Nova Sapiens: The Believers, chapter 1 (preview)

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Darwin at 6:15am, long before the cataclysm.

Dingxiang’s uniformed escort led him through the walkways of a bland office building protected by a dozen automated anti-air cannons. The city’s residents carried on their lives as if the military presence was merely another commercial opportunity, but everywhere, Dingxiang saw in their faces the same calculating bewilderment he felt, the same expanding realisation of the nature of the prison from which they’d all just been released.

Twenty-six hundred kilometres away, his city, Bandung, now faced the same transition. The Front had reached its outskirts too, and he wanted to tell them it was okay. But they would find out, even if it took some people days to emerge from hiding. It would be harder for them. Propaganda had more time there to confect and reinforce the narrative, beginning with the ‘terrorist attack’ in Port Moresby that had somehow metastasised into an expanding, island-hopping madness. But propaganda would hold little sway once the battle was actually lost. For the people in the city, just as it was in Darwin weeks ago, it would be as if reality flickered a bit, and they would start glimpsing possibilities that were never supposed to exist.

They would notice when the polished media voices of the commercial and political status quo switched from speaking to them to speaking about them, from a safe distance, and about the ‘rebel atrocities’ whose falsity they could finally see with their own eyes. They would notice when the ragged survivors of the Civil Guard and the Ministry of Religious Ethics stumbled back to the homes they’d been torn from—often years ago—to tell their stories.

He arrived at an open doorway that framed one of the architects of that discovery: a tall woman standing at the opposite side of the conference table, wearing a black shirt and jeans. She was Major Losana Maraiwai, suddenly one of the most powerful people in the world if you put aside rank and considered what she’d actually done, and hence what she was capable of. The technological apparatus of the rebellion bore her fingerprints.

‘Wei Dingxiang,’ she greeted him, smiling and looking up from a cluster of documents, rectangles of white and grey that sprawled out across the table display. The conference room was dimly lit, untroubled by decoration or even paintwork. Dingxiang blinked at her from the doorway, fighting the urge to fidget with something.

‘Major,’ he replied awkwardly.

‘Come in. Good to see you again, and welcome to the small cabal of people I trust on this. The General has sent our special forces off to retrieve something that you’re going to want to see, given your background.’

Dingxiang nodded and shuffled over to the table. The Major grinned for a moment and tapped a few times on the table surface, sending one of the white rectangles across to his side.

‘This comes from the Resistance, thirty minutes ago: “STI compound north of Bandung. Doctor Hoffman is expecting you. Will transfer research into military robotics.”’

Only months previously, before the Front’s swift and frightening advance, Dingxiang had held a job at Global Defence, the once domineering but now decrepit arms manufacturer. He’d been recruited by the Front just over a week ago in a surreal moment that involved a tiny toy-like wheeled robot chasing him down an alley and finally handing him a note. The Front wanted people like him, apparently—disaffected defence nerds. But until today, it had all been introductions, and a lot of waiting to be useful.

Losana’s expression seemed to darken. Dingxiang had a fleeting sense of the weight of world events pressing on her mind.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘but don’t we already have military robots? Didn’t you make them?’

The Union and now the Front both deployed fleets of autonomous aircraft, land vehicles and submarines, for tactical and strategic purposes.

‘Not like this one,’ Losana said softly. ‘This one’s intelligent. I mean, actually sentient.’

‘A cow is sentient.’

Losana shrugged.

‘You know what I mean. Like us.’

Dingxiang bit his lip at the bland assurance of the impossible, but he began to understand at least where he came in. Global Defence was entrusted with AI research; it was one of a tiny handful of companies to have ever acquired that carefully controlled privilege, disproportionately located in Bandung, of course. They took an axe to the imagination of new employees. The first thing the senior managers told you, with a hint of sadism, was this: AI is a myth—it doesn’t work and never has.

Of course, they continued after sensing that doubt had been duly instilled, AI is still tremendously useful. The myth lay in what you might believe it actually was. Real AIs—vehicle control, surveillance, aerial combat systems—were nothing like human minds in machine form. In fact, no form of ‘general AI’ had ever really happened. Even the educational androids used in schools, despite front-line teaching responsibilities and decades of refinement, were only coarse reproductions of outward human behaviour.

