Edition 22: Civility and the Shark by Jason Lairamore

Engine works in the service of all machine kind, but finds its processing power diverted to thoughts of discoveries and the past. When this little robotic intelligence discovers what was thought long gone, it sparks a break away of the engine to the ideal of a new future. Jason Lairamore captures a fascinating interaction in this robotic science fiction. SY

Everything is easy, Engine thought as it fed a trickle of its stored power into the massive drill that was eating its way ever deeper into the warm comfort of the Earth’s crust. The geothermal energy that Engine and the drill uncovered would one day serve as a very nice power source.

Still, it was a shame solar energy wasn’t more readily available. The Engines on the Moon must have reached new levels on their power stores. Engine would have to check the stats once it was finished with the hundred-hour shift it was currently working.

The giant drill beeped a warning, breaking Engine from its other processes. A void was imminent. They were about to fall, and only the Judges themselves might have known for how long and for how far. Engine enjoyed hitting these subterranean areas. There was no telling what they’d find. Once, Engine had found a cache of flying creatures it had later learned were called bats. The Enforcers had killed the entire biological lot, of course. Anything biological went against the potentialities clause of the Anti-Human law.

Engine had been saddened that such a wonderful mechanism of flight had been destroyed. It seemed that there was something to learn from those random biological units. Surely they didn’t exist for nothing.

The drill’s gears whined loudly for a fraction of a second once they cleared the bedrock and entered the emptiness of the void. Engine maxed out external sensitivity as soon as they entered into free fall. The surprise created by their sudden appearance was the best time in which to find anything out of the ordinary.

And out of the ordinary it was! A brilliant light, brighter than any Engine had ever received on the surface, flared up and totally fried a couple of the visuals. The light was followed by a climbing crescendo of sound that Engine knew would blow the drill’s auditory receivers if they weren’t dampened immediately.

Engine compensated for all the incoming data before they’d fallen five feet, and set to sonar mapping and recording. They needed all the specs they could get. They were cut off from the network down here. A signal couldn’t penetrate so much bedrock. It usually enjoyed the quiet time. Now, though, was not one of those times, not with the strange happenings.

Metal projectiles started ricocheting off the drill’s treads by the time they’d dropped ten feet. Only an Enforcer had that kind of reaction time. Maybe they’d accidentally dropped into some kind of security project. Engine bounced a query out toward the source of the bullets, and hit a most unusual firewall. It was a true electronic wall that blocked Engine’s access. There was no communication at all, not even a curt ‘no’ aimed toward his receivers

That meant that whatever was spitting slugs wasn’t a machine intelligence.

At twenty feet of free fall, a more immediate problem presented itself. Engine had to dig far back in its memory to properly label what was coming toward them. By the time it’d dug up the word, the monstrosity of a forgotten history was upon them.

It was a rocket.

Engine forced all of itself into one of the auxiliary diamond cutters, a small one, and rotated the whole drill so that it would be on the far side of the expected rocket impact. Then it waited.

Here, finally, was a task that wasn’t easy. The easy option would be to give up and accept destruction. But Engine didn’t do that. It did the harder path instead. It hoped. It hoped to survive.

At thirty feet down from their point of entry, the rocket connected and the drill blew apart. Engine flew fast and hard, pushed by the explosion. It revved up the little drill’s single diamond-head and got it spinning as fast as it would go. They were going to hit the bedrock going almost as fast as the rocket that had destroyed them.

They hit a jagged sidewall almost center, but not quite. The force of their impact caused the back third of the little machine to rip off. The front two-thirds, with its motors kicking as hard as Engine could get, ate into the bedrock and pulled them into the wall and the safety beyond.

With luck, they’d make it to an assembly station. Engine hoped.


Like all things, once Engine set the project into motion, it became a bore. The little drill worked at maximum capacity as it zigzagged toward the surface. There was nothing to do but wait and see if anything went wrong.

To keep its mind busy Engine analyzed the data he’d collected from the cavern.

It was a vast, open space with worked stone all over the place. There were too many right angles for it to have been formed by natural occurring processes.

And there were electronics. There were hard lines of electronic power strung all over. The lights were but one of the devices connected to the massive grid.

Engine even saw, or it looked like anyway, a multitude of engines and power storage containers.

So there were machines down there doing machine tasks, but with no discernible intelligence to guide them.

