The Lionsgate Hunter
Summary: Marine Tua Ing of the Lionsgate Republic charged with hunting a fearsome, underwater mechanical creature. During his training, he uncovers evidence about the machine's origins, and learns the true history of his own society.
Tua Ing stood on the bow of the catamaran, waiting for the mechanical leviathan to breach the surface. Uncertainty wracked his mind as he cradled the gas combustion rifles in his hands like a scorned lover. The dozen apprenticed marines listlessly watched for any sign of their quarry. Thunderheads snuffed the tropical sun as they marched across the sky like a conquering army. The white-crested waves swelled up beneath the vessel. He tightened the bulbous training band around his head, and remembered how his hunt started.
Exactly one year prior, Tua Ing was one of the apprenticed marines on Sho Gau's hunt. As the year's highest-ranking apprentice on the exams, the Steel Sages granted her personal tuition and training band. Her mannerisms, marksmanship, and maturity changed her from a whimsical artist to a methodical officer. He was honored to be amongst the dozen hand-picked marine apprentices, although he eventually came to fear the responsibilities his rank entailed.
Something in the water mirrored the octopus of lightning licking the horizon. Tua saw the teratoid silhouette against an incoming swell. The boat rocked violently to the side, and he futilely grasped onto the lifelines at the boat's edge. Screaming sailors were swept overboard by the torrent of water that ripped from aft port to starboard. Behind them came a silvered shape that would forever haunt his nightmares.
The elongated and serpentine body easily stretched longer than their ship, like a sword drawn into a length of wire. At the front of its surreal anatomy were the two claw-like projections emerged from beneath a triumvirate of blue lights that glowed like benthic nightmares. Between the head and arms was a scintillating wreath of cilia-like projections around its neck. About halfway down its body were two muscular, paddle like fins that resembled an unholy matrimony of piscine and humanoid features. It vanished beneath the waves, and forever into his nightmares.
"Stand ready!" Sho's stentorian voice barked.
Tua reformed what was left of the broken formation, curious as to why the leviathan did not smash the ship to splinters. A fragment of torn, weighted netting of the sort dragged behind the vessel laid draped over the railing. He felt a small silver of hope that such machines were not invincible. He looked around for the other marines, and saw only five remained of the initial dozen. Immediately, his heart sank as he remembered his missing friends: Feisty Hok, his face forever scarfing down sweets; introverted Yow, the quiet and competent girl in basic training; and incalcitrant Muth, who went to obscene lengths to "prove" his ideas.
A shameful guilt entered his mind, as Tua savored his satisfaction it wasn't him. Survivors lived, and wondered why. The five others took position at different sectors of the boat, with him standing near the starboard foredeck. Sho tightened the band around her head, and her panicked expression turned into an unnervingly serene calm. He heard something splash behind him, and the report of charger rifles temporarily deafened him. He would have turned, had he not beheld movement beneath a rising wave.
Another creature charged directly for the vessel, but only Tua noticed it. He heard Ementi shout behind him, but he did not need to turn his head to know what he saw. The mane-fin that sprung across the deck was not alone. Both descended on the ship as though it was interposed between bullets from opposed duelists. He saw Sho's stoicism vanish as quickly as it came, although she barked a final order.
"Turn to starboard!" she shouted.
The vessel's helmsman and engineer spun the wheel, catching a swell in the process. Tua saw they directly faced the charging mane-fin. He did not have time to consider her strategy in the instant before collision. He saw the machines' eyespots temporarily illuminate, as though in abject shock. That was the last thing he witnessed before the detonation, and everything went black.
Despite the total loss of the vessel and most of the people aboard, Sho still passed her test. The extenuating factor of a secondary mane-fin was enough to sway the third of five Sages to approve her commission as a junior officer. Analysis of the wreckage showed the vessel's compressed gas tanks combusted during the impact, destroying one mane-fin and damaging the other. The Mentalist Guild, the manufacturers of the training bands, were nevertheless the subject of an undisclosed disciplinary action. Due the fervor that followed, the survivors became unexpected celebrities.
Tua found himself under tutelage by the Steel Sage that trained Sho, Senimpa of the Mentalist Guild. He presumed the reasons for his selection were related to his experiences. Senimpa was a woman with skin like a wrinkled prune, and a nose like a stereotypical crone. Despite her harsh exterior, her informal demeanor concealed the razor-sharp intellect beneath. Senimpa's wife, Kua, was plumper around her midsection, but they moved like a pair of stalking herons. It was under their instruction he first used a training band.