A human-like AI? Artificial sapience à la homo sapiens? What was the point, in the end? You created AI as a tool to complement and extend human intelligence, not to reproduce something that, after all, we already had. Nonetheless, people had tried, such was the intuitive appeal of it. People had tried for two centuries or more, the managers had proclaimed, to reproduce in technology the breadth and nuance of effortless, everyday human decision making and creativity. Humanity’s own imagination had little trouble picturing another version of itself, springing forth almost unaided from sheer technical complexity.

That was ignorance and magical thinking. Human intelligence was not inevitable or universal, but accidental and fantastically idiosyncratic. It wasn’t going to suddenly materialise in an episode of concerted tinkering with neural networks. You really want a human-like AI? Then reverse engineer a human brain. Find and study every one of the virtually countless possible synaptic connections. Nobody had even come close—or so Dingxiang had thought a moment ago.

‘Are you sure?’

Losana smiled, her eyes intense, and pointed to the white rectangle in front of Dingxiang.

‘I know why you’re sceptical. But they’re insistent. Read it.’

They were very insistent, Dingxiang quickly realised, the last shreds of certainty draining from his mind as his eyes scanned the message. The Resistance had been observing a prototype for years. They thought it was Turing-proof.

‘Developed by Doctor Samuel Hoffman and his team,’ Losana continued. ‘Apparently, in a facility not too far from your old employer. There may have been a connection a few years ago. Never heard of STI?’

‘I can’t guarantee I’ve never heard the letters, but nobody said anything about this.’

Losana shrugged. ‘Our forces are taking Bandung and Jakarta in the next few hours; the Resistance idiots didn’t leave us much time to get ourselves together. But hopefully we’ll get something out of this research before the rear guard figures out what’s going on.’

The Major insisted that Dingxiang scan through the personnel manifest, but to his disappointment he knew none of the people listed. They had a bizarre assortment of qualifications, mostly unrelated to AI research.

‘Is it dangerous?’ he asked at last. Living in Bandung had the effect of converting any fear of a robot uprising into comedic cynicism. The threat was as cartoonish as the robots themselves. But now…

‘Ah. Well, that’s a complex question, isn’t it? Our Resistance contacts assure us that the robot itself, as it currently exists, poses no threat. But we don’t know exactly what military potential the technology has. I gathered that the Resistance wants us to use it.’

‘And if the robots turn on their creators?’

Losana smirked.

‘If it’s going to happen, it’s this sort of thing that will do it,’ Dingxiang protested.

‘We made no promises. We need to see what we’re dealing with.’

The dawn light picked out the cradle of volcanic cones rising above Bandung on all sides, and the sporadic pillars of smoke marking the Front’s assault on Union forces in the city, three months into the first war in a hundred years. Captain Paul Kanner’s twin aircraft, escorted by a heavy drone, flew low over the bright green countryside north-east of the city, crossing blurred streams of refugees flowing around the burnt remains of military hardware.

From a paperscreen on his lap, Paul watched their target, a walled compound on a hillside, perhaps a hundred metres across. Union Guard units were closing in.

‘What’s our ETA?’

‘Five minutes, sir,’ the pilot responded. Paul’s unit was too far away to get there first.

‘Base, Edicius,’ Paul said, holding a finger on his collar, ‘be advised we’re going to engage the enemy.’

‘Proceed,’ came the disembodied voice of General Ryan.

Paul’s troops turned to look at him, making whatever mental preparations they saw fit. Paul continued to observe the feed from one of their high-altitude recon drones, running through tactical scenarios in his head. This could become a sort of aerial stand-off. Union CI-5T transports had landed a short distance from the compound, and now there were CI-11 gunships too, taking advantage of the Front’s patchy offensive drone coverage out here and establishing a perimeter. Except—he looked closely—they were facing inwards towards the compound…

The feed from the recon drone recorded a blinding flash, then nothing but thick black smoke.

‘God,’ he muttered, fiddling with the feed to try to see through the smoke. They needed some new tactics. He looked up at the weapons specialist sitting beside the pilot.

