Pieter Robbins walked slowly across the icy grey plain. Behind him, a cloud of disturbed dust and ice particles hung suspended in the aether, falling almost imperceptibly back toward the surface of Neried. The cloud formed an insubstantial snake-like trail back toward the mining base's lifesystem, spreading and thinning perhaps a hundred yards from the airlock door.
Within and beyond the airlock, slightly metallic-tasting air drifted unused, awaiting his return. No-one else breathed the lifesystem's air -- none had since the day he'd arrived, four-and-a-half years before, to relieve his predecessor. The walls were metal, blank and austere for the most part, sporadically decorated with faded posters and torn notices, only a few of which weren't spurious.
Here and there, affixed by magnets to tables, desks and walls, sheets of paper rustled in the breeze from the air vents. In the rest room, a loose sheet of toilet paper, wafting near the ceiling, seemed more-or-less content to stay there. In the puny force of Neried's gravity, it would take most of a day to fall, and the nigh-imperceptible draft from the floor vent held it aloft.
When Pieter walked these corridors in velcro slippers, the rip, rip, rip sound of his footsteps echoed hollowly off the walls and ceiling, mocking his solitude. But now the only sound -- were there someone there to hear it -- was the soft whirring hum of automated electronics at rest, and the occasional rustling sigh of its mechanical breath.
A listener standing beside Pieter now, as he walked across the Nerien tundra, would hear still less: perhaps a ghost of a Thump-Thump-Thump, transmitted through the soft and dusty ground by his footsteps. Pieter's suit massed 863 pounds -- and he'd paid dear to have each and every ounce of it transported here with him -- but on Neried, it weighed less than five, empty or full.
The suit was a thing of beauty: The 99000 series industrial chassis from Saab-Scania of Sweden, with state-of-the-art Wellington TDI mercury-based balance control systems, power-assisted joints, gravity-compensation systems allowing normal movement in anything from .0025 to 4.75 Gees, and Gerit-Quealy 6400 precision motion micro-translators allowing the wearer to spot-weld on a microchip as if it were an industrial cross-beam. The power plant was a Grenier 675 furnace with the GB2D stepdown system from L'Officier Space Gear of Quebec. Control feedback systems from British Leyland -- who also made all the safety equipment except the Spinne autosealant rover from Bavarische Motores Werken -- fed into the Texas Instruments 99/4000 computer system, which automaticaly translated the operator's motions and gestures into commands to the suit systems, and sent data and camera views to the twenty Sanyo 382 LCD moniter screens bordering the helmet's visor from above and below.
It was his pride and joy, every system, every interface, every motor, circuit, sensor and joint, a work of art painstakingly designed by the finest craftsmen in the solar system. He'd maintained it lovingly, and at considerable expense, for as long as he'd owned it, almost ten years, installing KoriCo Nova floodlights, the new NavStar Position-Direction finder, and the Sharp 266/9AV Audio-Video Laserdeck.
Pieter walked steadily ahead, the suit's power-driven joints resisting his every move, fooling his muscles into believing that Point-Five per cent Gee was normal earth gravity. The motors whirred and buzzed in his ears, and his breathing echoed harshly: the uncanny silence with which he walked across the face of Neried was a product not of fine engineering, but of vacuum.
There was no real reason for him to be out there, no real job that needed to be done. But there was make-work, which was more than could be said for the station.
The problem with setting up robot mining stations was simple: Any automated operation needed automatic repair and control systems to correct the damage time would certainly do the installation. No matter how hard one tried, though, one couldn't anticipate every contingency, couldn't pre-program for every possible way things could go wrong. In order for a mining station to be self-sufficient, an adaptable, self-programming computer was required, to troubleshoot the unanticipated contingency. Only one such device existed: a human being.
The economics of that answer were tricky, though. In the asteroid belt, and among the moons of the outer planets, lifesystems were expensive, and shipping a live human body was hideously moreso. Again, there was an answer, this one the result of a mathmatical formula: One human being, alone, in a supervisory repair and troubleshooting capacity, stationed at each remote base for anywhere from three to seven years -- depending on the location -- to be paid five million dollars per year on completion of the contract. As things stood, no one concern had more than twelve such OutSpacers at any given time, and rarely had to pay off twice in any given year. The profit margin -- provided station efficency was kept above a certain minimum -- was low but acceptable, and any lower pay-scale would be insufficient to attract the caliber of personnel the job required.
To the right man or woman, though, a long stretch in the Outsystem meant a single score, all at once, that would set him or her up for life, in comfort, and usually at a profit. Some wished to buy luxuries: homes, cars, yachts... others wanted businesses.
Pieter fell into that group. The six-year stretch on Neried would net him a healthy down-payment on an in-system ship, something that would carry enough freight and passengers between the O'Niell stations and the lunar colonies -- with occasional hauls to the terraforming bases on Mars and Venus -- to pay off the mortgage within eight years, and then the solar system would be his oyster.
