Chapter 10: Themes and Schemes

Trent’s struggle was very different from his family’s. Theirs was valid, he knew it, but that didn’t mean he could relate. The nature of things was to die, so it was pointless to fret about when or why or how. The only point was to make the most of whatever time you had. And maybe prolong death a bit, I suppose.

The fight matched his ‘prolong’ understanding, but the drama seemed superfluous. Fear’s only purpose was fulfilled when a person became motivated enough to survive. After that, it was counter-productive. It clouded the mind, and the mind was a person’s best tool. If one had a healthy drive to survive, one should seek to eliminate all additional fear.

The elder claimed fear wasn’t something a person could control by any process of intellect. Trent was more inclined to believe they just lacked discipline. Whatever the case, he’d leave them to their devices and only share his wisdom if it was solicited. He was accused of being nosy when he gave it freely.

People had been less prone to micromanagement ever since Fleahorn attacked. The elder might scold him for it, but he felt some gratitude to the dead beast. This freedom was a great catalyst to his purposes.

This battle was a prime example. The environment was rife with the sorts of danger his parents would sheperd him away from, yet nobody was doing so. They were mesmerized by the violence, despite their constant condemnation of the practice. Trent, too, was entranced, but more by the combatants than the combat.

He was freer than usual, and the likeliest scenario involved dying that night. Life was about making the most of limited time, so the only moral option was to make maximum use of this dual opportunity.

The front lines weren’t what he expected. Perhaps it was because the battle hadn’t really started yet. This suited him fine; it was easier to inspect anatomy when it was holding still. No two creatures were identical, more evidence that they weren’t a product of traditional reproduction. Fascinating, and simultaneously confounding. The elder insisted this biodiversity didn’t exist anywhere else, and Trent could observe it in the biomes along their route. The woods were obviously integral to the process, but which features made it possible?! Speculation was very difficult without commonality between subjects.

Perhaps he should broaden his definition of ‘commonality?’

“Good neighbors,” an unfamiliar voice rose from the enemy lines. A new specimen emerged from the crowd to stand between the opposing armies. Astonishing; a speaker! “A day as passed, as you may recall, and our… ‘leadership,’ as it were, has had an epiphany. You may not be equipped to understand that a crime was committed.”

“Bring the elder,” Cascata muttered to a hunter beside her. “I don’ wanna say th’ wrong thing.”

“She’s already here, dear,” the elder patted her on the back as she moved past. She approached the envoy. “Hail, neighbor. I confess, we didn’t realize there were laws in your land, nor that we were subject to them. Might you enlighten us?”

“I am obligated to,” the speaker answered. “Reluctantly so, I’d like you to note.”

“Noted,” the elder nodded. “Please continue.”

“True to your understanding, there aren’t many laws in the woods. The leadership doesn’t have much use for concepts like borders or citizenship.”

I wouldn’t have expected described environment to yield such an eloquent specimen.

“It requires only autonomy and a reasonable degree of isolation.” The speaker continued. “Thus the lack of relations with its neighbors, as you may have inferred.”

“Quite. So the crime involves an infringement on autonomy or isolation?”

“Quite. Trespasses were made - and while the guilty party has been punished, another crime was committed during the course of that punishment. An enforcer was slain by members of your commune.”

Everyone had noticed the correlation between Fleahorn’s death and the missing hunters. Everyone had known yesterday’s attack was probably related. Even though it was only confirming what they already knew, the confirmation was somehow unsettling.

“Without sounding too accusatory, we were only defending ourselves from an obvious danger…”

“I’m not in a position to negotiate. I have no authority over anyone present. Your justification may be valid, but it won’t change anything.”

“I see. I’ll allow you to complete your message, then.”

“I appreciate it. Now that you know the allegations, I’ll relay the demands. The woods require the lives of anyone involved with the death of said enforcer. Once those lives are claimed, the attacks will cease, and the old relationship - or lack thereof - may continue as it has for the last century.”

“Tha’ mean what I think it do?” Cascata asked.

“It means the attacks will continue until they kill Svara, Kirana, and anyone else who killed a flea or Fleahorn himself.”

“Svara! Don’t you get any dumb ideas!” Cascata bellowed and began looking for her apprentice.

“Messenger,” the elder called to him before he could go back into the crowd. “I’d like to speak more with you, after this.”

“I’m afraid I don’t share the sentiment. No offense.”

“Please, I’d be willing to make it worth your while, if we’re capable…”

“You’re not. I wish you luck, though. I really do.” The speaker pushed his way back into the horde.

“Kirana, ye’re mission ain’t changed!” Cascata yelled. “Svara, there you are!”

Trent considered what he just heard. What did this mean for his hypothesis? What did it have to do with the method for designing life?

The question would have to wait. The enemy took one coordinated step closer to the clan. Trent found this new cohesion fascinating. Perhaps the speaker had no authority over this army, but something did.

Something present.

Trent needed to find whatever it was. There could be no question. Every objective hinged on it.

As he walked into the no man’s land between the two armies, he considered what he knew about human military conflicts. Leaders were called generals, generals did most of their work before the battle began, but were still present. In the back, usually, even behind the archers and war machines.

Trent had crossed the gap between armies and pushed his way into the enemy army. They didn’t even glance at him.

This army wouldn’t have archers or siege weapons. They didn’t even have artificial weapons. Besides, Trent was always of the opinion that a rear command was too susceptible to flanks and delayed the relay of orders. A more central location was ideal.

