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Training Day

Chapter Text

Siri Keeton would be the first to note his profession involves fiction, nudging into outright lies.  Dimension reduction always tortures the truth until it becomes something different, something accessible, something that evokes the look and feel of facts in the observer.  Done correctly, following the rules, the topology is preserved, so that the flattened narration can still be a useful analogy.  Listen to the wind between the stars, and hear Siri Keeton speak.  

Siri’s clock wound down, and the body-box popped into dust like a soap bubble on the wind.  The exercise was impossible to guess, deliberately so, when training for an event outside human experience.  Naked from the tomb, he rose, crouched below the rough hide of the tent, and grasped the clothing that spoke to him.  The illusion of hand-sewing was finer than his senses could detail, and it was warm against his skin in the cold.  Somewhere an AI had built agencies, emulated a society, spun from human beings, and directed robot fingers to skilled seams, slightly erratic where concentration had lapsed, frayed and patched.  It fit him like a glove, and somewhere in the simulated history stripes were fashionable and practical.  The leather even smelled like him.  The hardware in his head spoke, and passed judgement.  This was happening in the Real, like vampires, it could see the pixels behind the neural radiance fields.  

The wind was cold, as he stepped out of the tent flap, and he pulled the oddly asymmetric brim of the hat to secure it more firmly on his head.  Bates was out already, running some carefully randomized search pattern to inventory threats, resources.  She already had a bone knife, stone headed axe, and an obvious set of spears was racked nearby.  Outside the low tents that blended with the taiga, flat, softly snowed terrain stretched away.  She had nothing to say to Siri, but noted him as a resource.  

Szpindel stuttered out of his tent, fumbling a little with the flap.  Siri skimmed his surfaces, projected: Isaac was out of network, rendering the dozens of little conveniences that guided his reformatted brain-stem useless.  If he didn’t look at himself, he had no idea where his body was, and would fall.  Not a problem in the world of saturated cameras, but here, limiting his capabilities for physical grace.  “Stigmergy,” he said with a grin, “nice puzzle.”

James came outside, pulling gloves onto her hands.  “Ant-based task resolution?”  Definitions for any human language weren’t the same as expert knowledge.  She moved easily in the clothing, and Siri read that it was obvious to her that his hat was on backwards, and not even fashionably so.  She read the camp as shouting meaning to her multiple selves, despite nothing written, decorative tassels, ribbons, cut-marks carved all directed her gaze.  

Szpindel staggered a little ways, pulled a clever little toothed rake through some ashes, and found embers, sniffed and tasted the contents of a blackened wooden bowl, and then set it dimly aflame.  “Marrow fat, fuel for the tribe without trees.  Stigmergy, the process by which social insects coordinate actions, a task unfinished leaves the next insect to encounter it an urge to continue.  As junior species to the termite, we should perhaps respect their toolkits.”

Siri, suddenly chilled, looked and counted.  “No Sarasti?  Shouldn’t we have a vampire?”  There was no tent, lodge, burrow remaining, and he saw there wasn’t a clean right angle in the organic curves of the camp.  

Bates grinned at him.  “In taiga, vampire have you,” she joked in an awful accent.  She gestured at the wide expanse.  “Feel free to go looking.”

“This seems very Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense,” James began, “it’s not like our ability to deal with the aliens is going to be governed by the ability to accurately throw a spear.”

Bates had her swept to the ground by the end of the sentence, a knife at her throat.  “Aliens: evolved past melee combat and forgotten how.  Aliens: kidnap the captain and force them to fight in the arena for the survival of Earth.  Aliens: improvise a club as human species typical evolutionary response to win honor in the hunt.”

Siri, “Yeah, I’ll bet on the vampire if that middle one happens.”

“What is going to be governed by someone’s ability to accurately throw a spear is dinner.”  Szpindel gestured about.  “Tent poles: mammoth tusks.  Tent leather: mammoth.  Larger bone fragments: mammoth.  Marrow fat: mammoth, boiled from bones, tasty and practical.  Tripods for aging meat, empty.  Task unfinished, the hunt for sustenance.”  He reached out, grabbed a pointy stick and held it as support.  “I’m on roots, herbs, and other foodstuffs, for obvious reasons.”

