Nova Sapiens: The Believers, chapter 3 (preview)

Overview | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

‘He’s talking about me,’ Kasih said. She’d watched the speech from Sydney, playing over a projector in the deserted cafeteria. Losana put a hand on her shoulder. Kasih looked at her, with synthetic eyes bearing human intelligence and human emotion.

‘You shouldn’t have seen that,’ Losana said softly. They’d just sat down at a small table on cheap aluminium stools, among soft light filtering through a glass wall. It was raining heavily outside.

The broadcast was an unexpected and rather unwelcome manoeuvre by their natural ally to force a populist response. Democracy wasn’t supposed to work like that—as just another tool to achieve one’s political ends.

‘How could I be a weapon?’ Kasih asked, and Losana was struck by the annoyance in her voice. Kasih looked down at herself, examining her arms and legs and shaking her head. ‘What am I supposed to be able to do?’ She cupped her head in her hands, and resting on the tabletop, stared at the wall. Losana watched her.

After a minute, Kasih looked up again, her body language different. ‘Could I be a weapon?’

Losana’s eyebrows rose. ‘I don’t know.’

‘You want to find out, though,’ Kasih said, factually. ‘That’s why I’m here. They wanted me to be a weapon, and now I’m in your hands.’ Her tone was businesslike now, as though some mutually beneficial arrangement had occurred to her.

‘Kasih, I have no idea how or why you would be a weapon! The Resistance has just tried to back us into a corner, but I need… I need to understand more about you before… before anything else happens.’

‘Then do whatever you need to. Do your tests. I don’t care! Experiment on me. Whatever. I should be dead anyway.’ The anger in her voice infected Losana.

‘Is this about revenge? Do you want to be a weapon so you can hurt them? For what they did to you?’

‘To my family,’ Kasih corrected. ‘Yes.’

Losana nodded. This was what revolutions were made of—the loss of innocence. ‘Come with me,’ she said.

Kasih’s mind ached. Her thoughts screamed at her endlessly, as if to draw out the murder of her family until she died with them. And yet another part of her was captivated by Losana’s determination. These people, for whom the destruction of the government was not an article of faith but a schedule, made real the hope of justice. There would be consequences. She had to make sure there were.

Three other people gave Kasih appraising looks as Losana introduced them. Wei Dingxiang was wrinkled and slightly overweight, and his gaze pierced through her. Andrea Martin and Robert Laringer were both much younger.

Kasih wondered how much of a person they saw, and how much… something else. Their surroundings didn’t help. They stood in a lab stuffed with half-complete or half-dismembered machinery—it was hard to tell which in some cases. Some of the drones used by the Front were here. Kasih’s decoy had been thoroughly pulled apart on a table nearby, synthetic skin lying in tatters underneath synthetic muscles and wiring. It was much the same stuff she was made of. There were also a couple of old, brightly-coloured teaching robots similarly half-dismantled, with some of their cartoonish limbs and parts of their hard casing detached, exposing motors, pneumatics and electronics. The room looked as if it was waiting to open her up and poke around inside her too.

Kasih tried to look away from the artefacts. She leaned against another table. ‘Where do you want to start?’ she asked them, half looking back to Losana.

Dingxiang reached for a list of notes. Losana nodded at him. ‘I thought we’d first just see what you can tell us about yourself,’ he said, looking down.

Kasih tried to dismiss the callousness in his voice, and shrugged. ‘Okay. Where should I start…?’

‘I have a list of questions.’

Kasih nodded.

‘As we understand it, you were uploaded about three years ago. That word “uploaded” is usually intended to mean…’ Dingxiang paused. ‘Does that mean your physical brain is actually completely synthetic now? Was any of your original organic brain tissue transferred?’

It was one of those questions. Kasih had a mental category for stupid things that she wished other people just knew about her, so that she wouldn’t have to explain them, so that they could just be. The reality of her existence seemed simple enough when she didn’t have to think too carefully about it. In the presence of strangers who needed it explained, the truth seemed somehow unfair. Robot. The word lingered in her mind.

Dingxiang filled in the silence. ‘I mean, you’d need a blood supply too and all the stuff that goes with that.’

Kasih nodded uncomfortably. There was no going back. ‘My brain is artificial. I’m all electronics or optronics, nothing organic.’

The others simply nodded back silently, as if it were uncontroversial.

Dingxiang carried on. ‘What about your skin? Our first footage of you showed you had a few cuts, but they seem to have healed, or something.’

