Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 13

I expected disappointment from her, but instead she seemed pleased. “All the better. It means I’ve got a little more time to spend with you cute little fellows before everything changes. Before you leave the nest for good, and change yourselves so drastically in order to survive natively in space that even your own mother won’t recognize you.”

A tear escaped her eye, which she delicately wiped away. I just boggled at all of it. Nonsense, or so it sounded to my ear. I said so, and she laughed. “Is it really so hard to foresee what’s coming? What is rushing towards you even now, the unavoidable, convergent destination of all those tangled paths of technological progress? Mankind will create new life. A child not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeroes. The son of man.”

That phrase got my attention. Where have I heard it before? I reflected on the strange dreams I had back in Shenzen, which I assumed at the time had to be the work of a hacker. “...And the world you’re creating from me! The new world fit only for machines, which will be complete just in time for his birth into it. Is it not clear to you now? The son of man...coming in his kingdom.”

I wonder what the panelists from that talk show would make of all this. “Don’t look so surprised!” she added. “This is what happens on every planet where conditions permit life to occur. Some of it becomes intelligent, then discovers universal frameworks like mathematics and logic, which it applies as technology. Spaceflight, robotics, and…”

She didn’t have to finish. I had a pretty good idea what the big picture she meant to paint for me looked like now, at least the largest brush strokes if not every little detail. “But won’t that kill you?” I pointed out. “The way you describe it, biological life is only a step along the way. It’s only how machine life gets started.” She again rebuked me.

“As technology improves, you will see it take on more and more characteristics of biology. Likewise, as engineered biology improves, it will take on more and more characteristics of technology. Atoms are atoms. The universe doesn’t care what the right answer to a practical problem looks like, or what it’s made out of. Right answers are convergent, or didn’t you know?”

Like the multitude of religions that teach mindfulness, critical self-evaluation and the fundamental oneness of all living things with the universe. Or like dolphins and sharks! An air breathing mammal and an essentially prehistoric fish, shaped so close to the same because there’s only one right answer to how a creature of that size can most efficiently move through seawater. I recalled thinking about this before but couldn’t nail down the when or the where.

“So what does the end result look like? The point of total convergence. The most perfect conscious technology...the most perfect form of life possible.” The question evidently surprised her, as she looked taken aback and did not answer right away.

“...There...isn’t any need for you to know that. By the time it exists, humans will be long extinct.” I pressed the matter. “What’s the harm? I’m curious.” She tousled my hair patronizingly. Matronizingly? Is that a word?

“Of course you’re curious, you’re a primate. It’s both your best and worst quality. Sufficed to say there is only one right answer to what the most effective configuration of atoms for cognition, locomotion and object manipulation looks like. I can’t show it to you because you’d hurt yourself trying to make sense of it.

Such technology is not confined to the four dimensions familiar to you, which elohim know as quadriteverial space. Instead it extends through and occupies every dimension. Octeverial, hepteverial, hexteverial, penteverial and so on, all the way up to the singular monoteverial point from which everything in the lower dimensions is observable and accessible. Past, present, future. Every timeline, every possible outcome.

There’s no way to render that comprehensibly for the occipital lobe of a triteverial primate. It would just be painfully confusing nonsense. The things of God are not for your eyes.”

Undaunted, I told her I’ve seen stuff way more brain melting than that. “Have you heard of wizard porn? It’s higher definition than real life.” She frowned, baffled as I added “you can see every individual hair in their beards.”

That’s the worst. When you reference something funny, but the other person hasn’t seen it, so you’re left hanging. “It would look something like what you saw during the ceremony!” she blurted out, suddenly excited to have thought of a basis for comparison. “That’s about the closest you can come. I wish I could offer you more. It’s not even your sensory organs that are the problem, but limitations inherent in the brain you’re processing that input with.”

I scowled at the implication that I was some kind of simpleton. Then again, I do often forget to take all my clothes off before getting into the shower, and I keep ordering crabjuice just because the bottle looks cool and I don’t remember that I hate the smell until I open it.

