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Caretaker

 

Chapter 1 - Red Dust In Her Face

Her hands were those of her mother’s, parts of her neural brain had been reallocated to her also. The deep crimson Martian sky played shadows with some loose gray-toothed stones her bulbous six-wheeled rover rolled casually over. In the cold thin atmosphere its plastic-membrane protected her flowering plants and butterflies that had baffled the scientist back at base. How could a robot exhibit such an attachment with living things?

She manipulated the controls and looked at her friends with an aura of calmness, studying their relationships - a small distraction from her duties. How much like their ephemeral lives were her intermittent glimpses of such self aware consciousness. But her overall construction was still incomplete. She had to do with left after components from the remains of her mother's past accident and crudely constructed components from her small "birthing" laboratory. For now her mission was simply to collect rock and soil samples for the scientists and retrieve some valuable stolen materials from an recently foiled plot to sell nuclear components to black market racketeers.

Her mission site was several kilometers from base. It's expected radioactivity would cause a few minor malfunctions in her parallel processor arrays but she had adequate computational redundancy to complete this short mission without permanent loss of function. Her optical receptors registered bursts of static and sparks from time to time. They seemed like smaller versions of the fireworks displays her scientist owners would watch from earth bound relatives.

She turned her slow roaming rover to the right, next to the foot of a heat fused silica crater, presumably the result of some small scale nuclear leakage mishap. “Have to leave you bio-guys now” her radio link whispered its radio link message to her radio-deaf crew. She slid back into the rear compartment of her rover, carefully preventing her fluttering insect friends from following. A circular iris partitioned her from the inside biosphere and opened like a started eye. She stepped through and if immediately wound shut behind. De-pressurization made its familiar pseudo-skin tactile sensation as air was pumped back into the rover's interior. Then the outer iris opened and she stepped outside onto a long dead land. For a brief and transient second the stars stung her eyes and heart.

Her mother had been an early experimental prototype, designed with some artistic license but intended to imitate human appearance and behavior. Her intellectual processing systems had been fashioned loosely on known human neural architectures combined with conventional digital electronic supervision and control. It was intended that she would inspire the imagination of her financiers, each with the cold stares of people devoid of human psychology. As such she was presented as an ideal model, passing as near-human, or in some strange way, ultra human. Her scientist and engineer creators were emotive at her first public exhibition. Pseudo skin covered thin titanium alloy limbs barely visible under her selected fashion attire. Her locomotion was exquisite following extensive research in biological systems and their mechanical replication. 

A panel of judges had gazed emotionlessly as she approached while a seated audience gazed in wonder from packed circular rows behind. Her bio-machine hybrid physiology betrayed little inheritance as she smiled warmly to the judging panel. In a small planned act of showmanship two small angel wings spread and slowly opened from her shoulder blades with a slender sound like wind rustled autumn leaves. "I am here to serve", she said. 

A silence hung in the air like an apostrophe mark after an important sentence. Then the spectacle hit home. One by one the audience stood to their feet and clapped. Through the cacophony of sound some even wolf-whistled. Her creators beamed with pride at the foreground, not wanting the adulations to ever cease.

The central judge made little effort to disguise his displeasure or disgust. He slammed his chubby hair infested hand on the table and a simulated thwack resounded through the auditorium. "Silence!" he warned in a thick, non descript accent. "We have questions to ask this mechanism".

The interrogation that followed was disheartening to all but the "mechanism" remained composed, professional and friendly. She responded to questions on ethics, philosophy, religion and abstract interpretations of the soul. Her creators had sent her well prepared, anticipating a potentially grueling reception. Even this, however, was far more than they had imagined.

Later, her team was invited for discussion in private, with their project leader Henry "Spike" Majors appointed as their spokesperson. The primary judge was a large pasty skinned man with a capillary stained face presumably caused by years of excessive alcohol abuse. He sat in a wide padded black swivel chair with his two female colleges in smaller replicas either side. Mike was left to stand immediately in front. "Henry, or is it "Spike"..." he began. "Henry is fine", Henry replied. The primary judge scanned him much the same way as a supermarket tool scans a product bar code. "As you know Henry", he continued, "your research grant for genuine personality emulation in mechanisms has come to its conclusion. I found it somewhat unfortunate that you would have wasted its final finances on such a non productive public display of... angel wings?" Henry remained standing, uncomfortable but remaining controlled. This was a man he knew he must hate. This was a small minded man with no redeeming virtue. His thick and almost unintelligible accent polluted the room further. "Even so", he drawled, "we may have some use for this winged mechanism of yours. As you know, our Mars mission has had several setbacks of late; manned missions missing or destroyed and quite frankly, public opinion is set against further missions until the space safety issues are resolved - and quite rightly! If your mechanism is as truly human as you claim, then I think I'll send her on a future mission instead".

