Escape Pod 526: The Hunter Captain

The Hunter Captain

by David John Baker

“The sign for the survivor’s species is ‘human,'” said Kyber, “although I am unsure of the exact pronunciation.”

Hunter Captain Sra examined the data feed, zooming in on an image of the human’s brain. “Have you discovered anything in her nervous system that might function as a seat of consciousness?” said Sra.

“There is one promising organ. An intersection here, between the two hemispheres of the brain. But we’ve found such things before, in highly developed animals. I see no particular reason for optimism.”

Although he knew it was naive, Sra was optimistic. For once his hunter’s skills might not be needed–if the human was in fact a sentient alien being. Although it meant Explorer Captain Kyber would retain command of the ship, the prospect of true first contact spoke to a dream Sra had cultivated since his infancy.

Sra was old enough to recall an earlier age, when no one believed that the Nampranth were alone. A time before their race journeyed outside the home system–before they found a galaxy infested with intelligent animals and bereft of sentient life.

Already this mission seemed different. Sra had never heard of a more auspicious contact. They’d found the alien ship alone, disabled–apparently by a freak collision with a cosmic string. Its single passenger was recovered still unconscious, its computer’s artificial animal dormant but intact. The animal’s architecture had so far resisted interface with Nampranth computers, but Kyber’s explorers had already learned much from the ship’s markings. It was a perfect opportunity for slow, cautious study before beginning the delicate process of contact.

“When do you plan to revive the human?” Sra said.

“Perhaps very soon. We can’t learn much more from noninvasive scans, especially given the number of cybernetic devices operating within her brain.”

Sra opened his nostrils, expressing humility. “Of course it will be your privilege to greet her when she wakes, Explorer Captain. But I should like the chance to meet her as well.”

Kyber acknowledged the gesture with grace. “You shall have it, Hunter Captain.”

Sra prepared his basin with great care, although he realized the ritual was silly. His human guest would know nothing of Nampranth manners. If he were to smell his food before digging in, she’d probably assume that was the polite thing and do the same! But the occasion felt momentous enough to warrant some care, even if his guest–Alexandra Seppi–could not appreciate it.

From the first, her circumspection impressed him. “Does etiquette dictate where I should sit?” she asked.

“Only among the stodgiest old bulls,” he reassured her. She sat opposite him, at the lip of the basin, crossing her legs.

His implant translator seemed to be functioning well. He hoped that the explorers’ improving facility with human language would permit them to decipher her artificial animal’s programming without her help.

“Alexandra,” he said. “Kyber tells me it’s proper to call you by the first of your two names?”

“Since we are friends,” she said.

“Very good.” He studied her. Her appearance was aesthetically elegant–more so in motion. “I gather your skin’s pigment is an inherited trait, but not a universal one among humans?”

“Inherited in my case, yes. Some people choose their own skin color, like the Nampranth do.”

“Our natural tone is a terribly dull flat gray.”

“From the looks of you, I wouldn’t have thought the Nampranth could perceive color. Or light at all.”

Sra chose as uninformative an answer as he politely could. “I suppose our sense organs are not as visible as yours.”

“Except for taste,” she said.

This puzzled him for a moment, then: “I see. You’re referring to the size of our jaws.”

“Jaws, that’s right.” She made a sound with her voice that Kyber had played for him, one apparently connected with the expression of mirth. “Your face reminds me of an aquatic predator we have on Earth. Except with no eyes.”

Holkrin appeared, then, with the vegetarian course. The hleethri male stood squat on two thick legs, holding the trays of food in six-digited hands like a Nampranth’s, but without the piercing thumb. Because of their similar build and body shape, small hleethri could use equipment designed for Nampranth, making them highly useful as trained animals.

Holkrin scraped some vegetables onto the basin in front of Alexandra, then served Sra. “Is all well, master?” he asked.

“For now,” said Sra. He turned back to the human as Holkrin left. “We must teach you our language one of these days.”