It had looked perfect on the CRT screen: Pieter had reckoned without the boredom.
For all that they were incomplete, requiring a human presence to backstop them, the automated repair and control systems that governed the base were very good indeed, prepared to respond with inhuman speed and efficiency to any but the most Rube-Goldberg of mishaps and malfunctions. In the four-and-a-half years he'd been on Neried, Pieter had actually worked on perhaps six occasions, the most extreme and time-consuming of which had occupied him for a day and a half.
He'd arrived fit and sharp, acute of mind and quick of eye. He was a small man, about five-foot-eight, with the kind of wiry muscularity that made tall men wary. He was almost completely covered with curly red hair, and his slightly florid features had a certain Irish look about them: odd, as his parents were German -- though on second thought, those blue-eyed features could also be Prussian.
Now he seemed to be all soft edges, inside and out, fuzzy and out of focus, withering away through atrophy. There were, of course, recreational facilities, but they were neither numerous nor terribly good: no room in the budget. The database library was fairly extensive, but no match for his voracious reading and viewing habits, and after four-and-a-half years, he had read all the books, watched all the vids, and taken all the pornographic sensies he had, as many times as he possibly could, and the year-and-a-half that remained of his hitch stretched before him like an eternity.
Pieter topped a slight rise, and began shuffling down into a crater, huge and deep by Neried standards. His footsteps became more uneven, the dust cloud appeared in inttermittent, interconnected puffs. It was, in miniature, the same effect that had built the crater in the first place. Pieter stopped and looked toward the center of the dish-like depression. A nublet of stone there protruded from the frost and dust. The suit's shoulder cameras aligned on it with a spoken command, and he glanced down at one of the LCD screens.
"Radar imaging, screen one," he said. A dish antenna on one of the suit's shoulders oscillated slightly, and there was a subtle hum as the TI computer engaged the JPL Computer-Imaging program. The screen cleared the camera view, replaced it with a graphic line-drawing: Outline in white, areas in a grey that darkened in ratio to the density of the stuff. The rock was an irregular blob of near-black amidst the varying pale greys of the dust. As Pieter had expected, four-fifths of it was under the dust, hidden from view.
A scale promptly appeared on the screen. The rock was approximately six feet by three by four, and of normal density for a rock. It massed about four hundred pounds. No problem.
He shuffled through the dust to the stone.
It was a meteor, of course, a chunk of ordinary stone that had lived an extraordinary life, tumbling through the eons across the depths of space, perhaps from the inner system, or from the Oort cloud, or from beyond, until it had collided ignominiously with Neptune's lesser moon. Tiny micrometeorites had pitted its surface over the millenia: geological acne.
Pieter squatted by it, pointed a gauntlet at the dust at its base. "Vent waste gas, outlet two-twelve," he said.
A valve on the gauntlet opened with a hiss, and dust and frost exploded away from the stone, completely blocking his vision.
"Outlet close," said Pieter.
The hiss was gone. "Closed," said the suit computer, its voice a pleasant computer-generated baritone. There was an optional contralto, but the ludicrous sound of the love-goddess voice oozing from the behemoth suit annoyed Pieter to no end.
He checked the radar again. The single jet of dead air had been enough: three-quarters of the rock stood exposed.
He reached out, grasped it in his gauntleted hands, and lifted. It came easily, weighing only about two pounds in the minuscule gravity. He examined it carefully, first assuring himself with deep-radar and thermal scans that it was of no value, then finding its center of gravity, and adjusted his grip along its long axis.
He gave a few spoken commands. Numbers and schematics danced on other screens.
He studied the readouts for a moment, smiled, nodded. "Augment motion accordingly, please."
Pieter adjusted the stone on his shoulder, took a few running steps. This time, the power-driven joints worked with his muscles, rather than against, boosting his speed well beyond any an unaided human could achieve. Icy dust exploded away from his boots, his footsteps ten, fifteen, twenty feet apart.
He kept his eyes on the radar screen. There was a small marker there, blinking orange, and a distance readout, counting down fast.
"Acceleration nominal," said the suit's synthesized voice. Pieter nodded and the suit sensed the motion, and wagged the shoulder cameras up and down in sympathy until the computer's context-recognition center perceived it as a non-command.
The distance readout hit Zero, and his shoulders curled, as he threw the rock, forward and up, with all the strength he and his suit could muster.
The dust from his last step had enveloped him, but on the radar view, the stone rocketed up and away, toward the horizon and beyond.
The computer considered for a moment. "Velocity and vector are nominal. Orbital insertion in forty-three seconds."
Pieter smiled. "I don't guess we need to worry about that rock anymore."
Another screen came to life, flashing the words, "Input Error B/1964: No Command Format."