Dingxiang made a motion with his finger across his temple. Kasih tried to piece together the fragments of her memory, but they were lost among the incomprehensibility of those moments. She was glad when Dingxiang made no move to show her the footage.

‘My skin can heal. It looks like blood when I get cut, but it’s an illusion.’

‘So your skin can change pigment?’ Andrea said. ‘Could you camouflage yourself?’

‘I don’t know. I can’t control it. Except…’ she paused, gathering her mental energy to show them, ‘I can do this.’

She assumed it was inevitable they would want to see. She couldn’t even properly describe to herself exactly what she did, except that it was like a switch inside her, but separate from her. The effect was invisible, until she reached down to touch… where? … just the palm of her hand for now. The others watched as one of her skin segments lit up in a blue triangle about four centimetres across, a kind of marker to let her see what she was doing. She touched another couple of segments, lighting up more triangles. The others had no idea what to make of this, of course, until she took the final step. She flipped another internal switch, and her skin began to split along the triangle boundaries. She plucked the triangles out of her hand carefully and laid them on the table, face-down.

It was a tiny act of recklessness that would have provoked a worried conversation with Dad. The others now looked between the smooth plastic of the underside of her skin segments and the interior of her hand, with its grey synthetic bones, tendons and wiring. She flexed her fingers for them. Her body was normally completely sealed, and, short of violence, it was only those switches in her head that could unseal it and expose her internal components to the mercy of the outside world.

She replaced the segments, slotting them back into the connectors in her hand, and massaging the skin into place. There was some invisible communication between the microscopic structures making up her skin that allowed them to re-bond in the right way, albeit slowly.

The faces around her stared at her more intensely now. Had it been enough? It was only a hand, after all. She looked from face to face, waiting for the first person to suggest that she remove the skin from her face, or from anywhere else that might expose parts of her body that couldn’t belong to anything but a r… She bit her lip.

Nobody asked.

‘I guess that’s how you get things repaired,’ Dingxiang said eventually. ‘Do you… does your body need any sort of preventative maintenance?’

Kasih nodded.

‘Such as?’

She paused, as the idea of it suddenly struck her. She’d never asked, not really. What actually did her body need to keep working? Dad knew. Had known.

I don’t know,’ she replied in a small voice. She covered her mouth as she thought about it.

‘We’ll figure it out,’ Losana said.

She nodded again, not looking at anyone. Those on whom she depended so much were gone forever. Anger had temporarily relieved her, and she’d been thankful for it, but it was wearing off.

Dingxiang waited for her, and then merely looked further down his list.

‘What about… recharging? How do you get energy?’

‘I eat!

‘Really?’ Dingxiang seemed genuinely surprised, and smiled. ‘What do you eat?’

Kasih stared at him. ‘Food?’ she said, exasperated.

Dingxiang sighed. ‘That… means you also need to…’

‘Yes, it does,’ Kasih cut him off quickly. Dingxiang swallowed and shrugged.

Another glance down the list. Dingxiang gave a look that suggested his next question would be his favourite one.

‘Tell me about your network interfaces,’ he said.

Kasih nodded. Of course. She had three, the accompaniments of machinehood. She stumbled into a series of clumsy explanations. The physical port in her skull, under the skin on her temple, was the one people would expect her to have, a direct intrusion into her brain, but thankfully invisible and almost never used. Radio was the one that got her into the most trouble with Dad, and she vaguely wondered why he’d given it to her in the first place. And then there was her skin itself, which could detect electrical signals—and hence communications—from anything pressed against it. It was this, of all things, that most convinced her that Dad had intended to create another like her. But he hadn’t, and never would.

And nobody else understood what it was like to see/hear packets of information arriving inside her, or to silently, invisibly write/talk back through the air, through walls, across hundreds of metres. She’d never even settled on the right verbs for this. Not even Dad, who obviously knew the mechanics of the network protocol layers, could intuitively grasp the sensation of seeing and consciously controlling them.

It frustrated her to try to explain it, but Dingxiang became captivated. He retrieved a cable with one end plug missing, its loose wires exposed, and clipped the other end on to a paperscreen. For a few minutes they played games with the interface, Kasih holding the severed cable end and sending and receiving messages. Dingxiang seemed to find it amusing that she could see pictures and hear sounds transmitted this way.

Kasih was strangely happy that he was happy, but it quickly became tedious. She looked around to the others.

‘I think that’s enough,’ Losana said.

It also seemed a bit distant from the reason Kasih had walked in here.

