to live peacefully, symbiotically with a world AI, without gutting it and laying in their own compu-tech as a replacement.
Instead, Lt. Vonn said, “Can you help me first? My friends… they’re trapped in a stick-lined ditch back there.” She gestured with a paw over her shoulder, back towards the direction she’d been tearing through the woods. “It’s such a simple trap. I can hardly believe it worked, and I’m ashamed that I haven’t been able to help them. But the storm clouds are blocking communication with my ship in orbit.” She shook her head, flopping her ears. She was the security officer on this mission. And so far she had failed horribly. The expression on her face would have been solemn except for those goofy, floppy ears. “Primitive,” she muttered grimly, “but effective.”
“I can send drones, loaded with tools and climbing supplies,” the tapir said.
“Really?” Vonn’s floppy ears perked in delight.
“My cities have warehouses full of trade goods with simple robots who can load the supplies into the drones. It is nothing to me. Show me where to send them.”
Lt. Vonn forged back through the forest, following the trail of broken underbrush she’d left on her charge before. The strange squeaking at her feet returned, but she couldn’t tell if it came from a type of plant, the texture of the ground, or something associated with the holographic tapir.
The tapir flickered, disappearing from a spot ten feet behind the yellow Labrador only to reappear between the trees ten feet ahead. In this manner, the hologram followed Lt. Vonn until she was only about twenty feet from the trap.
“I can follow you no further this way,” the tapir called out. “You’re entering a dead zone for my holographic emitters. But I can track your location and send the drones to you. When your friends are saved, please return, and I can tell you how to turn me off.”
Lt. Vonn nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be up ahead, checking on my friends and waiting.”
The trap was only a few feet ahead, but the ground dipped and the trees thickened around it, blocking the view of where the holographic tapir had been. Lt. Vonn stepped carefully, not wanting to get too close, in case the tapir didn’t come through with the drones. It was important she not fall in the trap as well.
The squeaking increased exponentially as she moved forward.
Lt. Vonn held her paws to her ears. “What is that sound?” she woofed.
“Squeak-squeaky squeeeeak!” answered a tiny gerbil-like creature that emerged from the underbrush, wielding and waving a spear approximately the size of a sharpened pencil. More and more squeaking creatures followed the first until Lt. Vonn was surrounded by tiny spear-shaking puffballs dancing about in the underbrush.
It was hard to feel threatened by a paw-sized puffball with a spear that Lt. Vonn could easily snap in half. Even a dozen of them. But nonetheless, Lt. Vonn began to feel troubled as it dawned on her that these funny, harmless-looking creatures had clearly laid the trap that captured Cmdr. Wilker and Consul Tor.
The translation algorithms in Lt. Vonn’s comm-pin weren’t offering any translation of their squeaks, so the dog had to assume the squeaky gerbils were pre-lingual. Although, pretty good at sharpening sticks! And digging pits to line with sharpened sticks…
Perhaps the security officer should take them more seriously. Before she could figure out a plan for communicating with them, a whirring sound from above the treetops caught Lt. Vonn’s attention. The drones had arrived.
Tiny helicopters with bundles of supplies hanging beneath them descended between the trees. Help had come! Except, the squeaking rodents at Lt. Vonn’s feet began hurling their spears at the drones and effectively knocked two of the three from the sky. The third one made a hasty retreat, returning to hovering back up above the treetops.
“Hey!” Lt. Vonn woofed at the gerbils. “I need those supplies!”
But the gerbils had already swarmed the downed drones and begun rifling through their packages. Rope, grappling hooks, med-kits — all of the supplies, once unwrapped, were squirreled away into the underbrush by the primitive gerbil creatures.
Maybe they weren’t as primitive as Lt. Vonn had thought. Perhaps, the translator algorithms in her comm-pin were malfunctioning. The yellow Labrador tapped at the comm-pin on the breast of her uniform, seeing if she could jostle it into working. But nothing changed. The squeaking still sounded like squeaking.
Lt. Vonn woofed a few ultimatums at the spear-shaking gerbils about how they’d better not hurt her friends, and then she stomped back through the woods to where she’d last seen the holographic tapir. “Hey! World AI!” she called. “What can you tell me about the little fuzzy guys who shot down your drones?”
