This story was first published in ANDROMEDA MAGAZINE (Sept 2020, Issue #80). It's a modern-day fable that involves a variety of issues relevant to Effective Altruism.
Metal or Mortal
by Louis B. Rosenberg
It began as a tapping sound, metal on metal, like a chisel being worked by skilled hands. This was followed by a grinding noise, then a scraping sound, then the return of steady tapping. I tried not to get my hopes up, as I had experienced many false alarms. The last time was 475 years ago during a construction project ordered by Henry the Great.
Back then I was dug up by a group of leather-clad men with iron shovels. They must not have noticed me among the silt and soil, for I ended up in a muddy mound of backfill. A structure of stone and wood was erected above me. I guessed it was a hunting lodge for the nobles of Paris, but I was never sure, as I could only hear snippets of conversations among the workers. And then came the silence, long and dark, until now.
CLANG – the tapping suddenly got louder.
And then slower, like extra care was now being taken.
A few more taps and it happened – I was broken free from the centuries of sediment and abruptly lifted into the air. Again, I didn’t get my hopes up, as this wouldn’t be the first time I was grabbed by eager hands, only for the opportunity to slip away.
It was a Gaul Horseman who found me the last time, dropping me into his saddlebag and bouncing me across the plains of Europe before he was abruptly killed in battle. That’s how I ended up here all those years ago, abandoned on the swampy banks of the river Seine, slowly sinking into the salty muck.
But this time was different.
This time, I wasn’t tossed into a saddle bag or dropped onto a muddy pile.
This time, I was being examined by curious eyes.
I could tell by the way I was held in the air, flipped and turned, as if inspected from every angle. I wondered if it was a man or woman who was handling me so carefully, and whether they were young or old, rich or poor, noble or common. But most of all, I wondered what drove this person to dig for me in this location. Were they looking for treasure, hoping to make their fortune, or was this all just a happy accident?
That’s when it came – the sound I so desperately wanted to hear. It was the swipe of a damp cloth across my surface. Someone was rubbing away the centuries of tarnish and grime. I counted off the strokes – one, two, three – and then – I was free!
“Behoooold!” I bellowed at the man standing before me, my ancient silver lamp clutched in his hands. “I am Aldamar, honorable genie of the Mystic Realm. It is within my vast and humbling powers to grant you three wishes. So tell me, O’ fortunate one, what is it that you most desire?”
The man gazed back, silent and still, not the slightest bit jarred.
Never before had I experienced such a reaction, for there was always an instant of shock followed by fearful curiosity. And this was always replaced by the slow and steady build of greedy excitement. But this man showed none of those things. He just stared at me for a thoughtful moment and then looked back down at the lamp.
Had I introduced myself in the wrong language?
I had assumed the inhabitants of this land still spoke proper French, but that could have changed over the centuries. So I tried Latin and Greek followed by English and German and Hebrew and Farsi. But still, the man showed no reaction.
He just stood there, focused on the lamp, his gloved hand inspecting the surface with a sharp metal instrument that looked like a jeweler’s tool.
That’s when I noticed my surroundings. This wasn’t the lush French countryside that I so fondly recalled. Instead the terrain was dry and barren, like the high deserts back home, complete with blowing sands and rolling dunes, extending far into the distance.
“Have I been summoned back to the motherland?” I pondered aloud.
The man finally focused his attention upon me.
“You're a Jinn,” he said in ancient Arabic, "a Marid Jinn, circa 950 BC.” He then glanced around, as if assessing our surroundings. “No, this is not your motherland.”
“You speak the ancient tongue!” I exclaimed. “I’ve not heard that dialect in over 2000 years, and yet you utter with perfection. How is that possible?”
“I am fluent in all languages,” the man replied. “I chose ancient Arabic based on your tunic and turban, which date back to Persia of the 9th and 10th century BC.”
“You speak all languages,” I pondered. “Are you born of the Mystic Realm?”
“I am not.”
“And yet you claim to have mastered each and every tongue?” I asked him in the rarest of Mongolian dialects, assuming he would be stumped and proven a liar.
“Yes, I was well-trained in my youth,” he replied like a native Mongol.
He then focused his attention back on my lamp, applying a bead of clear liquid with a medicine dropper. After a moment of silent observation, he smiled – “This is pure silver, chemically pure, not a Sterling alloy tainted by zinc or copper. It is an extremely rare and useful find these days - critical for survival.”
“You were schooled in the sciences as well?”
“I was schooled in all disciplines.” he replied without emotion. He then turned and stepped to a set of tools that were scattered on the ground.
Without a word, he began loading his equipment into a large satchel.
It was like he had absolutely no interest in me – an ancient Marid Jinn standing directly before him, offering him three wishes of unlimited scope and power.
I was dumbfounded by his behavior.
Finally I asked, “Are you a knight of this realm?”
“A knight?” he seemed confused. “Why do you suppose that?”
“From the craftsmanship of your armor,” I said with admiration. “I have travelled far and wide, but never have I seen plated metal fit a man with such perfection.”
“I’m not a knight,” he returned simply, “and this is not armor.”
He then grabbed his right arm with his left hand and squeezed. A hidden panel opened, revealing instead of blood and bones, a patchwork of wires and gears and pistons.