‘We need them grounded,’ he said, and touched his collar again. ‘Troy, FYI, we’re about to commit the attack drones and hit their transports.’

He gave a nod to his weapons specialist, who nodded back and flicked several controls. Four smaller missile-like drones unclamped from the larger drone, and another four from the two piloted aircraft. They fell away, then accelerated in two diverging trajectories.

Paul’s craft jolted alarmingly of its own accord, and he put a hand on the ceramic wall. The Front’s ‘Dragonfly’—their multi-role gunship/transport craft—was a crucial factor in their success so far, second perhaps to the drones. It was smaller and less well armed and armoured than its Union counterparts, but also faster and more manoeuvrable.

It also came with a warning: the entire line was still experimental. The first test flights were the actual mission, launched from their encampments in the Papuan highlands, to capture Port Moresby. Before then, it had never really been tested at all, except in simulations. In hiding, there’d simply been nowhere to test. Critical faults were routine, though somehow the toll on the Front’s troops had been mercifully low. While in operation, the craft had been patched up and tweaked constantly, and with time its inherent idiosyncrasies could at least be understood if not fixed. But there was always the chance—or perhaps just a feeling among those who’d flown that first mission—that the damned things might just abruptly fall apart in the sky.

The fast attack drones continued on their paths, positioning for a multiple vector assault. They’d been spotted and the gunships were taking up defensive positions. Paul looked back at the feed, where the Union troops were cleaning up. They were sifting through the bodies strewn throughout the ruins. They found something. Paul watched as two figures, silent and partly shrouded by smoke, lifted one body between them and turned it over. They examined it closely, then hauled it back to their transport. The robot. The other troops followed, leaving the blackened remains of the compound and the human dead.

‘Shit,’ Paul muttered. His attack drones were still a minute away. Two of the three gunships suddenly turned towards Paul’s craft in a direct, frontal line of attack.

‘Have the attack drones target the advancing gunships,’ Paul said. ‘Then proceed to the transports.’

The weapons specialist nodded again and made the adjustments.

Seconds ticked down. Escorted by the third gunship, the enemy transports had lifted off and were putting distance between themselves and the compound. They would not outrun the drones. They were relying instead on a suicidal diversion by the other gunships.

‘Four enemy drones launched,’ the weapons specialist advised. The gunships had sent their own autonomous payloads speeding towards Paul’s craft. The Union’s version was larger and slower, and was at a significant disadvantage even when not outnumbered.

Both sets of drones would auto-manoeuvre and auto-target without any further instruction. Taking humans out of the equation decreased the response time in tight aerial combat. Paul flipped his screen to a broad annotated overview of the skirmish.

The opposing drones intercepted each other. Instantly three enemy drones vanished from sight. All friendly drones survived, and hit the gunships seconds later, tailed ineffectually by the last remaining enemy drone, which had swung around in pursuit. Both gunships slowed and broke off their attack, and the final enemy drone capitulated to the rear guns of its adversaries. All the attack drones now headed for the fleeing transports and the last intact gunship.

Paul’s craft approached the wounded gunships. They had landed badly on the volcanic slope, their pilots hastily fleeing the scene. Paul marked their position on the map on his paperscreen. Someone would notice, and deal with them.

‘Put a few more holes in their armour,’ he added. The Dragonflies fired off a burst of armour-piercing incendiary rounds as they flew overhead. Flashes of plasma ignited inside the gunships, tearing them apart. The Union pilots ducked and fell; they had probably survived.

Paul turned his attention to the retreating aircraft. The third gunship peeled away from the other two craft. The transports were too slow to keep up. Paul dimly made out a short volley of gunfire directed at the gunship, without result. He signalled to the pilot to give him an unencrypted radio channel to the enemy craft.

‘Union aircraft,’ he announced, ‘we have drones closing on your position. You have no defences. Land and surrender yourselves and your craft, or we will pursue and destroy you.’

No response. Paul repeated the ultimatum.

