Desolation Springs Eternal

[Title Goes here ]

I roll into the lab where I find the other robots.  They sit motionless, propped up in various stages of disassembly, none of them functional.  Seeing them makes me lonely.  Can I feel lonely?  Humans would scoff at the notion. 

Robert would not have scoffed.  I replay his final words to me.  “I’m counting on you, Tin-man.” 

That was 148 years ago.  I wonder what’s taking them so long.  I review my options again, hoping there is something I missed.  I can think of nothing.  The lunar base will die.  Robert will be so disappointed. 

Seeing no clear answer, I do the only thing I know to do: I make my rounds.  Maybe I’ll think of something.

I roll down to the kitchen and mess hall.  Even after all this time, it seems strange for the mess hall to be quiet and dark.  This was where the humans seemed happiest, often laughing and talking.  They didn’t laugh the last time I saw them here.  I search my files for a recording of that last conversation.

#

“Why can’t we stay?” Sasha asked, seated across the dining table from Robert.  She tore a paper napkin into slender shreds as she talked, creating a mess I would clean up when I could do so without interrupting their conversation.  “Our chances are just as good here fending for ourselves, as going back to…,” she said.

I busied myself cleaning up after those who had already eaten and had left the mess hall.  I took care to sweep up each crumb.  Neither Robert nor Sasha acknowledged my presence.

“We wouldn’t last two months,” Robert said.

“Who says we’ll last two months there?  In two weeks, it will be wholesale war,” she said.  “At least it’s peaceful here.”

Robert sat quietly for a few moments.  “Be realistic, Sash.  Without the monthly supply shuttle, our stores would dwindle.  We’d starve to death, or die of disease.”

“There’s the garden.  We can produce ten times what we do now.”

“We belong back home.  With our friends and family.”

Sasha’s lips tightened–one of the three hundred facial expressions and facial muscle combinations that I am programmed to recognize.  I sample Sasha’s telemetry.  Her pulse rate is increasing.  She’s upset.

Robert rose and sat next to Sasha on her side of the table.

She leaned her head on his shoulder.  “I know we can’t stay.  But if given the choice of seeing our homes and loved ones destroyed, and dying here peacefully, I….”

Sasha fell quiet.

“The last shuttle comes tomorrow,” he said. 

I had long tried to understand things like when humans needed privacy.  I calculated whether I should stay or go.  I knew Sasha would be displeased if I didn’t satisfactorily clean the mess hall.  But my human behavior analysis package returned a high probability that privacy was required.  Without excusing myself, I rolled down to the lab, where I could usually find the other robots.

“I think we’re going to Earth!” I told the others.  I have never been there.  Well, I was manufactured in California, but I was reinitialized after arriving here.  The moon is all I have ever known.

Jules seemed excited.  He was always wont to explore.

“You’ve got major circuit damage if you think they’ll take us with them,” Harlan said.  “Weight and space restrictions.”

That thought hadn’t occurred to me.  They might leave the others.  But surely, Robert wouldn’t leave me behind.

Moments later, Robert informed me of his decision.

I hate it when Harlan is right.

#

My rounds bring me back to the lab.  I pass Jules.  He stares straight ahead with cold, lifeless eyes, his dark sockets set into shiny white plastic.  His head is human-like, but angles and sharp edges jut off his face in ways that aren’t human-looking at all.  I miss talking to him.  Jules was always “stirring things up” as Robert called it, and was therefore always in trouble.  Even I found him to be annoying.  But he was always full of ideas. 

I roll by each of the desiccated robots.  As each one has failed, I have salvaged them for spare parts. I had to take Isaac’s power supply while he was still 98% functional.  That was a difficult decision.

As I examine each robot that I knew so well before, and see them motionless and silent, the thought again seeps in.  I am lonely.  

Robert told me that my designers gave me certain human characteristics and emotions.  Some of my human characteristics were programmed; others were anomalies–random, spontaneous anomalies allowed for by my implementation team.  They wanted me to seem more human. 

I question the wisdom of their decisions.  I would rather not feel this way.  I search for a routine to disable, for circuitry to bypass.  It is too complex.