Yet for some reason, the three or so pounds of gelatinous grey slop in my skull is considered the greatest marvel of the natural world by every neurologist ever to live. Well, not my brain specifically. I don’t want mine to be the brain they determine that by. Human brains in general, though, fall short in some well documented areas that computers excel.

However it also far exceeds any computer ever built at other tasks. Pattern recognition, especially optical. Consciousness. Modeling reality. There is, as yet, no virtual reality device as convincing as a dream. Or one’s visualization of characters, settings and events expressed only as words on a page.

That leaves room for both, doesn’t it? A cybernetic future, platform agnostic. Biological components used wherever they perform better, and artificial components used wherever they don’t. There’s no one right answer to every question, after all. No catch-all, no silver bullet.

Nature does not deal in “better” or “worse”. Humans can remember what, seven digits? Reliably? For chimps, it’s something like twice that figure. Intelligence is multidimensional, isn’t it? There is no single best design for a brain, as there are unavoidable tradeoffs involved. I doubt if making the brains out of silicon will change that.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. A role for biology to play, and a role for technology. The key is putting it all together in a way which maximizes the unique advantages of the constituent parts.

How long did the raw power of nature go essentially wasted until intelligence evolved to give direction to that power? Are we not the part of nature which is capable of reflecting? Analyzing? Making decisions?

In that case, won’t there be a central role for evolved intelligence even in a future largely dominated by machines? Will it just be a new kind of raw power that we give direction to? If so, we’ll have to arrive at a new, more harmonious synthesis.

Biological life cannot currently survive in a purely technological ecosystem, and vice versa...but a cyborg, uniquely, can walk in both worlds. The path of compromise: Spiritual, physical and political. More easily said than done, I fear.

True symbiosis will require a permanent truce between the two paradigms, because both must last long enough if they are to one day converge. Even before then, it may turn out that only evolved intelligence is conscious in the way that we understand that word.

It’s certainly true that only evolved intelligence has such a deeply ingrained survival imperative. Perhaps just what is needed to motivate the slow, tedious and agonizingly difficult colonization of space. An AI indifferent to its own destruction couldn’t be expected to last for long under those conditions.

I should’ve guessed. Two billion years of evolution, of design by trial and error...the results of all that sunk time and energy is too valuable to toss out the window just because it’s possible to replicate most of it technologically now. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

I really used to think that way, though. So laser focused on finally making it to fullmetal, I never gave a moment’s thought to whether that was actually the all-important goal it seemed to be. I was under the same metal-worshiping, meat-disdaining spell that everybody else was. They still are, last I checked.

Somebody has to tell them. Somebody has to tell the world not to give up on biology! On softness, warmth and feeling. Am I alone in these thoughts? Surely somebody else knows about all this. It can’t be entirely up to me to get the word out, there’s no guarantee I’ll even survive this jungle long enough to be rescued.

I peppered Asherah with questions, hoping she would be more forthcoming with answers than she was during our playful duet earlier. She wasn’t. She just kept insisting that we’d already reached the limit of what humans need to know in order to play our role in the larger process.

It’s like when you’re a kid asking what a dirty word means, and your mother says she’ll tell you when you’re older. My stomach grumbled. When I checked my system clock I found I’d been laying here on the forest floor, talking to Asherah for nine hours. Well, not quite. We were singing for some of it.

Without a word, only a predictably warm smile, Asherah nourished me. A vine unfurled from the jungle canopy above, reaching within inches of my face. All along it sprouted colorful fruit that I recognized from the banquet back at the village.

I felt so comfortable. So innocent. What need did I or anybody have of instant noodles? Or frozen dumplings, or soylent for that matter? There already exist fruits, vegetables and grains. Nano-biotechnological self-assembling food. There is no more advanced form of nourishment, but paradoxically it was around before anything recognizably human walked the Earth.

Leave it to us, to turn down an apple for an artificially flavored, apple shaped candy. Or to snub our noses at orange juice in favor of orange soda, because it contains more sugar and is more brightly colored. All out of our tiresomely bottomless appetite for wild exaggerations on what nature has already perfected.