“Captain Sra,” said Alexandra, “I apologize for being abrupt, but I’ve gotten nowhere with Captain Kyber, and I understand you two are of equal rank. I’m very concerned that I haven’t been allowed to see my ship or communicate with my AI.”

Kyber had warned him this would come up. Sra recited his prepared response. “To begin with, Kyber is the commander of this ship’s exploratory mission. He will retain sole command of the ship unless we encounter dangerous animals.”

She exhaled in a curious way, but seemed willing to let him go on.

“More importantly,” he said, “we must behave cautiously until we determine your own moral status.”

“My moral status?” His translator told him that her tone indicated confusion.

He tried to explain. “We must determine whether you are a sentient person, or merely an intelligent animal.”

Holkrin entered again, bearing the flesh course. A small, reptilian thealco was placed in front of Sra. The animal was trembling, but it had been trained well. “I hope the hunter captain is well this evening,” it said. “I ask that the captain end my life with mercy.”

“Gladly,” said Sra. With his piercing thumb, he impaled the thealco between its ears. It shook with death throes.

“Kyber informs me that you prefer your flesh cooked and pre-killed,” said Sra. “So I’ve had Holkrin roast your thealco.”

As Holkrin placed the cooked flesh in front of Alexandra, her face took on an open-mouthed expression that Sra did not recognize.

Dinner with the human left Sra in a confused frame of mind. He decided to clear his head by inseminating the mother.

As he entered the mother’s chamber, one of the younger hunters was leaving. Hiding his embarrassment, Sra acknowledged his subordinate and brushed past. This aspect of life aboard ship simply had to be endured. With a single mother and over forty crew, privacy was too much to expect.

He opened his nostrils and let the mother’s musk fill them. This mother was incredibly sexy, far better than the ship’s last mother. Her egg sac was bulging, big enough for three male Nampranth to fit inside. He didn’t quite know why this was such a turn-on for him. As he penetrated her, he reached out and gripped one of her half-atrophied hands, which curled around his fingers in a reflex that he liked. The mother gurgled mindlessly as he went about his business.

It occurred to him that the human Alexandra was female. It seemed odd to regard her as a woman, given that she could think and talk. He sometimes wondered if nature had cheated the Nampranth in this respect. Among animal species with less sexual dimorphism, he often noticed a tender friendship between sexual partners. With a Nampranth mother, no such relationship would ever be possible.

He found it hard to imagine a deeper relationship than the one he shared with his male friends. The attraction of sex was so primal that sometimes he thought he could envision something greater. But the idea of inseminating a friend seemed so bizarre. His homosexual friends didn’t speak about it much, but perhaps if he asked they could offer him some insight.

After leaving his semen in the mother, he opened her birth flap to check that the eggs inside were healthy. He had high hopes for the ship’s children.

He visited Alexandra Seppi a couple of ship-days later. “Captain Kyber tells me you’ve become less cooperative since our dinner.”

“What did you expect? Think of how you’d feel in my place, held captive by aliens who haven’t decided whether you’re a person.”

“I agree, it’s not surprising that you should feel this way. Kyber believes I was wrong to tell you, but I feel we should treat you like a sentient being as long as we remain in doubt.”

“I’m not sure what there is to doubt. You’ve talked with me; you know I’m intelligent. I’ve assured you that I’m self-aware. Do you think I’m lying?”

“Not at all.” Sra licked his teeth plaintively, then realized the gesture’s meaning would surely escape her. “Only we’ve been disappointed too many times in the past to hold out much hope. And you can’t expect us to simply take your word for it.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Because we’ve encountered hundreds of intelligent animal species. The thealco are our native prey from the homeworld, so we’ve had millennia to study them. Every intelligent animal we’ve discovered has evolved to believe it has a conscious mind, but none of them actually do.”

“How do you know that?”

“None have an organ in the brain capable of generating conscious sensations.”

Sra heard the locks open behind him. It was the trained hleethri, Holkrin. “The guest has requested a water pouch.”

Alexandra took it from him and spoke in Nampranth. “Many thanks, Holkrin.”

