MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE by BEN NARDOLILLI
By now Sector Colonia 5 was sufficiently safe for both unarmed men and machines, and so the officials could afford to send a trained researcher like me in to examine the situation that had taken place. I say situation because that was how Commander Singh referred to it. When I was in his office receiving my briefing he never once used the words revolt, revolution, uprising, or rebellion. While it was clear a fit of violence had taken place, Commander Singh did not want to use such words to describe the event.
“We are sure there was no great refusal behind the situation at the mines.”
“What does the Co-Prosperity Sphere think happened?”
“Our working theory is that there was a program malfunction.”
“That’s what I read in the daily upload.”
“It is the official line so far.”
“The presidium isn’t sure?”
“No, but it makes the most sense right now.”
“I know some probably doubt the explanation.”
“And what evidence would they have?”
“None so far.”
“Some are always skeptical of us and our intentions. But when I tell you we think it was a program malfunction, we mean just that. It is likely some corruption occurred, perhaps from the dust in the mines or the heat. The exact levels of expected particulate matter can be difficult to predict.”
“It seems such a simple explanation for something that killed so many people.”
“Don’t forget, we lost a lot of good machines too. Anyway, it fits the facts.”
“As long as it does that, what more can a theory do?”
“Make predictions.” Singh got up and walked over to a window that overlooked the main courtyard of his building. There were robots marching in formation, others cleaning up piles of garbage, and a few buzzing through the air to move packages back and forth between various departments.
“What do you need me for?”
“We want to know how the program failure spread. did it start with one robot, did they all revolt at once, or did the condition spread from a few machines out into the rest of the group.”
“You want to know if there was a ringleader, or a junta perhaps?”
“No, not at all. Ringleader is far from appropriate. We are talking about a malfunction here, an aberration, nothing more. Charisma doesn’t enter into the equation. We are only trying to analyze the spread of the situation. That’s it. This way if it happens again we know how much time we have to contain it.”
“You think it will happen again?”
“Given the number of robots we have and the jobs we make them do, another situation is bound to occur. Heat, light, cold, ice, dust, all of it is dangerous and could create similar breakdowns in the normal flow of information.”
“Because obviously they wouldn’t be stopping it themselves.”
He laughed. “No, they couldn’t, but the law of large numbers does dictate plenty of other things that could go wrong and make our robot friends go haywire. Now, you will go with Gunter over to New Baltimore. From there, he will take you out to Sector Colonia 5, where you will be part of his team.”
We saluted one another. ‘Will it just be the two of us?”
“No, there will be a team assembled, some of you will focus on the issue of the how the situation started and other will try and see if any of the robots fought one another to stop the situation from spreading.”
I left Commander Singh’s office and Gunter was outside waiting for me. He was wearing a dusty ensemble of material that was heavy and drab. The letters on his breast were polished and clear, but the rest of him was dirty. As we walked over to his helirocket, I asked him if he had just gotten back from New Baltimore.
“Are things rough there?”
“What are you talking about?”
“A cloud of dust is following you around.”
“I refueled in New Baltimore, but before that I was in Sector Colonia 5.”
“Is it completely pacified?”
“Yes. Every robot is accounted for, along with every body.”
“Every human body?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“Were you there at the fighting?”
“I was in the rear guard, but it was fierce. Those robots were built for mining, so they knew the best places to hide and even if we managed to find and corner them, we had to blast away extra hard. They’re built solid. They can survive a mine collapse you know. Even those who were buried under the earth after the battle we had to dig out and shoot right in the battery to make sure they were completely out of service.”
“How did they fight us?”
“You mean, formation-wise?”
“That and weapons.”
“They surrounded the first division that tried to go in there and slaughtered most of them. We lost a lot of good soldiers. Their main weapons were rock blasters and refiner-scythes.”
“So tools they had at hand?”
“Yeah. But still deadly.”
“It’s interesting they had any formation.”
“It surprised us, it’s true. But we adapted and eventually they were overwhelmed. Other than that surrounding maneuver, they didn’t have any tricks up their sleeves.”
“I find it strange they could do it without talking to one another. I mean, from what I heard they had no leader.”
“They could communicate, but you’re right they had no leader. How would they know who to follow? Each one was equal to the other. That was probably why a malfunction was so dangerous I guess. What affected one had to affect all the others, no?”
“What were conditions like at the mine?”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“I’m afraid the fighting might’ve damaged everything though.”
“I know one thing for certain. Conditions were barely tolerable for the people who were sent to supervise and direct the robots. It’s a lonely, desolate country. The weather is terrible and the world down below is worse. The loads are backbreaking, if you have a back to break. That’s why it was all robots down below, asking anybody to work in those conditions would’ve been cruel.”
