From “Sapience Signified”
Bilit awoke to rain. For a while, drops pattered on the shell and then for seventeen minutes became a deafening kettle drum. Bilit lay still, hands still folded on his stomach, eyes open to the dark. For the moment he retained a normal optical range, which meant he saw nothing. He focused his other senses. Joonian rain almost smelled like Terran rain.
The ground gave off a scent of soaked clay and loam. Plants smelled like plants, but an unfamiliar pepperiness spiced the forest. The jungle resounded with strange calls.
Something walked through the underbrush, somewhere beyond the sentries. Bilit guessed its size between a deer and a horse, moving quadrupedally but undoubtedly a hexapod, forelimbs for other tasks. He heard only one, and it circumscribed his camp not once but twice.
An unusual visitor, he thought.
At last he modified his vision and the tent interior resolved in pale grays and blues. He sat up and turned his head, augmenting his hearing, the nanites within his skull reconfiguring to the purpose. He detected deliberate steps, twenty meters distant, just beyond the sentry line.
Something tapped solid wood, but no lignified plant grew so close to his tent.
Carrying a tool, he thought, and his heart raced. His adrenals stepped into high production. He forced himself to calm, to temper his excitement and unbidden fear. Tools meant intelligence, and intelligence suggested real danger. The approaching visitor took another tentative step forward, followed by another—
The sentries triggered their first defenses. Eight hundred lumens turned the pitch black into a blinding violet-white, and a whine echoed from their speakers. A powerful blow knocked one sentry onto its side. The visitor fled into the jungle and, as it crashed through the undergrowth, the pattern of its feet or hooves reminded Bilit of an antelope.
The sentries ended their alarm, but their lights remained. The fallen robot righted itself and suffered no further attack, but Bilit waited before stepping from the tent, his rebreather restored to his mouth and nose. The moist night raised goose bumps on his naked body. He examined the damaged sentry—a long scratch ran across its LED shield, but it showed no other damage.
That shield, he considered, was made of diamondide.
He searched the grasses and found a rigid two-meter shaft of lignified plant fiber wrapped by a braided cord. A sharp point, fifty centimeters long, emerged from one end. A spear.
Within his ear, his comm beeped. “Bilit, this is Stephanye. You all right?”
Curiosity’s primary AI, Stephanye, would have detected his sentries’ defenses. He replied through remote satellite array, “I’m in awe of the universe.”
“Can you clarify?”
Silence. Then, “The patterns recorded by your sentries suggest a high probability of sapience signified.”
“I’m looking right now at one beautiful example of a tool.”
“Did you sight the life form with your own eyes?”
“Can you record the tool in situ,” the AI asked him, “and then bring it in for analysis?”
He sighed. Hands akimbo, he looked out into the darkness, though his low-light vision revealed nothing but silvery trees.
“I’m tempted not to,” he replied.
“It doesn’t belong to us, and I’m not sure we should begin first contact by stealing.”
Hesitation. Then Stephanye argued, “We can borrow it then.”
From “The Collared Signal”
Tomay heard nothing in the vacuum which the Core had become. In the seconds remaining, she ran an algorithm through the Diaspora’s sensors. It traced the short-range Vultures’ ionized exhaust and plotted probable trajectories. The cockpit had a single grappling gun with four shots. She retrieved a toolkit, cut the filaments from three spears, and clipped both the gun and toolkit to leaders on her suit.Then she flipped a switch which bathed the central access cylinder in floodlights, but killed the other luminaires and left the cockpit in blackness; she wanted to see her enemies before they saw her. Where the lights spilled onto the flight deck, surfaces glistened with crystals of water ice formed as air fled the ship.
Tomay shot the first man whose silhouette appeared. The spear pierced his abdomen, and he doubled, thrown back in 0g. He writhed in perfect silence. As his contortions continued, she knew the suit had self-healed, but she hoped his screams were ringing through his companion’s intercoms.
The algorithm completed, pinged the Vultures’ likely origin, targeted a new ion stream, and computed an intercept. As the engines warmed, vibrating through her boots, Tomay blew the cockpit windows. They floated noiselessly and elegantly outward, no pressure left in the Core to accelerate their departure.
After destroying the floodlights, three more figures pulled themselves onto the flight deck. Tomay fired her second bolt and missed. One of her attackers raised a weapon, but she didn’t wait for him to aim.
She jumped through the cockpit window and into open space. The window frame clipped her on her way out, tearing the radio antenna from her helmet.
The Ring revolved far above and below her. The Core fell away and, on automatic sequence, the umbilicus disconnected from it. A few seconds later, its engines lit in a full 10g burn, the Core banking on course for the vultures’ origin point.
“I do like a good fire,” she said, hoping it wouldn’t be her last.