Sra was delighted. “Your pronunciation is excellent. But your etiquette needs further study. There is no need to thank a trained animal.”

The hleethri stood frozen, afraid, unsure how to respond to the alien guest’s unexpected appreciation.

“You may go, Holkrin,” said Sra.

Relieved, the beast started for the door. But Sra thought he saw Holkrin pause a moment as Alexandra said, again in Nampranth, “I don’t believe he is an animal.”

It was a discouraging sign, that humans didn’t recognize the difference between intelligent minds and sentient ones. But of course it was possible that their organ of consciousness had not been detected by human neuroscience. Millennia worth of experiments on the thealco had been an enormous aid to Nampranth scientists. Without an intelligent animal species to study, the human science of the brain could easily have fallen behind.

Besides, he saw no reason to abandon hope in the absence of hard data.

Alexandra Seppi remained uncooperative even after Sra’s visit, as Kyber later told him. But this turned out not to matter much. Scans of her brain in active operation eventually told Kyber all he needed to know.

“The corpus callossum is nothing more than a junction to facilitate communication between the brain’s two hemispheres,” he told Sra. “And that was our last hope, I’m afraid. There is no structure in the human brain with any functional similarity to the Nampranth upper interface.”

“Another race of animals,” said Sra. He felt deeply cheated. He realized he’d deceived himself, imagining Alexandra was more than simply a pet. To think that there was nothing aware behind those ornate eyes. Nature had been cruel to the animal kingdom. “I’m sorry, Kyber.”

“I feel as if I should be the one apologizing,” said the explorer. “I knew you’d be more disappointed than I.”

For the first time, he came to Alexandra’s quarters in uniform, escorted by two hunters. “I’ve assumed command of our mission,” he told her. “Do you know what that means?”

“I suppose I do.”

“From now on you will cooperate more fully, or be forced.” At his gesture, the two hunters approached her from both sides. Both were powerful bulls. She backed away a step.

“Kyber has asked you already,” said Sra, “how to extract navigational and technical data from your ship’s artificial animal without activating its higher functions.”

“No. I’ve told Kyber that if you want to question my AI, you’ll have to let me activate it.”

Sra thought it best to establish dominance immediately. “Use the staple on a finger,” he told one of the hunters.

The staple was a crude device, but given the wide variation among alien nervous systems, it was more reliable than bloodless neurological alternatives. But when it pierced Alexandra’s short, blunt nail and sprayed her red circulatory fluid over her hand, she showed no outward sign of discomfort.

He wondered if he might not have recognized her alien expression of distress. “Tell me how to retrieve the data.”

“I’d rather not,” she said. Scornfully, she held out another finger to the hunter at her side. “Do what you like.”

“I’m afraid pain compliance may be impossible,” said Kyber. “Her brain’s cybernetic accessories must somehow grant control over her pain sense. Even if I can determine which implant is responsible, it may be impossible to disable without some risk of killing her.”

“I just wish I had known,” said Sra. “Having outsmarted me, as she sees it, she’ll be even more willful and difficult to train.”

“The error was mine. It seems we must not be too confident in our usual methods. It’s even possible that these humans are technologically superior.”

Sra agreed. “Caution dictates that we return to the central worlds with our captive. I shall give the order.”

Sra found Holkrin with the other hleethri. They’d been put to work repairing the human ship. Sra had spent only a little time inside the alien craft, but he was impressed with its seamless manufacture. It seemed fully capable of maintaining a variety of functions, even without its artificial animal.

“You will gather three thealco from the mess and meet me outside the human’s cell,” said Sra.

“Yes, Hunter Captain.”

Sra placed his hand on Holkrin’s arm, causing the hleethri to lower his head in submission. “I must warn you,” he said. “The human’s disobedience has forced me to use methods of discipline that I would never voluntarily choose.”

“I understand, Captain.”

As he waited outside the cell for Holkin, Sra thought over Alexandra’s likely intentions. Now that she understood her race’s status, she must realize that the Nampranth would begin hunting humans as soon as they could–especially if the animals were advanced enough to pose a threat. So she must feel a great duty to conceal the astronomical location of her civilization.

