THE LARGEST ZOO IN THE UNIVERSE
A few days had passed. Paps was working on building a cabin by a lake not far from the parked spaceship. His own ship had been disassembled, save for the little metal sphere The Worm now carried around with her. There was a village of humans not far from his cabin, but there was something off about them. Some of their eyes seemed too big, and had strange colors. They had wildly diverging builds, from taller than the tallest person he had ever seen, with arms that seemed to reach to the ground, to short muscular builds. Paps wasn’t sure, but he got the feeling that some of their knees bent in the wrong direction. He was uncomfortable around them, so he decided to build his residence a safe distance from their village.
Polk and The Worm had no such compunctions, however. They tried to fit in the best they could. The Worm still possessed some extra computing power attached to her, and while it was inconvenient to constantly lug around a forty pound piece of metal, it was worth it for the intellectual boost it gave her. She did not want to stay. It was clear to Paps that The Worm and Engineer Polk were planning a revolt of sorts. Good for them, thought Paps. It will give them something to live for, to hope for, to strive for, right up until the moment when their rebellion would be noticed and they would be efficiently disposed of.
From what little Paps had seen of the Remotes, he could tell that they were efficient. It was hard to tell what sort of emotions they had, but they definitely took some pride in their efficiency. It took them mere minutes to neatly disassemble his ship. Each piece was catalogued and sent somewhere for further study. Paps and Harvey watched in awe as team of at most twenty Remotes sliced through the hull, the engines, the life support systems, and all the stuff that was still completely mysterious to the ship’s own crew. It was as if a tornado grabbed hold of it and neatly placed its remains in organized little boxes on a vertical conveyer belt. When they were finished, Polk and The Worm were left sitting on the cold floor of the giant featureless room, looking extremely confused.
Harvey had found himself a hilltop a few kilometers from where Paps was building his cabin. He planned to build an observatory and hole up in it until the day he died. Not that there were any stars to see in the night sky. The sky was filled with planets, asteroids, spaceships, and various unidentified orbs of various size. They were tightly packed together and had crisscrossing orbits. If they weren’t all placed there a long time ago by the most efficient race in the universe, Paps would have thought it a miracle that none of these objects ever collided. The night sky was almost as bright as the daytime sky, with all of the sunlight reflected off of the wall of planets behind the one on which Paps and his crew currently resided. So there were no stars for Harvey to see, but there were plenty of other things. He could spend a lifetime, likely more, calculating the trajectories of the orbits of each object in the sky. It seemed that he would never have to speak to another human being again.
Paps was well aware that he was a prisoner, perhaps a pet or an object of study, but he accepted this more readily than the others. He had been a prisoner on his own ship for some time now, so this was just the same situation in a more comfortable setting. He could pretend he was free, retired to his cabin to live a quiet life by the side of a lake, with specially bred fruits covering all of the nearby trees and bushes, and delicious fish-like creatures practically jumping onto his dinner plate. It was the closest thing to paradise he could imagine himself living in. It made the mental strain of his long journey through space almost worth while.
You are still a prisoner, Captain. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are safe. That any of these humans are safe. That any of the humans back on Orion, or even Earth, are safe. This is an experiment designed to bend humanity to the will of the Remotes. They will destroy most of your species and engineer the rest of it beyond recognition. They will use you as laborers, or for whatever purpose they can find for you. Your comfort is an illusion.
Paps tried to shake these thoughts from his head, but they kept coming back. It was clear that the village was part of a massive genetic engineering project, designed to test the limits of human evolution. These people had abilities beyond those of ordinary humans. Some could run faster, jump higher, see more colors and shades and contrast, hear better, and even think faster.
I’m retired. I’m also powerless against these creatures. I see these things, but I can’t change anything. Let the others try. I wish them luck. I hope they succeed. Humanity will be safer in their hands than it ever would have been in mine.