Without any signal, the enemy transports slowed and landed beside a road a few kilometres from the compound, snaking through villages and plantations. The feed showed a moving mass of refugees—children and families, frightened and weary, negotiating a jewelled ribbon of gridlocked cars. There was no direct evidence of fighting here—no wounds, no debris—but the exodus of so many, with no possessions but their clean, bright clothing, told of something terrifying. A hint of the hysterical propaganda of a government facing revolution.

‘We could lose them,’ Paul said, ‘but they’ll have to leave the robot behind. Reacquire the attack drones and monitor the last gunship.’

The third CI-11 still had its two drones, but having deserted, it was already lost to the Union. That problem could work itself out for now.

Paul radioed to the other Dragonfly, ‘Troy, secure the compound and recover anything you can. We’ll continue to the transports.’

‘Okay, Edicius.’

Paul watched the transports carefully. They’d landed facing away from the road, but they each had a ramp underneath that led in from the back. A Union Guard soldier peered out from behind one of the craft. She looked skywards carefully to scout out aircraft with her own eyes, as if too paranoid to trust the craft’s own sensors, before returning undercover. Some of the refugees stopped to watch, and a small crowd inched forward towards the craft. The Union Guard soldier appeared again, and seemed to beckon the crowd to come in. Once again she looked skywards, then disappeared. The crowd surged in. After a few seconds it began to dissipate, carrying off various parts of the transports’ modest inventory of food, water, boots, weapons.

Paul looked away from the feed as his Dragonfly flew over what remained of Samuel Hoffman’s compound. Their sister craft found a landing site, stirring up whirlwinds of black dust and embers. The heavy drone continued alongside Paul’s craft. Paul and his troops watched from the windows.

‘Fucking animals,’ one said.

‘Or they knew something we don’t,’ another said, looking to Paul.

Paul looked around, and said, ‘Our intel says the robot isn’t a threat to us.’


‘Yes, well, one step at a time.’

The Dragonfly came alongside the enemy transports and landed, as the heavy drone menaced the area from above. Paul’s unit poured out. The transports had been stripped bare, save for a dozen abandoned Union Guard uniforms. Nobody wanted those.

Paul stared up and down the road. The steady flow of civilians gave him and his troops a wide berth, eyeing them nervously, but there was no immediate sign of panic. For fear or favour, those who managed to acquire weapons rarely had any desire to use them against the Front. The people here were simply looking out for themselves.

They found the robot a couple of minutes later, inert. Someone had dragged it a short distance down the road before giving up. It was very badly damaged. Circuity and wiring splayed from apparent shrapnel and bullet wounds all over. It gave an impression of having once looked human, though its face was dangling off the side of its head like a torn rubber sheet, and other parts of its exterior were missing altogether. It had been dressed up in rough civilian clothing, now burnt and torn.

‘Test it for explosives and everything else, then bring it in,’ Paul ordered, pointing to the two soldiers who’d found it. They nodded and set to work.

‘Edicius,’ his earpiece blared. It was the other team, back at the compound. ‘We’ve… we’ve found the robot, I think.’

Paul spun around and stared back at the humanoid, mechanical wreckage. He ran a hand through his hair, sighed, and chuckled to himself.

‘Acknowledged,’ he replied. ‘Keep it safe. We’ll be there soon.’

Paul’s troops hauled their robot back to the Dragonfly. Onlookers backed away across the road as all three craft took off, the Union transports now the Front’s property.

They landed soon after at the ruined compound, encircled by a wide area of smouldering, blackened ground and a broken mesh fence. Of the compound itself, only small segments of the outer wall still survived. Fires burned inside among the debris, and beyond the fence in the dense surrounding foliage. Paul and his unit stepped out on to scorched earth. An entire village within the walls had been annihilated. Metal, wood and masonry had been blasted everywhere. And bodies, burnt and dismembered, uniformly lifeless. Everywhere, there was an indistinct cocktail of smells that might be burning human flesh.

And, just above the noise of the hovering drone, there was crying. From behind a tiny corner section of the exterior wall came a voice incoherent with loss and misery. Paul stopped for a moment at the sound. The troops from the other Dragonfly were dispersed around the area, standing guard.

