Spawning Ground by Joel Tagert

Art by Roman Makarenko

Spawning Ground
By Joel Tagert
Art by Roman Makarenk
Published Issue 120, December 2023

The fabricator would endure only a few blocks’ exposure in the short journey between Nishiki Tech’s Koto-ku factory to the Shinsei Maru, currently docked at the Port of Tokyo directly adjacent to the industrial ward. Once at sea it would be infinitely harder for Nao or her AI to infiltrate, the container being completely sealed against intrusions physical or electromagnetic. Pandora’s box was a copper and aluminum Faraday chamber in a nest of steel armor.

Flying with a six-rotor drone attachment on the robot’s back, Nao piloted the security android to the top of a building three blocks away from the container’s transport route. Ikaonryo, her AI, had created a cover story for her progress here; the android was ostensibly on the roof to maintain the building’s enormous HVAC units. Whether and how long this story would hold up under scrutiny was an open question, especially since any clear image of the bot would show that it bristled with weapons. 

They’d run the scenario in the sim again and again, but this was real (or so she kept telling herself), and there was no telling what would happen. Ika could predict and project until Nao died of old age, but there were other AI just as powerful assigned to protecting the fabricator, merciless corporate guardians that bore about as much resemblance to a personal assistant as a great white shark does to a pet goldfish.

A garage door rolled open at the rear of Nishiki’s factory. First came a security vehicle, an armored Hummer-sized tank with a weapons rack on the roof. Next came the transport, a big blue electric semi, its sloped face smooth as a beetle’s carapace. On its back was the container, emblazoned with Nishiki’s orange dot-dash-dot logo. Another small tank followed. 

“Is everything ready?”

“Affirmative. Operation Spawning Ground is ready to execute.”

The launch word was on her (figurative) tongue, but she hesitated, knowing that this was it. Nothing she’d done so far was certain to result in irreversible consequences even if discovered, but this was the real deal. Succeed or fail, Nishiki and the police would stop at nothing to find the perpetrator. International agencies, the world’s canniest investigators and their superintelligent AI, would turn their gazes toward this spot and this moment like terrifying sphinxes. 

Let them! Nishiki and its government accomplices had assassinated her parents and robbed her of her body. Even if they traced her involvement, and sealed her again in the prison of her body, they’d know she hadn’t taken it lying down. So to speak. She lifted her hand. “Spawn,” she said, and five small missiles shot from her left wrist down toward the moving truck.

They were intercepted in midair by even smaller concussive missiles launched instantly from the lead tank’s roof rack, but that was expected. They exploded into giant clouds of smoke, clouds that kept growing as their components spread through the air, hampering the convoy’s sensors.

The tanks had traced the missile’s flight path, and a dozen sparrow-sized drones also shot up to disable her android. In response a swarm of glowing bees burst from her shoulders, their paths corkscrewing through the smoke, exploding into little fireworks when they struck a drone. 

In any case she was no longer on the roof, having leapt from it the second she’d fired. The android landed on its feet with the surety of a precision gyroscope, smoke swirling around her. Several small bots skittered rapidly toward her, spider drones released by the tanks. Nao used the cinder block wall behind her to press off in a high leap above the spiders, firing concussive rounds from her arms. Metal and plastic shot in all directions. 

She couldn’t hold them off for long, but she wouldn’t need to. Beneath the transport a bright silver light was growing, a robotic plasma cutter she’d planted earlier having attached itself to the bottom left of the container. She was reasonably sure it wasn’t directly below the fabricator; if she was wrong, all this would be pointless, the sensitive nanotech components sure to be damaged. 

Her leap had brought her within yards of the container. A timer dinged in her audio feed, as though she were baking a cake: the plasma cutter had finished its work, and swinging beneath the undercarriage, her magnetic palm pulled free a thick steel circle the size of a serving platter, molten edges glowing yellow-white. Meanwhile several of the spiders had attached to her legs, and rather than wait for them to explode, she simply detached her lower limbs as she hauled her upper body in through the portal she’d made, pulling the steel plate back in place behind her and immediately slapping another small robotic arc welder down onto the seam. 

