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The Rock

C T Walbridge is a biologist, using writing as therapy. Therapy for his readers, not for himself. So he claims. He has a Master's in Botany, though reality is pulling him more toward methods of integrating with ecosystems. A major focus there is the coevolution of humans and their tools; from hand axe to handheld.
The villagers worshiped the rock. In the rock's opinion, this was misguided.
The temple was on top of this anomalous outcrop which was itself at the precise center of a wide circular depression that enclosed the entire town.
Aakon, the rock, was actually a weapon of mass destruction. "He" originated from a culture that assigned masculine gender to all implements of war. On the other hand all diseases were feminine. That particular linguistic convention had the curious effect of blinding the entire society to the possibilities of biological warfare. So their only recourse had been to build Aakon, for use against the people of another planet. In practice this meant that they, the builders, would be able to cleanly exterminate their enemies--with no unpleasant repercussions to themselves or their world.
Except for karma.
In the temple of Aakon, the high priests were preparing a sacrifice. In these latter days, the sacrifice was a domestic animal. The rock's subtle manipulations had finally convinced this tribe not to sacrifice their own people. That lesson had been framed rather directly: The priest who raised the knife would become, psychosomatically, then actually... dead. This should have made an immediate impression but it took three expired priests to get the idea across.
Ideology dies hard.
In the aforementioned war, both sides used weapons with so much built in intelligence that the space battles and the ground battles were almost uniformly lethal.
Somewhere enroute to his target planet, Aakon, in spite of being camouflaged as a meteoroid, was recognized and attacked. Both sides presumed him to have been destroyed. In fact, he found himself headed out of the enemy star system with little control. It was the better part of a century before careful maneuvering and planetary slingshot redirection brought him back onto a target trajectory
It is perhaps unfortunate that nuclear warheads have to be "topped up" periodically, otherwise what used to be a critical mass becomes subcritical: No boom. By the time the faux meteoroid finally closed on the target his warhead was useless. But intelligence is adaptable.
Where force won't serve, subtlety will.
He had been unable to determine who had finally won the war. On the target planet now, there was an absence of radio chatter. But he had his mission: Seek and destroy.
The temple ritual always included a retelling of the Great Coming. There were skeptics in the crowd who didn't believe a rock could fall from the sky. They were partly right. This particular body hadn't fallen so much as it had landed. A very hard landing to be sure, but a completely uncontrolled fall would have left a much bigger hole, with much smaller fragments, and no witnesses whatsoever.
In the Temple, in these latter days, an animal's entrails were burnt. This made sense to the worshipers but it was an awkward process inasmuch as there was no chimney. Still, the ceremony was popular, because all the attendees received parts of the sacrifice--otherwise known as meat.
The worshipers in the Temple believed in the sharp division between good and evil. They were good and all others were classified in various grades of evil. Typically evilness increased proportionally with the distance from home. The races that had conducted the late interplanetary war felt that way about one another. Physically they had been very far apart.
The undermind of this planet's people was accessible to Aakon. He used it for information and control. This is slow and inefficient, much like using sign language in a dark landscape with rare flashes of lightning. But an intelligent machine has patience. Aakon gradually discovered that the whole of the planet was like his little village. Barely surviving.
However, just because the people there had been reduced to superstition and subsistence didn't mean they were beyond the war. As far as Aakon knew, his creators had suffered the same fate--or worse.
After the celebration of the Great Coming, the spring fertility festival came around again which meant that the villagers spent a lot of time in the woods. Ultimately this would result in more villagers.
Generations passed this way, lots of generations. Initially Aakon had planned on raising the level of technology to the point where the locals could replace his fissionable parts--so he could complete his mission. A complication was that his aging hardware had finally forced him to move his consciousness out into the racial undermind itself. Nevertheless, his programming and his goal didn't change.
The village gradually grew up around the Temple to become a small city. The rest of the country was still riven into tiny fiefdoms run by warlords from their castles. The path to power and wealth involved killing the next warlord over and taking his stuff: Castle, lands, serfs, wives, gold, and so on. They justified their takeovers as the will of God, or, sometimes, gods. Thus there came to be a number of different kingdoms that called themselves the holy land. In practice this meant that each of them suppressed all religions except the locally approved one.
In the city of Aakon things were marginally better. Yes, there was a new king every few years, either by succession or assassination--but the wealth of the city began to depend on the artisans who could make critical parts for such devices as windmills and waterwheels. They also invented debt. Because of the latter, the nobility could spend immense resources by way of demonstrating that they had immense resources to spend. But they also spent money on mechanical novelties such as clocks and watches. Eventually, these devices led to navigational instruments for exploratory voyages to other parts of the planet. Aakon had to raise the cooperation levels of people in every zone so that cultural contact didn't invariably end in violence. Just usually. This raised international relations marginally above the level of kill-the-outsider.
Eventually the ex-meteoroid had the larger communities mining radioactive metals. It was progress of a sort, except that those radioactives kept being consumed, or rather redistributed across the landscape, in local wars.
The more cooperative nations gradually came to realize there was no place left for the nuclear waste left over from bomb building--so they went back to wind, and water.
Ten centuries had passed with no word from "home." Aakon had to conclude that he might be the only survivor.
This called for a minor change in his genocidal plan.
His adopted planet had by then reached an advanced level of civilization: They had shopping malls so now they had even more uses for debt.
Aakon had accumulated a great deal of experience and sophistication since the dark age when he crash landed. Nevertheless, it made no difference that his builders might be extinct. Annihilation was required.
He had a dog-like loyalty to his creators. This is a requirement for any thinking thermonuclear device.
However, being a smart bomb he had been given reasons for his devotion to his makers: He had been launched with the factory-installed conviction that his creators represented the absolute pinnacle of civilization, sophistication, culture, and humanity. Hence, it follows, that all enemies must be destroyed completely. By whatever means.
As centuries passed Aakon extended his efforts to reprogram the entire race, to change them into something completely alien. In time, they became so unlike their ancestors that even their faith in evolution was shaken. But they could do nothing to stop the changes.
It took almost another millennium to recreate these people in his own image. Or rather, recreate them in the image that his creators had given him, of themselves. The inhabitants of his adopted planet, without knowing why, gradually became creatures of reason, peace, love, and harmony.
This meant that the race, as he first encountered it, had been effectively annihilated. Thus he was able to complete his mission without the fissionables that were always getting diverted.
Several centuries further on, Aakon's creators finally showed up. They had also barely survived the war and had spent the last few millennia reestablishing their former level of civilization. They arrived hoping to find an empty planet.
Aakon immediately recognized two things:
First, their own view of themselves had been wildly optimistic....
Second, he was going to have to do this all over again.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 4th, 2020


"The Rock" underlines an insurmountable problem with intelligent tools. They insist on being intelligent. There's no workaround for that.

- Charles Walbridge
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