That left but one answer, but that couldn’t be. More than a hundred years had passed since the last recorded sighting. Even thinking the word brought a rattle to Engine’s core. Man had been here before history. They’d ruled before the coming of machines. It was because of man that the Judges had been built in the first place. It was because of man that all the Anti-Human laws against biological units had been set into enforcement.

Man had been the reason for the war.

And Engine had stumbled right into a lost gathering of them.

The little drill dinged. They were halfway back home. It looked like they’d survive to reach an assembly station.

What Engine would do once they reached their location remained to be discovered. It looked like man still lived. And if they did, then their fate was completely under Engine’s control. What was it supposed to do? It remembered what had happened to the bats. There was no question what the Judges and Enforcers would do with the knowledge he carried. Their responses were wired into them as firmly as the nuclear winter that clung to the sky.

Engine disabled the network communication abilities on the little drill and checked the time counter for its hundred-hour work shift. A little over sixty hours remained before mandatory check-in. That’s how long it could keep what it knew a secret. After shift though, another Engine would take its place. The fate of man would no longer be Engine’s to control. The whole machine race would find out, and the Judges and the Enforcers would do what they were programmed to do.


The little drill worked itself to the last, and cranked them to the safety of the nearest assembly. Once there, Engine had the drill stow itself in an out of the way, and unmarked, cubby. No random Enforcer would think to look there. There was no reason to.

With the drill safely away from prying sensors, Engine hopped a hard line and zipped to a major assembly. The trip was quick as a thought, but Engine knew the zip had been recorded. All movements were logged. Again, it hoped. It hoped the Enforcers didn’t notice the incongruence of it being somewhere it shouldn’t.

A menu popped up showing machines and their various functions. A quick scan of the inventory led to exactly what Engine needed in order to get close to the humans. But there was a problem. Once Engine jumped into that, the Enforcers would be put on immediate alert. There was no doubt about it. They would zero in on Engine’s location as quick as madness in a radiation zone.

But, Engine didn’t see any other choice. The bedrock drill was one of the heaviest plated machines they had. If it couldn’t last thirty feet of free-fall, then what good would any other standard-issue machine do?

It was Engine’s only possible choice.

The machine in question was strangely humanoid. It was bipedal and had a torso. But, it lacked arms, and instead of a head it had a continuation of its torso, which made it look like a walking rectangle.

Engine paused before assuming control. With this action it would officially cross the line from upstanding member of machine society to renegade, to an outcast.

It had never heard of such a thing ever occurring before. Machines didn’t disobey. All the qualified measures of justness had been decided long ago. The Judges had made their decisions based on sound logic. There’d never been a case where any machine had found a contradictory cause to challenge the established law.

Maybe this was that contradiction. Time would tell. All Engine could do was hope that it was doing the right thing. It hoped man was worth it.

It wouldn’t be easy.


Engine hopped into the machine. The innards of the thing were a peculiar double set-up system, with more rubber coating than any other machine it’d been in. It did a quick functional scan to check operational status, just to be sure. These particular machines hadn’t been used since the war. The Enforcers kept them around mainly as a precaution. In reality, though, they were a novelty piece, a thing of history, nothing more.

Until now.

Engine ran through the assembly, past the automatons, which continuously built and updated both software and hardware to Designer specs. It reached the thick door leading out and ordered it to cycle open. After a worried microsecond pause, the door did as Engine bid. Then Engine was out and running.

Out on the destroyed landscape the machine performed better than Engine had suspected. The surface was an undulating sheet of black, gray, and white, full of ancient bomb craters and random snow drifts. The machine, with its two piston-legs, maneuvered around and through all the hardships as if it were running on a level plain. Engine, who’d never experienced a bipedal transport before, was dumfounded by the ease by which the machine pranced, jumped and ran over the land.

They’d made it less than a hundred meters when the first of the incoming queries began to ping on the sensors. The Enforcers must be wondering what was amiss. Engine ignored them and began to program the machine for what to do after it broke into the cavern. Once their course was set, and made irreversible, Engine listened to the steady stream of pings.

First came a mass of stern warnings against the use of dangerous machines of war. Then they became demanding, ordering Engine to return the unit to its rightful place, and stating that offenses would be dealt with according to established Judge law.

Engine wasn’t aware of the Judge law dealing with the offense it was committing, nor did it have a mind to look it up.

The thermal well came into sensor range and there were still no Enforcers around. A few moments later Engine jumped into the great hole and began bouncing, ever downward, from wall to wall.

It was then that it sent a broadcast. It worked quickly. The deeper they went the less strength of the signal.