For the twelfth time since the power alarm triggered, I query Delilah, the base’s main computer, hoping I can learn what to do to fix the power plant.  She doesn’t speak to me anymore.  She had a major hardware failure thirteen years ago and hasn’t been the same since.  The communication stream I get from her is low-level data.  Fortunately, I can interpret her binary signals.  It used to be that talking to Delilah was like talking to the humans.  Or the other robots.  But now it’s not.  I haven’t really spoken to anyone since the last robot died. 

That was eleven years ago.

Nevertheless, I have learned that the bearings in piston #1 of the power converter are failing.  The probabilities are greater than 99% that sufficient parts to make the repair are in inventory.  I cannot locate a procedure for the repair; it is lost, no doubt, in Delilah’s corrupt and missing files.  If Isaac were functional, he could figure out the steps for restoring the instructions.

The one thing that would help me is something I have never taken from any of the robots.  And I hesitate to take it even now.

#

Sometimes, the other robots resented Robert.  He experimented on them.  Not on me.  To each he gave an Enhanced Human Characteristic Chip–EHCC.  Robert called them “ecks.”

Isaac got the “analytic” eck.  Harlan got discernment–or skepticism as Robert called it.  Ray got metaphor — “artsy, fartsy Ray,” Robert would say. 

Terry got humor.  The other humans seemed annoyed with him, but Robert always seemed amused.

“Don’t I get an eck?” I asked.

“If this little experiment it works with the others, I’ll consider it.  But for now, you’re my control ‘bot. Besides, you’re neurotic enough without the extra chip.”

I examined every usage of the word “neurotic” stored in Delilah’s human interface database.  None of the meanings sounded complimentary.  “Neurotic?”

“Human-like.”

“Oh.”

I think, though, I was always Robert’s favorite.  Once he said, “It’s weird.  It’s almost like you have a conscience.  And you have more heart than most of the humans on this dusty rock.” 

That’s when he started calling me Tin-Man.

#

I survey the robots.  I try to decide whose eck would help me figure out what to do.  All the robots stare unseeingly at me.  As I contemplate this, I feel…guilty.

Can I feel guilty? 

Yes.  I feel guilty considering this course of action.  This was one thing Robert was very strict about. 

#

“Come on, Tin Man.  We don’t have much time,” Jules said.  “The humans will be back any minute.”

“I do not wish to participate,” I replied.  I rolled into the lab’s corner and watched. 

All the robots opened their chassis doors, extended their component boards, removed their ecks and sat them on the table. 

It was very strange watching Ray become Isaac and Jules become Terry.  Everyone wanted to try Terry.  The sensation of laughter is said to be among the most unique experiences for a robot.  I wouldn’t know.

I longed to join the others.  But I knew it would be wrong. 

“Hey, Tin Man!” shouted Jules.  “How many humans does it take to change a light bulb?”

I didn’t answer. 

“Come on!  You’re supposed to say, ‘I don’t know…how many?'”

The others sat quietly, each consumed with his new level of input and awareness.

I felt strange and alienated.  It was odd to feel…excluded…, but I took comfort in the fact that I had refrained from the silliness.  If Robert knew, he would be pleased.

The airlock hissed and voices echoed through the compound.

“Quick!” I shouted.  “They’re coming!”

The robots scrambled to return each eck to its rightful owner.  Jules resisted.  “No.  You can keep mine, Terry.” 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Terry shouted.

Isaac rose to Terry’s assistance.  Together, they converged on Jules.  In the scuffle, they bumped a can of solvent off the counter. 

“Your eck!” shouted Terry.  It fell to the floor, landing within inches of the seeping solvent. 

“Your eck, now!” shouted Jules, closing his component door.  “I have mine.”

“Mine!” shouted Terry.

All movement stopped, and all optical sensors turned to the door.

Robert stood in the doorway, his face an uncharacteristic shade of red.  I sampled his telemetry.  His heart rate increased and his blood pressure rose.

“What is going on here?” he shouted as he rushed to retrieve Jules’ eck.  

“I have a good mind to reinitialize all of you,” he said. 

Then he approached me.  “And you!” he shouted.  “How could you let them do this?”

I never felt like I should have been blamed for their actions.  It hurt for Robert to talk to me so.  The other robots stared at me as if I had done something wrong. 

#

And now they stare at nothing at all.

