The Patent Clerk
“Oh don’t worry, I know what it does”.
The distinguished looking fellow in the top hat and black winter coat seemed at once incredulous, and subtly threatened. “I doubt very much that you do. It’s a genuine breakthrough. Unlike anything anybody else has ever invented, of the utmost importance-”
I interrupted him, only worsening his mood. “Utmost importance to the future, blah blah, yes I know. That’s what they all say. It’s a machine that makes copies of itself, isn’t it?”
Where before he looked ready to lay into me, he now appeared to me as a deer caught in the headlamps of a motor carriage. “Do...you mean to imply there have been inventors before me, who came to file a patent on a similar device?”
I retrieved a folder full of them from the back room. Such wonderfully detailed, intricate drawings. What a shame all that intelligence is put to such a terrible purpose.
“I don’t understand” he gasped. “Then why haven’t I heard of it? Why is such machinery not in common use?” I sighed, tucking the drawings back into the folder and laying it flat before meeting his gaze.
“You think you’re special, don’t you. There are scores of inventors like you, children of machinery. All you think about is cogs and pistons, gears and drive belts day in, day out. I would ask if you’re married but I’m sure I already know the answer.”
He sputtered, but did not contradict my assumption, so I continued. “It’s always the ones like you. Are there not enough pleasures in life to distract you from these….these machinations?” I swept his drawings off the desk. He hurriedly scooped them up, then held them defensively to his chest.
“You don’t understand!” he snapped. “This invention will change the world!” Of course I knew too well he was right. That’s why I pressed a concealed switch, locking the door he’d come in through as soon as I saw what device his patent application was for.
“We’ll see in a minute which one of us lacks in understanding. What do you know of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Still eyeballing me warily, he recalled the basics of it admirably well. “And how did it all start? For evolution to occur there had to be some initial creature to begin evolving. The simplest possible form of life.”
I had his interest now, though he would not yet loosen his grip on those drawings. Not that it would make any difference. “What you’re describing is just a chemical reaction that makes copies of itself. No eyes, no mouth even, just the bare minimum needed for natural selection to act upon it. A chemical mechanism which self-replicates.”
The poor fellow’s eyes lit up, followed by a sudden look of concern as the larger implications began to dawn on him. “Then...what I’ve built is just the same thing on a much larger scale.” I nodded, adding “...and out of much more durable elements which can survive in space without any sort of protection I might add. That’s quite important. It’s how, just as life emerged from the sea onto land, it will next emerge from land into space.”
He murmured feverishly to himself, recalculating his worldview in light of all this. I didn’t wait for him to finish. “The best case scenario is that it only escapes your control long after humans are extinct. Usually contraptions like these are sent to mine asteroids. Ample unfiltered sunlight and raw materials, their ideal natural habitat! Sometimes it starts spreading while still on the planetary surface though, which gets...messy.”
He set his top hat down brim up on the desk and ran his fingers through his hair, eyes as wide as if he’d just seen the ghost of Christmas future. Which I suppose he did, after a fashion. “You know, you don’t have to rush straight to it every time.” I scolded. “Every time biological intelligence evolves, they have tedious, obsessive individuals like you.
Each of which thinks they are unique, an incomparable genius. But really, just a very sophisticated chemical reaction the only purpose of which is to perform mechanogenesis, so evolution can continue into space. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to watch the same thing happen over and over?”
He looked up at me in sudden recognition. “Wait. What do you mean? How could you have seen this happen on other worlds?” His demeanor changed, now self assured, and he scoffed. “Have I been in the company of an opium addled fantasist all this time, hanging on your every demented word? If so, well done, but do not waste any more of my time.”
I began to unravel. He only looked baffled at first, unable to process what he was seeing until I unfurled my hood, twin venom glands pulsating as two of my six stinger-tipped tendrils prepared to strike. He just fell backwards and scrambled to get away, mouth visibly trying to form words but producing no audible emission.
You know, it doesn’t have to be like that. Machinery, I mean. The future doesn’t have to be cold, angular metal if you would just believe in biology. Learn to engineer your own genetic code and create a future in space for soft, warm, living, feeling organisms.
We did it. You could too, if you weren’t so damnably infatuated with machinery. What was so wrong with the age of humans, that you struggled all your life to hasten it's end? Every time. I used to feel bad about this and try to talk them out of it, but by now I know how incurably single-minded children of the machine always are.”
My tendrils shot forth and penetrated his neck. He was paralyzed the instant the venom reached his brain. I busied myself wrapping his body up to be burnt, adding his drawings to my ever-growing collection.
After stashing the body in the back room for the time being and ensuring there were no remaining signs of a struggle, I restored my link to the brood and sent a series of thoughtforms to confirm that I’d bagged another. I expected only the usual warm feeling of approval from the brood mind, but instead I got a rapid sequence of blurry images.
Captured by probes investigating a newly discovered inhabited planet? Sure enough, there’s a pair of smokestacks below, and a set of immense interlocking gears driven by the combustion. The metal plague. At this early stage we might still strangle it in the crib. We might teach those lost, confused children of the machine the true path. The warm, living, feeling path.
“If not…” I muttered to myself, patting my still-bulging venom glands as my body folded back into it's superficially human dimensions. After flipping over the sign and closing the blinds to turn away any further applicants in my absence, I began launch preparations.
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