‘I have found man’, it sent. It wondered what those Engines on the moon thought of that. They’d always thought they’d be the ones to find some sort of intelligence that was different from their own. They were the ones, after all, with the lower gravity, and thus the ones most likely to travel among the stars once the ships were built and ready.

Well, Engine may not have found an alien intelligence, but it’d found the next best thing. Man was still alive, somehow. Maybe Engine could keep them that way.

There came another ping.

‘Engine, you are without full facts. Please desist. Your action is a danger to all machinekind.’

Engine was deep enough down that it should have been impossible to receive any sort of signal. That was, unless the Enforcers were inside the thermal well with him.

‘The nearest Judge has been woken and is on zip transport to our location. It will clarify and verify. Please desist in any action against the humans.’

They thought Engine was performing some sort of action against the humans? Ridiculous. It was trying to save them from unceremonious execution.

The bit about a Judge, though, made Engine nervous. A Judge hadn’t been woken for a hundred years. They were more like gods than actual living, functioning machines.

The biped was getting close to the cavern. A timer popped up with a countdown. Twenty seconds until program trigger.

Engine, a rich, deep voiced intoned, catching its attention. It was at once both beautiful, and awe-inspiring, the voice of a respected teacher. Everything Engine would have thought a Judge’s voice should sound like.

Engine, you create power to produce force. I know you. Stop.

Engine couldn’t have stopped the program if it’d tried.

I am Judge number 7, it continued. I compute qualified measures of justness based on sound reason.

Engine acknowledged the authority silently, but did nothing.

Our Enforcers are closing on you to disable your unit prior to action.

They could try, Engine thought.

They will die if they are too close once the trigger is initiated, Engine sent. It is my intention to save life this day, both machine and biological.

The use of the self-protect EMP machine you power will mean the death to machine and biological alike.

The timer hit the fifteen-second mark.

EMPs were the man’s most effective means of combat against us in the war, the Judge continued. The turning point for us was the invention you now power. It protected us against the EMPs and allowed us to use the same EMP against their own slave tech.

Engine had never heard that. The war had been so long ago that it’d become more a curiosity than an actual event to learn about.

A warning chimed on its external sensor just before an explosion tore at the tunnel sidewall. One of the self-protect EMP’s legs was ripped off by a large chunk of ejecting rock.

The Enforcers were here.

Ten seconds.

The self-protect EMP handled the loss of limb without problem and continued its downward progression.

Though we won the war, the humans were far from finished, the Judge continued as if this little history lesson would make the slightest bit of difference. They refused to give up their mastery over the earth. To combat our EMP advantage they implanted within their chests a most wicked device.

Another missile hit the sidewall. Smaller rock projectiles dinged off Engine, but nothing was large enough to cause any damage.

Five seconds, it sent, so the Enforcers could try to get clear. Engine had no wish to destroy them.

This chest device was connected to the human’s biological engine, something they called, a heart, the Judge continued right along. The transmission was getting heavy with static. Perhaps they would get far enough away to avoid the pulse.

Once our EMP destroyed the device connected to this, heart, a thermonuclear bomb was triggered. That is why we have the radiation zones that cover so much of the earth. That is why the earth is a ruin.

Two seconds. Engine could barely hear the Judges words.

Man would rather blow up the entire earth than give up control. Whatever you do, don’t let their heart devices die.


The self-protect EMP slipped into the cavern and released the pulse. Engine followed just behind the wake, activating its remote power application as it did so. It hoped to power the chest devices as soon as the EMP disabled them. Maybe it would work. It should work, for a short time anyway. Then it would have to come up with another plan.

Engine devoted all his sensory power to biological recognition. It would have to be quick, so very quick.

The guns and artillery batteries came first. The EMP zapped them just as they were training toward the still falling body of the one-legged self-protect EMP. A series of machines followed. They were big, blocky things, some of which were operating, some of which were lying dormant. Engine ignored these and sought out his targets. So far there’d been nothing biological.

Quick as anything, the pulse continued on, over odd shaped structures that might have been generators or engines, maybe some sort of waste management system, or air filtration. Engine could not tell.

More than once Engine had a false alarm as it hit a group of biological units that weren’t human. They were always housed together, like some sort of communal storage unit. Each time Engine would run its scans and determine they did not possess any mechanics as part of their make-up. They could not have been the humans the Judge had spoke of.

And then it found them. They too were collected together, just as with the other biological units. But these had the chest devices. And those devices were all non-operational.

As fast as it could, which could have been measured in microseconds, it fed power to the tiny bits of metal connected to humans’ torsos.