Like many of his peers, Tua never understood how the training bands worked. To him, they could equally be diabolical powers or incomprehensible technology. It was a black and gray lump of plastic and metal, made of components salvaged from the mane-fin. When he first donned the mesh-like band around his head, he felt naught but dizziness and disorientation. After Senimpa adjusted the device, it worked properly.
Tua first thought he'd been reincarnated in a different era and place, like the monks of the songha preached. He felt the humidity and tropical sun of his homeland far with an intensity. He felt like an insect wandering amongst a cyclopean labyrinth, surrounded by men and women of more skin tones and clothing than he ever witnessed in his two decades of life. Simultaneously, there was little uniformity to them beyond their silence towards each other and him. Beyond them was a far more alien sight.
Tua was distracted by the alien, uncouth manners of the tribe around him. He thought he recognized the familiar geometry and landmarks, but they were vastly different. The dreamlike scale was one of megalomaniac grandeur and scope. Buildings as high as mountains rose above streets of synthetic stone, with bodies of steel, ash, and obsidian-black glass. Beyond them, he caught glimpses of flashing lights hawking brands and products he'd never seen but instantly understood. He thought he saw the sea, although it was well beyond a line of four-legged mechanical cranes that bestrode the dockside like a herd of thirsty livestock.
Tua, like his peers, knew Lionsgate was built on the bones of a Builder city. From the skyline around him, he understood the origin of their name. The High Keep, the center of the Lionsgate Citadel, rose far higher than the crumpled heap it was in his own era. Here, the three towers and the platform connecting them dwarfed the city around it, striding along the waterfront like the legs of a titanic insect. Beneath it was a pandemonium of crowds and colors, with electric lights brighter than the dim, inefficient ones of his own era.
Tua approached them with a will other than his own, like prey drawn towards a hypnotic cobra. He saw a trio of armed men he presumed were security officers, given their uniforms and revolvers. They cautiously watched the crowds around them in a restless vigil. He strolled right past them, and towards the side of a building. He turned and saw a statue that resembled some maned cat with the lower, piscine torso spraying water from its mouth. As he approached the building side, he saw the reflection of a man that was not him.
Tua saw his borrowed body's stature was slightly taller than his own. His brown skin was replaced by a pale white he'd associated more with sickness before considering it was another ethnicity. His clean-shaven face was replaced by an unshaven, light brown beard that slightly enveloped his round face. He wore a shirt and shorts of soft, bright fabric like those worn by runners moving along the footpaths between buildings. His borrowed body scratched his face, and he wondered if the man was older than him. He blinked, and he found himself back home.
Tua opened his eyes to see the Lionsgate Republic before him, which seemed strangely alien for a wistful moment as he reoriented himself. The High Keep lacked the three large towers, instead being reduced to two of them with ad-hoc repairs done to the platform spanning the upper levels. Where towers of glass rose, only vine-wreathed steel skeletons remained. Dirt and shattered stones emerged from asphalt avenues like mortal wounds. Where blocks of apartments rose, only mounds of rubble remained. Where the sea had been held back like a beast at bay, were marshy and soft sands. Senimpa stood before him impassively. He scratched a non-existent beard with his left hand, causing her to smile.
In the days that would follow, Tua returned to the body of that strange man, whom he learned was named Doctor Jason Martel. The accent he spoke with was unlike the others he regularly encountered, suggesting a foreign heritage. He observed how the Doctor assembled machines and trained them, before returning home to a room devoid of natural light. It was a mechanical and monastic life, a rote repetition based on animating machines in a dim workshop. While he gradually came to know the machines' purposes and their construction, he recognized the repetition and routine were not that dissimilar from his own military training.
In Lionsgate, every young adult had to go through two years of service to the Republic. Some were apprenticed to a guild, others to the constabulary, and others to the military. Tua ended his own mandatory service with high praise from his commanding officers, which nominated him for the role of machine-hunter. As each potential hunter was charged will felling a mane-fin, the apex of maritime mechanical beasts that haunted the seas. As Martel, he saw smaller versions of those beasts moving across tables, flying down tile hallways, or swimming through tanks. The distinctive shapes and forms bore slight differences, but he could easily identify them as kin to the machines the hunters destroyed for parts.
Tua saw an artificial creature that resembled a horse with legs terminating in wheels, and he copied Martel's quizzical look at his comrade Dr. Arun Patel's design. He saw a flying creature that resembled an assemblage of vacuum bladders that would admit and expel air to ascend and descend, turning atmospheric pollutants into a chalky dust beneath it. He quickly chuckled like Martel did, approving the absurdity of it all. He worked on a serpentine construct that swam by twisting itself through the water like a corkscrew. He sensed Martel's pride in the design, even as his bronze-skinned comrade, Dr. Joanne Tan, rolled her eyes at it. He wondered if that was how the dreaded mane-fin began its existence, as a toy automaton in a tub.