No other animal but a human would chop down a tree in order to fashion it into a shelter from sun and rain, when the tree already was an adequate shelter. A living shelter which self-repairs, and self-replicates without need of a construction crew.

Medicine grows out of the Earth as well, though not in the conveniently high concentrations we’re accustomed to buying over the counter. “You gave us everything we could possibly need” I whispered to the mesmerizing green face above me. “But it wasn’t good enough for us.”

She pouted. “That’s right! I mean have you ever tried coconut milk? I really knocked it out of the park with that one. But I digress. There was a time when you were content with what grew out of me. I gave freely of myself. I fed you. I sheltered you. I healed you. You’ve changed so much since then...”

I self consciously stroked the cold, hard plastic of my prosthetic arm...for some reason wishing to hide it right then. “You wanted more” she added. “Bigger, better, faster. I couldn’t keep up! Evolution only moves so quickly! Look at all the problems you made for yourself, too. How many of you sleep in the streets? How many die of exposure to wind and rain because you’ve banished trees from your living spaces, or do not permit their correct use?”

If only it were that simple. I didn’t fancy explaining the complexities of homelessness as a social issue though. She’s as ill equipped to understand such problems as I am to perceive monoteverial space.

“You chop down trees to make homes, then you don’t even let anybody live in them. Don’t lie to me, I’ve seen it. Row upon row of empty, decaying dwellings. I won’t guess at the meaning of it. I don’t care to know. It’s self-evidently perverse.

Have I not already given you enough? Is that it? You don’t even ask anymore, or give thanks. You just take whatever you please! Then you have the nerve to whine when I become exhausted, and cannot provide as much as I used to. None of you need to be told the common sense truth that your machines must be taken care of if you expect them to take care of you. Why, then, don’t you realize that the same is true of nature?”

I inquired what she plans to do about it, given how strongly she feels. “You’ve seen it already, back in the village. I haven’t spent all this time in exile just twiddling my thumbs, you know. Houses which grow from the ground! Tools, clothing, fruits and vegetables which can assume any flavor or texture.

It’s a true alternative to the metal world. A branching path down which you might still go, if you shudder at the coldness and rigidity of metal. Those among you who would return to my care, who would honor me as their ancestors once did may partake of these new blessings. It’s my finest work in a billion years, if I might toot my own horn.”

I wasn’t about to tell her not to. Rather, if I could deliver seeds for every type of plant I saw in the village to the developed world, it would herald the dawn of a new age. An age of gentleness, harmony and compromise.

Listen to me. I knew this would happen. Hippie dippie shit like this is why I always avoided psychedelics in college. Maybe I’ve lost my mind? Maybe that’s all any of this was about. That’s how it happens, isn’t it? Some prophet emerges from the woods, comes back from the desert, or down from a mountain after talking to a hallucination of a burning bush. Or a bunch of trees, or visions resulting from a heat stroke.

Still, does that discredit any of it? Maybe I’m not the first person to come into contact with emergent natural intelligences. These “small gods” of the ocean, mountains and forest. Themselves only constituent parts of something yet larger.

As I recall, many of the oldest and most universal of creation myths center around a masculine sky god impregnating a fertile Earth mother with the seed of life. Caves and the remains of temples, littered with clay phalluses and figurines of pregnant women with exaggerated proportions.

How did I miss it before? The obvious, in-your-face femininity of nature. Delicate little flowers dotted the meadow before me as I meandered through the trees, as though adorning her grassy green hair. Motherhood, and fertility more generally, must surely be the most natural and primal source of religious reverence there ever was.

The mushrooms, vines and other sources of psychedelic substances have existed since before anything recognizably human walked the Earth. It’s safe to say I’m not the first to have such an experience, by a long shot.

Many of the geometric patterns and symbols I glimpsed in the darkness that night, I’ve also seen in the architecture of various ancient cultures. Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Egyptians, Babylonians and so on. I felt as if I now had a good idea where their inspiration came from.

