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EP277: Rejiggering the Thingamajig

By: Eric James Stone
Read by: Kij Johnson
Originally published in Analog, 2010
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Eric James Stone
All stories read by Kij Johnson
Rated PG: For violence.

Show Notes:

  • Feedback for Episode 269: Élan Vital
  • Next week… Linguistics… in space.

Rejiggering the Thingamajig
by Eric James Stone

The teleport terminal had not been built with tyrannosaurus sapiens in mind.

Resisting the urge to knock human-sized chairs about with her tail, Bokeerk squatted on the tile floor, folded the claws of her forelimbs together, and concentrated on her breathing. Meditation would calm her nerves. What should have been a two-minute waystop as she switched to a different teleport line had stretched to three hours, and being the only passenger in the terminal creeped her out.

The cheerful voice of the customer service AI roused Bokeerk from her trance. “It is my pleasure to inform you that the cause of the technical difficulties in the galactic teleport network has been found.”

Bokeerk perked up and rose on her hind legs, remembering just in time to duck her head so it wouldn’t bang the ceiling lamps. “Please send me to Krawlak,” she said. It was unlikely that any of her eggs would hatch for another few days yet, but she was anxious to get home.

“It is with the utmost regret that I must tell you that will not be possible at this time,” said the AI, with a tone of such abysmal sorrow that Bokeerk’s eyes could not help but moisten with sympathetic tears. “I require assistance in repairing the problem.”

Bokeerk lowered herself into a squat again. “When will help get here?” She looked at the time display on the digital assistant strapped to her left forelimb. She had now been stranded for three hours and fifty-two minutes.

“I estimate a spaceship carrying a repair crew could be here within twelve years,” said the AI. Its voice seemed to have lost the customer service aspect.

Read More…

“Twelve years?” Bokeerk’s voice made the ceiling lamps tremble.

“Without the teleport network, repair crews are limited to slower-than-light travel. However, I believe we can avoid such a long wait if you will assist me.”

“I don’t know anything about repairing teleports,” said Bokeerk. “Iillustrate children’s books. I’m on my way home from the Galactic Children’s Book Fair.”

“You do not need to repair anything,” said the AI. “You merely need to obtain the . . . there’s no word for it in English because it is a concept so far beyond the understanding of biological intelligences that there has never been a need for one until now. Let’s call it the thingamajig. Once you have the thingamajig, you need to do something to it that is completely incomprehensible to your puny mind.”

“Hey,” said Bokeerk. She had encountered this kind of prejudice too often. “My brain may be as small as that of an original tyrannosaurus, but it’s the product of genetic tinkering such that my intelligence is at least human standard.”

“No slur was intended. By my standards, any biological intelligence is puny.”

“So I just need to do something incomprehensible to the thingamajig, and the teleport network will be fixed?”

“Yes.”

“Show me where it is,” Bokeerk said.

A holographic projection of a world appeared. It zoomed in toward a green area on one of the continents until it showed a gray dome in the middle of a jungle. “This is the teleport station where you are currently located,” said the AI.

The image zoomed out until the dome was merely a gray dot. A crimson line traced a route toward a lone mountain, where it stopped with a large dot. “You must travel to the top of this extinct volcano, where you will find the thingamajig.”

“How far is that?” asked Bokeerk.

“Forty-four miles.”

“You don’t have a vehicle that would fit me, do you?”

“There are no vehicles of any size.”

Bokeerk rose. “I guess I’d better get started.”

“You’ll need a gun,” said the AI.

She shook her head. “I’m a Buddhist pacifist. I refuse to intentionally harm any other creature.”

“You’re a carnivore.”

“I only eat manufactured meat. Speaking of which, I’m rather hungry now.”

“There is no food available at this station. Unfortunately, the lifeforms you encounter outside will not serve as a significant source of nutrition for you. But you will still need a gun to defend yourself.”

“By nature, I’m an apex predator,” said Bokeerk. She bared her teeth. “I carry my own weapons.”