Tua came to know their anatomies, and he caught himself increasingly scratching that nonexistent beard. He slipped into the mannerisms of such a man, much to the approval of his mentor. When he asked Senimpa about it, she told him it was part of his education. She explained Martel was long dead, but his creations lived on. The training-bands were devices able to transmit the memories of Builders into those in the present, and which allowed Lionsgate to rediscover the technologies the rest of the world forgot. When asked how such a state of affairs emerged, Senimpa told him that answers would come in due time.
Tua noticed something that escaped his prior notice after that meeting, a sense of fatalism in Martel's routine. The scientist conducted his work in a sense of apprehension like that of a stressed soldier prior to deployment. He conversed with three of his peers, Tan, Patel, and a dark-skinned man he only knew as General Talbot. The General informed them that solar activity was increasing faster than expected, so they had to move ahead and present their final project within a month. He felt Martel's heart pound faster as his mind raced through terrible options.
Tua found he'd switched off the training band after the meditation session, and Senimpa sighed before him.
"My own instructor had to turn it off during that moment, too," she said. "I experienced the same moment, but from a different point of view."
"I imagined these Builders saw disaster approaching, although I do not know its nature," Tua said. "But tell me, does it get better?"
"Do not confuse a few events for the entirety of life," she said. "But you may resume tomorrow."
When he turned on the training band a moment later, Tua found himself back in that fateful moment of deadlock. He saw the General hang his head low, the military officer exhibiting shame and resignation like a condemned man. The three scientists started at the floor, until Tan's face lit up like a searchlight. She began to move her lips, as though to say something, turning towards their laboratory. It was then the memory ended, but he felt the emotional burden rise from Martel's awareness like a boulder from the body of a pinned victim.
During his next meditation session, Tua noted Senimpa was unusually quiet. He did not press the issue, but he sensed his reaction to whatever came next was being carefully scrutinized. When he plunged into the following memories, he immediately understood why. A heap of broken images descended on his senses like an avalanche, involving more machines like those before. There were designs he recognized from elsewhere, like the tracked Progenitors that built more of their own kind to harvest detritus from land and sea. He saw similar chasses being adapted with replication modules, and special metrics installed regarding their activation. He saw the researchers sitting in front of a row of dead monitors, which stared back like a wall of black mirrors.
Tua saw the General from before, but his face was distorted. "The solar flare is bigger than our projections indicate. Even the hardening we've done to existing infrastructure and military hardware was insufficient," came the voice. "But thanks to the Foundation Project, the descendants of those that survive will have the wisdom to do things right next time."
The monitor went black, and the assembled scientists lost any semblance of discipline. An elderly man began sobbing. Two women hugged each other. Patel silently skulked back to his room, and a muffled pistol shot was heard. Martel smashed his fist into the table, sending coffee cups and notebooks tumbling to the floor. Tan, however, clambered atop the table. She spoke, and the scientists once more listened.
In the memory that followed, Tua saw Martel drawing out things on paper. He scribbled notes onto paper by candlelight, outlining notes on the society they'd form. He committed notes on machinery to memories: gunpowder, the printing press, electrical circuits, bacterial bio-computer circuits, biogas generators, and other schematics of things he recognized from his own era. They were repeated again and again in memory, before Martel stepped into some form of medical scanner. He affixed an electrode-filled helmet to his head as Tan kissed him. The final image before him was a significantly aged Martel and Tan beholding a child with both of their features, wearing a device recognizable as a training band. The child scratched a non-existent beard, and he applauded his offspring.
"I understand," Tua said, returning to the present. "We need training bands to ensure the proper lessons are learned, and only the components of the mane-fins can provide them."
Senimpa nodded in gentle agreement. The most important rudiments were taught, although she waited with wide eyes, as though expecting more.
"It's not merely memories that the bands impart," Tua said. "But personalities and mannerisms of the Builders. That's why Sho Gau changed so much."
"What are we but the sum of our memories?" Senimpa asked. "Or do the addition of others' memories represent a direct continuity for the deceased?"
"Which is it? I can see evidence for both."
"A question for philosophers. But know this: My wife and I both trained using the memories of a Builder couple, and we became romantically involved shortly thereafter. It brought out the best of us."
"So, across generations, the most capable are honed, their skills combined by means of personality and memory sharing," Tua said. "But why?"
"Sadly, our Builder-era memory archives are incomplete. Since the solar flare that destroyed their world, we've had little opportunity to advance the basic technology," Senimpa said. "But there are sources for components we cannot yet manufacture."
