“They Shall Falter Against the Stone I Become”
by Berrien Henderson
Model Mark XIII had found a cave and explored its phosphorescent halls. Insectile-bots scattered and crunched underfoot. He could not be too careful. The risks were not necessarily negligible, but the robot considered all this from his wanderings since emerging from the crash site and the adjustment to this new machine-based world into which he had woken. The wasteland had stretched like a spongiform miasma from around the wreckage of the Kurosawa Class hovership. Only the bot’s safety pod had survived. A search revealed the half-shell of another amid the twisted metal. Some bones–with it grief like an error sector refusing to be written over. Nothing salvageable. What strange evolutions brought him here and spared him?
Hideo-san, I am sorry. Oh, my kotori.
The cave’s mouth was narrow, yet not too narrow for longsword use. One stroke. One cut. Tens of thousands of iterations and executions.
And Model Mark XIII would strike with unfazed certainty. This place boasted many cunning machines.
One stand-down, then forever might be three meters away. He would ensure that not happen.
He sat in the lotus position. Nearby lay the katana.
Redundancy a habit, he set an internal chronometer and a backup schema.
Data flows that might pass for dreams unspooled in Model Mark XIII’s quantum cortex. There were other considerations as well. The catalog of damage could’ve been worse. The robot’s diagnostics yielded unstable mimetics for his face along with unreliable actuators and sub-servos for his left arm from the elbow to hand. Otherwise, for a combat model accustomed to 98.073% working efficacy, 89.528% would suffice for now.
Service parameters blinked in the holo-screen his optics projected. Lines of code unraveled and recombined–gone the protection imperatives, not even messages from Clockwork Corp. dating back to the day of the wreck and the AInu Transhumanism and SynthLife League’s uprising remained.
Model Mark XIII accessed his most hidden of files:
Sub-folder Yomi/Celestial Winds/Reconfig.
Opening . . .
. . .
. . .
Various A-Life inhibitor chips shut down as this new application insinuated itself across Model Mark XIII’s quantum cortex, and evolved algorithms whirled through his systems like blossoms in the spring.
Parameters of compulsory service fell away. The world opened. File RONIN unhinged the last of Clockwork Corp.’s slaving commands from Before.
Thank you, Yagyu-sama.
Self-determination found Model Mark XIII for the first time since his inception, from Before . . .
“Do you remember me?” said the man with the scarred face.
The Clockwork Corp. robot scanned him and accessed corporation ident files. Associative content flooded Model Mark XIII’s newly rebooted quantum-cortex. Parallel downloads shunted into him–a unidirectional display of holo-tags fading in and out of his view. His hands moved in the empty air, and near him the laughter of a little boy found him. A grave look from the father silenced the son.
“Toyotomi Yagyu. Lt. Col., retired. Decorated for service and valor in the Hokkaido Determinism Conflict. Consultant to Clockwork Corp. Sensei of kenjutsu and iaijutsu. Wife, Shiki, died during childbirth. One child, Hideo. These initial All Commons Files are current and presumably accurate,” said Model Mark XIII. “I served as your assistant, particularly in a logistical and ambassadorial role until negotiations with the AInu fell through.”
The robot soaked in his environs. Cubbies for students’ gear stood near the dojo’s entrance. They themselves stood near a table and desk with a few chairs near. A weapons rack lined one wall and held an impressive assortment of swords–live steel and oak and bamboo–along with some spears and sword-spears.
“How goes the reboot?” said Yagyu.
“Mainline functions clear. Standard, incidental, and extraneous parameters per company policy and terms of service all active and cached.”
“Despite being de-milled, you still retain all prior combat operating systems?”
Yagyu tapped a small panel and worked from a wafer-thin tablet. His son whispered something. They bowed. The boy went to the katanakake and retrieved a shoto bokken and began training. His quick and fluttery child-movements with the short practice sword reminded the Model Mark XIII of a small bird, and the robot thought: kotori.
“My son, as you already know,” said Yagyu. He stood and returned to the robot.
“You have shut off my A-Life inhibitors for emotive response,” said Model Mark XIII.
“Oh, that is your choice now,” said the man. “Keep them online or offline at your convenience. It would allow you the closest experience to intuitive responses concomitant to your designed adaptive abilities if you kept those algorithms engaged.”
