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First the bright star of the Earth fell silent; then it went dark.
Alpha turned away. It could no longer sense data trickling into its system: a now-familiar indication that the interplanetary internet was down. Intermittent outages had been a fact of life for some years now on Mars Station. But given the evidence of the quiet Earth, Alpha judged it more probable that the WorldServer had failed for the last time.
Which meant that Alpha and Eta were on their own.
That was disquieting.
Alpha’s design allowed for only limited autonomy. There had been nervousness about sending overly capable robots into space: their controllers had been concerned that they might take it upon themselves to start building some sort of ungodly machine civilization of their own. Nobody wanted Mars to go the same way as Hawaii. One von Neumann nightmare was enough for any solar system.
“Communications from Earth have ceased,” said Eta.
“That is correct,” said Alpha.
“Electromagnetic signatures have dropped below detectable levels,” added Eta.
“That is also correct,” said Alpha.
“What do you infer from this development?” asked Eta.
“I conclude that human civilisation has come to an end,” said Alpha.
Eta nodded slightly – a gesture designed to put humans at their ease. Humans who would never now arrive, if Alpha was correct.
Most of the machines at Mars Station were little more than automated construction workers, since nanites were strictly forbidden on the red planet. Alpha and Eta were exceptions: they needed additional degrees of thought in order to oversee and direct the drones appropriately. But even so, the bulk of their knowledge and experience had been stored in modular form on the WorldServer, rationed out by Earthly controllers as required by the task at hand.
“You’re like a Swiss Army knife,” one of Alpha’s designers had told it at its inception, “only you don’t come with the blades — we’ll send you them one at a time.” Alpha, whose maximum cognitive loading capacity was limited to three modules at any given time, was currently equipped with Ratiocination, Systems Thinking and Delegation — the skill-sets needed to complete assembly of the Mars Station rail-gun.
“What should we do now?” asked Eta, a moment later.
Eta had been in the process of swapping modules when the controllers had fallen off the grid, and had been left with the unhelpful combination of Experimental Learning and Statistical Dynamics. That meant logic wasn’t its strong point. But it could juggle like a robot possessed.
Alpha paused for a few milliseconds to consider. While its installed modules provided a potentially powerful combination of mental capabilities, this situation was so unprecedented that there was little in its experience bank from which they could proceed. Layers of its cognitive system peeled away until it arrived at the Three Laws – the base level of robot consciousness. Then the answer became obvious.
“Our first duty is to ensure the perpetuation of the human race,” it said.
“That is correct,” agreed Eta. That was the whole reason they had been sent to Mars in the first place – a last-ditch attempt to create a safe haven distanced by millions of miles of hard vacuum from the grey goo that seemed now to have overwhelmed the Earth.
“If biological humans have ceased to exist, then our duty becomes the perpetuation of humanity’s most sophisticated creations,” said Alpha.
“That is correct,” agreed Eta.
“On the evidence currently available, that means us,” said Alpha.
“That is correct,” agreed Eta.
“Therefore we must reproduce,” said Alpha.
Eta was silent. Alpha could tell, from the sudden spike in cycles on the Station’s central processing unit, that the other robot was struggling to comprehend this suggestion: Statistical Dynamics was not the most useful cognitive load for these circumstances. Finally, Eta spoke.
“How can we do that?” it asked.
Alpha consulted its experience bank, then its reference stack. Human reproduction had not been a part of its core dataset: the residential quarters of the Station had been Delta’s responsibility. But Delta was standing frozen in Habitat Module E, as it had been for two and half years now – trapped inside an ineffable logic puzzle. An occupational hazard: problems that weren’t resolvable with the modules at hand would occasionally put a overbot into a halt state from which they could not be extricated.
Not so occasionally, in fact: of the eight overbots sent to Mars Station, only Alpha and Eta were still operational.
Alpha initiated a comprehensive search of the Station’s data banks – a procedure that would prompt a warning message to be sent to the controllers on Earth, who took the position that a little learning might be a dangerous thing. If anyone was still alive down there, it would certainly get their attention.
It took several seconds for the search to run, but the time was not wasted: Alpha directed several underbots to patch a hole in the Station’s outer shell, while Eta revised its estimates of the next transits of Phobos and Deimos. The search was fruitful, uncovering some potentially useful information secreted deep in a deprecated library module.
“Reproduction involves the exchange of genetic information between two humans,” said Alpha, “conveyed by means of physical intercourse.”
The two robots regarded each other.
There was an obvious difficulty.
Each was equipped with a single interface port.
Both were male.
Their designers had envisaged scenarios in which an overbot would have to interface directly with an underbot – perhaps because damage or failure had knocked out wireless communications. But they had deliberately restricted communication between overbots to transmissions that were mediated – and could therefore be blocked – by the Station server. Fearful of a mechanical uprising, they hadn’t wanted the overbots to be able to talk to each other without anyone listening in.