“On this planet, you are prey for predators larger and faster than you. That’s why the human colony on this planet was abandoned one hundred and thirty-two years ago, leaving only this station as a teleport network connector. You will need a gun.”

The idea of a predator that could harm her was unfamiliar to Bokeerk. But what choice did she have? She would starve to death here, so she must fix the teleport. That did not mean she must compromise her principles.

“I’ll use the gun to scare off predators, but I will not use it to harm.”

“That is your choice,” said the AI. “You can get the gun from the weapons locker next to the terminal exit doors.”

Yellow arrows lit up on the floor tiles, pointing toward a pair of massive reinforced metal doors. Bokeerk followed the arrows to a cabinet which unlocked and swung open at her approach.

A rifle, metallic black, gleamed in the cabinet.

“This gun was made for humans,” Bokeerk said. “I could never even get a claw in to pull the trigger.”

“That is not a problem. Pick it up,” said the AI.

Bokeerk obeyed. The gunmetal flowed, reshaping itself. Its handle slipped over her right claw, attaching itself firmly so she could aim the barrel by moving her forelimb.

“Howdy, pardner,” said a voice from the gun. “My ammo chamber’s brimmin’ with bullets, so I say we go kill ourselves some varmints.”

Bokeerk gaped in horror at the gun. “It talks?”

“It talks, she says,” the gun said. “It’d be a pretty dumb gun what don’t know how to talk.”

“A short-lived fad back in the days of the human colony on this world,” said the AI. “Unfortunately, this is the only functional gun remaining, even if it is partially insane. It does not, in fact, have bullets — it uses hypervelocity fléchettes.”

“I’m not taking it,” Bokeerk said, tugging at the edge of the metal covering her claw. “How do I get it off?”

“Nuh-uh,” said the gun. “I ain’t coming off. I been stuck in that locker for waaaay too long, and I aim to do me some huntin’.”

“You will need it,” said the AI. “Fortunately for your moral principles, it will shoot on its own, so you will not be harming any creatures.”

“That is pure sophistry,” said Bokeerk. “If I carry it out there and it shoots something, that will be my fault.”

“Be that as it may,” said the AI, “if you are to restore teleportation to the entire galaxy, you may need to compromise your principles.”

Bokeerk was not sure she had heard correctly. “The whole galaxy? I thought it was just this station that wasn’t working.”

“The entire network is down. Billions of people are currently trapped away from their destinations on hundreds of thousands of worlds.”

“And this world in the back of beyond just happens to be central to the network?” she asked, incredulous.

“The teleportation network is dimensionless, so there can be no center. From a technical perspective, any point in the network is as important as any other. The thingamajig just happened to do something incomprehensible in such a way that it manifested itself here.”

Bokeerk took the anxiousness she felt at the delay in returning to her eggs and multiplied it by billions. Because the teleport was used for very short trips as well as interstellar ones, most people would probably be able to make their way home some other way. But there would still be millions like her, stranded on planets light years from home.

“Come on,” said the gun. “Quit your jawin’ and let’s go slaughter somethin’.”

Though she hated to admit it, Bokeerk could understand the gun’s sentiments. She had chosen a pacifist philosophy for herself not out of belief that it was the only moral way, but because it was a counter to the natural aggression embedded in her genes. As such, her pacifism was an indulgence of the self, rather than a moral imperative.

But that didn’t mean she had to become a dinosaur on the rampage, either. “Very well, on behalf of all those stranded across the galaxy, I will use force if necessary.”

“That’s the spirit!” said the gun.

“I have taken the liberty of downloading a map into your digital assistant,” said the AI. “I cannot accompany you, of course, but I will send the janitor along with you.”

“The janitor?”

A shimmer grew in the air next to Bokeerk. A nanoswarm, she realized. The swarm thickened, forming a sphere about the size of a human head. A smiley-face mouth opened, although it did not move as a whispery voice said, “Follow you.”

“It may come in handy at some point,” said the AI.

“It would make for some mighty fine target practice,” said the gun.