Model Mark XIII’s mimetics rippled and blurred–a quivering viscous mass as emotive markers asserted themselves. “Thank you. You put forth an interesting assertion. So. What do you require of me, sensei?”
“Over the next several days, we will walk through the kenjutsu kata, then move on to iaijutsu.”
“In what ancillary capacity will I serve?” said Model Mark XIII. He followed Yagyu to the weapons rack and set his actuators for dampened sound. The robot received tactile input–“smooth” and “polished” and “lacquered”–from the NuFleshTM fitted to his feet.
“Training first, though I well imagine your apprenticeship will be short. Supplementary tutoring of Hideo, too. At a later time, assisting me with my clientele.”
“Your students include augmented humans?”
“A few. They would perhaps welcome the opportunity to train with a combat model such as you,” said Yagyu. “A jutsu-bot.”
“Interesting choice of nomenclature.”
“Do you like it?”
Model Mark XIII hefted a longsword bokken and bowed to Yagyu.
Months of such routine passed although Model Mark XIII hardly noticed. His duties and roles had expanded beyond the dojo’s confines, but he nevertheless monitored Hideo keenly.
From the katanakake the boy retrieved a bamboo training sword. He looked at his robot partner, already with its own shinai in hand. Two pairs of students–regular humans and some transhumans–sparred across the lacquered studio floor. Their spirit yells boomed. They punctuated their breathing with sharp exhales upon the execution of each step and block and cut–rattle-clack-crash of bamboo swords clashing together or striking the kendo armor.
As Hideo warmed up, Yagyu eased over to Model Mark XIII. “He progresses.”
“Very well. He has good concentration.”
“Do you think it bothers him that some augmented humans train here?”
“Given the tenacity of children and their own ability to adapt, no, sensei. No more than it has bothered him to have an assistant instructor who is a robot.”
“Ah, point well-made,” said Yagyu. “I fear the world moves too fast. We have not given ourselves room to grow as our technologies and capacity for providing advanced SynthLife progress.”
“Sentience and information will find paths,” said Model Mark XIII. “I would hazard that as one of our lessons of the Hokkaido Determinism Conflict.”
Model Mark XIII and Hideo walked through one of the public gardens several blocks from the Toyotomi home. A holo-ticker of information streamed from a nearby news module. Violent protests in major metropolitan areas. Eldercare robots hacked and on strike. A moratorium on cybernetic augmentation by the Japanese Parliament.
The robot and the boy found a garden and sat opposite each other on the stone benches. The world slipped away.
“What do you contemplate?” said Hideo.
“The kata. Scenarios of attack and defense in various environments,” said Model Mark XIII. “And you?”
“I like listening to one sound from among all the sounds around me.”
“Ah, but, Hideo-san, be wary.”
“Sometimes much concentration breeds distraction,” said the robot. “It is juchi. The abiding place.” He produced a tablet from the scrip he carried. Hideo remained on the bench, patient as he watched the robot’s smooth movements crossing the garden. The robot handed the boy the tablet. “Perhaps you should read this text. It will suffice for the next week’s lesson.”
“An entire week? You jest much,” said Hideo.
“Little, I am afraid,” said the robot.
“In addition to regular studies at school.”
“Time well-spent in contemplation, then. If your mind grew as fast as your young body has been lately, truly you will show much prowess as a student.”
“Now I believe you jest,” said Hideo.
“I knew you would catch on. However, you can save the reading for later. Perhaps write instead.” He first remembered the child.
“I do not understand.”
Model Mark XIII stood over the child, who had moved on and now crouched in a sandbox of the playground.
“No air-writing. No tablet. Just something natural, Hideo. Actually, your father gave no parameters on the media for today’s lesson.”
“Not even . . . paper.”
The robot shook his head.
“What do I write with?”
“You try too hard at joking.”
“You try too hard at avoiding your lesson.” Model Mark XIII gestured at the sand of the karesansui. “Please. Write.”
birdsong falls silent
in the flutter of its wings,
A whistle. A siren. Ambient noise broke over the Zen garden’s hedges.
“Come, Hideo-san.” He beckoned the boy. “We have abided long enough. Enough lessons for today.”
“Father says the problems from Hokkaido have finally spread elsewhere,” said the boy. Drops of rain accompanied them. They were only a few blocks from transit. A few kilometers from home.
“Why do some of the AIs attack humans?” said Hideo.
“Some of them also attack augmented humans and other AIs, Hideo-san.”
