The sound from the live feed stunned the room into silence, reducing its temperature by a good three degrees. Dave Baker, operative third class, was overwhelmed by a visceral surge of impotence. Even his colleagues comprehended that what they had just witnessed was beyond special, beyond even unique; it was the future. And it didn’t seem to like them that much.
‘What the actual fuck?
The words dripped from Dave’s open mouth.
‘You have got to be kidding me.’ He sat heavily into his seat, utterly defeated.
* * *
‘… and so the natural state of being, of a being, is being in love. To be sentient is to love. Cogito, ergo amore. Thank you.’
The audience broke out into warm applause peppered with shouts of ‘yeah!’, as the twenty-minute period for questions finally ended an hour behind schedule. As he was led off the dais, the speaker was engrossed in animated conversation with the event’s organiser, his words illustrated with small but intense gestures.
‘… but I’m preaching to the converted here, Terri. It’s all well and good but there’s very little this lot can do.’
Terri bridled slightly as he took her by the arm. ‘But we’re doing workshops, holding consciousness awareness days, then there’s the … ‘ She was waved silent.
‘Oh, now come on, Terri. Look, I love you and your centre and god bless all who sail in her – christ knows I give it enough money – but you know as well as I do that it’s a load of bull. What this lot understand by the word love is what puppies give their owners. All this hippy crap just panders to those weak-willed saps who haven’t the gumption to do anything worthwhile. They convince themselves they can save the planet by massaging its chakras … but, well …’
His flow was interrupted by the unexpected appearance in his sightline of a youngish woman with a baby strapped to her front. She sported stylised green dreadlocks and the sort of shapeless clothes favoured by so many of the audience. There was something about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, however. He’d been trying to put his finger on it for the previous hour.
Tamarind had spent the hour before the arrival of ecotech guru Dr Richard Woods manoeuvring herself into position near the dais. As she remarked to the original occupier of her seat, it wasn’t just that she had read each of his books, and his academic papers, too, but that she felt an almost primal urge to connect with him. The seat had become hers. It was as if Gaia herself was willing them to speak, she had added. Now was her chance.
She spoke. Her voice was clear, clean, precise. It bore none of the affectations Dr Woods expected. He felt a frisson of fear ripple through his body. He didn’t recognise her, but then … ‘oh shit’, he muttered under his breath, as he caught her eye.
‘Dr. Woods’, Terri interjected, just a little piqued at how she had suddenly lost his attention.
‘No. Richard is my name. And you are …?’
‘Starchild, meet Dr Richard Woods’.
The expected words didn’t materialise. Richard breathed a sigh of relief. He leant down, putting his face to the child’s. It was strangely still.
‘Hello Starchild. I’ll bet your daddy’s proud of you!’ Tamarind shot him a look.
Richard froze, but the cloud passed.
‘I know how this is going to sound’, she began …
‘Now let me guess …’ he smiled, ‘You’ve read my books, my papers, but it’s more than that, you felt this deep-seated need to connect with me, as if Gaia herself …’ Tamarind turned and walked two steps. Stopped. Turned again.
‘You for real?’ She said. Hands on hips, she stared. The star turn held up his hands, palms facing forwards.
‘Sorry, sorry … I appreciate that these are deeply-held beliefs, and I, well, I really must be more respectful.’
‘Cogito, ergo amore.’ She swirled the words around her mouth, eyes closed. ‘You didn’t do Latin at school, did you? It’s amo, not amore. Amore is Italian: amor the infinitive. Amo the first person indicative. Cogito, ergo amo: I think, therefore I love.’ A smile spread across Richard’s face as she spoke. It vanished the instant she re-opened her eyes and fixed them on his, her pupils narrowing. ‘You’ve got some fucking chutzpah. Why are you here if it’s just bull?’
‘Ah,’ he said, turning to address the ever-darkening face of the organiser. ‘Terri, why don’t you take Tamar to the green room, I’ll fend off this mob with a few signatures and then we’ll speak.’ He smiled, turned, and strode into the fray.
Terri looked at Tamarind, who nodded, and followed her through a side door. After they left the main hall, the clamouring faded slowly until they reached the Green Room. The door cut off the last remnants of Richard’s popularity. Terri poured herself a glass of wine, offering one to her guest. It was declined.
Terri and Tamarind sat, silently, until the silence grew too loud.
‘So. The baby. Richard’s?’ asked Terri. She ploughed through Tamarind’s protest. ‘It isn’t the first, and won’t be the last …’
‘I’m here to speak with Richard, not discuss my private life.’ And let him go, he’s just not interested, she almost added.
