Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2279653-The-Coin
by JJR2
Rated: E · Fiction · Sci-fi · #2279653
Any sufficiently advanced technology?

He almost wished he had been born blind, but practice would have to do. He had spent the whole night-month palming small parts, filing other parts from scraps of metal and plastic, finding the perfect container, pilfering the tiny blocks of ambient-temperature superconductor from abandoned spacecraft parts, almost all the time in complete darkness. Detection would be fatal, and not just for him.

The coin and the jar came from the collection of his grandmother, who was taken in a past economization of the Enclave. They had to be modified subtly, undetectably, in complete darkness. The coin was the hardest part of all.

He clicked the last of the parts into place, lowered the jar on its base. He listened with relief to the faint whirring sounds, just as he began to notice that faint edges in the room were becoming visible. He was expected, and couldn’t be late.

In the painfully bright lights of the liaison tent, he set up the table, jar, and coin, and draped them in the most ostentatious cloth he could find. Not everyone would be impressed with his showmanship, but he had to give it his best shot.

The guests arrived. The humans of the Enclave staggered in, bedraggled and exhausted from working in the dark. Some had untreated injuries. Some of the elderly had to be half-carried to their seats.

He felt a vibration in the paved floor of the tent. The masters were coming. The walkers, bright yellow legs a man-height tall articulated to a spherical head, assumed the front of the steep ramp on the other side of the tent. Next came rollers, each an elastomeric tire with a cylinder at its hub, which formed a line behind the walkers. The drudgers took the next row---a seemingly random assembly of parts, ambulating on their diggers, dozers, and claws, tops almost scraping the top of the tent.

Finally, enforcers appeared in all the entrances of the tent, armed with auto-guns, lances, stunners, and the kits used to quickly euthanize humans who became too exhausted or disabled to work.

He feared the drudgers most, though. They had appeared only a few sleep periods ago. They were clearly intended as replacements for human laborers. He found himself wondering where they found a design that was such a departure from the others, with ambulation an apparent afterthought.

“Proceed, Herschel.” In the center of the first row, a walker’s head was wreathed in lights.

The voice was intense. Herschel felt the sound in his chest as much as heard it. He had to shake it off. He straightened his colorful waistcoat and put on the stove-pipe hat. He parted his lips in the broadest, most fraudulent smile he could manage. He could see some of the children shrinking back in fear.

Let them find a replacement for human entertainment!

“Masters!” The tent almost rang with his best stage voice. “We are assembled here to demonstrate a newly discovered potential in the human population, by which we hope to justify the expense of our continued support!” Not his best prose, but the implications were staggering.

All the masters began to flash their lights in seemingly random patterns of rhythm and color. Too wordy? What did machine intelligence consider too much explication?

With a flourish, he took the hat in hand, and pulled the cloth off the table. Some of the humans gasped at the sight of the jar and coin. Disappointment? Fear? He didn’t have an opportunity to coach them for the demonstration. He was going to have to manipulate them and the masters.

It would be the performance of a lifetime, one way or another.

“Masters, and Master-Master! To demonstrate this wondrous phenomenon, please select a human from the audience at random!” He had to conceal his worry at the risk he was taking with effort, and by speaking even louder.

Over a minute passed without a response. A drop of sweat threatened to run down into his eye.

“Very well, Herschel,” the head automaton said finally. “That one.” It spoke with a very convincing simulation of boredom. Master-Master gestured with a thin manipulator tentacle toward a feeble, elderly woman in the third row.

Herschel began to relax. Perfect choice.

He walked over to help the old woman to the tent floor and led her to the chair beside his table.

“Now, madam, using ONLY YOUR MIND, please lift the coin and make it spin!”

All the automata began to flash their lights in a chaotic flurry.

“My…mind?” the woman asked softly.

“Yes! Stare at the coin, and move it with your mind!”

“I can’t,” she whimpered.

“Yes, you can!” Herschel growled menacingly.

She placed her hands on the table, shaking noticeably, and looked at the coin under its glass jar.

Nothing happened.

It was a perfect display of showmanship.

Nothing continued to happen for several minutes.

“Herschel,” Master-Master said in a dreadful monotone voice, ”Are you wasting our time?”

Tears began to course down the old woman’s cheeks as she stared blankly at the coin.

Herschel bit down briefly on the remote glued to one of his molars.

The humans all gasped as one edge of the golden coin lifted from the base briefly, then fell back.

There was another flurry of random lights from the automata.

“Good!” Herschel shouted, with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “Keep going!”

With a longer bite against the remote, the coin lifted free from the base, and turned slightly before falling back.

Astonishment, or a simulation of it, gripped the crowd. It was then that Herschel noticed that Master-Master wasn’t participating.