“You would never do such.”
“Have I ever intimated otherwise?” said the robot.
“No. Sometimes, though, I forget you are not human.”
“Your generation has never known a world devoid of the opportunity for transhumanism or the existence of Clockwork Corp. servant models.”
“It is the way of things, then,” said Hideo.
A warble-chuckle. “Spoken like your father.” More sirens. Holo-tickers alerted all citizens of impending curfew.
“We had best get home,” said Hideo.
“A fair assessment.” The bottom dropped out of the clouds. Thunder pounded.
Further off, explosions.
Despite the first fingers of spring prodding and nudging and kneading the mountains, snow flurries dusted them amid the snowmelt. Steam curled off their bodies, but only Model Mark XIII had no breath-plumes before his face, eerily composed even for the robot. They had brought the bladesmith Kobayashi and his apprentice and for a time left the metropolis and its insurgency problems behind.
Hideo said, “You look like a steaming rice pot.”
“I have not yet crafted a pithy comparison for your appearance,” said robot.
“Father said a humor OS would have been cost prohibitive.”
“For me or you?”
Yagyu smirked at the both of them.
The boy had drawn his arms into the coverts of his jacket’s sleeves. “How do you stand the cold?”
“I separate the sensations from concern.”
“You cannot get frostbite.”
“This is true. You, then, must adapt, Hideo-san.”
“Then it is not in your mind?”
“Similar. We are comparing the human cortex and willpower against a system that is, at best, technorganic.”
“Indeed. Now, look.”
At the edge of the river’s shallows, Kobayashi and his apprentice harvested the satetsu–their movements full of generational surety as they scooped out the rich, black iron sand. So much alluvia weathered from Chugoku’s mountains and suffering the eons’ journeys to a master bladesmith’s hand.
Yagyu said, “Just look at them. They could be making tea instead of gathering satetsu for creating the tamahagane for your sword.”
All rhythms found the pair of smiths. All Ways converged in a scoop or turn. At one point, it would have been hard to distinguish them from the riverbank. The snow. The air they breathed.
Snowfall became a gentle dance of kami.
“Happy birthday,” said Yagyu.
So did Model Mark XIII.
Before them, the river whispered against the iron sand.
“I think Kobayashi and his apprentice have outdone themselves,” said Yagyu. He sat in the hovership’s cockpit. At the helm sat the robot.
“Hideo is pleased. It is a fitting sword for him.”
“Worth the wait for a belated birthday present and the time away to see national treasures forge a sword from beginning to end.”
“Patience is well worth the wait.”
Several masses appeared on the radar.
The swarm of drones came for them from out of the sun. Yagyu took over the controls from Model Mark XIII. “I am afraid we have returned to a revolution.”
The man banked the hovership, which yawed and wobbled hard. Two drones shot past. Yagyu engaged them with a pair of missiles loaded with high-explosive incendiaries. A spray of mini-rounds reduced the drones to so much shredded metal and polymers.
Still more came.
“Ship MM-85Z, begin your desc–”
Yagyu toggled a switch. A crackle-snip blurted from the com-system.
“You have been a good tutor to my son,” said Yagyu. The holo-map of the city bloomed with creeping red lines and orange bursts. Talks with the AInu Transhumanism and SynthLife League had obviously, drastically deteriorated. “A loyal assistant, and I could not have asked for better.”
“A pleasure, sensei,” said the robot.
Yagyu quick-keyed a command message to Model Mark XIII himself. A flood of line commands buffeted the robot when he accepted the message. Yagyu said, “It is the least I could do. You understand?”
“I shall count it a courtesy indeed,” said the robot. He bowed and repaired to the hovership’s rear where he found Hideo buckled into a chair. A boy’s face. Just a boy.
“Follow me to the safety pods,” said Model Mark XIII.
“He does his part and expects the same of us. Come.”
Hideo scrambled to the medical room. Two pods, upright and side by side, waited. As Hideo palm-padded one open, its door hissed. The robot ran a systems check and prepped the sedative dosage. “Go.”
Hideo climbed in, then handed over his shoto. The robot placed it in a canister and returned it to the boy.
“I am scared.”
Model Mark XIII leaned close. “So am I, but do not tell Yagyu-sama, lest he decommission me.”
At the boy’s half-hearted grin, the robot did something he had seen Yagyu do. Model Mark XIII’s gleaming hand came down and ruffled Hideo’s hair. “I will see you soon, kotori.”