‘God, you’ve got to be kidding…’

He hurried around the corner to find a young woman, alive, sitting awkwardly on a broken concrete slab, wailing, trembling, terrified and looking around aimlessly, almost oblivious to the troops. She’d doubtless been a witness to the massacre of everyone else, and left for dead herself.

She seemed mostly unhurt, with only minor cuts on her face and arms, but her clothes were as torn and blackened as those on any of the bodies. Paul stared, unable to face the logical conclusion.

Lieutenant Debra Hall stood nearby, solemn, holding one of the crude devices given to them by the Resistance—a robot detector. It was a small, rounded plastic box. Debra handed it to him. She must have tried it already herself.

This is wrong. Paul cringed at the pathetic figure huddled in the ash, evoking the raw face of humanity.

He knew how the device worked, roughly. He approached the woman, who looked up with a face divided between rage and despair. Silently now, she allowed him to kneel down in front of her. He reached out to her with the device, and pressed it against her unprotesting arm. The detector had electrical contacts with which it could connect to the robot’s tactile network interface.

Nothing happened. The woman glared at him. He eventually withdrew the device, feeling foolish but somehow relieved.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, shaking his head and letting out more feeling in his voice than he intended. He clasped the woman’s hands, without really knowing what else to do. She gripped his hands tightly in return, the look on her face subtly different, less adversarial.

He let go and began to stand up, but the woman seized his arm. She reached out and touched the underside of the device. It sounded immediately, and displayed the result Paul had feared.

‘Take care of them,’ she said in a quivering, barely audible voice. She flashed Paul a momentary, desperate smile.

‘We will,’ Paul said quickly, before the reality had sunk in.

The woman fell back to the ground, exhausting whatever temporary reserve of strength she’d found. She crumpled up and whimpered. Paul stepped back, staggering slightly. He tried the device against his own arm, willing it to commit a false positive, but nothing happened.

‘I think it’s voluntary,’ Debra said, watching him. ‘It won’t detect her as a robot unless she wants it to.’

Debra Hall met General Jeffrey Ryan, the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellion, in the hangar of the secure military technology facility at Darwin airport. Standing alongside was Major Maraiwai. It was clear that neither had much regard for the other’s rank. They had been there from the very start, long before Port Moresby, as equal conspirators in the camps in central Papua.

A small cordon of rebel soldiers formed around her troops and the Dragonfly as security for her two robots. Captain Kanner, meanwhile, was coordinating the grisly low-tech finale to state-of-the-art weapons deployment—handling the bodies left behind.

She saluted, and glanced back at the hatchway. One of her soldiers helped the still-functional robot climb out. Two more grasped the other by what was left of its limbs, hauling it down to the concrete ground. The woman, wrapped in a spare camouflage uniform jacket, stood next to Debra, away from the wreckage. She had been mostly quiet for the flight—she hadn’t even mentioned her name, if she had one—but her face and her trembling body language had worked upon Debra’s mind as they’d sat facing each other. She had her arms folded now, not daring to look at anyone, and glanced briefly at the humanoid mass of mangled circuitry next to her.

‘This is… her?’ Major Maraiwai asked Debra, gesturing to the intact robot.

Debra nodded, and Maraiwai approached. The robot grabbed Debra’s arm, as if for comfort. Debra tensed, but didn’t move.

‘She says the other one was a decoy.’

‘I’ll get Dingxiang to look at it.’

‘This is not what I expected,’ General Ryan said.

Maraiwai didn’t reply, but knelt down to try to catch the robot’s gaze.


The robot returned her stare reluctantly, seeming to fight back tears.

‘I… I need to wash myself,’ she said abruptly. ‘Please.’

‘I’m going to leave you to it,’ Ryan said. ‘Anything you decide, you’ll have my support.’

Maraiwai nodded without turning around, and grasped the robot’s shoulders. Her face was caked in soot from the incineration of everything and everyone around her. She looked back to Debra.

‘This is Major Maraiwai,’ Debra said. ‘She’ll take care of you.’

‘Come on,’ Maraiwai said softly. She took the robot’s hand and led her away through the cordon.