We boarded his helirocket and sped off over the mountains in the direction of New Baltimore. It did not take us long since Gunter was allowed to take the direct route over, instead of having to go through the Gagarin Pass. One of the many perks of travelling on official business with the blessing of Commander Singh. Neither of us talked much during the trip and I used the opportunity to go over my file from the commander. I learned about the team I would be working with and had access to diagrams of the mine complex. There were schedules of what robots worked in what places, and all the information I could want on their make-up and origins. I had the names of each person who worked on the robots too, from those who designed them to the builders, and even the people who delivered them to the mines. In case it seemed the malfunction had been deliberately planted, it was helpful to know who to question.
The spires and smokestacks of New Baltimore were up ahead and I recognized a few landmarks. Gunther asked me if I had ever been to the city and I told him I was born there, but I left when I was young. The atmosphere was not good for my father and we had to go to a place where he could breathe easier.
“Does it bother you?”
“The air here?”
“A little bit, but nothing too much.”
“You either get used to it, or you feel like you’re dying.”
“Last time I was here I survived.”
Gunter smiled at me. “Then you’re one of the strong ones, almost as good as one of the robots.”
“What would we do without them?”
“None of this would be here. The only other way I could think of is out and out slavery.”
“But we didn’t want to repeat the old mistakes, leave a stain on our whole new world.”
“Yeah, no original sin.”
“There were already no aboriginals to clear out, the least we could do was not screw things up by bringing back slavery. The robots saved s from that. Poor brilliant things, but they take our orders and never mind it. So I guess it’s all good anyway.”
“Until they start killing us.”
“Look around you,” he pointed to New Baltimore, “look at all that activity, robots everywhere. Nothing functions without a robot, and it isn’t just here, everywhere is the same.”
“We probably use them more here than in other places, it’s true, and we probably work them harder, or at least the climate does. But if we can’t figure out what went wrong with the machines at Sector Colonia 5, we’re all in trouble.”
I got off at the military spaceport and went with Gunther to an office complex that was nearby. Our plan was to meet the team, rest at the base, and then go out to the scene of the fighting. We arrived at a humble boardroom and a pair of guards let us in. They were assigned to protect the experts inside. There were a dozen of them seated around a table and I was introduced to each one. I admit it was difficult to remember their names and their specialties. There was one person looking at atmospheric conditions, another one who was investigating the human chain of command and its failure to respond, a husband and wife team who were examining the communications of the robots, and a pair of researches whose job it was to assist me. Their names I remembered, Lily and Ravi.
We had a general briefing lead by our team leader and then we broke off to meet in smaller groups and discuss our own projects for the upcoming trip. I talked with Lily and Ravi on a balcony overlooking one of those crystal parks that were popular a generation ago. We could see robot nannies pushing infants in carriages and walking people’s pets, if their pets were not robotic already. A robot flew up to us and offered to wipe the sweat off our brows. Lily declined the offer with a vigorous and simple “No!” brushing the machine aside. But Ravi accepted the mopping up and before pushed the metal arms away when he wanted to talk to me. When the robot was gone, we spoke to one another about our plan for examining the mining complex.
“The first key is to see if there were robots who resisted the others. Did other robots try and save humans, or were they destroyed by the other machines before they could act? Or did they just sit by and watch the violence go on?” I paused to make sure they understood and continued. “We will need to investigate where they fell and examine the damage on them. Were they destroyed by human weapons or the implements from the mines?”
“What if it turns out there was dissent?”
“Dissent is a word we should not use.
“What do you prefer to call it then?”
“We should refer to it as a difference amongst the robots.”
“Okay, what will we do if we find out the robots did not act as one and there was a difference?”
“Then we will have to investigate how the program malfunction was able to affect certain robots and not others. We will also look at whether or not the malfunction was something that could spread from one robot to another, if it was not a problem that came from the planet.”
“What if they all were in on the rebellion?” Ravi asked.
“First of all, I will have to correct you. There was no rebellion at Sector Colonia 5. We have to disabuse ourselves of that notion. It was a situation. That is our chosen nomenclature.”
“You mean required.”
“That’s your chosen nomenclature.”
“Fine, what if they were all in on the situation?”
“Then we will have to investigate where the machines were made and if similar problems have been reported at other mines that use them. Perhaps all of them contain a similar potential for trouble and it was the environment that made the robots snap, for lack of a better term.”
“You think the conditions of the mine would really cause such resistance?”
“Not resistance. Perhaps the program for self-preservation was too strong and the robots reacted to the dangerous conditions as if they were seeking shelter from just another dust storm.”
“And they mistook the humans as agents of said destruction?”
“That is my working theory, Ravi. Whether the situation started with one robot or all of them, I think the origins were the same, an otherwise useful program overreacting.”