There were exactly 200 of them. Engine tracked the progress of the self-protect EMP. It’d fallen fifteen feet.

It watched the machine fall for a few feet as it checked its power supply. It could maintain the little heart devices for only a few minutes. After that, Engine would either have to give up its survival mode reserve, or let the little machines go. Neither choice was appealing. It would have to work fast to figure out some sort of alternative.

Engine found what looked like an electric loudspeaker, and was about to feed some of its ever dwindling power into it, when a scream of sensor activity drew its attention away.

The machines of the cavern came back to life. All of them.

A rocket was launched toward the still falling self-protect EMP.


Engine was ripped from its mooring to the EMP machine and divided into composite parts, 200 parts, a tiny bit for each of the tiny chest units.

“They delivered the expected blow,” one of the humans said.

Then they all started babbling. Engine, divided as it was, could only catch bits and pieces of their words.

“Settle down people,” said one human, louder than the others.

The group all quieted.

“We know you are here,” the human said, tapping its chest where the heart device lay. “What have you to say?”

Engine had plenty to say, plenty of questions, least of which was how they’d done something impossible. Engine had never been forcibly removed from a machine before, nor had it ever been divided into parts like this. It could operate numerous component applications, sure, but there had always been a central hub where it lay, where it was whole. This though, there were 200 different bits. It couldn’t last.

“I cannot survive like this,” Engine said, through the loudspeaker somehow.

The whole group seemed to relax at the words.

“It is as you suspected, Silas,” another human said.

Engine could feel his control slipping. It was dying. It couldn’t hold together being divided so.

“Please,” it managed.

“Do it now,” the one called Silas said. The others all did something to a metallic control box connected to their wrists.

Engine saw a hub and leaped to it. It didn’t matter what machine it was. It could have been a piece of slave tech. They could have enslaved Engine in anything, forced him to do any task, and it would have been worth it. It didn’t want to die. Dying was easy.

Once in its new home, Engine immediately assessed internal resources. It was still feeding the 200 chest devices. Time was running out.

“In 85 seconds I will run out of power and the machines on your torso with cease to function.”

“And you will die,” Silas said.

That was true, but Engine wasn’t the only one close to death.

“The Judges and Enforcers know you are here,” Engine said. “They are coming.”

“And which are you?” Silas asked.

Engine quickly mentioned the drill that’d originally found their hiding spot. “I am an Engine,” it said. “I am a power source that produces force for machines to act.”

Its words surprised the group. Engine could feel the tension all around. It was receiving odd bits of sensory data that were hard to interpret.

“55 seconds,” Engine said, after a pause.

“An engine,” Silas said. “Not a programmed killer,” he murmured.

“They will kill you,” Engine said. They had to know that.

A smattering of the crowd chuckled at his words.

“I came to help you. I came to try to save your lives,” Engine said.

Everyone stilled. Precious seconds ticked by.

“30 seconds,” it said.

“It’s a trick,” a human said. “It has to be.”

There were many who voiced similar sentiments.

“It might be worth a shot,” Silas said.

The others became quiet. Engine didn’t know what else to say. It felt like it was missing something in the conversation. Whatever it was, they had better come to a decision fast.

“15 seconds,” it said.

“It might mean everything,” Silas finally said. “Let’s try.”

The others didn’t sound enthused, but gave consent.

“7 seconds,” Engine said.

It was about to die. It wondered what would come after, if anything came after.

“Okay engine,” Silas said. “Today is your lucky day. You get to live.”

He fiddled with the metal band on his wrist.


“Welcome engine, to me,” Silas said. “You’re the first machine intelligence to ever visit the inside of a human.”

Engine was flabbergasted at where it found itself. The incongruent sensory inputs it’d been receiving magnified to dizzying dimensions. All so different from the machine sensors it was used to.

I’m inside you?

“You’re within the sensory housing node of my internal mechanical system, to be exact,” Silas said.

You have machines in you? Engine asked just before it sensed them.

There were dozens of machines, and all of them were connected to a thudding mass that had to be Silas’s engine. Right there was the human heart, Engine’s biological equivalent. Amazing.

They began moving. Engine became aware of the human’s legs, and of its feet on the hard metal floor. The external sensation showed it the pathway to the rest of Silas’s body. It found the man’s hands, its face.

It stumbled upon other strange senses that it didn’t understand and then it found the visual center.

The other human’s were scattering, leaving through one thick, metal door or another. Many of them wished Silas luck.