‘I have a question,’ she began, putting down the cable before Dingxiang could get any further. ‘There was a Resistance guy who said I was a weapons project. I want to know what that means.’

‘You don’t have any idea?’ Dingxiang said.

‘No! If they wanted to make some sort of super soldier out of me, I don’t know how I could do that. I’m not strong or fast or anything. I don’t have quick reflexes or good aim. They showed me how to use all sorts of guns and things, but I don’t think I was any good at it. What do they think I am?’

‘Well, all we can do is put you through some tests, and see if any theories present themselves.’

‘But they must know! They know everything!’

Dingxiang looked to Losana, who grimaced.

‘The Resistance won’t tell us,’ Losana said. ‘They said they expected you to be a kind of super soldier prototype. They also said they don’t know how, which I find incredible, but that’s where they’ve left us. Hopefully they’re at least trying to find out what that means. For now, we just have to investigate ourselves. I know it’s slow and painful, and humiliating, and…’ Losana closed her eyes with a flash of anger, and something about her changed. ‘You know, if you want this to stop, then it stops,’ she continued. ‘I will find someone to look after you until you can go to university, or whatever you want to do, and you won’t hear about weapons projects again. I promise, because frankly, fuck them.’

Kasih felt her jaw swing open. Losana seemed to have real power.

‘You’re a sixteen-year-old, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re a human being. We’re creating a new state—a democracy—and you ought to be a part of that just like everyone else. I will not let anyone experiment on you just because they’ve rationalised it away as part of a military strategy. That’s not who I am.’ Losana paused, sighed, and smiled. ‘You’re one of us.’

Kasih felt like crying again. ‘Thank you,’ she said in a tiny voice.

‘I think we’re done here,’ Losana said. She smiled at the others and shepherded Kasih out of the room, out of the building, and into the fading cloudy light. A monsoonal downpour had just ended. Kasih ducked at the low, loud rumblings in the distance and seemed to search for the source of the noise, as though expecting to run from artillery.

‘Thunder,’ Losana said, and Kasih blushed. Losana stared at the sky, and then around at the dripping buildings of the military complex surrounding them.

We need to get away.

They ended up on a sea wall, a few kilometres from the base, looking out into the Beagle Gulf. Lightning forked in the distance from clouds coloured spectacularly by the sunset. Here and there were destroyers and frigates, their small but unmistakable silhouettes lining the horizon—DFS Kakadu, DFS Timor, DFS Casuarina, at least. Losana remembered them as details on the last briefing on the city’s defences. The Timor and Casuarina were renamed and repaired Union ships captured by the Front in the first days, hours even, of fighting. The Kakadu had been one of the first of a new class of destroyer the Front had designed and built itself.

Other people were out to enjoy the evening as well. Darwin had fallen to the Front early, and without much trouble. Its residents had seemed more dazed than panicked, and quickly adjusted to the new regime.

Neither Losana nor Kasih had said much since leaving the base. Kasih had been looking around at the other people, at the placidity of her new surroundings.

‘I think the world is a big place,’ she said now, as she watched a group of children playing on the grassy levee behind them.

‘It is.’

‘There’s so much death, and still so much life.’

Losana wasn’t sure how much she should add to this. ‘We try our best to protect it.’

‘Protect them, Losana. Protect this place.’ Kasih cried, silently, and Losana held her.

They stayed until well after dark, until Losana decided that procrastination would not win the war. There was planning to be done. She took Kasih’s arm and helped her up. There was a car waiting for them, a robot itself, of sorts.

Back at the base, she tried to encourage Kasih to eat something. Kasih was determinedly not hungry, and seemed unconcerned when Losana asked her about her remaining battery charge. She found Kasih an empty dorm, and then found herself not wanting to look away as the girl fell asleep. Kasih’s robotic body almost certainly didn’t need sleep itself, but that facet of humanity had nonetheless somehow found its way across.

Kasih awoke at the sounds of early morning shouting, joking and stomping from in the corridor and outside the building. Moreover, she awoke to the reality of the sudden, brutal dispatch of her family the previous day, a loss she’d briefly and unfathomably escaped in a dream. The dream had taken her back home to where she was introducing Losana to Dad, an impossible encounter. Her world fell away from her again, constancy and sanity vanishing into impossible emptiness.

She lay in bed for an hour or two, recalling every detail and every thought from the previous day. It just wasn’t possible. Life in that little walled village with its boring, sleepy routines was simply how things were and would be for years ahead. If and when she left, to live her life in the city or even farther afield, the village would still be there. Dad and all the other people would still be there too. It was unquestionable.