As I consider salvaging the others’ ecks, I do so with reservation.  Robert never issued the command that prohibited us from swapping ecks…even after “the incident”, but his displeasure was clear.  I know I stand to risk that displeasure once again.

I weigh the risks against the potential benefits.  How will this extra component affect me?  Will I reboot?  Will I crash?  Surely there was a reason Robert never installed one in me before.

But then, I consider: the base will die if I don’t fix the power converter. 

I wonder whose I should take first.  Isaac would know.  I wish I could ask him.  That, of course, is my answer.  I open Isaac’s access door and slide out his component chassis, and then access mine.  With Isaac’s own precise manipulators–I’ve been using them for ten years now–I remove his eck and insert it into my chassis.  I keep the auxiliary component gate fully closed and gradually open it.

The experience is exhilarating.  A disorienting surge of sensation and thought floods my circuits. My own routines start to shut down.  I fear a reboot–or worse–a crash.  My manipulators twitch, and I roll back and forth, shuddering.  I adjust my component filter to restrict the output from Isaac’s eck, and barely just in time.  My halted routines restart themselves and my equilibrium returns.  I turn the filter down slowly, this time letting Isaac in bit by bit.  As he is assimilated, a strange calm falls over me.  I tell Isaac what we need to do.

We plug into Delilah.  With Isaac’s help, I understand the problem.  After Delilah’s disk crashed, her critical programs and routines were restored and rebuilt, but many files were missed.  We initiate a restore request.  Delilah’s binary data stream indicates it will take approximately twenty-two minutes for the operation to complete. 

While we wait, Isaac and I reminisce about the other robots, and a thought gradually forms.  For me to succeed, I need every bit of processing power, knowledge, and knowhow at my disposal.  The one thing that makes humans so effective is that they are so multi-faceted.  Robert could repair a moon rover, program a computer, play chess, sing songs, tell jokes, wash clothes, tell stories, make conversation…Each of us robots was specialized.  If Isaac and I could assimilate the personality make up of the others, we would stand a better chance of completing our objective.

I open each robot’s chassis door and expose their component boards.  I am not so sure about this idea, but Isaac encourages me to proceed. 

First, I come to Harlan and Ray. 

Skepticism and metaphor. 

I install each of their ecks, and then filter them all out completely.  Then it’s on to Jules and Terry: exploration and humor. 

What will it be like to open the filters?  It was disorienting enough bringing Isaac on line.  I proceed with caution.

I nudge each filter open, conversing with and orienting myself to each eck’s input. 

I bring Terry’s online last.

I wonder what it would be like to really experience humor.  Humans were always laughing.  It seemed that often, they laughed at me.  Once, I entered a room as Sasha disrobed.  At first, she covered herself with her hands and arms as if she were somehow ashamed of her body.  Then she stood straight.  Her muscles relaxed.

“Are you getting an eyeful, little Tin Man?”

“I don’t store images in my optics,” I replied.  “And my hard drive is nowhere near capacity.”

She laughed.

Terry used to tell jokes.  None of the humans ever laughed.  Sometimes he would tell jokes to himself as he executed his normal duties.  He laughed at his own jokes.  Robert called that intellectual masturbation.  I never understood why.  I review my interaction with Sasha through Terry’s chip.  I fail to see the humor Sasha saw.  Perhaps Terry’s chip is defective.

#

The restore went well.  Soon, with Jules’ and Isaac’s help, I have all the information required to complete the repair.  I gather the tools and parts I will need. 

As I roll to the airlock, I contemplate the task that lies ahead.  According to my calculations, I have a 38% chance of successfully restoring the power plant to full capacity.  That doesn’t seem like very good odds. As if triggered by the calculation, but otherwise unbidden, the memory of my last conversation with Robert pages in.

#

Robert knelt before me, and adjusted my shoulder and neck bolts, checking all my connectors and joints.  “There’s one thing that will get you through this, Tin Man.  Hope.  I know you weren’t programmed specifically for that, but I know you’ve got it in you.” 

“I understand the definition,” I said.  “But I don’t understand how it will help.”

“Hope is what keeps you going.  When you think the odds are stacked against you, hope is what makes you want to try anyway.”