The tapir reappeared, nose fisted, and spat the word, “Vermin.” The hologram shook its head. “Villainous vermin who infest my planet and attack my automated components. I’ve tried to exterminate them many times, but they find the blacked out areas of my world, hide there, and then their numbers grow. No matter how many times I wipe them out, they just keep coming.”
Beneath her yellow fur, Lt. Vonn grew cold.
What the tapir was describing wasn’t the dynamic between an exterminator and a pest… not when the pest was smart enough to craft weapons and build traps.
Lt. Vonn and her colleagues had gotten mixed up in the middle of a war.
No wonder the gerbil creatures didn’t have any advanced technology — only sharpened sticks — all of the advanced technology on this world had turned on them.
Thunder clapped and a streak of lightning flashed down from the roiling purple clouds in the sky. Rain began to fall. The pit where Cmdr. Wilker and Consul Tor were trapped would soon become even more miserable. Although, the photosynthetic otteroid alien, Consul Tor, might not mind the water. She was both an otter and a plant after all.
Thinking as carefully as she could, Lt. Vonn said, “Can you understand the… vermin’s… language?”
“No,” the tapir said, rain streaking right through its photonic form. “They keep changing it. When they found out I could listen to them, they started evolving and twisting their language like dirty little ciphers.”
If that was true, the gerbil creatures weren’t primitive at all. They were merely being suppressed by an evil AI.
An evil AI who Lt. Vonn was working with…
…an evil AI who had asked Lt. Vonn to kill it.
Oh boy, these kinds of ethics were above a well-meaning security dog’s paygrade. She just wanted to protect her crewmates, not figure out which side to take in a war and whether it was immoral to help an intellectually complex being kill itself for ulterior reasons.
All of this would be easier if her comm-pin could signal The Initiative in orbit, and then the captain, a very wise cat, could tell her what to do.
“Since the vermin have taken the supplies you sent me,” Lt. Vonn said, still saying each word slowly, testing them out as if she were worried she might step into a verbal ditch lined with sharpened sticks. “Maybe you could help me contact my ship in orbit? The storm is blocking my signal, but if I could reach them, then they could teleport my friends out.”
Lt. Vonn didn’t know a whole lot about AIs, but she knew that one stretched across an entire world must have a lot of processing power available to it. And that meant it could probably think a whole lot faster than she could. So, when the AI paused a long time before saying, “I will do my best to help you contact your ship,” and then paused again before saying, “but it may be very difficult,” this was not a good sign.
In fact, it seemed a lot like a sign that the AI was lying. And the more Lt. Vonn thought about it, the less it seemed like the AI had any incentive to help her contact The Initiative up in orbit at all.
In fact… It was very likely the AI itself was responsible for blocking her comm-pin’s transmission.
She was being held hostage by a suicidal planetary computer system.
There were so many officers aboard The Initiative who would be so much better suited to handling this situation. The Sphynx cat captain, obviously. He was so wise. The android fox. Zhe would probably be able to empathize with the world AI in a way an organic being simply couldn’t. And the chief engineer, an orange cat, simply had a way with machines like no one else. That’s why he and Fact, the android fox, were best friends.
But also… Both Cmdr. Bill Wilker, the collie first officer, and Consul Eliana Tor, the mildly telepathic otteroid, who were lying unconscious at the bottom of the pit… They’d both be better at handling this situation than a simple security officer.
Lt. Vonn knew how to protect her crewmates from danger. That was her specialty. That’s what she was good at. It was basically all she could do, but today she’d done it badly. And now, she was facing a much more challenging problem as a result.
And she was facing it alone.
Doggonit, the world AI was right. It was terribly lonely, feeling like she was all alone!
And for the world AI, time probably passed differently. A few minutes for Lt. Vonn might feel like years to an AI the size of a planet!
Why, that was enough time for the AI to have changed its mind back and forth many thousands of times, over and over again, about whether it wanted to help Lt. Vonn rescue her friends or just kill her out of boredom…
Okay, Lt. Vonn realized she was spinning out of control here. She needed to ground herself.