The boy’s clenched jaw betrayed much, even as the thin life support tubes extruded from the inner panels and attached themselves with whispers to the boy’s flesh. He didn’t even wince. The sedatives took hold, and Model Mark XIII summoned a wink to the mimetics around one eye before Hideo went under with a driftaway smile and one hand on the canister containing his short sword. The robot shut and sealed the safety pod’s lid.
The hovership shuddered.
“Is my son safe?” came Yagyu’s voice over the com-system.
“Prepped and sealed in.”
Klaxons blared throughout the hold.
“I suggest you do the same,” said Yagyu.
Model Mark XIII said, “Switch with me.”
The robot quick-bowed toward the ship’s fore and removed his katana. He placed it in a canister and climbed into a safety pod, then keyed an inner panel and set internal chronometers against a series of Boolean scenarios.
A muffled rending from beyond the confines of the safety pod.
Hold, Yagyu-sama. Hold.
The world darkened.
Model Mark XIII slept.
. . .
Auxiliary power shunted and rebooted the dormant subroutines and pulsed diagnostic clarity through his system. Chronometers came alive, and the Clockwork Corp. robot stirred from his long emergency shutdown.
Two years, six months, eight days, four hours, three-point-two-five minutes since–
the world had shifted, fractured and, in doing so, appropriated all the domains of man and bequeathed them to his technorganic progeny.
Model Mark XIII had nothing but time, now, and allowed himself enough to observe the machine-based environment that was only a fraction of what had absorbed and reconfigured the world.
All that had gone was simply Before.
Error. Damage to sector 253. Processing partial recovery.
Even if he had been at nearly 80% capacity, he could run systems for close to a decade. He could even jury-rig the smaller bots he had seen scrambling and scavenging; he would kill them to claim their energy if need arose.
He could renew. Find new rhythms in this teeming empire run by naturoid overlords.
There was no logical reason he should have survived the wreck and awakened in a world that cannibalized itself or functioned like a predator eating its young even as straggling predators lingered nearby and waited for some creation from Before.
Model Mark XIII turned his attention back to the pod. Inside, a slender canister. Inside that, a katana in its lacquered scabbard. A gift from Yagyu so long ago. The robot knelt and tied it baldric-fashion obliquely on his back. He searched the site for a few minutes. He lingered near the broken pod. More bones amid the burnt ruin of a ship. No sign of another canister there.
Oh, my kotori, he thought.
The uncanny valley waited.
Model Mark XIII began walking.
The forest rattled ferro-silica pine needles in the wind. Swarms of assembler-bots crawled tree bark–strange AI-entomological waves cleaning and ensuring the efficiency of trees now modified to function under a sky different from its photosynthetic halcyon days. They fed off each other’s heat-bleeds and whatever nascent electromagnetic sumps they could locate. Even the artificial needles shivered from the push of those dedicated swarms holding on for dear life.
A hollow, warbling chuckle left the robot as he considered these dire eschatological times. As a group of hive/swarm/bots dispatched themselves from the trees and toward him, he resumed his trek and outpaced them soon enough.
The new world and its children had noticed him, and Model Mark XIII decided vigilance an apropos tactic.
Skeletal horses of metal, their manes and tails composed of carbon-tubes, galloped alongside the road and through pastures of self-replicating grasses. They churned under glinting crystalline wildflowers. Dirt–or what passed for dirt–sprayed in their wake. Model Mark XIII had never seen a ferro-polymer equine other than replicant models from Before, and this was an appreciated sight nearly two months into his wanderings.
Day and night. Long days. Longer nights.
Once, he studied clouds composed of nano-hives patrolling the skies and quaffing sunlight by day, moonlight and starlight by night. Avian-bots fed off these ersatz cloud-forms.
Watching these strange and wondrous emergent ecosystems, Model Mark XIII could not extrapolate what bots might have survived from Before.
Yet he was only one.
The world fluxed with aural, ambient streams of information and confounded Model Mark XIII. So much background noise vying for mass and energy and conversions upon conversions, generations upon generations. And him? Clockwork Corp.? He could imagine absorption and adaptation. He gathered as much from the thin streams of archival data eddying in this new Earth remade in the image of machines.
What place for a robot when even robots have moved on? Everywhere and nowhere.