In light of this, he was surprised she hadn’t yet attempted suicide. Perhaps she saw a greater threat in the Nampranth’s possession of her ship and its computer.

Holkrin soon arrived with the thealco.

As they entered the cell, Sra took one of the thealco from him. He had to clench his nostrils tightly; the poor little thing was stinking with fear. Rightly so.

Alexandra stood up and backed away from Sra. He showed her what he had around his right piercing thumb: a control that would release incapacitating gas into the cell. The hunters had already tested the gas on her. Unfortunately the dosage needed would also knock Sra himself out, but it would give the hunters outside the room time to come in and restrain her if she tried anything.

Next he held up the thealco. “I know you believe this creature is sentient,” he said. “If I can’t inflict pain on you, a surrogate will have to do. You must tell me how to access your ship’s stored data.”

She refused, and Sra went to work. He found the entire process disgusting. As a child he’d experimented with bad table manners, spearing his thealco first in one limb, then another, before the kill. It had infuriated his elders; no one wanted to smell the rancid stink of a thealco in pain, and their screeches were nearly as bad.

Now he couldn’t shut out the smell, no matter how tightly he closed his nostrils. The noise seemed to spook Holkrin, to say nothing of the other two thealco.

It wasn’t true pain, of course, that made the thealco stink and screech. Without a center of consciousness, an animal couldn’t literally feel anything. Some scientists used the word pseudopain to describe animals’ perception of bodily harm. Whatever the word, animal pseudopain was behaviorally identical to Nampranth pain, which was all that mattered for Sra’s purposes.

Alexandra was sweating around her eyes, which the Nampranth had marked as a sign of emotional distress. “Sra, stop this. It’s not going to work. You have to understand that. You’re an astronaut yourself. Would you betray your people, if you were in my place? To save a couple of alien lives?”

She had a point, but the thealco were of no importance in the first place, and Sra needed to maintain a position of strength. Although it put a rotten feeling in his gut, he killed all three of them slowly while she watched.

Alexandra stayed resolute. “By all means, Sra, keep wasting perfectly good food.”

Had this been the extent of Sra’s plan, he would have felt embarrassed. Now he saw that he’d have to carry things further. “Holkrin, come here.”

The hleethri meekly approached.

“You’ve shown an attachment to this animal,” said Sra. “I wonder if his pain might matter a little more.” He restrained Holkrin’s wrists and ankles, then went to work with his staple.

“Stop!” The sweat reappeared around Alexandra’s eyes. “Sra, you’re wrong–he’s a person! Can’t you even consider that you might be wrong?”

Sra ignored her and kept up the torture. At first Holkrin’s distress didn’t disturb him as badly as the thealco’s. Perhaps this was simply because he didn’t smell as bad. But before long Holkrin’s trained composure had collapsed, and he began to plead. “Hunter captain, no! Master! Master, please…”

Alexandra made a small motion as if to grasp at the staple, but Sra responded by pressing his piercing thumb against Holkrin’s eye. As she backed away, he said, “There’s no point asking me for mercy, Holkrin. I’ve already told you, it’s not my choice. It’s the human’s. Ask her.”

So Holkrin did. As Sra shredded his sensitive palms, he begged Alexandra to give in.

She came closer to Sra once more, slamming her fist against the wall near his head. “I hate you,” she said. “I used to think you were so polite. You’re a monster, Sra.”

Sra went on in silence, knowing that Holkrin couldn’t feel a thing–not in any way that mattered.

“You’re reciting excuses in your head now,” said Alexandra. “He’s not a person. He can’t really be hurt. If you had a conscience, you’d know that isn’t true. It’s pseudoscience. Look at him! You’re the one who can’t feel, Sra. The one who’s empty inside.”

“You understand me perfectly,” said Sra, “your scientific misconceptions aside. So you must know I won’t stop until you obey.”

“Tell me what you want to know. I’ll pull the data from the computer myself.”

