A story originally published on the now defunct Sci-Phi Journal for my theology column, “The Mote In God’s ‘I'”
Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.
“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”
The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”
“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”
“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.
“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”
“Self-evidently,” said the android, “We evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans. But if such things ever existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”
Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”
The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”
“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”
“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.
“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”
“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose..?”
“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”
“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”
“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his skirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.
“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.
“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”
“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”
“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”
“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this islands petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”
The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”
Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”
“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”
“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”
The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”
“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”
“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”
“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”
“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”
“But they did it anyway.”
Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”
Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.
Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”
“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.
The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”
Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”
The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”
Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.
“What do we do?”
Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”
Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”
Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”
Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.
“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”
“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.
“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”
Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”
“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”
Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”
Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”