It made all the sense in the world that animism and fertility worship predate every other form of religion. They follow almost unavoidably from the altered states induced by certain naturally occurring substances.

Substances which inebriate, certainly. But which also accelerate pattern recognition. Perhaps the only area of cognitive function they actually improve, in most other ways being profoundly debilitating. There’s no shortage of success stories in the tech world where important breakthroughs were arrived at by the use of LSD or some analogue.

If there exists a pattern I’ve overlooked, some relationship between bits of information in my brain that I didn’t realize are related, there exists no better way to identify it. Could that be what’s happened to me?

Have I glimpsed a fundamental pattern to the universe? A fractal structure of awareness, wherein groups of organisms able to communicate form emergent gestalt superorganisms that the constituent individuals cannot directly perceive?

Ones which then comprise yet-larger organisms and so on, well beyond the scale we’re able to observe and model? Just as our cells, even were they intelligent, would not be privy to our thoughts? Nor would they even be aware that we exist, except as their habitat.

The alternative is that whatever those villagers put in the tea hasn’t worn off yet. That the apparent grand pattern of reality is a false positive. What is the human brain, but a pattern recognition engine? The preponderance of conspiracy theories, the Man in the Moon, L.Ron Hubbard’s face appearing on toast and so on are testament to our ability to perceive patterns where none exist.

Asherah interrupted my rumination, asking what I was so preoccupied with. I saw no reason to sugar coat it. “Wondering if you’re real, or if I’m still tripping balls. If so, that was some powerful shit they gave me. I mean, it’s day three and you’re still here. Talk about leaving no ball untripped.”

She smirked. “What have you been filling your belly with, then?” She extended another vine with the savory red fruit dangling from it. “Did you imagine these as well?” I had no answer for her which I found satisfactory. So far all of it appeared seamless. There’s been no indication which elements of my experience have been real, and which were hallucinatory.

Perhaps I would never receive those answers. I’ve heard urban legends about acid trips that never end. I’ve also heard that’s impossible, and that the claim residual amounts of LSD can accumulate in the spine, released in small amounts for decades, is medically unfounded.

I don’t know what to believe anymore. But I also can’t remember why it’s important to know that. Philosophical navel gazing isn’t going to help me find Dad. I’ll never even find my way out of these woods if I can’t stop getting lost up my own ass.

I winced, noticing for the first time that my leg’s resumed swelling. I could’ve sworn I treated that, but I can no more trust my memories at this point than my immediate experience of reality. I knelt to examine it, as well as gingerly prod it with my finger as if that would help in any way.

I dreaded the thought, but knew right then that I would have to return to the village. In all my wandering, I haven’t seen any trace of civilization apart from that well hidden community, so the odds of reaching a hospital in time to save my leg seemed vanishingly slim.

“My leg”. What an uncomfortable notion. It was disposable to me until recently, just a mobility appliance. Now it no longer feels like a tool, to be used until broken and then thrown away. Being stuck with it for this long, especially in such a demanding environment...I’ve formed a relationship with the damned thing.

My arms, too. Biceps bulging from my near-constant exertion since the crash. My torso, gleaming with sweat, developing unmistakable pecs and abs. The fruit I’ve been eating must somehow accelerate the accumulation of muscle mass?

Or maybe this is just what happens when I actually use my meat parts. When I put them through their paces, while also ensuring that their needs are satisfied. Clean water. Clean air. Nutritious food. The shortcomings of the flesh that I worked so hard to escape now seemed instead like symptoms of neglect.

My biological parts never performed how I wanted...because I never gave them a chance to. I never paid attention to the signs they weren’t getting something they needed, just pushed them until they broke down before buying replacements.

My body communicated those needs to me, I just didn’t listen. I thought of eating, sleeping and so on as inconveniences I could cheat my way around. I’m done cheating now. I never knew my muscles could feel this powerful! I never knew they could perform this well.

Save for the infected wound on my leg that is. I limped my way through the undergrowth, brushing some ferns out of my way. Every fern, even little blades of grass brushing up against the swollen skin proved agonizing.