The bots or their controllers would figure it out in a second, but they did not immediately open the door of the container to destroy her, probably wary of damaging its contents. And here it was: a gleaming silver box seamed with copper inlay. 

The device had an interface panel, and with arms only she secured her torso and head before it. Her body locked on, plugging into several key interfaces. “I’m in,” she announced. “Are we still online?”

“Affirmative,” answered her assistant. “But Nishiki has traced the signal and is working to isolate it. We may have only— ”

The AI’s voice cut off mid-sentence. “Ika?” Nao said.

“Nao,” someone said, from inside the container. Had she been physically present, she would have jumped. 

A man in a loose black suit had appeared in the corner of the shipping container, near the still-locked entrance. He had thin gray hair swept back, a mustache and goatee, and a scattering of moles on his gentle face. It was her father — her father, who had died along with her mother in a sabotaged helicopter two years ago, nearly to the day. “Nao,” he said again, standing up from a seat built into the corner. 

“You’re not real,” she said immediately. 

“Is any of this real?” he replied. “All your sensory input is simulated.”

“Some of it is more real than others.” He was almost certainly some kind of intrusion by the Nishiki AI guardians. In which case Ika was probably disabled or destroyed. But in that case, how did she still have a connection?

“I suppose that’s true. But if so, this is the realest thing of all, what I’m about to say: People are going to get hurt, Nao. People like you, like me, like your mother. Even if you do believe this is all a kind of dream, then it’s a dream of pain, of pointless anger, of suffering. Why go down that road?”

Because it’s the only way I can feel anything! 

“You could dwell in paradise,” he continued. “A kind of heaven, the true realm of the mind. Why not?”

“If it’s all a dream,” she replied, “then when I tear it apart it will still be a dream. If it’s not a dream, then how else can I fight the monsters that did this to us?”

He paused before answering. “Do you still like the ume rice cakes from Family Mart?”

She was stung. The truth was that Ikaonryo, who simulated all her sensations as she lay immobile in long-term care, couldn’t well simulate taste. The flavor of the small, delicate pink cakes that used to be her favorite snack was lost to her. Tears came to her eyes. 

There was another explanation for her father’s presence here, of course: That this was a genuine hallucination, a figment of the truly deranged mind of a locked-in invalid who had never been very mentally stable. “I’m not crazy,” she said bitterly. “And you’re not real.”

Nao turned the android’s head a hundred and eighty degrees, back to the fabricator. The program Ika had created had finished its work, and the feed stocks stored in the android’s body — cartridges of elements in powdered forms — had been delivered to the machine. A high humming rose within the shipping container. The doors behind her slammed open and spiders leapt inside, tearing apart her temporary body.

But it was too late. A swarm of writhing tentacles, obsidian, irregular, saw-edged, exploded out of the fabricator’s shielding, tearing it apart. The tentacles stabbed toward the spiders, which fought, but hopelessly. Whatever they shattered reformed anew, the nanobots magnetically reforming before they each touched the ground to attack anew. It was like fighting a storm of black dust, if dust was stronger than spinning saw blades. There was a reason nanotech fabricators were kept under such close guard.

The fabricator kept humming as the weapon tore apart the rest of the convoy and swarmed hissing up another building, where Nao stood in a new and undamaged android body, Ikaonryo having triumphed in whatever shadowy battle it had been fighting with its Nishiki counterparts. It had started to rain. In the near distance she could see the amber lights of the port, the mantis arms of the giant cranes hanging over the dark water. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not to herself but to the ghost of her father, raindrops streaming down her gleaming plastic visage. 

Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.

Roman Makarenko is a digital and 3D artist from Ukraine. Check out more of his work on Instagram and ArtStation.

Check out Joel’s November Birdy install, Jailbreak, in case you missed it or head to our Explore section to see more from this talented writer.