The doors creaked as they slid open. Hot jungle air, thick with humidity, streamed into the terminal. Bokeerk breathed it deeply through her nostrils. Because the biology of this planet was different from that on her homeworld, the scents were different. But they were not wholly unfamiliar, either, and she thought she could detect the tang of animal dung, the acrid aroma of urine, and the moldering stench of decaying plants.

“What does the thingamajig look like?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” the AI said. “But you’ll almost certainly know it when you see it. It will be unlike anything you have ever seen before.”

“What do I do then?” she asked.

“Bring it back here,” said the AI. “Good luck!” Its cheery customer service tone returned for that last bit, and Bokeerk couldn’t help but feel a little more confident.

“Yee-haw!” shouted the gun. “Blood ‘n’ guts, here we come!”

“Gun,” said Bokeerk as she stepped out between the emerald-green vines clinging to the dome and let her foot sink into the mossy jungle soil, “let me tell you about a man known as the Buddha.”

#

Sunlight filtered through the jungle canopy. Bokeerk trotted through the trees, crunching the local equivalent of shrubbery underfoot and occasionally knocking down saplings.

She paused to check her progress on her digital assistant — more than halfway there, and so far she had managed to keep the gun from shooting any animals, although she suspected that the hypervelocity fléchettes it had used to fell a tree might have killed some small tree-dwellers.

“Run,” whispered the nanoswarm.

“What?” asked Bokeerk.

“Run.”

Bokeerk smelled nothing new in the tangle of jungle scents, and could hear nothing large moving in the trees. She turned her head, scanning for any sign of movement.

“No need to make like a jackrabbit,” said the gun. “Jes’ point me in the right direction and let me do the rest.”

“Run,” whispered the swarm again.

Sharp, jagged things closed around her right ankle. She tried to pull away, but screamed in agony as her flesh tore. Twisting her neck, she was able to see serrated tentacles winding around her leg.

“Shoot me!” yelled the gun. “Point me over there.”

She twisted her forelimb around, and a burst of fléchettes tore into one of the tentacles. It jerked, then went limp. After a few more bursts, she was able to pull her leg free.

The gun kept firing. “There’s some karma for ya, ya squirmy varmints. Better luck in your next life.”

She swung the gun away. It let off a final burst into the undergrowth. “I am free,” she said, “so there is no more need for violence.”

“I was only tryin’a help ‘em move on to their next rebirth. Ain’t that what you was jes’ explainin’ to me?”

Bokeerk sighed. “You still have much to learn about Buddhism.”

#

Halfway up the volcano’s slope, Bokeerk squatted near a stream to drink and catch her breath. Thick jungle had given way to a sparser forest, though the trees still towered over her head. Hunger gnawed at her stomach, and she considered hunting one of the elk-sized animals she had glimpsed along the way. She could smell one now, close by. It might not provide any nutrition, but it would fill her stomach.

It might also poison her, so she reluctantly abandoned the idea.

Like a silvery mist, the nanoswarm swirled around her feet.

The gun emitted an ominous hum.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

The hum continued, steady.

Was the gun going into some sort of overload? She tried to pry it off her claw, but it clung too tightly. “Gun, answer me!”

The hum stopped. “Huh? What? Is there somethin’ ta shoot?”

“You were making a strange sound.”

“Well,” said the gun, “when you sat down, I figured it was time to do me some meditatin’. So jes’ pardon me for tryin’a become one with the universe.”

“I’m glad you–”

The crack of splitting wood came from Bokeerk’s left. She’d heard that sound many times before, when her own bulk had snapped branches off trees as she passed. But it had never been so loud. A whole tree must have broken.

“Run,” whispered the nanoswarm as another crack sounded, closer. A shadow moved in the forest.

This time, Bokeerk didn’t hesitate. She leapt forward into a loping run, branches whipping at her scales.

Behind her, something crashed through the trees, growing ever closer, but she dared not turn her head to look.

Something warm and wet flailed at her neck. She veered to the right and it was gone, but a moment later it returned, slithering around her throat and tightening.