Pieter ignored it, and after a moment, the screen wiped. It happened every time he talked to himself.
The simple fact of the matter was, he hadn't needed to worry about the rock anyway. He'd started the project by clearing away the rocks that blocked the paths of mining robots. Even that much had been unnecessary, for even the simplest among them was programmed to drive safely around obsticles. That had been at the start. Now he was far from the robot routes; like the last fifteen, the rock he'd just injected into orbit had been small enough for the robots to drive over even if fully exposed, much less mostly buried.
But, it was something to do. Until he ran out of rocks, anyway...
The message was waiting on his comm screen when he returned.
TELESCOPIC TELEMETRY FROM NERIED TDRS INDICATES ORBITAL INSERTION FROM NERIEN SURFACE OF SEVERAL SMALL MINERAL MASSES. COMPUTER MODELING INDICATES THAT ONLY AVAILLABLE SOURCE OF ORBITAL MASSES IS DELIBERATE LAUNCH FROM NERIEN SURFACE.
INSERTION OF THESE MASSES IS REQUIRING NEW ORBIT-SAFETY MAPPING BY TDRS COMPUTERS, INVOLVING FULL USE OF ALL CAMERAS, RADAR FACILITIES. THIS CAUSES INTERRUPTION OF TELEMETRIC FEED FROM STATION, WHICH CANNOT BE ALLOWED. CEASE IMMEDIATELY ALL UNAUTHORIZED ORBITAL INSERTIONS.
[C'MON PIETER, WE KNOW YOU'RE BORED, BUT KNOCK IT OFF!]
Pieter stood for a moment, mute and still, staring at the screen -- then moved, swiftly. The screen exploded into a million tiny shards, miniature glass knives that flew in a perfectly spherical blossom through the room as his thrown wrench sizzled and sparked among the circuitry behind it.
The room lights dimmed for a moment, then brightened again as the main computer cut the comm screen from the power circuit.
Pieter straightened slowly from behind the chair, where he'd ducked as soon as the wrench had left his fingers. He stared for a long time at the damage he'd done.
"My God..." he whispered, then swallowed, shook his head. "My God! What am I...?" He shook his head again, slowly, his hushed voice trailing off into nothing.
A small, wheeled maintainence robot rolled into the room, drove around him -- with a polite, "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins," as the built-in sensors detected a human presence -- and extended a probe to examine the wrecked comm screen. It hummed quietly to itself for a moment, probe poking here and there amongst the wreckage, then rolled to a nearby computer station, extended a hard-link plug, and connected into the mainframe interface.
Another moment's whirring and buzzing, and an automatic repair robot wheeled into the room, past Pieter -- "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins." -- and began swiftly detatching and disassembling the shattered comm screen. The first robot extended a vacuum attatchment, began cleaning up glass shards.
The repair robot paused, turned, holding up Pieter's wrench in one of its many small mechanical hands. "This is yours, Mr. Robbins."
Pieter stepped forward and took the damning tool. His face flushed. "Uh... Thank you."
"Why were you attempting to repair the comm screen?" The voice was flat and emotionless. "Diagnostics showed no malfunction."
Pieter looked studiously at the ground, embarrassed for no sane reason. To call the question "routine" would be a gross overestimtion of itent: it was a mere programmed backup, run automatically when human troubleshooters acted in the absence of automated alarm data, in case diagnostics were malfunctioning; it was the high-tech equivalent of the little voice that had told him to engage his aircar's safety restraints back on Earth.
"There was no malfunction," he murmured, so quietly he feared for a moment that the robot would ask him to repeat himself. But it merely looked at him for a moment, blank acknowledgement while it processed the data, and turned back to its job -- "Excuse me, Mr. Robbins." -- leaving Pieter to his thoughts.
It was perhaps a week later that Pieter began seriously working with the crystals.
Neried was tiny and distant, and while a casually-expended probe had revealed it to be a surprisingly dense body (6 grams/cubic centimeter), richer in gold and platinum than anyone had expected, it was most notable for a new discovery: Kapek crystals.
Discovered by Andrew G. Kapek in 2013, Kapek crystals were superconductive at any temperature, of very narrow wavelengths of electronic energy along very specific internal pathways with great fidelity. Because of this, they looked hopeful as a basis for extremely sensative scientific instruments, which was enough reason to set up a mining base.
While they seemed to hold great promise in the area of very fast precision instruments, it also seemed to him that by using slightly different wavelength, one could "program" any given paper-thin crystalline lattice to act as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of printed circuits. The amazing complexity of the resultant macrocircuit would be a step forward on a par with the invention of the silicone chip, telescoping incredibly complex applications into an astonishingly compact form. In theory.
The idea had occurred to him one day -- a few months ago, if the truth be told -- while he was making his usual pointless inspection -- for if anything was wrong with any station equipment, computer diagnostics would have informed him -- of the precision extractor. The precision extractor was a device which sonically vibrated Kapek crystals free of the rocky nodes which contained them, then inspected them, sorting by size and quality -- even the reject bins were classified into two categories.