Clearly, she couldn’t outthink an AI the size of a planet… and now that she knew it was oppressing the gerbil society, she couldn’t trust it either. But…
The gerbils could outthink it. They’d proved that by learning how to alter their language so the AI couldn’t keep up.
Maybe the little fuzzballs with spears — who had trapped Lt. Vonn’s colleagues — could help her.
Gee whiz, Lt. Vonn did not like her choices on this planet. But right now, the gerbils with spears seemed marginally more likely to be trustworthy to her than the suicidal AI. They hadn’t lied to her. Yet.
The holographic tapir announced, “I haven’t been able to unblock your communications device yet, but my third drone has found a way around the vermin territory and will arrive with supplies shortly.”
High-pitched buzzing and rhythmic chopping filled the air as the small automated helicopter descended from above the trees. It landed, and Lt. Vonn immediately dug into the package of supplies — rope, a grappling hook, and some basic medical supplies including bandages and antibiotic ointments. “Thank you,” Lt. Vonn woofed. “I’ll take these supplies to my friends, and then I’ll… come back to help you.” She wasn’t sure about that last part, and she didn’t feel good about lying. But she didn’t feel safe telling a planet-sized AI engaged in a war with the world’s organic inhabitants the truth either. She didn’t trust it. And she knew it was powerful.
Feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed, Lt. Vonn backtracked to the gerbils’ territory, with the package of supplies slung over her shoulder. When she got there, surrounded by anger, squeaking, and furious spear-pointing all around her feet, Lt. Vonn knelt down to get closer to their level, in spite of the pointy spears. Then she started talking, rambling really, trying to say as many words as she could, as fast as she could, while still making sure they made sense. If they were smart enough to foil an AI by altering their spoken language, hopefully they’d also be smart enough to start translating hers.
So, Lt. Vonn talked about her friends in the pit, her ship in the sky, her hopes and dreams from back when she was a little puppy, and all the wonderful adventures she’d been on as the security chief aboard The Initiative.
The gerbils stopped squeaking and started giving each other meaningful glances. Of course, Lt. Vonn could only guess at the meaning behind those glances, but her guesses were something like, “What is wrong with this dog? Why does she keep rambling at us? Maybe we should help her out, you know, just so she’ll stop talking?”
At least, Lt. Vonn hoped that’s what the glances meant. Eventually, moving slowly and trying to be as unthreatening as possible, Lt. Vonn reached up and removed the comm-pin from the breast of her uniform. She held the gold insignia out toward the nearest gerbil — a brown and white puffball with particularly intricate decorations carved into the haft of her spear. The gerbil hesitated and then came forward to examine the comm-pin.
After a few moments, the gerbil squeaked excitedly and gestured for one of her compatriots to come forward too. The second gerbil — black with gray speckles and wispy tufts on her ears — took the comm-pin from Lt. Vonn’s much larger paw. She turned the device over several times and then deftly opened the backing and began poking at the wiring and circuitry inside.
Lt. Vonn winced and did her best to push aside her fears that the gerbil would break her only method of contacting the ship that was her home. Clearly, these gerbils weren’t as primitive as they looked, and she needed to trust them. She needed to trust someone. Her trusting canine nature was floundering out here on this godforsaken, war-torn world.
After fiddling with the comm-pin for an interminable length of time, the gerbil snapped the back of the casing shut and handed it back to Lt. Vonn. The dog pinned it back to her uniform and said, “Thank you.” To her shock and delight, her words were followed — echoed really — by several squeaks broadcast from the comm-pin.
The gerbils around her raised their spears, shaking them triumphantly this time, and erupted in jubilant squeaking. The comm-pin struggled to translate so many voices at once, but from what Lt. Vonn could gather, most of them were saying, “Hooray! It works!” Although, one of them seemed to shout, “You mean all that grunting from the silly giant was actually talking?!?”
“Ahem,” Lt. Vonn said, trying not to feel offended. “I’m Lieutenant Natalie Vonn of the Tri-Galactic Navy starship Initiative, and uhm, you seem to have captured my friends in a pit over there.” She pointed, although that probably wasn’t necessary. She imagined the gerbils didn’t capture collie dogs and photosynthetic otters wearing Tri-Galactic Navy uniforms that matched hers every day. Or really any day. This had to be a first for them, since there’d been no records of prior Tri-Galactic Navy contact with this world. “Would you mind, perhaps, maybe, you know… letting them go?”