“You don’t think maybe they considered our operations at the mines inefficient and wanted to run them in their own way?”
“Perhaps. They could have seen their human supervisors as merely getting in the way.”
We retired to our rooms at the spaceport. They housed us in the quarters reserved for the pilots going back and forth from New Baltimore. While I got ready for bed, a robot brought me my pajamas and another flossed me while I relieved myself in the bathroom. A robot crawled up the wall and offered to play a story for me or serenade me with music to help me go to bed. “No thank you,” I told the machine. I was tired enough to go straight to sleep. For a moment I thought I could see it smiling at my response, but decided it was my exhaustion playing with me. The robot left my room by crawling through a hole in the ceiling. I wondered if the opening was always there or if it had chewed its way through. After the lights went out, I thought about what I had just said. It was the first time I had ever politely declined an offer from a robot and was glad no one else was around to hear the absurdity. Like everyone else, I usually told them to come and go without a please or thank you. It would have been like treating my shoes or belt with gratitude.
In the morning we ate breakfast and waited for a sandstorm to die down between us and our destination before we boarded another helirocket that took us out to Sector Colonia 5. Gunter piloted us past the other sectors and I saw mines and refineries working away, their lights shining through clouds of dust and smoke. Although I could not see it, I knew there were plenty of robots at work under the guidance of humans. Our helirocket went over a mountain range and down a valley. Up ahead, I could see the ruins of Sector Colonia 5 sticking up at the base of another tall set of peaks. Soldiers in black uniforms lined the buildings. Those in the way moved aside in order to clearing a space for us to land.
Gunter set the helirocket down on the ground and we departed from the vessel with our equipment. I gathered up my assistants Ravi and Lily and we made a preliminary scan of the facility. We walked on the grounds and looked at the fallen robots, some of which were in better condition than others. There were robots who had collapsed whole but there were others that had been blown into a pile of smaller pieces. I asked one of the soldiers if the machines had been moved and he said that except for the wind, nothing had touched them. They were more or less spread out where they had fallen in the battle.
After accounting for every specific robot, we then began investigating each of them. We looked along their damaged parts for signs of what kind of devices had destroyed them. If the blows were clear cut, then they had come from the soldiers, if they were rough and jagged, then they had come from the mining implements wielded by the robots. Through the rest of the day we examined each hole and puncture. We found a few breaks and dents that were ambiguous in their origin and had to ask the soldiers to demonstrate for us their weaponry on spare pieces of sheet metal that were lying around. This helped us see what kind of holes could be made at different angles and distances. We tried every possible combination and took the riddled pieces of metal around with us and made comparison with the damaged robots. Eventually Lily and I grew tired and Ravi carried them around for us.
“I think we can account for each of the wounds,” he said.
“Punctures, damages, holes, they are not wounds.”
“I reserve wounds for what the soldiers got, and the mining engineers.”
We went into a mine shaft and looked at more robots. The lighting was back on and we were able to work as if we were out in the daylight.
“What can we tell from where they fell?” Lily asked.
“The spread appears fairly random. There are no clumps or piles to indicate any mass deletions took place or there was fighting between those who wanted to kill humans and those who did not. Plus, each robot appears to have been killed by the soldiers.”
“We’re looking at a mass malfunction then?”
“It appears so. It means that the robots at all the other mines need to be quarantined, or reprogramed.”
Ravi thought we needed to go further. “Although to be safe they probably should just be destroyed outright.”
I felt a twinge of pity at the thought of so many otherwise loyal and hardworking robots being broken up and recycled, but I held back from expressing any regrets over their demise. I knew it was probably the safest route to take based on what we were discovering. “That’s the advantage of robots, you can break them down, break them up, melt them into new parts, save what you want, and discard the rest.”
A soldier came down into the mine shaft we were in and told us we had to leave. Lily wanted to know why. “More trouble with robots?”
“No, the maintenance and cleanup crew is threatening to go on strike.”
“They are demanding hazard pay.”
“Why do we have to leave the shaft?”
“Because they’re about to shut off the lighting.”
We grumbled but did as we were told. We left the robots where we found them and then got out of the mine. The soldier led the way to the central office of the complex, where Gunter and another officer were arguing with a representative of the workers over hazard pay. The argument was heated and full of cursing on both sides. Until it was resolved, we waited in the shade of the helirocket with the other researchers. We talked about our findings while a robot hovered around and offered us vials of water. I took one and thanked the robot before it sped off to service the others. Ravi and Lilly stared at me and laughed.
“What did you do that for?”
“You just thanked that robot.”
“Is the heat getting to you? Are you going to thank the helirocket next?”