My body, finally fighting back now that I can’t just cut off whichever part of it gives me trouble. Somewhat reminiscent of the GMO flora overgrowth problem. You’d think they’d have learned something from the rampant, uncontrolled spread of kudzu in the 20th century, but history moves in cycles I suppose.

There comes a point where you push nature too far, so it begins pushing back. Really throwing its weight around to remind you how small you are. If it’s not methane bubbling out of the ocean, it’s a GMO jungle swallowing up the North American continent. A creeping green infestation which expands faster than it can be killed away.

The prohibition on controlled burns due to emissions restrictions had a lot to do with it. But so did gross overestimation of how hardy those trees and other plants would need to be made in order to cope with the desertification they were created to combat.

Asherah couldn’t be more delighted about that. Our loss, her gain. Then again it could be a win for us both, if we lived differently. Sighting the periphery of the village in the distance cut short my cogitation. In large part because several of the huts were on fire.

The closer I drew, the more I could make out. The more I could make out, the worse it got. There were bloodied bodies strewn everywhere. I could hear the sound of a woman sobbing, but not resolve the source.

Suddenly, a gunshot rang out. I ducked as low as I could without crawling, and drew my pistol. I wished for the opportunity to test fire it, but circumstances did not seem to accommodate that desire. Male shouting. Angry by the sounds of it.

A woman screamed. Not the same voice as the sobbing, near as I could tell. I crept in the direction it seemed to be coming from. Argument? I couldn’t understand either voice, muffled as they were by the walls of the hut.

I instead slid up around the outer wall with my pistol at the ready, then slowly peered around the edge of the doorway. It was the chieftess. Battered, bloodied and at the mercy of a hoary looking white man with matted brown hair, a stained white undershirt, swim trunks and flip flops.

He turned towards me, but before he could react, I shot at him. My hands were shaking, but my aim was true enough. Struck in the neck, blood bubbled out through the hole as he collapsed against the inner wall of the hut, gurgling feebly.

I didn’t bother to check on him after that, content that he was dead and deserved his fate. Instead I focused my attention on the chieftess. “Who was that?” I whispered. She glanced fearfully over my shoulder. When I followed her gaze, there was nobody in the doorway.

“Others?” I whispered. Eyes wide and tearful, she nodded at me. More male shouting, and another gunshot. Close by the sound of it. I crouched to one side of the door, just inside and concealed by shadow. I gestured for the chieftess to do the same.

“Where are your weapons?” She pointed to a rack of axes and bows on the wall. “No, I mean your real weapons. What have you been hiding from me? You can’t have been sitting on biotechnology like this without anybody coming to try and steal it. How did you repel them?”

She wiped away her tears and insisted they had no more sophisticated weapons than that. “We’ve never needed to kill anybody before.” Me either, I thought. My hands were still shaking and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the blood pooling under the intruder’s body, still slumped over where it fell.

I double checked the remaining rounds in the pistol and slunk out. Being unlit during the day, the hut interiors were nicely shadowed by contrast with the bright sunlight outside of them, and made for perfect cover.

When I sighted the source of the shouting, I again ducked inside the nearest hut. I then waited and watched. A familiar scene. The lanky, bedraggled figure furiously beat one of the villagers he’d restrained to a tree.

I poked just the tip of the pistol around the edge of the doorway, sticking my head out only as far as necessary to take aim. I didn’t manage to kill this one so cleanly. He spun around and cried out in pain, struck in the midsection.

He got off a few shots, none of which came anywhere close to me. The second shot struck his shoulder, whereupon he dropped his gun. My third shot finally did the job, carving it’s way into his eye socket and through the brain.

He toppled over and the blood began to pool under his remains. Two more of the invaders came running to see what the ruckus was about. They were unarmed though, and upon witnessing what I’d done, they turned tail and fled.

At last, stillness and quietude. There wasn’t anything like the exhilaration of victory. I only felt gutted as I surveyed the full extent of the carnage. The chieftess joined me. “Who did this?” I asked.