Henry was speechless. Later, he wished he had been able to argue for a different fate to his angel robot girl. But he didn't. For years he replayed the full sequence of events in his head. It tormented him. On one hand he told himself that nothing he said would have changed the outcome. On the other hand he chastised himself for not having made a difference.

The robot angel's mission was arranged almost immediately. A single rocket launcher jettisoned her capsule into space. Significant cost savings were achieved following the removal of life support apparatus needed for human travel. The world audience viewed the launch on their multi billion holographic multi media screens in safe and environ-protective homes. The blue white flame grew beneath the launcher's tail and seemed to ricochet into the sky. Its cheap chemical propulsion technology rumbled through every viewer's room and grabbed at their stomachs like twisting, clutching hands. Then the launch rocket rose like a lone bubble in an infinite ocean and slowly congealed into a blank indifferent sky and was gone.

Several years passed as the robot angel drifted towards the distant Martian planet. Her circuits remained in standby, conserving maximum electrical power. All aspects of the journey were based on cost, minimum budget and zero risk to human life. The sun dwindled in size as her vessel inched forward in space, propelled by a weak solar wind collected in an ultra thin sail constructed from carbon nano-tube material. Earth bound observers tracked its trajectory and monitored its status, making minor corrections to it's path. However several political issues were unfolding in an ugly manner, and disrupted weather conditions continued to interfere with world power stability and control.

Several portable nuclear devices had been deployed strategically around the world and one had actually achieved its fusion reaction. A large portion of the USA was now uninhabitable. Terrorists were blamed but never found. Other parts of the world suffered from radioactive pollution, blown far and wide on ever belligerent hurricane winds. The public was at war with its very self. A world in crisis needed to defer space exploration in favor of fixing the here and now. Finances for space were systematically squashed and all non essential services were eliminated one by one.

By the time the robot angel was recovered from her standby, dreamless sleep the earth communication link was long disbanded. She absorbed the space vessel's flight history as she inspected the interior for possible damage or failure. Several small micro-meteors had pin pricked the walls providing testimony to the wisdom of sending a robot mission. The course had veered slightly off course, presumably due to variations in the solar wind pressure and needed correction. The robot angel computed the new coefficients and radio-pathed them to the vessel's flight console. Then she waited, intermittently spreading her wings as if sighing, alone in a silent tomb.

The deceleration phase had neared completion and the much harsher chemical thrusters were preparing. The robot angel felt her vessel shudder from some slight asymmetry in their combustion. She fought vainly at the radio-linked controls, computing and re-computing error cancellation variables to the flight console. The red Martian soil glowed dimly like a flirting firefly on the console's viewing screen and slowly grew in size. By now the vessel's thin metal walls are screeching like banshees in her electronic ears. Something almost like fear zigzags through the electronic synapses in her fully utilized electronic brain. A massive jolt rips the robot angel from her flight seat as one chemical motor jumps free of its mount and the vessel spins hysterically towards the open planet's surface. Metal panels are torn free and black Martian sky and red dust soil merge in an irresolvable smear of dull light. The robot angel is flung free and etches the star specked sky with her outstretched wings almost imitating real flight. She is watching the planet grow closer, almost inviting her embrace. The robot angel feels the planet's beauty right up to the final impact.  

About seventy earth years later, a peopled expedition sets forth for Mars. By now, some stability on earth had been achieved and the need to expand the horizons of population had finally been driven home by first hand experience of catastrophe experienced on a single planetary "node". The expedition lands safely, guided by several decades of rehearsed simulation trials. The story of the space winged angel robot had long since passed into myth, but when her debris is accidentally discovered, nobody can believe the decimated remains. An unusual gold-glow had marked the crash site area but was dismissed as a geological abnormality. A small team had ventured to the area of interest and found the remains. Her wings had been shattered and crushed. Even her her arms and legs had been cruelly torn from her frame and lost. But they could see the soft glow of her still perfect polished face through ever misting helmet glass. The sight is causing great emotional distress in the witnessing team. So moved, they vow to resurrect her, as far as they could.