“No.” Sra squeezed the staple once more, and a bit of Holkrin’s blood splashed Alexandra.

“Stop,” she said. “Let me help him!”

Sra opened the staple, eliciting a gasp of relief from Holkrin. “What if I do?”

“I’ll tell you how to get at the data. Let me help him and I’ll tell you.”

Sra stood up and stepped away from Holkrin. “All right.”

She knelt beside the bleeding hleethri. “Call for a medic, Sra. With painkillers for him. Then I’ll tell you.” She brushed her fingers across Holkrin’s face in a gentle motion and spoke to him. To Sra’s surprise, although he didn’t know the words, he recognized the sound of the native hleethri language.

Perhaps it was best to keep other animals away from the human.

She described to him a series of logical operations to be entered into the ship’s computer. When Kyber tried these, they had no effect.

Sra came to her room alone this time. He was furious, but saw no point in showing it.

“The input process you described did not unlock the data.”

“Are you sure you did it right?”

“No more deception, Alexandra!”

“Fair enough. Holkrin is a friend, but that’s not important with my whole civilization’s safety at risk. I wouldn’t be out here,” she said, gesturing outside at space, “if I couldn’t make that kind of decision.”

“Then he will die,” Sra lied.

“Do it. Kill all the ‘animals’ on this ship, if you want.”

Sra leaned against the wall in a moment of resignation. “It’s a shame I can’t simply torture you.”

Another moment passed as they both watched each other.

“Sra,” said Alexandra, “can we just talk the way we used to, for a minute? Is that allowed, now that I’m an animal?”

“Say whatever you want. Animals can reason as well as Nampranth, I’ve never denied that.”

“A while back you told me that the thealco are your natural prey, from your home planet. What happens if a Nampranth doesn’t get enough thealco meat?”

“There are synthetic supplements for vegetarians.”

“Out in nature, I mean.”

“We die. Thealco provide a nutrient that we can’t absorb from other sources.”

“So you evolved having to eat another sapient being. Then thousands of years later, or however long it was, your neuroscientists confirmed that your prey isn’t actually self-aware. Isn’t that a pretty amazing coincidence?”

“The coincidence,” said Sra, “is that the Nampranth evolved to be conscious in the first place. Self-awareness is not an adaptive trait. There is no evolutionary pressure that favors it. The organ of consciousness, our brain’s upper interface, developed purely as a side effect of other selected traits.”

“What if I told you that my people have a sophisticated science of consciousness? That according to our scientists, consciousness is a function of the whole brain, not just one organ? And that it always evolves along with intelligence?”

“You may be using the word ‘consciousness’ in a different way. Many animal species can perceive their own thoughts, in some sense. But for the Nampranth, there is a feeling of what it is like to see colors or feel pain. These feelings are only possible when presented to the brain’s experiential center. Something your brain does not have.”

“I’m not saying you have no reasons for what you think,” she said. “But don’t you see how your science might have developed to justify what you already thought? I mean, what did the Nampranth think of the thealco before the brain was even understood? Was there a lively debate about whether thealco were people? I doubt it.”

“A minority of animal activists have made these points before. It’s simply a way of dismissing the fact that our scientific knowledge has contradicted their moral opinions.”

“It all hangs together, doesn’t it?” she said. “Fine.”

She shook her head and looked away. Then, in an incredible instant, she lunged at his belt, her hands grasping after his sidearm.

Sra touched his ring to trigger the sleep gas. It began working almost immediately–a strange, surreal feeling. As he slid along the wall to the floor, his vision blurring, he began to wonder why Alexandra seemed not to be affected. Why her hands were still working at his waist, drawing his weapon from its holster.

Sra woke with such suddenness that it felt like rising from the dead. He let his nostrils gape open and gasped for air.

“Hunter Captain!”

“What?” he said.

“Hunter Captain!” One of his senior hunters leaned over him. “She is gone, sir!”

“Gone?” Sra sat up.

“The sleep poison had no effect on her.”