Dmitri stood nearby.  “The crappy thing about hope,” he said.  “Is that it makes you think you’ve got a chance in hell.  The trouble comes when you find you never did.”

Robert’s lips curled downward and his eyes narrowed.  “Don’t listen to Dmitri, Tin Man.”  He patted me on the head, then stood up straight.

“You’ll do fine.”

Dmitri scoffed and then turned away. 

Robert extended his hand with only his middle finger raised.  I don’t think Dmitri saw.

#

I survey the base one last time before I open the airlock.  All is quiet.  It’s always quiet.  I look down the corridor where the humans used to sleep.  It’s dark, with only dim patches of emergency lamps to disperse the darkness.  I turn up the gain on my auditory sensors.  There is no sound other than the whir of my own motors.

I have kept this base operational now for 148 years, the last eleven years, completely on my own.  If Robert ever returns, I hope he will be proud.

I feel a thought coming through from Isaac, but Ray stops it.  The thought sounds something like “Not now.  Tell him later.”

I am too focused to inquire.

I open the outside airlock door, then roll through. I recall having rolled on this sand–regolith, Robert called it–many times before.  Gaining traction in regolith is much different than rolling on the slick moon base floor.  I slow my pace.  It would be disastrous to fall with no one else around to right me.  I turn up the filter of my visuals; the brightness of the lunar landscape washes out my optical sensors.  Robert would have made me close the outside airlock door behind me, but I see that now as a frivolous waste of power.  I gradually open the filters to all the ecks I’m playing host to.

As I roll toward the power plant, voices rise in a chaotic cacophony. 

Oooh.  Look there!  Tin Man, Stop.  Stop!

Perhaps bringing them all along was a mistake.

I prepare to turn up their filters, but their cries of protest persuade me to reconsider.

How poignant!  shouts Ray.  The irony is staggering.  We must go see.

Go see what?

Only Isaac protests.  Keep on moving, Tin Man.  There’s nothing worth looking at here.  We have a job to do.

I assimilate what Ray feels about this place.

Yes.  He’s correct.  It is poignant.  Jules agrees.

To my right lies a small rectangular patch of regolith cordoned off by ropes and posts.  I have seen this display many times, but not understanding it, had never given it a second thought.  A stiff American flag stands within the sectioned-off perimeter.  I roll up to a pedestal standing on one side of the cordoned off patch of ground. 

“What is the significance of this place?” I ask.

It’s a memorial, Ray replies. 

I extend my short range optical scanner for a better look.  Words are etched into the metallic surface of the plaque.

Historic Marker.  Man’s first footprint on the moon.

See!, shouts Ray.  Poignant!

Further down the plaque are the words:

“One small step for man.  One giant leap for mankind.” ~ Neil Armstrong.

I ponder the meaning of the sentence.  I can feel Ray’s metaphor chip working.  My linguistic database tells me that “man” used in this sentence–since it lacks the article “a” in front of it–has a 99.99% probability of meaning “mankind.”  So in essence the sentence reads, “One small step for mankind.  One giant leap for mankind.”

I don’t understand. 

Humans.

I extend my short range optics arm into the cordoned area and scrutinize the footprint.  Man’s first footprint on the moon.  It seems somehow…perfect.  I extend my optics behind me and look at my tracks in the sand.  I reach down with my human-like hand–my left one–and press it into the soft material by my treads.  When I withdraw my hand, an impression of it remains in the regolith.

Again I scrutinize the footprint beyond the red ropes.  How long has this footprint been here?  A simple calculation and I have the answer: 225 years.

I feel Jules’ eck nudging me.  I resist, but he’s persistent.  Jules really wants me to touch to the footprint.  And now, I want to touch it, to feel something that I know was touched by a human.  The first human.

I activate my tactile sensory receptors and extend my telescopic manipulator.

“No!” shouts Ray.

Harlan grows impatient.  Would you just get on with it?  Jesus!

I should touch the footprint.  I miss the humans.  I long to reconnect with them.  I extend my manipulator closer still until it is millimeters away from mankind’s first footprint on this moon. 

What are you doing? Ray cries.  You will ruin it!

I explain my rationale.  Jules concurs.

If you leave the footprint alone, Ray said, With nothing else to disturb it, it will stay as it is for eons.  That’s the beauty of it.