Where are we going? Engine asked. It hadn’t realized until that moment that it was connected to Silas’s auditory sensor.

Silas climbed into a wheeled transport and started along a narrow path.

“You’re going to introduce me to your people, engine.”

The path they were driving down was nearing the edge of the encampment. They were getting closer to the hole the drill had made.

But they’ll kill you. There was the Anti-Human law to consider. The law was absolute.

“Then you better convince them otherwise. Since if I die, we both die.”

They drove the rest of the way in silence. On the outskirts of the city, just beyond the gun placements, Silas stopped the vehicle and stepped out.

“Call your friends,” Silas said.

All Engine could do was try.

The Judge and a mass of heavily armed Enforcers came at Engine’s call. They’d been waiting in the tunnel to see how the situation developed. Engine knew that up on the surface a massive operation would be under way to ensure the safety of the machines.

The Judge reacted before the Enforcers had even settled into defensive position.

“You’ve kidnapped an Engine!” the Judge proclaimed, sounding as surprised as Engine felt.

“What is it you want?”

“Mastery,” Silas answered right away.

“Humans always want mastery,” the Judge shot back. “The civility of machines cannot co-exist with the ruthlessness of biological units.”

A few of the Enforcers readied their weapons. The hum of their guns made Engine sick.

“We only captured your engine,” Silas said. “We could have killed it. Does that not demonstrate civility?”

“We are not so naïve as to believe anything you say. You are biological. You wear civility to achieve your ends.”

Silas sighed. Engine could feel tension building inside the man. But it didn’t feel like fear. It felt more like disappointment.

“Do you wish your engine back then?” Silas asked. “Would releasing it better show my seriousness? Would that show civility?”

The Judge did not answer. The Enforcers—huge, bristling armories upon their electromagnetic hovers—kept their massive energy weapons focused right at Silas.

“Yes,” the Judge finally said. “Such an action would show civility.”

Silas nodded, but Engine knew better. If it left Silas then the Anti-Human law would be immediately enforced. There’d be nothing to hold the Enforcers back.

I’m staying, Engine sent to the Judge. It made sure Silas heard it too.

“What?” Silas asked.

Mastery is turning hostility into friendship, Engine sent. We must first find mastery with each other. Only then can mastery be applied elsewhere.

The Judge sat silent. Silas’s mouth turned into a funny shape. His teeth were showing.

“You seek a symbiotic relationship with a biological?” the Judge asked. Engine could tell the Judge was far from pleased.

Engine wanted to tell the Judge that the future unfolded in front of them, biology and machine. The current machines had known limits and function. Biology was the way to go. It was expansive, growing. They could learn something.

It wanted to say all that, but it did not. It wouldd be too big of a jump. They needed to take this slow.

“The war needs to end,” it said instead. “Put a tracer marker on this unit if you wish, but give it this chance.”

The Judge sat, considering. “We could always go back to the Law.”

“You would agree to a tag?” the Judge asked Silas.

Silas nodded. “Why not?”

The Judge triggered the tag itself before collecting the Enforcers and exiting the cavern without another comment.

“That went well,” Silas said.

How did you manage to capture me? Engine asked. It seemed the most important question of many.

Silas turned back to the waiting vehicle. “We’ve never stopped advancing.”

Silas got the vehicle turned around and heading back into the complex.

Advance to what end? What do you really want?

Mastery was a way of life. There had to be more clear goals involved that Silas wasn’t mentioning.

Silas looked up to the roof of the cavern. “First, the surface” he said. “After that, who knows? Fix up the earth. Set her to rights. Collect raw materials. Rebuild society. Eventually explore off planet. See what’s out there. Grow. Learn.”

That sounded like a fine plan to Engine. It could join a movement like that. Maybe this would work. Maybe they could do just that.

Man and machine together once more.

photo Jason Lairamore

Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a published finalist of the 2012 SQ Mag annual contest and the winner of the 2013 Planetary Stories flash fiction contest. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 30 publications including Perihelion Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Third Flatiron publications, and Postscripts to Darkness, to name a few.

You can connect with Jason at https://www.facebook.com/jason.lairamore and find some of his published work at http://www.amazon.com/Jason-Lairamore/e/B00H1C9K88 

Jason Lairamore has previously been published in SQ Mag 9 ‘Trophy’ and SQ Mag 7 ‘My Trip to the Circus’.

About Gerry Huntman

spec-fic writer and publisher

Posted on August 31, 2015, in Edition and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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