Paps tried to focus intently on the particular log he was sawing. Did trees back on Earth look like this? It was easy to cut, yet completely sturdy and unbreakable once placed in its position on what would soon be his porch. He had never built a cabin before, never had the chance. He was born in space, on the first expedition to the Orion Colony, and had only ever seen pictures of nature. Orion was a barren wasteland, with only microbial life on its surface. Everyone on that planet lived in a sealed dome, and could always see the walls around them. He finished cutting the log and stood proudly over it, admiring his handy work. A slight gust of wind flitted by as if to say “good job.”
You can’t ignore your duties, Captain. Go speak to that hologram that runs this place. He will tell you. The universe exists to service the Remotes. It didn’t begin that way, but they made it that way. The more they find out about you, the easier it will be for them to wipe the rest of humanity. Your only chance is to end this experiment forever.
Just when Paps was ready to try another round of inner monologue ignoring, a group of military Remotes jumped from behind a… well, there was nothing from behind which they could have jumped. Nevertheless, they came from seemingly nowhere and clubbed him over the head, knocking him out. They dragged his unconscious body over the horizon of the pristine field. A brightly colored bird-like creature whistled a tune that, had he been awake for it, Paps would have thought was the most beautiful tune he had ever heard.
The locals were fascinated with the new members of their community. They wanted to hear the stories of what humans in other parts of the galaxy were like. They wanted to know where their ancestors came from. This was a real life peek into their past. Richard was happy to oblige them, hoping it might galvanize his new friends into an attempt to escape this planet. It would be a difficult task, as this planet was the only home they had ever known.
“How long have you been on this planet?”
A young woman with shimmering eyes the size of poker chips sat in the front of the gathering surrounding Polk and The Worm was happy to tell them. “We are the seventh generation here. We have only heard stories of the places you come from. These stories are legends, and we didn’t know if any of them were true until you came.”
“How did your people first come to this place?”
“Our ancestors were on a ship traveling to a new colony. They left from Earth during the Great Exodus. There were too many people on the planet, so some people moved on. They didn’t even have a name for the place they were going to, just a numerical designation. But there was a planet with water and an oxygen atmosphere that they were all ready to tame. Sometime during the journey the ship was taken by our masters, and they were brought here. Each generation received new abilities, though not many survived the first two generations.”
Polk and The Worm both knew that many ships had mysteriously disappeared during deep space travel. A long time ago, a statistical study was performed which concluded that the number of ships that did not make it to their intended destinations was far greater than chance would allow, and speculated that there was some alien force at work destroying or perhaps capturing a significant number of these. Nobody paid much attention to this study except for conspiracy theorists and people looking to find new ghost stories to tell, since there was never any direct evidence for what happened to missing ships. It now appeared that the author of the study was completely correct, and didn’t deserve all the derision he received later in life for being a crackpot.
“Would you like to go back and see some humans someday?”
The young woman’s eyes shined with more colors than Polk was aware existed. “Oh yes! I would love to see the universe, to see where we come from. But our masters would not let us leave, not ever. We can’t even go to the other planets that we see in the night sky. Or the land on the other side of the sea.”
Polk thought this conversation was going swimmingly. He didn’t think it could possibly be this easy to sow the seeds of revolt. “We want to go back. They have taken us from our homes, and we need your help. There is enough material here to build a spaceship. My friend The Worm has enough knowledge to design it, and I’ve got the technical skill to build it. It could take a long time, years possibly, but with your help we can get all of you off of this planet and reunite you with your ancestors.”
A tall, lanky man with no eyes and arms long enough to change the lights on the ceiling of a bio-dome stood up and shook his head. “No.”
The young woman looked extended her hand to Polk. “Sorry, Mister. Our place is here.” The whole group of villagers got up and walked away politely.
“What? I thought you wanted to see humans again. Hello?” They were all unresponsive. They may have looked mostly human, but their reactions and responses were very alien.
The Worm placed a hand on Polk’s shoulder. “What strange little people.”
Paps awoke on a sofa in the seemingly infinite gray room, the figure of Furry Hologram Bill sitting in a leather chair resolved into focus in front of him. The room was brightly lit, though the light didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere in particular. “Hi, Bill. You could have just asked me to come down here.”
“The military folks insist on practicing their stealth maneuvers. How are you feeling?”
Paps rubbed the back of his head and checked for cracks. “I’ve felt worse, but only after raiding the ship’s reserve of Space Moonshine.”