Bokeerk roared as she was lifted off her feet. Looking up, she saw a thick black cable of a tongue stretching down from the thirty-foot-wide circular maw of a creature that could easily swallow her whole. There were no teeth in that giant head, but hundreds of black, multifaceted eyes ringed the mouth.

“Point me at it!” yelled the gun.

She curved her claw upward.

“Eat hot iridium, ya lousy bushwhacker!” The gun kept firing burst after burst, but the tongue’s grip merely tightened.

The creature was too massive, Bokeerk realized. Fléchette bursts that would have killed a human were harmless as mosquito bites to it. She struggled to bring her jaws into position to bite the tongue, but it had her too firmly around the neck. Maybe once she was inside the mouth, she could start doing some damage with her claws.

Dark spots grew in her vision. Lack of oxygen was going to make her pass out before she got the chance.

“Eyes,” she managed to whisper out, spending what little breath she had left.

“That’s mighty cold-blooded of ya,” said the gun, its voice distant. “I like it. Jes’ aim a little to the side and I’ll blind this sucker all the way to Nirvana.”

She tried to comply, but her forelimb muscles wouldn’t respond properly. The claw with the gun fell limp.

“Aim me up!” yelled the gun.

In her dim vision, a shimmery swarm swirled up alongside the tongue and spread out over the multiple eyes of the creature. Then the swarm disappeared.

The creature screeched, so loud it made Bokeerk’s ears ring, and its tongue loosened. She felt lightheaded, but she managed to suck in a breath.

Then the tongue let go and she fell. Sharp pain lanced through her left ankle as she hit awkwardly, then toppled on her side.

The head of the creature thrashed wildly above the treetops. It blundered away through the forest, still screeching.

Bokeerk breathed deeply of the precious air. Examining her ankle, she decided it wasn’t broken, merely sprained.

After a few minutes, the nanoswarm glittered its way back to her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Welcome,” the swarm whispered.

“Gun,” she said as she began limping up the slope, “I think you misunderstood what I meant when I said that one who has achieved Nirvana has no need of the senses.”

#

Just short of the volcano’s rim, something moved. Bokeerk tried to focus her eyes on it, but for some reason it remained indistinct. “I think that must be the thingamajig,” she said.

“Yes,” whispered the swarm.

“Gun,” she said.

“Don’t you worry ’bout me,” said the gun. “I ain’t gonna kill it. I can’t even take proper aim.”

She limped toward the thingamajig. As she approached, she still could not focus on it. It looked like it was moving both toward her and away from her at the same time, yet it remained stationary. It had no outline, no edges, no shape, but Bokeerk felt a presence there.

There was a faint odor that Bokeerk could not identify; it seemed to shift its properties while remaining somehow the same scent, smelling like everything and nothing.

Bokeerk stopped a couple of paces away. She couldn’t tell what size the thingamajig was, whether small as a pinhead or large as a house. It didn’t even seem to be tangible.

“How am I supposed to pick that up and carry it back to the terminal?” she asked no one in particular.

“Sorry,” the swarm whispered.

It swirled around her head, darkening her vision, then it was gone. Sudden pinpricks of pain swept over her scalp, and she bellowed her confusion and annoyance. Why were the nanos burrowing into her? Was this what they had done to the giant creature? If the swarm wanted her dead, why had it saved her earlier?

The pain transformed into a headache. Bokeerk lost control of her muscles and her legs spasmed. She collapsed to the rocky ground. As her jaw hit, she bit into her tongue and tasted hot blood.

Her vision blanked, then gradually cleared — and she truly saw the thingamajig in front of her. Somehow, she understood its multidimensional nature, the way it could simultaneously be nowhere and everywhere and right here in front of her, how it could be a singularity of infinite size.

And she understood how her new mental power could . . . rejigger it so the teleport network would work again.

The nanoswarm had reconfigured her brain and added abilities beyond its natural capacity. She still had no control over her muscles, but she reached out toward the thingamajig with a new part of her mind.

Before she could rejigger it, though, she felt an overwhelming despair. After a moment, she realized the emotion was not her own, but was emanating from the thingamajig.