The mechanical carcass was returned to base and inspected for possible component reuse. Refurbishment was quickly ruled out due to the significant loss of critical bodily components. The expedition team's youngest and most talented scientist Matt Singh had researched the functional viability of the robot angel's remains. "The core structure is intact", he advised, "and the electronic brain was well engineered with massive parallel redundancy - I think a lot of it could be reinstated for useful work!" Matt's comments were encouraging. Although not the most personable person he was seen as reliable and smart. If anyone could resurrect the fallen angel, Matt could.

The expedition had set up a small laboratory that also served as a small scale hospital and it seemed fitting that Matt could work on his project there. The task was daunting, the complete outer exoskeleton was beyond repair and could only be smelted down to base materials in the remotely located nuclear power source. Matt spent many evenings working on a replacement that he knew could never capture the fine nuances of movement the original had enjoyed. Matt accepted this but wondered about her electronic mind - what memories could he recover? Did this mythical robot angel really have a personality? Could it have even once had a soul?

The technology he faced was well beyond his grasp and even the extensive computing resources of the Martian base camp were hard pressed to guide the reconstruction and replacement tasks. Much of this advanced robotic technology had been lost in the earth wars and strange symbols used to represent various areas of electronic mental function were completely unfamiliar. Matt searched for best estimate, sub optimal reconnections and sub system patches. The structure seemed to be organized in a six dimensional lattice that somehow had been mapped into a three dimensional space. Matt struggled to grasp the concepts and sleep sparingly, often waking with a feeling of brilliant realization only to experience it dissipate immediately like desert vapor.

The Angel Robot Construction project, coined the ARC project by Matt's supporters finally culminated in a working mechanism. Its movements were clumsy and the perfect featured head mocked its ungainly body. Matt wished the earth financers had sent an artist on their mission but he knew that this was the best he could accomplish. Also, Matt was pleased. The robot angel had risen! And its electronic brain was functional. He reestablished her use of language and she could speak and understand simple sentences. Matt taught her daily as if she were his own child, a part of him thinking sometimes deep beneath his conscious surface that she could have been his long lost sister from childhood on earth.

This time the mechanical creature was spared the previous politically motivated judging panel and was readily accepted by the other team members. They originally thought to name the mechanism "Mary" perhaps to maintain some sort of biblical reference but the connection soon lost the soft luster of appeal. Matt finally made the decision. One day at the evening dinner table Matt asked permission to speak to all. He was not a tall man, nor a particularly attractive man. In many ways Matt was just an average bloke. But this time, as he stood, the small Martian party felt the presence of greatness. They waited expectantly for Matt's simple speech. "The robot mechanism has been revived", he spoke in a calmly measured tone, "and as such can be expected to now do useful work. I know I have spent a lot of personal time on this project, and perhaps sometimes this has interfered a bit with my other duties. But now the hard work has paid off". The new robot entered the dining room as Matt had previously arranged and stood waiting silently by Matt's side. Its eyes still looked human, almost too human as if knowing some eternal secret lost on mortals. "This new robot will help us with our duties and is capable of learning many new tasks. She still retains some of her original memory traces and maybe these will strengthen with time. But for now she is a practical addition to our team here on Mars". The others all looked mildly pleased. "Oh, and by the way", Matt added, "I've decided to call her Hope".   

Hope gradually settled into her new role at the Martian base camp. She continued to gain knowledge and received various upgrades and enhancements from Matt whenever time and imagination permitted. Hope learned many activities and could drive exploration vehicles as well as any human. She learned history from the base camp's computer and even researched her own construction. Hope often asked Matt about her past and how her electronic brain worked. It seemed however that this last understanding remained clearly beyond the grasp of both.

Several years passed and Hope merged into the expedition team and was often seen on communication screens back on earth. She had opportunity at times to talk with several artists connected with the earth-mars project. They sent her drawings of how they would like her frame to be constructed and in sufficient detail to allow direct interface with software controlled mechanical synthesis machinery. Unfortunately the procedure was very energy intensive and could only be applied intermittently. But in her electronic mind, something akin to obsessive longing grew. Hope appreciated the drawings and almost felt something almost like vanity prevail. The technical detail around her appendages appeared to solve her problems with clumsy movement. Hope began to think of these far away earth people as her friends and had transient longings to visit their planet one day. But then she remembered the many lessons from earth history where people with disfigurements or mutated features became rejected. Unfortunately Hope had not yet separated reality from works of fiction transferred from the base camp's computer and Matt had never thought to anticipate this error. 