Angles of her aura shifting, as another core rotated to the pilot’s seat, Susan sighed, clambered to her feet, and pulled some small bones from a pouch, casting them to the ground at Bates feet.  “Random oracle: unguessable by prey or vampires.  Go one radian from sunwards, and there you shall find what you seek.”

“Siri, you’re with me,” Bates snapped.  “Time to go get a mammoth”.

“Field work isn’t my best use,” Siri began, and then changed tone when she shot him a look, “But I’ll watch your back.”

Bates laughed.  “Not my plan.  Have you ever worked as a rodeo clown?”

That’s the surface image, one translation of events.  Siri knows the deeper dialogue happening here.  Adaptation, tool use, who is comfortable with the use of violence and weapons.  Complaints, who can’t follow the play, understand the test being performed.  And the lesson embedded in the koan:  living beings are resources. 

The less said about the hunt, the better.  Reading surfaces works on mammoths, and fitness is enforced by pills, so Siri’s quite capable of playing bait.  Bates has been, eptified, accelerated training, and can use any weapon humans have ever used in history, and some only imagined.  Barebrained humans could drop several tons of mammoth, and two slightly post humans don’t find it more difficult than tracing a line through a child’s puzzle.  Doesn’t mean they’re not tired when they drag a bloody travois, tusk, skin, and slabs of meat back to camp.  No substitute for muscle work.

It’s isolated, and in the Real, but night falls and satellites twinkle across the sky, moving ahead of the stars.  They pretend not to see them, but all know.  Szpindel does the job of a robot and turns biological matter into food.  Susan sings, effortlessly turning the tale of Siri and Bates into a poetic adventure.

True dark, starlight not enough for Siri and Susan to see well, Bates and Szpindel with augmentations letting them operate.  There’s a crack, rumbling across the snow, and the flare lights off, thousands of feet in the air, but suddenly sun-bright below it.  It drifts down, Siri shading eyes and looking about, Bates down flat and moving at the first hint of sound, Szpindel sitting, James silenced for once.  Flashback to firefall.

Siri’s not supposed to drive action, he’s only supposed to interpret the actors, subtitling for the hard-of-thinking baselines.  But he’s seen a glint, before the flare went dark.  “Twinkling, off that direction.”

“Gunpowder, kinetic launch, small mortar.”  Bates has her knife and axe.  “Distinctive sound spectrum.”  She doesn’t actually say this last, but Siri hears it in the pauses between words.

Szpindel, “Outside our fictional technical portfolio.  No such thing as an advanced civilization, we’ve all had the same number of clock ticks since the big bang.  Local skill-sets and niche construction matter.  Go now or wait for daylight?”

“They know we’re here, audacity beats stealth when you’re in the kill zone.”  Bates has a vote.

“And yet we’re not dying,” James said, “suggests a more complex relationship.”  The rattle of bones, “Two hours past dawn: random oracle.”

Siri’s the tiebreaker.  “Vampires ate people like us by being smarter.  Anything where we make plans can be predicted.  Go with the bones.”

Another translation, surfaces.  Dig deeper, plot the residuals for patterns.  The envelope of possible reactions to strangers, wonder, fight, speak, interact.  Missing is run away.  The camp is clearly portable, food is plentiful enough to be found on the move.  The group is biased, chosen to explore and engage.  Another lesson in the koan: nash equilibria often involve random strategies, but it’s options not even perceived that determine outcomes.

By day, the ship looked familiar, as hydrodynamics remains the same, but strange, optimized in some AI dream of an alternate history.  Sails, in an odd tensegrity structure, watertight hull in interlaced wooden panks, and distinctly aground.  Siri looked, and saw death reeking from every  abandoned knot.  “Where is everyone?”  Bare eyes at a distance, no drone support, not even a telescopic lens in their hypothetical exercise.