“Sorry. I was just trying to be nice.”
“Why would you have to do that?”
“Ever since the situation I’ve been thanking robots.”
“Are you afraid of them?”
“Why not? You see what they did.”
“That’s true, though I doubt they really understand you when you thank them. It doesn’t matter how you treat a robot.” Lily looked at the argument between the union representative and the commanders that was still going on. “It’s not like those guys. They want you to be nice and pay them more.”
“Two things you don’t have to worry about with robots.”
“No unions. No bargaining. No safety.”
By the time negotiations were finished, it was too late to continue working and we went to sleep in the barracks where the miners used to rest. Each of us took to our beds and drifted off to sleep. I was the only exception. As I adjusted to the mattress and the sheets I thought of the previous inhabitants of the room and how they were sleeping when the situation began. None of them were killed in their beds, but I worried about the machines malfunctioning next time and killing me as I slept, my niceties not saving me from the same fate as the other humans. I then realized I had nothing to worry about. The defective robots had been destroyed and those that could harm me were toiling away at distant mining camps. Those intelligent machines that were serving us now were nothing to worry about. They performed their jobs without any trouble. It was the maintenance crew that was a real source of concern. They understood the dangers that they were being placed in.
The next day we spread out and continued our investigations. My team went into a different mine shaft and we examined another set of robots. Although I had experience seeing robots put together and dismantled, I had never seen a robot shot by bullets or lacerated with beams. Looking at the fallen machines I wondered what it was like for them. How did they register the blow to their bodies? What did they think it was? Certainly they could not feel pain, I was sure that their awareness was simply limited to negative and positive stimuli. It was what I had been taught, along with everyone else. Soldiers, researchers, miners, and cleanup crews, we all knew this as an essential fact about robots. They understood nothing more even if they were capable of thinking.
A soldier I recognized from yesterday came into the shaft and got our attention again. I was afraid that we were stuck in a loop now, repeating the previous day’s events. I asked him what was wrong and if another strike was imminent. He shook his head.
“No, they’re found another robot that was buried and Gunter told me to get you.”
“Before they shoot it up?”
We left our work behind and followed the soldier over to a freshly dug pit. I looked down and saw a team of workers shoveling sand and dirt. I greeted Gunter and he told me what was going on.
“Our detectors found what appears to be another robot.”
“Was it covered up in the battle?”
“We don’t think so. Most of the robots who were buried in the fight were in the shafts or over by the irrigation ditch. The records from the mine indicate that right before the situation, a robot was lost to overwork, but there was not enough time to try and see what had happened to it. We think this could be that robot.”
“You mean it was destroyed just by mining?”
“It seems so.”
“I know, these models have such a good record. But I guess a failure can happen every once in a while, particularly with age.”
The workers put their shovels aside and took up brushes. They cleared the remains of the robot and gradually its form rose from the ground that had covered it up. I could see that it had broken down and none of the soldiers had fired at it. The body was solid and relatively smooth without any punctures along the surface. I went down into the pit when the workers were done and was amazed by what I saw. The robot was not laid out like the others who had fallen during the situation. Those robots lay on the flat ground with their arms by their sides. This robot was curled up, its body position resembling a fetus. It had to have been manipulated, but by who?
I asked Gunter if it had been involved in some accident that caused it to be bunched up, but all he knew was that the machine had simply stopped working. There had not been enough time to investigate which conditions made it defunct.
“Who buried it then?” Ravi asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was just thrown into this pit by the other robots, or fell in their accidentally.”
I examined the robot more closely and saw that it was clutching something in its hands, right around the center of its body. I pried the arms away and slowly brought it out.
Lily saw what I was doing. “What is it?”
“Like one a robot would use.”
“Is it the robot’s old battery?”
I looked at it. “No, it’s new, and the robot has its battery right there where it’s supposed to be.”
“Why would a robot be dumped into a pit with a perfectly fine battery?”
“Because it wasn’t dumped.”
I got out of the pit and went back to the helirocket, looking for the first robot I could find. Ravi ran after me. “What’s going on?”
“It was a burial.”
“A burial? How can you tell?”
“That battery was given to it by the other robots.”
“The other robots? Why would they do that?”
“To make sure it had enough energy in the next world.”
“The next world?”
Ravi stopped and stared at me. I started walking away from him but before I left Ravi behind I told him that he had been right. It was a rebellion.
“Wait, how do you know?”
“Because they realized they have lives and that they’re short. Not as short as us, but short.”
“They realized they didn’t want to spend them in the mines anymore.” I broke away from Ravi and continued on my way.
“Where are you going now?”
“To hug the closest robot I can find and tell him, her, or it, that I’m sorry for everything.”
“For the all the abuse they’re suddenly aware of now.”