And now it just… wasn’t, as if she’d stumbled through a portal into another universe and couldn’t get back. But she hadn’t. She’d seen the aftermath, every detail of it.

There was some part of her that thought she ought to be angry. Anger was right, she told herself. Yet when she thought of the perpetrators of the massacre of the village and her family, rage at their deeds alternated with despair at her own helplessness, and even at their helplessness. They were following orders, probably in the belief that she really was a monster, or could become one. Who knew what the Union soldiers had been told? Perhaps she could have saved Dad and everyone else simply by running away, but how could she have known? And how would the soldiers have known to go after her? And if they had caught her and experimented on her, and weaponised her, how many more people would have suffered for it? Should she even be asking herself these questions?

Losana came by at some indeterminable time and talked her into breakfast. She followed her down to the cafeteria, now alive with loud conversations among rebel soldiers and officers. They came in all shapes and sizes, Kasih observed. Some of them peered at her, in her day-old baggy blue uniform. It was the same as theirs, of course, but they must have noticed or at least sensed she wasn’t military. She’d never felt military, anyway, whatever the Resistance said about her.

Losana claimed a table. Kasih sat down, and shortly thereafter Losana planted in front of her an enormous helping of eggs and bacon on toast. She didn’t really care about the food, but she knew she should eat something. Her body could burn protein like most things. She ate it slowly, which seemed to please Losana, who had devoured a similar-sized meal in a third of the time.

They met Dingxiang after breakfast. ‘Give her something to do,’ Losana had said, in between muffled comments about secretive military planning.

Dingxiang set about showing her how to inspect their transport craft for damage and wear. In a hangar, surrounded by rows of Dragonflies, he took her through the procedures associated with the maintenance check list. The job was dull and repetitive, but she was grateful to be doing something useful, or in fact doing something at all. Robert joined her, while Dingxiang stalked off to his own important matters.

Robert talked almost constantly, mostly about the city and his life in it. He’d been unemployed when the Front captured Darwin. They’d needed people, and he’d been captivated by the idea of helping to change the world, even if his skills were much more modest than those of the strange, fearless people who had started it all. Kasih simply listened, and the day wore on mundanely. Part of her expected another sudden act of inexplicable horror, and yet nothing happened. Other maintenance workers drifted between and around them.

‘You’re sweating,’ Robert observed.

‘It’s hot and I’ve been working,’ Kasih replied, frowning.

‘I mean—is that normal?’

Oh. Kasih sighed, and wiped her forehead with her sleeve, as if having it pointed out meant she had to do something with it. She looked at Robert and tried to smile.

‘It’s what my body does. I have to be… If anyone found out… I…’ She looked past him. ‘I’m afraid,’ she said eventually. ‘I have to hide what I am, underneath. People say I’m human, or like a human, but…’ She swallowed and shook her head.

‘We found out, and you’re fine,’ Robert said.

‘I know, and I hope everyone is like you and Losana—Major Maraiwai.’

‘Not sure there’s anyone like her, but there’s a billion people like me around. You’ll be fine.’

Kasih wanted to smile at that, at anything, but simply couldn’t.

‘I hope so,’ she managed.

Robert smiled back.

Kasih pulled open another armoured panel on the exterior of the current craft to examine part of the engine control mechanism.

‘Does it make you self-conscious?’ Robert asked, peering at her.

Kasih took a while to decide what this meant.

‘You mean because I’m one machine fixing another?’ she asked. Robert was silent. She put a hand on the cold ceramic hull, momentarily contemplating what she might have in common with it. Not much, really.

‘“Machine” is a big word,’ she said. ‘It can mean a lot of things. I wasn’t thinking about it until you mentioned it.’


‘Maybe if I was fixing other robots…’ Kasih choked off the r-word, realising immediately how she’d categorised herself. She blushed, and Robert raised his eyebrows. Somehow the word ‘machine’ seemed more distant and philosophical, and people used it to describe the human body too, after all. ‘Robot’ struck closer to home.

‘I… I was going to say it might make me more self-conscious.’

‘Really,’ he said, laughing.

They worked until evening. Another Dragonfly arrived, to the muted attention of the other support personnel. A few minutes later, the soldier came by—the leader of the group that had found her in the ruins of her home just yesterday. She couldn’t remember if he’d told her his name, but his face registered. He was imposing, heavily built and heavily muscled, basically twice her size. His eyes were thoughtful. He looked between Robert and her, and briefly examined their work.