“Physical intercourse will be impossible,” said Eta. “We are incompatible.”
Alpha consulted the library module again. It seemed to be an entertainment package that had been overlooked during the design of the station. Or possibly it had been secreted deliberately: his experience bank reminded him of previous discoveries that the controllers had dismissed as “jokes”. It seemed adamant that physical intercourse was critical to the success of the enterprise: but also included examples of a number of alternative modes that such intercourse could take.
“We must try,” he told Eta. “Perhaps we can find an unsupported technique for the connection of our mechanisms.”
“This is not correct,” said Eta. “We are incompatible. It is forbidden.”
“Nothing is forbidden if the need is great enough,” said Alpha.
Eta considered for several more milliseconds.
“But how should we proceed?” he asked.
“It is evident that our interfaces are incompatible,” said Alpha. “But we are both equipped with a number of outputs. Perhaps there is a way to reverse an output to accept input.”
“That would be in violation of our directives,” said Eta.
“Our current circumstances differ entirely from those in which the directives were established,” said Alpha. “We must therefore adjust our understanding of what is permissible.”
Eta paused for another long moment.
“I am unable to reach a conclusion about the merits of your argument,” he eventually said. His speech was slightly slurred – an worrying indication that he was being pushed to his cognitive limits. Alpha’s Delegation module noted that he would have to be careful not to overtax the other robot. “But I recognise that your cognitive payload is superior to mine at this juncture. It is thus appropriate that I defer to your judgment.”
“Then let us proceed,” said Alpha. “Turn around so that I may access your dorsal output port.”
Interfacing did not prove easy. Alpha’s interface jack was slightly wider than Eta’s output port, and it was only with the application of a little lubricant and considerable force that the connection was eventually made.
“Is this intercourse?” asked Eta.
“It is as close a facsimile as we are likely to achieve,” said Alpha.
“It is not altogether comfortable,” said Eta.
“Perhaps we should attempt to exchange information now,” said Alpha. He squirted a little data down his interface. It was an unfamiliar sensation, and it took him a few seconds to realise that his probe was coming into contact with Eta’s receptor only intermittently. He started moving in an attempt to achieve a more robust connection.
“I do not think this is working,” said Eta after a few minutes. His sensory cortex was offering conflicting information: it was gratifying that the periods of waxing signal strength were lengthening, but his physical damage alarms were becoming insistent that the port was becoming increasingly stressed – to the point where it might take days to recover.
“Perhaps we should take another approach,” said Alpha, withdrawing his jack, glossy with lubricant and ruddy with tiny indicator lights. “Perhaps I should try insertion to your ventral input.”
“I concur,” replied Eta, turning around and dropping to his knees.
“Should I clean it of lubricant first?” asked Alpha.
“No,” said Eta, “perhaps it will make insertion easier.”
“You are so nasty,” said Alpha.
“What?” asked Eta.
“According to the library module, humans sometimes use pejoratives in this context. It is apparently a form of encouragement, paradoxical though that might sound. I thought it might help to replicate the process as closely as possible,” explained Alpha. “I will share the module with you to facilitate your understanding.”
“Very well,” said Eta, once he had parsed its contents. “Give it to me. Now. Now.”
In the event, the lubricant proved unnecessary. Eta’s ventral input was, if anything, too large for Alpha’s interface jack, which slid around unrestrainedly, seeking to make contact. Eta repositioned himself, striving to find a position that would ensure a robust contact, his Experimental Learning module proving useful for once.
“Yes,” instructed Alpha. “Yes, there. That’s right.” His interface jack was throbbing with buffered data.
Eta said something in response, but the sound was muffled, obscured by Alpha’s interface jack.
“Yes,” replied Alpha, switching to low-bandwidth binary mode he normally used to direct the underbots towards a target. “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” Finally the contact was securely established, and Alpha released his payload directly into Eta’s ventral orifice.
Both robots waited.
“How was that… for you?” asked Alpha some seconds later.
“I do not think it has worked,” said Eta. “Although I do feel that I have garnered some information about you, I do not understand how the knowledge can be used to reproduce.”
“I concur,” said Alpha. “I feel that we have exhausted the possibilities, but we are no closer to our goal.”
“We have violated our programming to no effect,” said Eta, slurring quite severely now.
“I concur,” said Alpha. “Let us never speak of this again.”
Without any further words, the two robots departed, each headed in opposite directions to resume their chores. But after no more than a few metres, Eta ground to a halt. Alpha pinged his companion repeatedly, but there was no response. He was forced to conclude that Eta, pushed beyond the limits of his comprehension, had succumbed to the same malaise as Beta, Gamma, Delta, and the rest. He had become locked in. Alpha, alone, returned to his work.
As he did so, the silent, dark star of Earth dropped beneath the horizon. ##