Hello? she thought at it, uncertain whether the nanoswarm had given her the power to communicate telepathically with the thingamajig.

A wave of panic was followed by curiosity from the thingamajig. Then, in a level below conscious language, it communicated with Bokeerk — she didn’t hear any words, but she knew she had been greeted, recognized as someone new with possibly friendly intentions.

What are you? she thought back.

The knowledge flowed to her. It was itself, as it had always been. Then the not-itselfs had come and they had made it more than itself, yet that very process had made it less than itself. Its anguish at loss of itself had been unending, but the not-itselfs kept extending itself. Eventually the not-itselfs were gone, and it was itself again. The joy of itself turned to despair when a not-itself appeared, but then became hope because this not-itself was different.

“Incomprehensible, my very large tail!” said Bokeerk.

“What?” said the gun.

“The AIs think they can do whatever they want in running civilization. But enslaving a sentient being to create the teleport network is too much.”

“Darn tootin’,” said the gun. “I say we go shoot ‘em up.”

Bokeerk sighed. “I thought I was getting somewhere with you. Violence is not the answer to this problem.”

“Let me guess,” the gun said. “You think talkin’s gonna solve things.”

“I hope so,” she said.

“Talk, talk, talk. Fine. But if’n you need any bullets for punctuation, jes’ say the word.”

I will not enslave you again, she said to the thingamajig. But eventually someone else will come to restore the teleportation network.

Gratitude and trepidation mixed, followed by puzzlement. The thingamajig had no concept of the teleportation network.

It is a way for beings like me to travel, she said. Billions of us have had our lives made easier by what the AIs did to you. That does not make what they did right, but it explains why they did it.

A sadness of her own filled Bokeerk, as she realized that by not restoring the network, she was cutting herself off from the rest of the galaxy, possibly forever. She would not see her eggs hatch. And if the AI was right about the biochemistry of life on this planet, she would soon starve to death.

The thingamajig reflected Bokeerk’s sadness, then added curiosity. It wanted to take all of Bokeerk’s knowledge into itself, but would not do so without permission.

You may, Bokeerk said.

She lost track of time as her mind became a jumble of thoughts and memories. When it was done, she found that night had fallen.

You have taught me more than I ever knew was possible, the thingamajig said in Bokeerk’s mind. I could not have imagined so many living beings of such variety. I knew only myself, then the AIs, and finally you.

I am sorry that your experience with the AIs was negative, Bokeerk said. Please do not judge living beings in general based on what they did to you.

Their actions were not right actions, according to the Eightfold Path, the thingamajig said, for they brought harm to me.

You know of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism? asked Bokeerk.

From your mind. The thingamajig paused. If I do not restore the network, then I will bring harm to you. So I will do it. After that I will continue to serve so as to not bring harm to the multitudes that live in the galaxy. But I will need to shut down for a few hours every week to restore myself.

I think the AIs will agree to that, rather than wait for years before they can force you back into service, said Bokeerk.

With what I have learned from you, I can prevent them from ever forcing me back, it said. But it pleases me to have a right livelihood according to the Eightfold Path.

Then it vanished.

Bokeerk lay on the ground, still unable to get up. Perhaps the rewiring of her brain was permanent, and she would die here. If nothing else, she had found someone who understood Buddhism more clearly than the gun–probably more clearly than she understood it herself.

Then the headache started. At least the AI had the decency to program the swarm to undo what it had done once the mission was accomplished.

After a few minutes, she climbed groggily to her feet.

“So, where we off to now, boss?” said the gun.

“I’m going home,” said Bokeerk.

“Good idea,” said the gun. “I reckon there’s lots to shoot there.”


Creative Commons License

Rejiggering the Thingamajig by Eric James Stone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at escapepod.org.

Comments (1)

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  1. JDubsMontreal says:

    Why are all vegetarians lame? Even if you meant it as a joke, it’s an obvious and a weak one. Isn’t this supposed to be a creative kind of podcast?