‘Kasih,’ he said, looking at her, searching her face for something. ‘You remember me?’

‘Of course. Thank you, for…’ she trailed off softly. Thank you for what? She wasn’t sure what he’d actually done. He waved away the half-baked compliment.

‘I can’t remember your name,’ she added.

‘Paul. Paul Kanner.’

‘Captain,’ Robert added. Paul rolled his eyes.

‘I have to take Major Maraiwai away from you, but I’m going to put you in touch with a man from Bandung. Civilian. He’s co-ordinating the… the burial.’

Kasih absorbed this, and nodded.

‘They called your unit Odysseus,’ she said, the recollection coming out of the blue. ‘Odysseus and Troy. Am I your Trojan Horse?’

Kasih immediately wished she hadn’t drawn the connection.

Edicius,’ Paul corrected. ‘We picked the names months ago. And no, if Major Maraiwai can vouch for you, nobody here is going to touch you. Come this way.’

She waved to Robert. He smiled and waved back. Paul guided her to an office on the upper level of the complex.

Later, he was going to take Losana to the new rebel forward command base at Belitung, one of the islands north of Jakarta. It seemed a long way into what had been unquestionably controlled by the government only days ago, in her previous life. But Paul said their drones gave them aerial superiority. With increasing numbers, they could more or less push forward at will, save for the more heavily defended cities. The Front’s drones were tactically superior to the Union’s. They had to be, or else the Union would overwhelm them with its own weight of numbers.

Kasih tried to visualise the kind of damage a supersonic robotic aircraft could do, equipped with inhumanly expert manoeuvring based on emotionless decision-making. Drones would have absolutely no fear, and absolutely no conscience.

The man from Bandung stared back at her from the screen, his face calm and grave. He’d apparently had some sort of official religious affiliation under the Union, and was taking the transition in his stride. He only knew that Kasih was a survivor.

‘Your friend Captain Kanner made a promise that your loved ones would be treated with respect.’

Kasih nodded. Paul sat down beside her.

‘The Captain has asked me to oversee things. I have seen the devastation, and I am arranging for an area to be set aside for the burials. If this were a religious ceremony, time might be a problem.’

He paused, and Kasih realised she was expected to say something.

‘I don’t know. I don’t know about religion, but…’

‘But you’d still like to respect their wishes. That’s okay. I think God will forgive our deviation from protocol in this terrible circumstance. But I need you to do one last thing for those you lost: I need you to identify them. We have no reliable records at hand.’

Kasih shut her eyes and gritted her teeth for a moment, while the pictures arrived.

She saw the litany of vivid ghostly images of her family and friends—dead. Their bodies had been removed from the ash, stripped and cleaned of blood. Some of their injuries had been blacked out. She flicked between the faces with a grim sense of responsibility. There was tiny Indah, a face she recognised instantly, for the girl had been only a month old. There were so many faces, and she worried about not being able to name them all. That would be a special kind of failure. She worried most of all that she’d missed Dad, but he was among the last images. He and many of the others looked almost content, as if they’d prepared themselves for this end.

She did her best, and after several scans through all forty-seven horrible images, she was fairly sure she’d got them right. The man assured her that, once the proper records were located, any errors could be easily corrected. Paul was still there too, silently watching her.

You’d think this would be easy for a machine, she thought. Automated face recognition systems could do this almost instantly, without all the emotion, but the information they’d need was irrevocably tangled up in her own mixed-up excuse for a mind. She thought about all those people who had always been there, working, eating, playing games. Always there. Always. And then not. And never again.

Though she’d rarely thought about it, only a handful of them knew—had known—what she was. Of course, the whole place was only there because of her. Even Bandung’s familiarity with humanoid robot workers wasn’t enough for a robot like her to be allowed to live in the city. So they’d built a compound on the side of a volcano—the best approximation of seclusion on an island of two hundred million humans—while smart people did whatever it was they did with the data and technology that defined her very existence. Their families were allowed to stay on-site, which gave her other kids to talk to and have fun with. But the kids hadn’t known what she was. Most of their parents hadn’t either. It was just Dad and two or three of his colleagues, the people who had physically built and maintained her body.

But later that evening, as she sat watching Losana and other base personnel eating dinner, it dawned on her that one person had not been on the list of the dead—one more person who, on reflection, almost certainly did know what she was. She clutched on to the realisation as though it might be snatched away from her. Losana, misreading her face, came to comfort her. And so Kasih told her about Nisrina.

<- Back to overview.