Maintaining focus was difficult with so much wonder around him. Beyond the first few rows, the formation spread out. The forces here seemed more at ease, almost bored. Trent got the impression they were going to take their time with this. Their goal was not annihilation, after all. That, too, was curious. Wouldn’t it be easier, in a way?

How would he recognize the general, when he saw it? If the theme was design, he supposed it would be designed for command. It was hard to imagine what such a design might look like, but it was likely distinct from these war-adapted types. Even a small distinction was likely plenty for identification.

Considering command design raised the question about methods for command. How did it give orders? From the eery quiet all around him, he doubted it was by speech. Perhaps it was body language, like bees, or chemical, like ants.

The lack of personality would certainly explain hive mind. Chomp and Cascata’s account of Stinger didn’t suggest profound intelligence, but they did display a level of individuality. He would categorize these creatures with the same label as them, but for that to fit, something would need to be overriding their normal consciousness.

What have we here?

Trent jumped. The words were his thoughts, but he didn’t think them. That shouldn’t be possible, and the nature of this particular intrusion was - even though he hated this term - scary.

A curious creature has wandered in a curious direction. Looking for me, of all things! Come then, lad. This way.

Some of his thoughts were no longer under his control, and that was a frightening prospect. To Trent, though, it was well-established that fear was only useful in reasonable doses. He should exercise caution, but he would continue his task.

Yes, it’s fine. I have no intention of harming you. In fact, I’d like some entertainment while my people set about their task. Your arrival is auspicious, and I’m grateful.

If the commander was aware of him, it had the means to harm him. Trent would die in an instant if these… ‘people’ wanted him dead. This was evidence that the enemy general genuinely bore him no malice.

Curator, Trent. I am a Curator. You are gifted a gifted thinker. Your inferences about my intentions are sound.

Was it controlling those inferences, though? Of course not, the curator wouldn’t need to persuade him if it were. It could simply make him do whatever it wanted.

Just so. Come.

Trent obliged. He’d been heading in the right direction. The other creatures stepped out of his way when he approached, and it wasn’t long before he faced the Curator.

It was larger yet somehow more human than the rest, and contrary to expectation, it was more designed for war. Trent already knew which math he’d done incorrectly; of course a commander would need some way to enforce his dominance, in addition to its command adaptations. This was personified in its size and ample amount of exoskeleton - though it was curiously shaped to resemble artificial armor. It was bladed along the limbs and spiked near various vital spots.

There was more symmetry to it, too. It must appreciate aesthetics, because it was every bit as ostentatious as any human warlord.

Intimidation is as much a weapon as any other, lad. It wouldn’t be, if others shared your philosophy on fear. Well, maybe not so much ‘philosophy on’ as ‘capabilities regarding.’

“I admit, it’s a clever tactic.” Trent didn’t know if there was any point to speaking, but he may as well indulge the habit. “I imagine it’s not the only feature of undesigned biology you can exploit.”

That’s exactly the sort of wording that makes you intriguing, lad. ‘Undesigned biology.’ Tell me, what makes you think there’s such a thing as designed biology?

“Is that a joke?” Trent expected he didn’t need to answer, that the question was there to get him thinking about the topic. “I’m surrounded by evidence. You are evidence. It doesn’t take much imagination to notice the difference between you and conventional fauna. There maybe be some difficulty in categorizing that difference as ‘design,’ but that’s the conclusion I’ve reached. I see you and perceive function. Purpose. Design.”

Not bad. You have excellent insight. Though can insight really differ in its quality? I often find that it’s guided by other features, like desire. Tell me, do you desire designed biology?

Trent frowned. Did he? He genuinely wasn’t sure. He thought so, but why?

In what way might you augment yourself, if you could?

Size, density, appendages, color, and composition. There were any number of ways he could customize himself. Where would he start?

My guess would be the mind.

It was true. As much as he used it, Trent was painfully aware of how imperfect his brain was. Imagine what he could accomplish if it could be optimized!

Right? One should take care, though. The mind is a wondrous thing - so wondrous that we can’t truly comprehend it all. Even the smallest of changes could alter the way you perceive the world. If care isn’t taken, you might not become more, you might just change. You might lose what makes you who you are.

For the second time that night, Trent was confronted with a terrifying prospect. He’d never thought about what it would be like to change himself - not that way. He knew how important the brain was, how the smallest damage could end a person. He had no idea what biological design entailed, but more likely than not, there would be risk of collateral damage in a purely physical regard. In terms of personality, values, and the more abstract features of a person - the kind of things he was already weakest in - the magnitude of risk was bound to be much greater.

The Curator laughed aloud. One man’s damage might be another’s remedy. Think on it. And while you do, go fetch these siblings of yours. They shouldn’t be fighting anyway, so they’ll be safer here. You may enact your scheme as you go, I don’t mind. Just make sure you come back.

This Curator made a dangerous enemy. The ‘scheme’ in question was Trent’s whole reason for finding the Curator -  to damage the enemy’s ‘brain’ in hopes of defeating the body. The chances for success were greatly diminished if the enemy was aware of the plot. But what if the Curator was trying to thwart the scheme by tricking him into aborting it?

The Curator laughed aloud again.

Trent turned on his heels and walked towards his kin. The battle may always have been out of the clan’s control. If his best stratagem came down to the roll of a die, then not rolling was a certain loss.

Trent heard the Curator’s laughter one last time as he disappeared into the crowd.

The End

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