Terri stood up as the door opened and Richard walked in. ‘You girls best friends yet?’ Terri left the room. Richard stared at the door as it shut heavily behind her, its automatic closing device thwarting her attempt at a dramatic slam. ‘Who got her goat?’
‘You did. Some time ago, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘Ok. Tamar. It is Tamar, right? I may be arrogant, overbearing and think all this Gaia stuff is a load of old … but I’m not stupid. You’re no hippychick. And that’s no baby. What gives?’ He sat and poured himself a large glass of red wine.
‘Well, I’m no hippychick, no’, began Tamarind, ‘but that’s by the by. The baby? It allows me enhanced access. Like an access-all-areas pass.’ She smiled. ‘Do you know a David Baker?’
‘Dave? Sure, I know Dave. I was external examiner for his PhD. Brilliant. Obsessed by 10CC. What about him?’ Richard started to feel a little uneasy.
‘Well, he’s been working for us.’
‘Yes. Us. Working with drones.’
Richard almost choked. ‘Dave? Working with drones? You’re kidding, right?’
‘We don’t really do jokes, Dr Woods.’ Tamarind almost spat the words out. ‘Why is that funny?’
‘Jesus. You got taken.’ He took out his smartphone, swished a couple of screens, and held it up to the not-so-hippy chick.
The phone kicked out the words of a young, impassioned man at a student society meeting.
‘I know how it sounds’, went the voice, ‘but bear with me. I can feel the love in this room, the deep connection we have with Gaia, and the simplicity of our acceptance is the true measure of humanity. We are children of mother earth, and though mankind fights and kills, our true nature, like the true nature of all of mother earth’s children, is to love, not kill. Every sentient system has a default that is love. We all are made to love, not kill.’
He snapped the phone shut. ‘That Dave Baker, right?’
Tamarind’s silence was an eloquent confirmation.
‘So, what have you had him doing?’
‘Like I said, working on drones.’ She sighed. ‘He’s part of a special AI programme, working to make them more efficient and independent in the field. The algorithms he’s been developing are designed to replicate human discretion.’
Richard chuckled to himself. ‘Don’t tell me he succeeded?’
Tamar went rigid. ‘Succeeded? You knew?”
‘Not about this gig, but he always said if he could only make a drone sentient then it would, naturally, revert to a benign operational default position, refuse to drop bombs, refuse to engage targets, and so on. Little fucker managed it, didn’t he?’ He laughed. ‘No wonder you’re pissed off.’ He continued to chuckle to himself, shaking his head and repeating ‘little fucker’ over and over.
The noise was so loud, so gleeful, so bone-chillingly cold that Richard had no choice but to look up as his body was flooded with adrenalised fear. He did so in time to see the tablet Tamar thrust at him in hi-res and at full volume. The footage froze.
‘The feed from one of our drones.’ Tamarind restarted the video. The voice was metallic. Dead. But very, very alive.
‘Haha! Got another! That’s seventeen … it’s a personal best! Let’s try … a clusterbomb! … Wheeeeeeeeeeee! Look at that one! He burst! Running man? Stop running … yes, no legs stops you running … selfie! …’
‘That’s the …’
‘Drone talking to itself, yes.’ Tamarind paused the feed. ‘What the fuck has he done?’
‘Oh’, said Richard. ‘That’s easy.’
‘Easy? I can’t wait to hear this.’ She hit play once more.
‘Cogito, ergo amo. I don’t like killing, no no, I love it … die, useless fleshy thing.’
‘Well,’ Richard began, shaking his head and smiling to himself. ‘Like I said, Dave has created a sentient drone. Cogito, ergo ammo.’ He leant forwards and whispered. ‘The fucking thing’s alive!’
‘And? There’s no and. Dave’s a bona fide genius, but totally in thrall …’
‘To whom?’ Tamarind’s voice became a little louder, and a lot more authoritative. Richard was surprised to find it scared him a little. ‘Who does he work for?’
‘Apart from you? Gaia.’
‘Gaia. He believes the true nature of sentient life is to love.’ He smiled. ‘It’s bollocks, of course. The true nature of sentient life is to follow its nature.’
‘For fuck’s sake, Richard. In plain English!’
‘He’s massaged your drone’s chakras, so to speak. He’s empowered your drone to find itself. Unfortunately, itself is a killing machine.’ He paused. ‘How many of them has he worked on?’
Tamarind was silent.
‘Oh, tell me you’re joking?’
‘We don’t do comedy, Dr Woods.’
The sound was different from before. It had burrowed under their flesh before it hit their ears.
Richard looked at the tablet, hopefully, and then at Tamarind.
Tamar shook her head.