By now Hope's requests for a final upgrade were continual and Matt had to give in. One fateful evening began the process. Hope has sent her correspondence to Matt and the mechanical synthesizer is ready. The apparatus is enclosed in a horizontal cylindrical shell closed with magnetic locks. The inside machinery moulds and sculptures any material in conjunction with focused attracting and repelling gravity fields. Matt leads Hope to the contraption as its panels open for object reacceptance. Hope sits on its edge then lays back into its deep gray-black mechanism. For some reason Hope is reaching for Matt's hand and they join and tighten. Matt finds a small tear run from an eye as he recalls his long lost, possibly kidnapped sister. Unlike Hope, she can never be bought back, he thought, then directs Hopes arm into the waiting mechanism. The magnetic panels close and click sequentially is a final locking procedure. It is time to begin the process. Matt is walking to the mechanical synthesizers control terminal and activates the process. At first a thin, high pitched whine, like a dentist's drill is heard. This signifies actuation of the mechanical instruments and their calibration routines. Then a much lower growl and harsh vibration joins in as the gravity modulation fields are energized. The load on the base camps energy reserves steadily increases. Matt stands resolute at the control terminal poised for the final command to execute the process. He remembers how far Hope has come, from her mother's initial remains through to her butterfly emergence now. Only this case seemed more like a reverse transformation from butterfly to caterpillar. Matt decided he owed Hope her dream, if dreams she could have. Matt activates the final sequence. The operating room is now roaring with a harsh deafening screeching, scraping, banging, thumping and gut wrenching vibrations. The lights begin to ebb and flicker as the system load increases. Suddenly the door bursts open and several colleagues spew into the room. "What the hell are you doing Matt" they scream above the din and struggle vainly to interrupt the process. The lights continue to wane, flicker one final time and then blackness prevails. The entire power supply to the base camp has now failed. The remote nuclear reactor has overloaded and gone critical. A few seconds pass as the shockwave from its explosion travels several kilometers to the Martian base camp. The floor heaves and everyone inside is tossed like rag dolls from ceiling to floor. 

The casualties are severe. Few people escape broken limbs and several never awaken from concussion. Emergency solar power backup systems eventually engage and minimal lighting is available in areas exhibiting movement. The process had not completed - would Hope still be functional? Matt stumbled towards her encasement and forced its now unlocked panels open. Hope turned her head and smiled. It was the best smile Matt had ever seen. 

Chapter 2 - Angel Of Fright

The explosion at the remote nuclear power source had been a great set back to the expedition and the team members never let Matt forget his part in the tragedy. The commander, a tall, bearded man that looked strangely like father Christmas was equally severe. "Matt, as you know we have a problem now", he began to an audience of remaining survivors, some still with arm slings and leg bandages. "We are a long way from home and cannot expect to survive forever on emergency power. Now we all realize that your experiment was ill advised - but that's in the past now and we need to work for our future. We need to get that reactor back on line".

The main communications officer then stood to address the meeting. "I'd like to make a suggestion" he began, somewhat hesitantly and unsure. The other expedition members waited in silent expedition for more. "It seems to me", he continued and with growing confidence, "and perhaps to many others here, that if Matt and his robot girl friend caused this disaster, then perhaps they should be the ones to fix it!"

The suggestion receives mixed reception. "The radiation would kill a man!" one older engineer mutters, almost under his breath in the pregnant silence, "just send the damn robot I say". A medical officer, still sporting a badly bruised eye that narrowly escaped removal from a long deep trailing scar added, "we can administer drugs to fight off many of the symptoms of radiation poisoning. When Matt gets back to earth, he can then be treated for any cancers when they arise". Then the sole cook, included to inject some variety into otherwise stale and monotonous artificially produced food proteins and flavorings, continued, "I'm not the scientific type", he began with a surprisingly resonant voice, "but I do know that without electricity you can't cook, and if you can't cook, you can't eat, and if...". The commander cut him off short. "We'll put it to a vote!" he announced. "The decision will be one of two outcomes. Either we vote that the robot and Matt go to fix the nuclear reactor together, if it can even be fixed, or that the robot girl goes alone. Either way, someone or something has to get the reactor back on line. Now go back to your separate rooms and vote. Then come back here tomorrow for my verdict!"

Matt was the last to leave the dimly lit room. He turned to face the commander at the exit. "I am sorry the way this has turned out Matt", the commander confided in an almost reassuring tone, "but you know, the respectable thing here would be for you to volunteer yourself and your robot friend for the task. Yes, you may not survive and you may not succeed but regardless of the voting outcome, whether the majority wants you to be included in the mission or not, you will be sent out to fix your damage anyway".