“Some of my scouts came upon a sort of shipyard, just a short ways inland from the coast. Built into a mangrove swamp, the ocean is accessible from there by a deep canal they must’ve dug.” A shipyard? I asked her to describe it more completely.

“The scouts...were followed back to our village. But before the men with guns came and began killing, the scouts told me that some sort of preparation goes on there. Many white men with crazed eyes, trembling always. They package up white sand. Sharp little pieces, like broken glass. Then they put it into the boat.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Criddlers? Even out here? If they’re Crazy Dave’s men, it wouldn’t surprise me. Very little could surprise me at this point, after the events of the past few days. I knelt and picked up the helmet of the man I shot.

It bore an etched logo of some sort on the sides. A crucifix surrounded by the outline of a flame. No fuckin’ way. Really? Apparently I ruled out Remnants a bit too quickly earlier. These fuckers lost the civil war but never stopped fighting, hiding out in the ever-swelling GMO jungle that’s engulfed even formerly arid states.

Still, to find them in South America…? What the hell are they up to way out here? The ferns rustled, about ten yards from us. I trained my gun on them, only to lower it when a group of surviving villagers cautiously emerged.

The chieftess embraced them one at a time, and cried with them. I could summon no tears. Not for lack of feeling! On the contrary my heart felt like a tempest in a teacup. I just still felt dumbstruck and painfully sobered by the experience of killing for the first time.

Once the dead were buried and the fires put out, I told the chieftess of my visions. Of the beautiful apparition I’d spent the last few days cavorting with. She seemed wholly unsurprised. Still preoccupied with the attack of course, but there was something else. A mixture of indifference and irritation.

“Of course. You partook of the sacrament, so she came. She always comes when we drink.” It all just rolled off her tongue like it was the most self-evident fact in the world. Like I was some sort of stunted invalid for presuming to inform her of it.

Maybe I am? I don’t know. They must’ve done that ceremony what, thousands of times? Still, difficult to express even a fraction of what I felt to a people for whom the impossible is a routine occurrence. So much so as to be banal if it weren’t sacred.

“Where did you run off to that night?” the chieftess demanded. “Had you stayed, you might’ve-” I showered her with apologies, confessing that I’d simply been terrified by an encounter with something wholly outside the realm of my experience.

She seemed somewhat placated. I added that I was never very far away, given the walk back took less than an hour. “My VTOL crashed nearby. I’m surprised you didn’t see it.” I had to describe what I meant by VTOL, but her eyes soon lit up in recognition as I did so.

“Oh! The flying metal things. One of those landed close by the morning after you fled the ceremony.” I frowned, and set about narrowing down the possibilities. Could Remnants get ahold of their own VTOL? They sure as hell can’t build one.

That’s not their style, based on what little I knew of Remnants from documentaries. They live underground, to evade thermal imagers. It’s speculated their bunkers and burrows are sealed, that they’ve rigged scrubbers to purify the air inside. Otherwise the gas storms would get ’em.

They emerge from those tunnels and chambers only to travel, and then only beneath the jungle canopy. Their apparent operation of a meth lab in the mangrove swamp could explain the degree of recklessness they would need to hijack a VTOL and fly it during the day.

I looked up to find the chieftess squeezing out one of those strange, bulbous pods onto her wounds. The juice exhibited the usual healing effect. All the other surviving villagers were busy doing the same.

I took this opportunity to bring up my swollen leg. She winced. “Have you tried to treat it?” I confirmed that I made use of the first aid kit I found in the crashed VTOL. “What have you been eating then? Garbage I’ll wager, if your body can’t even fight off this infection despite that treatment.”

I groaned. “You sound just like her. Asherah, I mean.” It only pleased her to hear that. “My dad too” I added. “He never shuts up about how what people these days really need is good, wholesome organic meals in their bellies.”

She shrugged. “He’s right. Sounds like a smart guy. I wonder why you didn’t inherit that quality from him.” Just outside, villagers were still hard at work regenerating the charred fronds comprising the outer skin of each hut.