The woman relaxed and even smiled. As she continued to stare, the coin lifted into the air, and flipped. The side engraved with a human face turned downward, revealing the image of a mythical flying creature! After a moment, the coin clattered back to the base of the jar.

Lights flashed. The humans dared to clap their hands.

“And you claim that all humans have this ability?” Master-Master said, as the room quieted.

“Yes!” Herschel swept the hat off his head with a flourish, and bowed.

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

Herschel stared at the automaton blankly, mouth slightly agape. If it had a face, he was sure it would be sneering at him.

Then everything went straight to hell.

An orb of dirty green light appeared in front of the walkers. A force tugged at the interior of the tent. Dust from the floor swept toward the apparition and began to orbit it in a dirty disc. Some of the human audience fell off their benches and began to slide across the floor.

A wave of nausea passed over Herschel as the orb continued to grow. The hat flew away to join the ring of dust.

The orb grew, and took the shape of a terrifying machine. It emerged, and the force abated. Debris from the ring around it fell to the floor. It was a seemingly random snarl of blades, claws, and tentacles, floating on four discs. The machine was bathed in a sickly aura of green light from the discs.

A disc rotated to face Herschel, the old woman, and the jar. The coin instantly lifted to the center of the jar and began to spin, faster and faster. The spinning coin started to make an audible humming sound, which ascended beyond the range of hearing.

Suddenly, the inside of the jar was coated with an opaque layer of gold, with a thin line of dark grey at the equator. A brief arc flashed from the base, and his carefully hidden components spewed out over the table. Most of the human audience who hadn’t already collapsed fell to the floor, moaning in horror.

“Not convincing, Herschel.” growled Master-Master. The automata were now flashing their lights in perfect unison. “We will confer.”

After a seeming eternity, the automata stilled.

“We have made our decision on the final accommodation of the Enclave Treaty, which will relieve the Corporation of the expense and laborious upkeep of the human population, while abiding by the spirit of the original agree…”

“What accommodation?” Herschel interrupted.

“We have determined that it will be sufficient to maintain a breeding pair in storage. We will implement this by the start of the next night month.”

Herschel collapsed.

He snapped awake with a start. He was still on the floor of the meeting tent. He fumbled for the watch in his vest pocket. He had been out for a couple of hours. The tent was empty.

Soon, he noticed voices---human voices. He rose unsteadily to his feet and stumbled outside. His head hurt badly from hitting the floor. He saw the deadly mage-machine half submerged in a muddy puddle. It was surrounded by several enforcers, all seemingly inert.

A group of humans approached. An older child poked at one of the enforcers with a scrap of steel bar.

“What happened to them, Dr. Herschel?” a man asked.

“I don’t know,” Herschel admitted. Then he realized that he might, after all. “Are they all like this?”

“Every one we’ve seen,” offered the boy.

“Come with me, then.”

They passed at least hundreds of completely inert automata on the way to the central building of the Enclave’s managers.

“Bring up one of the manual power-loaders,” he said to the growing human crowd. His mind raced, as he tried to remember what he had seen in the shiny, hemispherical building in much earlier times. “Push one of the walkers up near that white area on the wall.”

Herschel connected booster cables to the primitive battery of the old loader, then the other ends to studs on the head-sphere of the walker. He struck the head with his fist. Nothing. He prodded with small tools from one of his pockets at an access, but couldn’t get anything to work.

The crowd murmured uncomfortably.

He disconnected the cables, then reconnected them. A few lights on the head flashed briefly, then darkened. The white area on the dome vanished.


They pushed the walker and the dilapidated loader into the dome. A huge curved desk, apparently the work of a very unimaginative artist, loomed in the center of the outer chamber.

After a time of prodding the inert walker and cycling its power, Herschel found the right combination. An image several man-heights high winked into the air in front of them. It was a visual display for the use of humans long ago, when they still worked in the central building.

Another while with his cobbled controls, and Herschel was sure he was right.

“They’re cheap.” Herschel announced.

The crowd murmured.

“A latent human failing,” He explained. “They rolled out two new models for our extinction event, that they didn’t have to pay for. They got more than they bargained for.

Get everyone together, and get whatever human-suited medical equipment and food you can find. We have to leave immediately.”

“Why?” asked the curious boy.

“This attack was from a rival faction. They have enemies.” Herschel replied. “They must have learned more from our ancestors than we knew. The others will be coming.”

Soon Herschel, the dead walker, the old loader, several large piles of equipment and supplies, and the last known surviving humans in the Universe were gathered beside the former masters’ aerolander. He brought along the gold-plated jar and its wrecked base as a memento.

Herschel said a prayer to someone--half remembered from an old story--that the craft had been isolated from the attack. It was time to leave.

[1938 words]

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