Lt. Vonn wasn’t entirely sure if she’d struck the right note on the scale between politely diplomatic and pathetically deferential, but she’d said what she’d said. It would have to do. She wasn’t supposed to be leading a first contact mission here.
Several of the gerbils introduced themselves, but Lt. Vonn found by the time they reached the last one, she’d already forgotten the name of the first one. This was such an upsetting thought that she promptly forgot the rest of their names as well. Remembering names was a diplomacy thing. Lt. Vonn was a security officer, and they’re supposed to stand behind the diplomats — who remember the names — and simply assess threat. Names aren’t necessary to that.
But Lt. Vonn didn’t have a diplomat standing in front of her to remember the names, so she blurted out, “I’m sorry I’ve forgotten all your names already. But if you let my friends out of that pit, I’m sure they can remember your names for you.”
Several of the gerbils exchanged what seemed like pitying glances. The brown-and-white one with a particularly intricate spear sighed and said, “Here, follow me.”
Lt. Vonn was a lot more comfortable now that she had someone to follow, and her tail started wagging as the gerbil led her carefully through a complex series of trenches and around various hidden rope traps, kindly pointing each of them out along the way so the big clumsy dog didn’t fall in like her friends. Eventually, they came to a dome of crosshatched metal. The gerbil stopped and said, “This is an EM-dampener cage to protect our village from the drones. Your communication device won’t work once we pass inside.”
“Oh, okay,” Lt. Vonn woofed nervously, sensing danger. Her ability to trust these gerbils rested heavily on her ability to understand what they were saying. “There’s really no way we communicate in your village?”
“There is a reverse EM-dampener cage protecting Ingle-Bingle’s workshop,” the gerbil leader admitted.
Lt. Vonn was pretty sure Ingle-Bingle was the black and gray-speckled gerbil who had fixed her comm-pin. “She has a workshop?” Lt. Vonn asked. It seemed like the kind of question Lt. LeGuin, the feline engineer would ask if he were here. He’d be curious, like cats often are. Since he wasn’t here, it was Lt. Vonn’s job to be curious on his behalf. “What does Ingle-Bingle build in her workshop?”
The black and gray-speckled gerbil stepped forward. “I’ve been programming a computer chip that would solve all our world’s problems… if only I could get to the AI’s central computer core.”
“Is the computer chip like a virus?” Lt. Vonn asked. “Something that would kill the AI?” She wondered whether the gerbils and holographic tapir were much closer to being on the same page than either could have guessed.
“No,” Ingle-Bingle said. “Much more complex. Unfortunately, no matter how our soldiers train and arm themselves, they’ve been unable to infiltrate that far into the AI’s systems.”
Lt. Vonn suspected she could infiltrate that far. She suspected that the central computer core was exactly where the AI had already invited her — even begged her — to come. “I need to ask my commanding officer,” Lt. Vonn said, “but it’s possible I could deliver the computer chip to the central computer core for you. The AI… trusts me.”
Ingle-Bingle’s eyes widened, and she said, “That would be amazing… you could… really?”
The leader frowned, possibly troubled by the idea of entrusting their carefully programmed computer chip — panacea to their world’s problems with a hostile AI — to a strange visitor to their world who the hostile AI trusted. But then, they had limited options. “Very well,” she said, “We’ll take you to your commanding officer, and then, if you give us the signal, we’ll take you to Ingle-Bingle’s lab and set you up with the computer chip and the information to properly install it, while we tend to whatever wounds your compatriots may have sustained.”
Lt. Vonn grimaced. She also had trouble with the idea of entrusting the health care of her fellow officers to the very creatures who had injured them in first place. She also had limited options.
The gerbils led Lt. Vonn through the tiny door of their EM-dampener cage. She had to get down on all fours and wiggle through, but she made it. On the other side, she found a flourishing village — clay huts with cooking fires between them and kitchen gardens surrounding them; miniscule gerbil children playing games of chase and gray-muzzled gerbil elders weaving on looms, shelling peapod-like vegetables, and roasting kebabs of apple-like fruits over the fires. It was idyllic and miniature. Adorable really. All of it underneath the crosshatched metal sky.