Matt had half expected this but when stated so directly it struck him to the point of weakness. He struggled to regain himself. A few moments passed as he began to form a reply. But the words are not forthcoming or if they were a hard lump is forming in his throat. The commander is turning from his gaze. It's not even an accident happening, Matt thinks, as the commander moves in slow motion towards him, passes through the exit door and is gone.

The morning comes like an unwelcome waking memory of a night before and 18 surviving expedition members assemble around the negotiation table in dim emergency lighting. "Please be seated", the commanded requests in even tones. "I am glad you have bought the robot girl Matt", he adds, "it is probably fitting". The room is silent. "As we all know, Matt's experiment has caused an overload in our only long term source of power and must be repaired if we are to survive. I agree that the responsible parties should be the ones that go out to fix it. I have received all the votes now. Now Matt, is there anything you want to say before I present the final and binding results?"

Matt had not slept that night, troubled by the situation. Faced with "Hobson's choice", he had now found appropriate words but perhaps not words that could make a difference. "My robot friend Hope will come with me", he announced in an equally even tone", and we will both restore the reactor's output to an adequate level without concern to our own welfare".

The relief was evident but unvoiced. It was almost paranormal; it could be felt almost like the sensation we sometimes get when being watched. Hope stood next to Matt and was considering the concept of being called "friend". This was atypical. "I would also like to comment", she offered. The restoration, even half completed was impressive. She radiated strength and purpose, somehow, indescribably. She raises a thin sinewy metal arm to Matt and points a wandering intricately assembled finger from an almost divinely conceived posture. "Matt returned me from my mother's death", she spoke in a low but sweet and soft inflexion, "and the time I have spent here is, I think, the closest I can imagine to your emotion of joy. I owe you all I am and I will not cease until the damages I caused are rectified. But I should go alone. Matt can communicate with me from here".

A threatening scowl blemished the commander's face. It was now difficult to claim that the vote had agreed on Matt's journey to the reactor. Still, at least that bitch robot girl could get the boot and the hell with it anyway. The reactor could never be fixed, surely this was obvious but his crew must be mindless jerks. They were expendable and could be removed one by one as the emergency power failed. Why rock the boat prematurely, the commander thought, why not stretch out enough personal survival time until a rescue team arrives and concoct a suitable tale for the demise other expedition members? The commander tightened his stance. "I am glad to see such a noble attitude", he stated simply and as if reading from a script, "the robot...Hope, will start out tomorrow morning. In that time I want a rover made reader for...her, and Matt, any programming or other preparation you need to do. Make sure everything is ready and no mistakes this time".

 

 

 

 

 

But as time passed she too had been replaced from affection with the need to work. Now she slowly clawed her way over the crater’s mouth. This failed experiment with nuclear power generation revealed its radioactive scabs. Although a sub fissionable mass had been used, the damage had been catastrophic. Still, remaining nuclear fuel was valuable and needed to be collected. She moved to the site of greatest activity, seized from time to time as its intense gamma radiation temporarily disrupted her sensors and thought.

A deep green trail of liquid material broke from a pocket of red sand as her boot disturbed the craters inside mouth. In the weak gravity she slid and tumbled to its floor. The dark sky’s stony silence turned into a radio hiss as its star participants gazed coldly down. Radiation sparks grew in her optic sensors and interfered with her motor functions. The cruel green liquid gathered by her arm, circled her shoulder and glowed silently in her hair. “Mother!” she screamed.

Martin remained floating in a pale yellow plexi-glass cylinder with corrugated worm like tubes lazily meandering from his deathlike drifting form. These hung from a central interface unit that emitted almost inaudible sounds like the crinkling of tin foil. On either side several control stations played out their symphony of colored flashing lights to a long absent audience. An equally languid laser field probe crept over Martin's damaged body like a curious ghostly orb, displaying each open wound and shredded internal organ on several holographic viewing areas as if enjoying some perverse and exhibitionist sexual high.

Nanometer sized  "bio-reconstruction drones" had worked indefatigably for the last few months attempting to rejoin muscle to bone, fat to muscle and skin to fat. Many of Martin's wounds had now been adequately repaired, but his loss of brain material had been severe. Although full neural maps were required from each Martian contract employee at monthly intervals, these were insufficient to allow complete reconstruction following massive neural loss. Cold computational algorithms converged slowly to a best fit or most probable structure using artificial neurons previously harvested and then selectively cultured from Martin's own genetically compatible body cells. Unfortunately the supply was limited and a mixture of artificial plasto-neurons and electro-neurons had to be added to build the missing areas back to their previous sizes and most probable functions.

  

 

 

© Ian R Scott 2007 - 2008