Author : John Carroll

The killer whale that I had dubbed Aster and the robotic companion dolphins that he was chasing erupted into view, flashing across the length of the viewing window and back out of our field of vision so quickly that by the time Maria could squeak with surprise they were already gone again. I felt Elizabeth shiver involuntarily.

The sleek robots, guided by my mind, led Aster back into view. He noticed us then, drifting toward the screen and turning over several times. He began to paddle lazily back and forth across the fortified plastic wall. Kashvi thought that now he seemed more like a gigantic panda bear than the fierce column of predatory might we had witnessed moments before.

“Extremely charismatic, isn’t he?” I said. “It’s little wonder Orcas saturated the mythology of indigenous coastal cultures for centuries.”

Aster was very close now, close enough for us to see the thin surgical scar on his eyespot that proved he was a co-pilot.

“Many of our passengers were disturbed to think that Aster would be joining your ranks as a co-pilot,” I continued. “Many remain ignorant when it comes to the android/co-pilot relationship. It’s still widely believed that each co-pilot needs to understand the physics of the voyage. Of course, I did not select Aster for his mathematics credentials. In fact, he will probably play a relatively small role in this expedition compared to the four of you. But his brain lends an invaluable perspective.”

Behind Aster, his silvery playmates danced around each other in elegant helixes, waiting mindlessly for Aster to re-engage them.

“Orcas are human-like in a number of ways. Like a human, Aster is usually the most intelligent organism in the room. Orcas have culture, dialect, self-awareness, and wonderful problem solving skills. Like humans, Orcas are the undisputed rulers of their domain. It was not a challenge to integrate Aster into a computer system designed for human brains. But what attracted me to Aster were the parts of him that make him a wild animal. Up until the moment of his capture, survival for Aster was a repeated process of throwing himself headfirst into the apparatus of his ecosystem and wrestling the life force from another creature.”

Far back in the tank, a scarlet plume of fish guts splashed into the water, deposited by Aster’s automated feeding system, and billowed into a gory inverted mushroom cloud. Aster turned tail immediately and jetted away from us, the scent of lunch in his hypersensitive nostrils.

“Aster’s brain is on a wavelength that I, as an android, am only beginning to imagine,” I said, almost whispering. “My self-preservation programming is a hollow imitation of a survival instinct like Aster’s. To guide this ship to an adjacent universe with the same physical constants as our own, I know without doubt that I’ll need to call upon a mind more primal than my own vat-grown, code-laden brain. That’s where Aster will come in. In the face of extinction and loss of habitat, human beings have quickly learned that they need to return to that wavelength, to re-activate dormant instincts and fight brutally for their lives. The ship that we stand within now is a testament to that. I myself was born of this resurgent instinct. But you and I both have more to learn from Aster before this storm is past.”

I turned from the tank to face the four of them. Through Mark’s eyes I saw blue ripples dancing across my face.

Aster devoured his meal in the far distance.

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