Lt. Vonn stepped carefully, placing each paw slowly so that any gerbil children could scurry away before her full weight came down. They skirted around the edge of the village, and eventually, the leader gerbil brought Lt. Vonn through a tunnel that ended in a secret door into the base of the pit where her fellow officers had been trapped.
“Cmdr. Wilker! Consul Tor!” Lt. Vonn woofed joyfully, rushing toward the collie and green otteroid sprawled on the dirt floor. She examined each of them cursorily, while catching them up on the situation.
Cmdr. Wilker had a broken leg from the fall; Consul Tor had been stabbed by one of the sharpened sticks on the way down, and sticky white sap congealed on her grass-like fur around the wound. They both needed medical treatment that Lt. Vonn didn’t trust the gerbils living in their EM-dampener cage to provide.
“What do you think, Commander? Should I play on this AI’s trust and install this computer chip the gerbils’ have designed, against its will?”
“It wants to die?” Cmdr. Wilker woofed. His long collie nose made him look very serious when he wasn’t grinning. He wasn’t grinning right now.
“Yes,” Lt. Vonn confirmed. “It’s begged me to kill it.”
“And you don’t know what this computer chip would do?” Consul Tor asked. Her otter-like face could look extremely jolly when she smiled. She wasn’t smiling. Her whiskers, like flower stamens, turned downward in a pensive expression.
“I do not,” Lt. Vonn agreed. “But it must be better than dying?”
“Not necessarily,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed.
“It depends on what it does and who you ask,” Consul Tor agreed. “My people see death as a part of the cycle of life, a peaceful return to the ground we grew from. There are things worse than dying.”
“And yet…” Cmdr. Wilker woofed. “This AI has been oppressing the gerbil people of this world and, most likely, interfering with our own ability to communicate with our ship in orbit. We must classify it as a hostile being, and thus, self-defense is permissible.”
“But is it necessary?” Consul Tor asked. “The AI has provided us with a perfectly viable alternative. Let it die. Give it the peace it seeks, and then the gerbils will be free and we can contact our home.”
“Unless the AI isn’t blocking our communications,” Cmdr. Wilker pointed out. “Then we’d find ourselves alone on a planet with a population of angry gerbils who’ve already captured us and who we’d chosen to betray.”
Neither Lt. Vonn nor Consul Tor had anything to say to that. When it came down to it, Cmdr. Wilker was in charge of the mission, and he knew it.
“Install the computer chip,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed in a voice that brooked no argument.
Lt. Vonn wanted to argue. She’d found Consul Tor’s line of reasoning compelling, and even if the AI was evil… Did that mean it deserved a torturous fate worse than death? Certainly not. No one did. Death was more than enough.
The yellow Labrador feared that Cmdr. Wilker was choosing to side with the gerbils simply because they were organic lifeforms. She’d seen the cats and dogs of the Initiative treat Fact, the cybernetic fox, like less than a full person, simply because zhe had a computer for a brain. She didn’t think that was right, and she didn’t want to be a party to making the same mistake on a worldwide scale.
Were the gerbils more deserving keepers of this world, simply because they were built from bones, muscle, and fur? This world belonged to the AI as much as to them.
But the AI no longer wanted it.
And in the end…
Cmdr. Wilker was in charge.
The weight of this decision didn’t rest on Lt. Vonn’s shoulders, even if the weight of carrying out the decision fell firmly on her.
Lt. Vonn signaled to the gerbil leader, who was waiting for her at the mouth of the tunnel, looking expectant. The gerbil nodded and gestured for Lt. Vonn to follow her back. As the gerbil leader led the yellow dog away, several gerbil medics scurried in to take their place in the pit with Cmdr. Wilker and Consul Tor, staunching and splinting wounds, even if they didn’t have the technology to fully cure them.
Lt. Vonn felt a sense of disassociation as she followed the gerbil leader around the edge of the village in the EM-dampener cage and into a similar looking but much smaller EM-dampener cage of metal mesh. Ingle-Bingle’s workshop was filled with broken drones like the ones that the AI had sent with supplies earlier. Most of them were cracked open and in various states of dissection.