“Mortar, shallow trajectory firing cannon, some sort of harpoon rig.  Crew at least twenty-five. Likely personal kinetic weapons stored.”  Bates stood with him staring.  “Should we pretend not to know?”

The Gang, “There’s an identity stripe, dots and arcs, not a historical language.  Symbols on the sails, art, crewed by authoritarians in a formal rank.  Toxic ideology possible, cognition-limiting teachings.”

Szpindel, “Old growth timber, slow hardwood.  Nothing like it on the taiga.  Nothing like it in the modern world, so fabricated just for the exercise.  The Hypotheticals had access to long-duration forest, low population density but sea-faring range.  Likely bearing biological threats to local ecosystems.  Rats.  Plague.”

“No right angles in the rigging,” Siri said slowly, “friendly to vampires.”

“Suggests one possibility for the crew’s fate,” Bates said.  “We go as a group, Siri and I lead, Szpindel and the Gang follow.  Zone tactics, recognize your expertise.  Siri has none, so he’s in command.”  It wasn’t a joke.

It was, as the interactives put it, too quiet.  Wind made the fabric of the sails flap, close up, Siri could see the triangular weave.  Susan, helping Szpindel climb aboard, pointed with a quick shake of her head, “Captain’s quarters, should be that dome.”

Bates, “Ramp into the hold, undogged hatch cover.  Dark.  Powder room could blow if we use open flame.  Threat from outside our portfolio.”

Szpindel, “Corpse-flies live in the taiga ecosystem, and they’re not swarming.  Any dead meat on board is wrapped well, including any crew.”

“Why is everyone looking at me?”  Siri, “Game theory, never tell anyone your birthday, but give people random gifts so they are surprised with generosity.  Susan, sing a song, knock a rhythm, make a communicative gesture, and then give me an oracle, one of three possible decisions.”

The Gang switched cores, stamped a foot in a staccato set of pulses, and yodeled a series of nonsense syllables with a strange cadence.  “Guessing from the writing what vowels break words.  Babytalk, nonsense that sounds like language, for strangers.”  She rolled the bones, “Three.”

“Captain’s quarters, Susan and Szpindel, go and see.  Bates and I on deck here.”

The rounded hatch was easy to open, and the two of them vanished inside, brief glimpses of their motion through the opening.  “Scrolls, maps on a tesselation, measuring compass.  Lots of little sculptures, fit together.”  They moved to the side, inspecting something on a wall, and the vampire stepped out of the hatch, locking it behind him.

“Meat,” he said, “Well wrapped.”  Sarasti was tall, rangy, and eyes glittered in the sun.  The elaborate fabrics clung tightly to his body, outlining his extended limbs as they moved in a stutter, like a mantis, fast and then still.  “Looking at you.”

Playing the game, then.  Siri stepped back, putting Bates into his peripheral vision.  “Strategies for strangers, make reversible moves, see where the line is drawn.  Talking is engagement, delay, pushing.”

Bates shifted, a fast shuffle that ate distance, and crossed her spear and axe as she moved.  Sarasti simply, lazily, closed his eyes and wafted a hand, caressing the spear and sending her crashing to the deck, suddenly trapped by the point of her own weapon.  The ruby glint from his eyes returned as they opened, staring at Siri’s soul.  “Strategies for strangers,” he echoed.  

Surfaces and angles, they shout.  Siri reached up and slowly took off his hat, ran fingers through his hair.  “How did all that vampire ancestry get into the human lineage, I wonder?  Boredom, or servants who worshiped you as gods?”  He worked the ties on his shirt and discarded it.  “Or are humans the only safe companionship you can have in your territory?”  He was naked and cold, and the vampire held all the cards.

Analysis, reflection.  Signs and symbols as a lure for the curious, strength turned against the strong.  Pets are seldom eaten, and any strategy to avoid falling out of the future is a winner.  The broadcast coming from Siri Keeton moves up and down the register, from the apparently factual tale of an encounter with alien biology, a fire ship diving to annihilate, he alone surviving, to a dreamlike fable of being trained for the unknown.   If talking is an attack, then what is it we are listening to?