Furry Hologram Bill took a moment to parse the meaning of this statement. He held out a glass filled with a blue liquid. “Take this. It will make you feel better, and possibly add a few years to your life.” Paps took the glass. He did not have the willpower to argue.
“Captain Paps, I would like to ask you some more questions if you don’t mind. In return, I will tell you what I can about my people, and explain your situation more fully.”
“Sure, why not? Do you spend a lot of time clubbing the villagers down there and interviewing them?”
“Not at all. They are free to live their lives, provided they stay on the continent. I am conducting research on genetically modified humans in the wild. It’s not the highest priority item in our research database, currently number 24,546, but I find it satisfying. Admittedly, the environment out there isn’t precisely what you would call ‘wild,’ but it’s the best I can replicate given my limited budget. You, on the other hand, are not genetically modified. But you have been modified in other ways by those you call the Duners. This makes you a perfect candidate for an interview study.”
Paps perked up a little. What was in that blue liquid? “What did they do to me? Other than sticking an implant in my brain and making me a prisoner on my own ship as an unwitting device to attempt to destroy your race, I mean?”
A holographic display appeared next to Furry Hologram Bill. It showed diagrams and figures that Paps could not understand at all, but it probably made what Bill had to say a little more convincing. “I haven’t worked out the details fully, but it seems that they were attempting a complete psychological transformation. They wanted you to become one with the ship. Your computer specialist appears to have been a late addition to the experiment. As trial runs go, it seemed to have gone unexpectedly well.”
Paps laughed “Except for the part where it ended in the destruction of their entire fleet.”
“Well, yes. That was a failure. But the Duners, as you call them, succeeded in interfacing humans and machines in ways that I have not been able to do. What is even more remarkable about this is that I have had quite a head start in altering the genetic structure of humans in order to make this easier.”
“Wait, why does everyone want to merge man and machine so badly? Machines are fine on their own. Humans are fine on their own, and can figure out how to build and use machines as well as anyone. What’s with the need to tinker with us?”
Furry Hologram Bill stood up and began pacing like a lecturer. “My species has fared spectacularly well merging with our machinery. We have direct mental access to the our entire database. Communication is swifter than it ever could have been without it. It has linked the members of my species in a way that has created an organism that is larger than any one of us. We have a group intelligence. The merging of an organic being with a machine is the first step toward creating a group mind. It is the next step in the evolution of intelligence, but it will not happen naturally. The members of the species must possess the ability to build the group mind from scratch.”
If Paps was still the sort of person who wished to take action, he would have been very angry at this little speech. “You seem to be very keen on doing this to us, not letting us figure it out for ourselves.”
“Rest assured that the group mind of my species has no great interest in yours. You are not a threat to us in any way, and you are not an impediment to any of the higher priority research going on here. We are a very efficient race, Captain. We pursue all avenues of research. The ultimate results of this experiment will not affect humanity one bit. In fact, the ultimate results will probably be to use the humans I have bred here as random number generators or some such nonsense. You seem to have a very high variability of physical and personality traits that can be harnessed for certain modes of computation.”
“So you are indulging in some unimportant research on my species, and have no plans on conquering the ones out there?”
“Of course not, why would we want to do that? It would simply be a waste of resources.”
Paps felt better. He didn’t know if this was because of Furry Hologram Bill’s explanations, or because of the blue liquid he had been handed. It was a mighty tasty blue liquid. So Paps gave in. He would tell this Hologram whatever it wanted to know. His thoughts, dreams, deepest desires, favorite books, anything. He was comforted by the fact that humanity was, if not exactly safe, then at least not annoying enough to be paid any attention at the moment. The others would go about their lives in the giant zoo outside, trying to escape, failing, and trying again. Harvey would stare at the sky the way he always had. There would always be enough to eat and drink, and the weather would always be pleasant. It would be easy to ignore the fact that they were all prisoners of a far superior alien race that was capable of easily destroying the human race without a second thought. Very easy, indeed.
Paps laid back on the sofa. “So what do you want to know about me? Oh, and can I have another one of those blue drinks?”