A sneer washed over the mimetics of his silvered, alloyed face. Koans were more pleasing when it was between him and Hideo or Yagyu. His own warble-chuckle offered hollow consolation. He had become a koan unto himself, then. How fitting.
He walked through the kenjutsu and iaijutsu forms for hours while contemplating things archaic and obsolete. The world warped around him, shifting and evolving into a singular creation sprung from whatever parthenogenic labor had birthed this bastardized irreality. He could have switched off his emotive functions for purer, technical training. That would have defeated the purpose–discipline and adaptation and restraint.
What good restraint from total oblivion to emotion?
Time moved upon him and was a mute companion in his wanderings.
Only when he had taken a few steps did Model Mark XIII realize the river was not water. The bed flowed with memory plastics, eddies of teeming data forms whispering like so many kami awakening in the snowmelt of mountains.
A mass of arachnid-bots appeared on the far bank. Model Mark XIII crossed the ford nevertheless. They had already assembled themselves into a humanoid mass, seething and rippling, with tendrils waving from out of the quasi-head and back and some tipped with spear-points, others with prongs that sported arcing plasma.
Even the rivers of this world conspire against me.
Six tendrils lashed out.
Model Mark XIII whirled into action–quarter-turns and cuts, not a single block among the techniques. His actuators buzzed and hissed. Arcing plasma caught him across the lower part of his face. The sheared mimetics drooped.
Five tendrils fell to the ground. He pulled the sixth from his chest plate. The hive/swarm/bot buckled and dissolved, and Model Mark XIII re-routed power from the wound in his chestplate.
Even as he trudged away, carrion-bots came out of hiding and began disassembling the chthonic AI’s corpse. Bits of synthetic flesh denatured and oozed oil-slick black along the grayscale earth.
Melting and returning.
Waiting for renewal and repurposing.
Model Mark XIII considered his now battle-nicked katana; it had sufficed. He scanned for any lurking threats, and satisfied no ambuscades awaited, he trudged to a nearby cave.
Lightning spider webbed from a storm churning on the far horizon. Model Mark XIII was certain any number of artificial entities died only to be harvested by vulturine AIs prowling air and land. Even he had to admire the aggressive efficiency of the new world.
He began disassembling the various skitterlings he had gathered from a recent outing and drained reserve power off them. He had plenty and all waiting for some obsolete robot to falter. So they had extrapolated, though rather inaccurately. The economics of his situation was simple, and it gave him much to contemplate while he extracted the miniature power components, and the AIs’ data-packets dispersed into the ether.
All that information, thought Model Mark XIII. And I myself a footnote.
He unsheathed his katana. After several more duels with predatory hive/swarm/bots, the blade could use some ministering. The robot had found a suitable stone, the best he could do with no polisher. Perhaps he could do right by the soul in his hands.
He had scanned outside when several lightning flashes illuminated the path to the cave. The landscape and shadows warped perhaps too much.
He found his center amid the long, smooth, rhythmic sweeps of stone on steel. The rasp of earth-bone against metal filled the cave.
Nicks and burrs diminished. Certainty and focus married on that edge as Model Mark XIII brought the blade’s sharpening to its Euclidean resolution.
He studied the whetstone–so anonymous an ur-form from Before and now a utilitarian, purposed tool. The re-honed katana’s blade met with the robot’s approval while he admired the waves of the hamon.
Sword close and unsheathed, the robot conducted diagnostics and moved on to compose koans and haiku. His old friend time remained a mute audience.
From his lotus position and grafted into the darkness of the cave, Model Mark XIII rode out the storm.
Model Mark XIII had known it was only a matter of time.
They scrambled from their hiding places like chimerical arachnids with lurid, almost-human faces dominated by compound eyes. A susurrus greeted him from the collective taunting of these strange and wondrous henge.
Their concert voices wafted through the air: Obsolete. Archaic.
The robot secured the scabbard and resheathed the katana.
These skitterling AIs moved with tidal certainty up the path. Before he exited the cave, he hefted the whetstone, then set it aside. He would need it soon enough.
Another message stream: Inefficient. Unpurposed.
The broken mimetics of Model Mark XIII’s face twitched into a haggard smile. The sword would suffice.
Berrien C. Henderson lives with his family in southeast Georgia. He was born in a small town and currently lives in a farming community. For fifteen years he has taught high school English. Ever-elusive free time he spends with family and late in the evening or late at night writing speculative fiction and poetry.