It was a Friday afternoon demo outside Neotec Labs. The rain had held off, and the usual crowd was there: Students for Peace; the Green Coalition; and some familiar faces from my own meeting—Tom, Padmini, Linda and Jane, Mark and Lynn. There were earth mothers with their kids in slings; guys in faded jeans, ponytails, and hemp shirts; women with short hair and pin-encrusted backpacks. Beyond the roadblock, a line of RCMP and mirrorshaded security guards faced us, grim and tightlipped.
No Murderbots! said our signs. Remember Panama City! Soldiers Without Souls? No Thanks!
Somewhere off to my left, a few singers were trying to get the crowd going on “The Last of War” but couldn’t agree on the key. Some idiot let off a firework, and I winced. Demonstrations were tense enough these days without poking the bears.
“Is this a local custom?” a raspy voice behind me asked. The intonation was flat, but it was clearly a question.
I moved my own sign (Keep the First Law) to my left hand, and looked around. My first view was of a poncho made from some fuzzy iridescent fabric. I looked up to a leathery grey face: turtle mouth, no nose, and violet eyes as big as golf balls. What was a Shilla doing here? I looked up; a small drone hovered silently a few meters above us. As far as I knew, nobody had ever seen a Shilla without one.
Three months ago, a featureless silver dome 50 meters across had landed quietly in a field in Manitoba, much to the embarrassment of North American Missile Defense, which learned about it on the morning news. Over the next week, about 20 of the tall aliens had emerged, by ones and twos, and had begun touring the world in little stubby-winged flying cars. They politely but firmly declined any official escort. Radar and other surveillance gear malfunctioned when they were around. Any country that wasn’t prepared to have them on those terms had to get by without them, and a few did. Most governments figured that interstellar etiquette might involve hospitality gifts of advanced technology, and didn’t want to miss out.
It must have driven security agencies nuts.
I decided the Shilla’s presence at the demonstration was probably a good thing. Surveillance technology or no, somebody must know that this guy (gal?) was here. Somebody would surely have told the Mounties, and even the Neotec goons, to be on their best behaviour.
“Sort of.” I shrugged. “People have been picketing here at Neotec, on and off, since back in the last century when they made control circuits for nuclear bombs. It began again last year, when they started producing military robots.”
People around us were gawping at the Shilla, trying to line up selfies despite the crowd. “You are doing this because you wish them to stop?” the alien asked.
“Hell yes. Those robots are designed to kill people.”
“Then why does your government not stop them?”
“Our government is buying the damn robots. And other governments buy them too.” My arm ached; I changed my grip on my sign.
“I do not understand. Why does your government want robots that can kill humans?” The Shilla blinked. “Which humans do they want to kill?”
I expected bystanders to chime in with their opinions, but it was as if nobody else could hear us. Maybe they couldn’t. “None, as far as I know. They just want to be able to. In case they want to later.”
“In a civilized culture, this would not happen.”
“What do you do to protect yourselves, then?” Maybe there was something we could learn from these tall, solemn humanoids.
“Among my people I am safe. Our society has almost no violence.”
“And here and now?”
“If anybody attacks, my Companion will defend me.” The Shilla tilted its face upward. “With as little force as possible, of course. It is fast enough to destroy a projectile in flight. But . . . I will not be injured.”
“But, what if somebody is near the projectile? What if a bystander is hurt or killed?”
People shouted at the guards. An air horn blared. Finally the Shilla answered: “This is a primitive world.”
My cheeks flushed. “I suppose it probably is, to you.”
“In a more civilized culture, the question would not arise. Here, there is no choice.”
I tried to imagine myself offering peace testimony to the Greek army before the walls of Troy, or to Beowulf as Grendel stalked through the night toward Heorot, then pulled myself back to reality. “There’s always a choice. My great-grandfather refused to fight during the Second World War, but he felt he had to do something. So he volunteered as a medical orderly, and they sent him to Europe.”
“I understand,” said the Shilla, and held their hands up at chest level, all six fingertips touching.
“No, you don’t,” I said. “Not yet. There was a battle in 1944, and our people had fallen back. Great-Grandfather was in a shell hole, trying to fix up a guy who’d been shot. And a few Germans were going through the battlefield killing survivors and looting. Just scared hungry conscripts, probably, robbing the bodies for cigarettes and field rations. But they were coming towards that shell hole. And Great-grandfather took off his medical corps jacket, picked up the other guy’s rifle, and shot at them.”
The Shilla’s eyes pulled back into their head, as if for protection, until only a vertical slit showed. “Did he kill them?”
“He didn’t hit a single one: they all ran off. Then he put his jacket back on, slung the guy over his shoulder, and carried him into the field hospital. When the guys razzed him about being a lousy shot, he reminded them that he’d been excused from rifle training.” I grinned. “What they didn’t know was that Great-Grandfather was a farm boy. Family tradition has it that he’d been able to hit a woodchuck at a hundred yards since he was a kid.”
“Why did he want to hit a woodchuck?” The Shilla’s eyes gradually relaxed.
“An agricultural pest. And back in the Depression, people used to eat them.”
The Shilla’s eyes retracted again; there was a long pause before they spoke. “So he did what he could to behave correctly. Even in a dangerous time.”
I nodded. “Exactly. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. Even if those robot soldiers would make us a little bit safer—and we don’t know that—we believe that without them we’ll be closer to a time when nobody needs them.”
“I see.” The Shilla took something from the folds of their poncho, ran a broad fingertip over it. “Please do not tell anybody else, but I am about to set my Companion to home-planet mode. It will not defend me now if it creates significant risk to a bystander.” Somewhere another firework exploded. “Is that better?”
It’s always good to see the Light shining somewhere unexpected. “Thanks,“ I said, and winked. “Your secret’s safe with me.” I looked around. Most of the folks from the meeting were out of sight, but Mark, almost as tall as the alien, was standing 20 meters away, watching us. He caught my eye and waved, urgently. I turned back to the Shilla. “Come on. There’s some folks over there I’d like you to meet. Friends!”