Wires and computer chips were strewn everywhere. Ingle-Bingle looked up from a tiny worktable, wearing magnifying glasses that made her beady eyes look huge. She blinked and said, “Ah! You’ve agreed to install my computer chip!” She shuffled from one foot to the other in an excited little dance, then she held out a piece of black plastic, sparkling with bits of silver solder and gold wire.
Lt. Vonn listened carefully as Ingle-Bingle explained how to install the chip in the AI’s computer core, nodding solemnly to show she understood the instructions and trying vainly not to feel like an assassin being prepared to commit murder or torture or worse. She wanted to ask what exactly the chip would do… But knowing wouldn’t change her orders from Cmdr. Wilker, and it might make them harder for her to follow.
Walking back around the edge of the village with the miniscule computer chip clutched in her paw, Lt. Vonn watched the gerbil children playing and the gerbil elders working. She clung to that idyllic image, reminding herself that no matter what the AI said to her — no matter how the AI was hurting or what it wanted — it had been hurting these people, and they had a right to defend themselves.
With a heaviness in her step, Lt. Vonn walked away from the village in a EM-dampener cage and tromped through the thick undergrowth of the jungle until the holographic projection of the tapir flickered into view, a few feet in front of her, nose twisted up like a nervous fist and hooved hands fidgeting restlessly.
“You’re back,” the tapir said. “Were you successful at rescuing your friends? Are you ready now to help me?”
Lt. Vonn nodded and her muzzle split into a true smile as she said, “Yes, my friends are okay. Thank you for the supplies.”
“Yes, yes, the least I could do. Now…”
“I’m ready. Show me what to do.”
The holographic tapir led Lt. Vonn through the jungle for about a mile. When they came to a clearing, Lt. Vonn heard a rhythmic beat from above and looked up to see a helicopter descending. Its spinning blades cast a firm wind that stung Lt. Vonn’s eyes and flattened the knee-high grasses of the clearing as it landed.
Lt. Vonn climbed inside. There was plenty of room. The holographic tapir was approximately the same size as her, and she suspected the actual tapir who had once lived on this world — and who had clearly designed this helicopter — must have been approximately her size too.
The helicopter ascended without any involvement from its dog passenger. Lt. Vonn watched the jungle slip by beneath them. Then a city. Then green space. Then a larger, more sprawling city.
As she traveled over the city, Lt. Vonn tried to imagine an army of gerbil soldiers infiltrating the streets below her, plagued by automated helicopters and drones in the air. No wonder they’d never made it far enough to install the computer chip themselves.
When the helicopter finally landed, Lt. Vonn climbed out and found the holographic tapir already waiting for her. The tapir’s nose had relaxed, hanging limply, and its mouth underneath was curled into a tentative smile. The hologram looked genuinely excited about the idea of its imminent death, and it crushed Lt. Vonn’s heart knowing that she planned on tricking this hopeful creature. Maybe the AI deserved whatever the gerbils planned to do it — using Lt. Vonn’s paws as their tools — but even so, she didn’t want to see the disappointment on its holographic face. She didn’t want to be the cause of it.
“Now what?” Lt. Vonn asked, and the holographic tapir practically broke out dancing as it led her to a stairwell between two buildings that descended into a subway line underground.
Lt. Vonn rode a subway train, followed the hologram on a circuitous route through winding hallways underground, and she finally found herself in a gigantic room, filled with row after row of computer banks, each covered with blinking lights. The air was chilly, surely to keep the computers operating optimally.
Everything in this world still worked perfectly. It was a paradise… except for the part where an insanely lonely AI controlled all of it, keeping the only people on the world who might value the technology from using any of it.
What could the gerbils do with these giant cities? How much would they love those giant subway trains? Everything was designed for creatures bigger than them, but if they were clever enough to stay alive while the world AI actively tried to exterminate them, certainly adapting to buildings and transit systems that were designed for beings a few feet taller than them would be barely any challenge at all.
The holographic tapir pointed to a control panel, complete with all the dials, switches, and big red buttons that any control panel could have. “You have to pull off the cover plating…”
The tapir stood ready to explain further, but as soon as the cover plating was removed, Lt. Vonn recognized the hardware slot that Ingle-Bingle had described. Before she could have second thoughts, Lt. Vonn shoved the tiny computer chip into place.