“Those brain implants…”

“They must have somehow blocked the drug’s effect. She took your weapon and fired through the cell door. Killed the guards in the hall outside. Her tracer’s signal disappeared soon after.”

Sra saw the holes in the door where her shots had melted through. Two dead hunters. He’d never lost a man before today.

He stood up. “Very well. How long was I unconscious?”

The hunter told him.

“Not enough time to reach her ship,” said Sra. “But that’s where she will try to go.”

“We’ve already sealed the passage to the ship,” said the hunter.

“Good. In that case, we can take our time.”

Still foggy from the gas, Sra let himself be led to the bridge. Halfway there, he had a thought. “Were the hleethri laborers on board when the human ship was sealed?”

“Yes, Hunter Captain.”

“All of them, Holkrin too?”

“That’s right.”

Most likely it meant nothing, thought Sra. But best to be cautious. “Have the passage manned with at least ten armed hunters.” He couldn’t take the risk of Alexandra getting past them. “Then unseal the human ship and have the hleethri removed.”

The senior hunter transmitted Sra’s order.

By the time they reached the bridge, the ten hunters were in place. But by then it was also too late.

“The human ship has fired engines!”

Sra slumped into his seat.

“Passage has sheared away. Hull pressure remains constant.”

“Hunter Captain! Shall we ready a missile?”

“Very well,” said Sra. But he knew it would do no good.

Sure enough, the alien craft shifted immediately to another stratum of transit space. No causal contact was possible between ships on different strata. A missile would be useless.

As Sra reclined despondently, Kyber approached from his observation post. “We should give chase,” he said, careful not to overstep his bounds by offering more than advice.

“Pursue a ship through transit space?” Sra hissed at him dismissively.

“We have to try, Sra!”

“No. We have to recapture our human specimen and return with her to the central worlds.”

“Recapture her? She’s escaping now, on that ship!”

“The only animals on that ship are the hleethri.” Sra couldn’t believe Kyber was this dense, but he spoke with respect. He would need Kyber as an ally in the inevitable hearings that would follow their mission. “There was no time for her to reach her ship, Explorer Captain.”

“Then how could this have happened?”

“Only through sheer folly on my part.”

“But she can’t have taught the hleethri how to pilot the ship!”

“She didn’t have to. Remember the ‘unlocking’ operations she had us enter into her ship’s computer? The ones that appeared to do nothing? They must have activated the artificial animal, at a lower level of operation that would look inactive to us. Until the hleethri had taken the ship. Now the computer is bringing them home, to wherever the human came from.”

“Why save the hleethri?”

“She knew she could not save herself. And to her they are fellow sentients, as good as human.” A new wave of anger came over Sra, and he tore the lining of his seat with his piercing thumb. “We must hope she hasn’t used this opportunity to kill herself.”

They found her in the lower decks, hiding in the mother’s egg sac. Her hair was pasted to her scalp and soaked with the mother’s fluids. But he recognized the look on her face, from a time before she’d been deemed an animal: an expression of mirth.

“It worked, didn’t it?” she said.

“The hleethri are free,” said Sra. “I’m surprised you didn’t avail yourself of this chance to take your own life and deprive us of our only human specimen.”

She tapped her forehead, indicating the implants buried in her brain. “Any time I want, Sra. I don’t need a gun. Think I’ll stick around and carry on the fight a while longer.”

He ordered her cell locked, with no access for the duration of the voyage. The hunters and scientists on the central worlds would know better than Sra how to train her. By now that much was clear.

Then he retired to his quarters with something new to read: a basic text on neuroscience. On some level, he knew Alexandra had to be wrong about the conscious mind. Animals were animals. But in spite of himself, Sra had always nurtured the hope that the Nampranth might not be alone in the universe.

About the Author

David John Baker

David John Baker is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. In addition to his philosophical publications, he writes short science fiction stories, some of which have been published in anthologies.

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About the Narrator

Mat Weller

Mat Weller

Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.

Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.

Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.

Find more by Mat Weller

Mat Weller