"The machines," he said, realizing the purpose of the hunts. The machines were self-replicating terraforming robots, designed by the Builders to repair the environmental damage left in the wake of their society and the solar flare. Their numbers had to be regularly culled, as to prevent the numbers from overwhelming them. Tua realized another purpose of the hunts.
"You're purging the most aggressive strains of the replicators, so to encourage the non-aggressive ones to proliferate," he said, a creeping grin of realization. "You're domesticating them."
"Yes. You truly understand now," Senimpa said. "The old Builder control codes and failsafes no longer work. But due to their hard-coded reproduction function, we dump pollutants that draw the machines ready to replicate near our shores. And then, you come in."
"But what happened last year? Are the aggressive replicators multiplying out of control?"
"No. Quite the opposite. Both of the machines that Sho Gau and you encountered were smaller than the originals. They're adapting as pack hunters. Sadly, we're not the only ones that adapt."
Tua nodded. "For my hunt, then, I'd like to request some changes in equipment. I have a better idea."
"Yes?" Senimpa said.
Tua listed the equipment necessary for the plan he had in mind.
Cutting back to the rain-swept deck, Tua saw his quarry's distinctive wake approach. At once, he thought he heard Martel detailing the features of the machine's ancestor in an ancient presentation. They were intended to consume plastic and metallic pollution, which they could use to produce more of themselves. That was why the Republic disposed of such waste in bulk prior to a hunt, like fresh meat used as trap bait. Typically, a ship of marines was dispatched after the discharge of such waste near an unimportant barrier island, but this year was different.
Tua noted the aggressive mane-fins hunted ships for material to reproduce themselves, so a ship depositing waste would be an enticing target. With a simple automatic control system, a waste disposal ship went on a circular course around a half-flooded island near the typical dumping ground. The marines waited on a smaller catamaran just offshore, waiting for contact. As a school of mane-fins circled the garbage barge, he waited for the signal.
The explosion a second later almost knocked Tua off his feet. His ears rang like temple gongs. His vision flashed with invisible fireworks, and he thought he saw Jason Martel pointing towards the horizon. He ordered the helmsman to charge full speed ahead, while ensuring the crew had weighted nets ready. Each was woven from the same artificial musculature as the largest mane-fins, before being covered with metal weights and cables that precluded escape. With harpoons and net-shot in the vessel's cannons, he was ready for battle at a distance or up close.
Tua saw the head of the creature breech the waves. Its conical head was smaller and more bullet-shaped than the ones that nearly killed him last time. The two comical forelimbs beneath its illuminated eyespots were now saurian talons, powerful enough to rend the ship's hull. The mane around its head, which he recalled was actually a suite of high-tech fibrous sensors and filters, was glowing a red hot enough to be demonic fury. He ordered the crew to fire as it catapulted itself towards deck.
Tua was momentarily deafened by the cannonade, and he returned disoriented to that frantic deck of metallic clangor and shouting sailors. He heard the discharge of the marines' rifles, the crew grunting, and the machine grinding against the hull. He saw the electrical arcs of the crew's stun pikes, and the spasmatic jerks of the mindlessly aggressive mane-fin. To their credit, the sailors managed to pull it aboard after it got entangled in the net dragged behind it. It thrashed helplessly on deck, and he activated his training band.
Tua accessed the machine's core programming, its encoded instincts, and adjusted the relevant parameters. The mane-fin immediately ceased thrashing about like a flopping fish. The crew and marines stepped back from the now docile machine, as though its animating spirit had been exorcised. He ordered them to wrap it in another layer of netting, and to return home. His mission was accomplished.
Tua once more activated the training band, and he saw the projection of Martel before him. He understood he was not conversing with the long-dead man, but instead an artificial intelligence trained on those recorded memories. The Builders, to their credit, had at least invented ghosts during their tenure on Earth.
"Brilliant idea," the projection said, with a voice preserved across centuries. "You waited for their evolution to drive them towards smaller sizes, then capture one to serve as the basis for a domesticated line."
"Exactly. We'd simply need to feed these docile ones our waste, and they'll produce the components we need," Tua said, aware no one else could see the display. "I suspected the bands could interface with the machines, but Sho Gau never quite got the ability down."
"Her training band personality was sadly not an engineer," he said. "The Sages suggested which memories to assign to which candidate, but it's not perfect."
"Then let's fix it," Tua said. He looked back towards the shore, and he realized something. The inspiration for the mane-fin had been the statue in Martel's era, the merlion. As he returned, he brought the Lionsgate Republic a gift that would become a worthy symbol of their heritage and likelihood.