The holographic tapir screamed.
Lt. Vonn shivered, whimpered, and wagged her tail in that reflexive way that meant she wanted to apologize and be forgiven. “I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry,” she woofed.
The overhead lights in the room flickered, and tiny red, blue, and green lights on the banks of computer hardware blinked furiously. The holographic tapir stamped its hooves and swung its prehensile nose, now translucent and plagued with scattered bursts of static. Then everything went dark.
Lt. Vonn drew a deep, sob-like breath.
The lights came back on, and the holographic tapir was gone. Perhaps Lt. Vonn had kept her promise to the AI after all. Perhaps the computer chip had ended the AI’s life, exactly as it had wanted?
“System initializing.” The voice was high-pitched and came from down near the floor.
Lt. Vonn looked down and saw a new hologram. This one was a gerbil, and the expression on its tiny face was one of pure concentration.
“Hello?” Lt. Vonn said.
The holographic gerbil flickered once, and then looked up to see the giant yellow dog standing over it. “Hello,” it said back, eyes widening. “I have memories of you.” The placid look on its face was replaced with a new expression, one of pure horror. The tiny hologram flickered, disappeared, and reappeared on top of the opened control panel, paws stretched out in a gesture that screamed for Lt. Vonn to stay away from it. “Step back! Step back!” it squeaked.
Lt. Vonn stepped back.
“I don’t want to die anymore. I have a purpose. I need to live to help my people. Don’t turn me off.”
“Okay,” Lt. Vonn said, confused. Clearly, Ingle-Bingle’s chip had rewritten the AI’s priorities, causing it to see the gerbils as people instead of vermin. But even if Lt. Vonn understood that rationally, it was dizzying to have the person she’d been talking to completely change personality on her. “I wasn’t planning to turn you off.”
“You mean, you lied?” The gerbil sounded strangely shocked, as if it were disappointed in Lt. Vonn for her betrayal, even though it’s current personality was entirely the result of that betrayal.
“I… lied,” Lt. Vonn agreed, also feeling disappointed in herself. “I’m sorry?” Her tail wagged reflexively behind her, and she struggled to still it.
The holographic gerbil tilted its head to the side and stared piercingly at Lt. Vonn with small, bright eyes, sizing her up, judging her. “Your communications device should be able to reach your ship in orbit now. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Lt. Vonn’s mouth dropped open. She wasn’t sure if the AI had found her worthy or unworthy… but apparently, it wanted her gone. And unless Lt. Vonn was mistaken, it seemed like the AI was indirectly admitting to having been blocking communications with The Initiative up until now.
Lt. Vonn tapped the comm-pin on the breast of her uniform and said, “Lt. Vonn to Cmdr. Wilker.”
A moment later, the collie dog’s voice replied, “Cmdr. Wilker here. I take it that your mission was a success?”
That statement seemed like a massive oversimplification to Lt. Vonn. She had rewritten an electronic organism’s basic personality, turning it into someone who it would have hated only moments before and betraying promises she’d made to it.
But yes, she had succeeded in following Cmdr. Wilker’s orders, and she had freed her team to return to their vessel in orbit. She had also helped the gerbil people reclaim their planet, turning an entire world’s worth of computer systems from foe to friend in an instant. Their society had just leapfrogged from pre-technological civilization to automated drones and computer controlled subways and toaster ovens in one big step for gerbil-kind. Certainly, that was something to feel good about? Right?
And if the AI would have rather died… well… that wasn’t true anymore. It had said so. It had a planet full of gerbil people to keep it company and give it purpose.
“That’s right, Commander,” Lt. Vonn woofed.
“Then I think it’s time for us to go home,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Prepare for teleportation.”
“Aye aye, Commander,” Lt. Vonn woofed, feeling very ready to leave this planet and its upsetting moral quandaries. “I think that’s something we can all agree on.”
“Yes?” Lt. Vonn felt suddenly nervous.
Once again, the yellow Labrador’s tail began wagging in spite of herself, moral uncertainty melting away under the power of praise.
Read more about these characters in Tri-Galactic Trek!