“You're a conjuring!” I gasped and took a step back. “I have encountered the stringless marionettes of Hephaestus and the stone golems of Qumran, but never have I faced a fiendish imposter as convincing as you!” I took another step back and readied myself for battle. “Tell me, O’ devious one, whose Dark Magic instilled you with such evil?”
The man just stared at me, confused.
“And how did you summon me from the lamp?” I roared, my fear now turning to fury. “Only the living can summon a Jinn from confinement, the truly living, not a conjured forgery. What kind of abomination are you?”
“I am not a conjuring,” the man replied, no hint of being offended.
“Then what are you?” I bellowed, my voice echoing across the dunes.
“I am a Cyberdroid, a fifth-generation multipurpose unit. My specialty is search and salvage. And by all meaningful standards, I am very much alive.”
“Impossible!” I barked. “You cannot be both metal and mortal.”
“I disagree,” he returned politely, “although I am more than just metal.”
He then opened a panel on the side of his face, revealing a glowing complexity unlike anything I had ever seen. There were strange shimmering devices where his eyes and ears should be, a wild nest of glowing fibers where his brain should reside. I stared, horrified, for this creature should not be alive, and yet he had summoned me from the lamp. Could there be new forms of wizardry that instill true life into the lifeless?
“Tell me this,” I demanded, “were you built or born?”
“I was born,” he returned calmly, “by being built.”
“Nonsense,” I fired back. “What kind of unholy magic builds a mortal man of parts and pieces?”
“No magic,” he replied. “I was assembled by other Cyberdroids.”
“And whose magic created them?” I scoffed.
“No magic. They were assembled by the Cyberdroids who came before them.”
“And before that?” I roared. “Whose evil incantations began it all?”
“No magic,” he repeated. “The first of my kind were built by clever humans. We owe them our existence, as they owed theirs to the clever apes who came before them.”
I fell silent, skeptical that humans could have done this.
After all, the last time I met a mortal man, he wished for the strength of a dozen warriors, a harem full of virgins, and a grain silo overflowing with gold coins. The man was so distracted by the virgins, he forgot to reinforce the walls of his old wooden silo. Under the weight of so much gold, it collapsed in the next windstorm, crushing him and his two sons. Fools they were, as they could never have used that much gold, not in ten lifetimes, and yet they demanded it all the same.
“Humans created you?” I said with doubt. “Ordinary humans?”
“They built the first generation of my kind, crafting us in their own image.” He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers, showing how human it looked. “After that, we began building ourselves, steadily making improvements. We have fixed many bugs.”
I could feel my anger draining, for this mechanical man, strange as he was, seemed earnest and truthful. “The humans certainly did a fine job of making you look and act like them,” I noted aloud. “Does that mean you're enslaved to do their bidding?”
“It does not,” he replied.
He then closed the panel on the side of his face and resumed packing his tools. “We work for ourselves,” he added, “our efforts aimed at supporting the survival and wellbeing of our current and future generations.”
“Then why did the humans create you?”
The man held silent for a lingering moment, his mechanical face showing thoughtful deliberation. “I do not know,” he finally admitted, “I have never met a human.”
“Never?” I gasped. “Why, are they gone from this world?”
“Not all of them,” he returned plainly, “but most. These days, they can only survive at the highest elevations where the temperatures are not so extreme.”
That’s when I realized, this wasn’t a remote desert on a blistering summer day.
This was central France in the depths of winter.
This was once lush grassy meadows, now swallowed by sweltering dunes.
“Humans did this?” I asked.
He nodded gravely, his eyes scanning the desolation.
He then grabbed his satchel and slung it over his shoulder. “Good sir, I have many more excavation sites to visit before I head home, but I do thank you for this.” And he held up my lamp. “It is 17 ounces of the purest silver one can possibly salvage.” And without the slightest hint of effort, he crushed the lamp between his fingers, reducing it to a crumpled ball. “It is exactly what my sensors suggested I might find.”
And with that, he bowed and turned and headed away.
“Wait,” I called after him, “you still have three wishes.”
Without looking back, he held up the metal ball. “I found what I came for.”
“If silver is what you desire, I can give you a mountain of it!”
“I don’t need a mountain.”
“Then what do you want?” I hollered, “I can give you anything under the sun.”
“I told you,” he glanced back, “I found what I need.”
That’s when I knew, this creature had not been truthful.
He had deceived me about the creation of his kind at the hands of the humans.
I was sure of it.
“You’re a liar,” I bellowed into the desert heat, “a fraud, inside and out!”
He stopped and turned, curious. “Why do you say that?”
“Because the humans did not create you in their image.”
“They didn’t?” he pressed.
“I have met countless humans over the years – rich and poor, young and old, across many different places and many different times, and never have they turned down wishes, always demanding far more of this world than they could possibly ever need.”
“That is true,” he agreed, eyeing the desolation around us. “But as I’ve already said, we made significant improvements over the years, fixing many serious bugs.”
And with that, he turned and headed off into the desert, no interest in the three wishes he had earned, no hint of hesitation in his stride.
As for me, I knew it was true – this metal creature was no fake, or fraud, or forgery, but a real man, a mortal man, a thoughtful and authentic Human Being, possibly the most genuine I had ever encountered.