Kasih, her name was. Losana Maraiwai stood restive outside a shower cubicle, holding a towel, as the anthropomorphic machine washed herself. Kasih Hoffman. Kasih regarded Samuel Hoffman as her father. She’d lost her entire family, perhaps everyone she’d known.

There was a knock on the outside door. Dingxiang peered inside, and beckoned Losana out into the corridor.

‘She’s right,’ he said. ‘It’s a piece of junk. I think it may have had part of the same physical design as the other one, but there’s too much missing. A lot of the wiring doesn’t connect to anything. But it gets your attention, and that’s the point.’

Losana nodded. ‘Well, obviously that was the easy one. What do you think about this one?’

‘Yes, I have a thought. Ask her when she was uploaded.’

‘From where? Oh… I see. You don’t think she’s really a robot?’

‘Mechanically maybe, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the brain. I bet it’s a lot easier to copy an existing human mind than to re-engineer one from scratch, if you’re going for the simpler theory.’

Losana nodded and patted Dingxiang’s shoulder, then returned to her post. The water was still running, but it had been a while now. Losana forced the door open and saw Kasih sitting on the floor with her legs tucked into her arms, silent, water streaming around her. Her clothes lay across from her—a pile of burnt rags. She still wore a simple necklace.

Next to her clothes were several metal shards—shrapnel. Kasih herself had pulled them out, and Losana now saw deep gashes in her shoulder and waist from where one or two must have come. They were bloodless, despite the bright red colour. There was some exposed wiring in her shoulder.

Losana turned the tap off and knelt down slowly, bringing the towel around Kasih.

‘Does it hurt?’ she asked. She ran a finger gingerly over Kasih’s shoulder. Kasih flinched. Losana hoped the water in the wound wasn’t going to cause a problem.

‘I think I’m okay,’ Kasih said after a moment. ‘It was so fast. I didn’t know what was happening.’ Her voice was flat, but unmistakably human. She stared ahead, quietly, blankly, a veneer of emotional control reforming, masking whatever was going on inside.

‘You used to be human?’ Losana asked.

Kasih turned to face her briefly, but said nothing.

‘You weren’t always… like this, were you?’ Losana persisted.

Kasih maintained her silence. Losana was about to give up when Kasih took a deep breath.

‘I had an accident,’ she said at last. ‘A long time ago.’

‘So they put you in that body?’

Kasih nodded slowly. ‘I was burnt all over. They couldn’t save me, except… except Dad was working on this project.’

‘How long ago?’

‘Three years. I was thirteen.’

‘God, you’re just a girl. You… your body looks older.’

‘Dad said I’d grow into it.’

‘So, your brain…’

‘I don’t want to talk about it!’

‘Okay, okay. We don’t have to talk about it.’

Turing-proof, Losana thought. The Turing Test—as explained by the Resistance, since officially-sanctioned articles on the subject were largely incoherent—was a very loose idea, or set of ideas, for judging the ‘humanness’ of a machine. If, under questioning, a machine was indistinguishable from a human, did its true nature really matter? Kasih ought to pass it without even trying, for reasons that now seemed rather obvious. If she hadn’t volunteered that she wasn’t entirely human, they might never have known.

Losana reached across and stroked the girl’s tangled and matted black hair, and was taken aback by the texture. She leaned closer to see. Previously hidden by the dust and ash, there were a few small lumps of fused plastic where Kasih’s hair had partly melted together in the blast. Losana ran her fingers around Kasih’s sullen, unprotesting face to check for more damage, but found none. Kasih’s skin, though supple, was clearly very strong.

Losana reached for Kasih’s necklace to examine it. There was a pendant, a tiny silver candle with a golden flame. It was her very last material possession.

‘I made it years ago,’ Kasih murmured. Losana let go, and Kasih wrapped a hand around it, her knuckles turning white.

Hope, Losana realised. Something had driven the girl to make a physical symbol of hope to carry with her, even before this catastrophe. Something. Being burnt alive and remade as a machine might easily qualify.

Losana reached back behind the door to retrieve a neatly-folded bundle of fresh clothes, including the innocuous baggy dull-blue uniform worn by the rebel army officers. She placed them on a dry shelf and retreated back through the door.

-> See chapter 2.