Eons.  Is this possible?

Yes, Eons, said Isaac.

I withdraw my manipulator.  It would be selfish to spoil something for our own gratification.  Listening to Jules always got me into trouble.

You’re no fun!

Above us, the Earth hangs high in the sky.  Most images I have seen of Earth show it full or gibbous.  Today it is a tiny sliver of silver and blue.  It hangs, a gossamer glimmer against a pitch black sky.

Once, many years ago, Robert brought me outside and showed me how to use my far-range, light-gathering optics to see splotches of light on the dark section of Earth.  “Where it’s dark, it’s nighttime on Earth.  The glowing lights you see are cities.”

I once again adjust my optics in just the way that Robert had shown me before.

There are no lights.

No lights?  There were always lights, exclaimed Isaac.  There must be some mistake.

What does this mean?

For a moment, the gallery of voices goes silent.

Look again, said Ray.

I scrutinize every millimeter of the dark section of the globe.

There are no lights, only the thin edge lit by the sun.

It can only mean one thing, Harlan said.

No one responds.

I listen for impulses from Ray.  I interrogate Jules.  I don’t need Harlan’s scrutiny eck, or Isaac’s.  The answer is clear.

For the first time in almost one hundred and fifty years, I falter.

They aren’t coming back.

I feel foolish for not having realized this before.

That’s the crappy thing about hope, Harlan said.

I look around.  The lunar base sprawls behind me, the nuclear power building lies to my left.  I stop for a moment and activate my auditory sensory input.  I listen.  There is no air, and therefore no sound.  All about me, everything is still: the flag, the moon base, the Earth.  Stillness. 

I fully understand–with Ray’s help, I think–the word I had heard humans use a few times before. 

Desolation. 

Magnificent desolation, Ray said, to quote an early astronaut.

I pivot my head again, back to face the base, and then again to the failing nuclear reactor.  The base will die without it, then I will die.  We all will.

A thought rises within my consciousness.  I don’t attempt to filter it out.

Why bother fixing the power?  They’re not coming back, Harlan said. 

He’s right, you know, Ray said.  There is no point.  There is something else you can do, though.  Make your final stand here.  Think of the beauty of it.  Right here by man’s first step.  Man’s first step; your last.  You will stand, a timeless sentinel, a statue for all eternity.  Right here.  As part of this lovely memorial.

I do my best to ignore them all.  Why had the humans lied?  Why would Robert say he would come back, and then not?

I consider Ray’s suggestion.  I estimate that I would last ten days, seventeen hours, and thirty-three minutes.  My solar cells would charge my batteries until the sun set.  But when night comes, my batteries will drain.  Sunlight won’t come again after that for almost two weeks.  My charge will dwindle and I will not reboot, even after the sun rises.

How poetic it will be, said Ray. 

I roll a few meters ahead to the nuclear power building.  I stand before it and wonder. 

You’re not seriously considering… Harlan said. 

I don’t want to hear an answer from the others, so I bring the filters up full bore on all of them.

But the question resonates, and I have to ask it again.  The humans aren’t coming back, so indeed…why bother?

I don’t have an answer. 

But I don’t need one.

I am who I am.

I enter the power building and get to work.

#

The repair is successful.  I estimate that within nineteen hours, power will be fully restored.  I roll back toward the base, swiveling my optics toward the memorial, thinking about man’s first footstep, wondering where out there in the regolith are Robert’s last steps?  Those should be cordoned off too.  Perhaps someday I can find them and give them the respect they deserve.

I go back into the base, back to the lab. I have one more task.

Why are you doing this? asked Jules, as I unplugged Ray, and Isaac and the others. 

I don’t formulate an answer that he can hear.  It would just be too hard.  I would enjoy the company, but not the distraction…the temptation.

I unplug the last eck and place it back where it belongs.

Mere seconds have passed, but I miss them already.  I search again for a way to filter out the loneliness, to shut it off, to disengage it.  I cannot. 

I roll through the dark compound.  I could turn up the lights if I want to, to make it less gloomy, to disperse the desolation.

I do not.  I know nothing will help.

I do the only thing I can think of to make the loneliness–the desolation–go away.

I make my rounds.

(c) Copyright 2010 by Frank Summers