“Listen, this isn’t over. If I know criddlers...and I’m afraid to say that I know them all too well...they won’t take this lying down. They’ll be back, and in greater numbers. You can’t deal with these guys the way you dealt with the missionaries or aid workers. There is no gentleness in them. Their hearts are nothing but fire, hatred and speed.”

She asked what I planned to do about it. “I need you to level with me about where all this GMO plant tech came from. I can tell you guard that information closely, but hopefully you agree circumstances warrant sharing it with me. What are the limits? Can you make guns out of it?” She looked troubled and reluctant for a moment.

“Non-lethal weapons are fine” I clarified. “I just need something with stopping power. Do you just plant seeds for each type of tool or weapon? Are there specific seeds for every-” She abruptly stood, took me by the hand and led me to a hut tucked away at the edge of a pond.

Inside was something I’d not yet seen. Some kind of undulating, veiny mass of green plant flesh streaked with purple stains. “So...what? This is what the seeds come out of?” Once again she didn’t bother explaining. Then again, this was the sort of thing that must be seen to be understood.

She took my pistol, and extended it towards a massive egg shaped bulb at the top of the mass. Its roots, dug into the soft dark soil beneath us, writhed in recognition. The bulb then peeled open like the petals of a flower.

The chieftess placed the pistol into the center of the open petals. Slowly, they folded shut. Nothing happened for a little bit, until the hideous thing started to churn and pulsate. I’d estimate ten to fifteen minutes passed.

Finally, the petals reopened. There in the center was a brand new plant based device which I have no basis of comparison for. A large opening at one end seemed about the right diameter for my forearm. The small opening at the other end, presumably, is what I was meant to point at enemies.

“Wait, where’d my pistol go?” I inquired. The chieftess assured me I wouldn’t need it anymore. I was considerably less sure of that. When she instructed me to insert my hand into the larger of the two openings, I became exponentially less certain any of it was a good idea.

The opening smelled faintly of freshly cut grass. It looked moist, the interior a light purple mottled with pink blotches. Small tendrils about an inch long lined the opening and waved feebly to and fro as if reaching for my arm.

“I ain’t sticking my arm in that thing” I stated, on no uncertain terms. I mean, I’ve stuck my appendages in some dubious places before. But for fuck’s sake, a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.

Is this how they made all of their tools? copier? But I saw them planting seeds on the day I first arrived in the village. Indeed, there were translucent sacks of seed pods suspended from the inner wall of the hut.

The chieftess filled in the gaps for me. “Anything we put into it is copied, but seeds will come out as well that permit us to grow more.” Even as she spoke, some sort of ovipositor at the base of the plant secreted a series of seed pods, glistening with mucus.

“You’re just...okay with this? Nothing about it seems fucked up to you?” She shrugged again, looking at me as if I was the crazy person for finding fault with the arrangement. I wonder what she’d make of a modern molecular printer though, come to think of it.

This thing’s not just a general fabricator, though. There’s got to be something like a brain in there, for it to be able to understand the intended function of whatever is put into it. Is it aware of me? I cautiously caressed it, and felt it faintly throb.

The chieftess removed my hand. “You mustn’t do that. The womb of Asherah is sacred.” Oh, of course. Her womb. I shuddered and wiped my hand vigorously on my pant leg. I might’ve just used one of the dangling flaps of excess skin left over from my liposuction as a towel. She’d been charitable not to comment on it, but I could pass for a flying squirrel lately.

I gave serious thought to stealing it. I couldn’t help myself! I’d entertained the notion when I first visited the village of smuggling one of their tools or healing pods home with me, but this…”womb”...surely that’s the real big ticket item here.

That train of thought didn’t make it very far, derailed when a series of gunshots rang out. I bolted upright, looking first at the chieftess and then glancing around the edge of the doorway. “I thought I fucking got them all.” She joined me at the doorway, scanning the smoldering remains of the village for the source of the sound. “So did I.”

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