A year earlier, he'd have made a note of his speculation, entered it in the company computer, and let it go at that: he wasn't an R&D man, although he could probably make logic, context-recognition, and memory boards. It simply wasn't his job. But it wasn't a year earlier, and Pieter was just bored enough to raid the bin of Class B general-failure crystals -- rejected by the precision extractor, but perfectly servicable -- and give the project a shot.
He started with a memory board: it was the simplest to design, easiest to build.
It took him about six weeks, using the suit for its precision-instrumentation gear, to make the first macrocircuit board. It wasn't until then that he realized he had no way to test it.
It was a rule everybody knew about, written after one of the earlier OutSpacers had popped his cork and tried soup up Ganymede station's linear accelerator by patching the mining plant's waste-heat into the main power assembly. It had taken a full repair crew eighteen months to clear out the rubble, and start rebuilding. The rule was simple. Put company equipment -- any company equipment -- to any use except that for which it was provided, and forfiet all -- repeat all -- pay and bonuses. It was right there in the contract, in black and white, and the company attornies were very carefull to call attention to it before contracts were signed. All scrupulously fair and legal.
So it was perfectly simple: no company computer. No computer, no test, and he'd just spent six weeks building a precision doorstop, on a station that was all hatches. That simply wouldn't do.
Linear thinking: it took Pieter another day and a half to find a suitably powerfull computer that wasn't company property.
He was sitting on the single bunk in his slightly cramped quarters, toying vaguely with the idea of trying to jerry-rig his collection of eighteen calculators and digital watches into a small logic board. Of course, to do that properly, he'd have to use the suit's microtranslators--
The suit's computer-driven microtranslaters!
He spun, almost banging his head against the small drawer-space that protruded from the bulkhead above the foot of the bed, and stared at the Holo in the corner of the room: Himself and the suit, his small arm as far 'round its waist as it would go, its huge one carefully pre-positioned to appear to be resting companionably over his shoulders. He'd had it taken within a week of buying it, using up the last of his antarctic command re-up bonus to do it. It had been weeks before he'd been able to send copies to family and friends.
The logo on the bulging chest and backpacks had still been bright and shining then: Texas Instruments -- 99/4000.
"Oh, boy!" breathed Pieter, his brows coming down and together. There was a lot not to like about the whole idea: He could fry the suit computer, crash systems programs, lose invaluable data. He could, conceivably destroy motor-control functions or worse, rendering the entire suit useless.
And, in any case, it would certainly violate the warranty!
No. Under no circumstances would he contemplate such an inane risk.
The main casing for the suit's computer-memory center was just below the oblong shoulder pack that ran the small army of cameras and antennae with which the suit -- and thus, Pieter -- looked at so much the outside world. It was removed along with a half-dozen screws and three safety interlocks.
The base's electronics-repair shop was a study in dull greys and grease: grey tools neatly aligned in grey holders on the grey walls above the grey workbenches. Grease shone grudgingly from the chains of the larger winches and suspension equipment under the harsh light of several naked, high-power bulbs.
One earth-moving -- or, rather, Nereid-moving -- machine slumped decaying in a corner, damaged beyond repair when a short-circuiting fuel sensor had thrown a stray spark into the control mainframe, inducing the computer equivalent of an epileptic fit. The control mainframe had sent conflicting commands to every motor, light, heating element and sensor aboard, and the tractor had torn itself apart.
Pieter stood by the main computer-repair bench, the suit standing before him like a pagan idol, an image ruined by the computer casing, standing open like a refrigerator door, spilling out a diagonal shaft of yellow light as Pieter worked at the circuitry within.
It was probably the most cheerful sight on the moon.
Pieter had thought and planned carefully before taking action. The board he was removing to replace with his macroboard was the control-and-memory system for the audio-video laserdeck. It might have been possible to damage main suit systems by abusing this port, but Pieter could not figure out how, and, in the end, it seemed worth the risk.
The macroboard was too large to fit into its predecessor's slot, but Pieter had known that from the beginning: it sat in a clamp-stand on the nearby workbench, a long ribbon of cable looping from its edge connector to the centronics-standard socket inside the suit casing. Pieter checked and rechecked the wiring connections, making sure there was no way to send some catastrophic data signal from the macroboard to the main suit system. As far as he could tell, there was none.
He stood, leaned over the open helmet collar, and spoke a command into the voice-control mic: "Computer, report memory space: port 13/B. Execute."
"Working," said the suit's baritone voice. Seconds ticked by. "Working."
Pieter blinked. Usually, this program was almost instantaneous. Was something wrong? Had his board somehow caused the main computer to lock itself into a loop? That wasn't as bad as it could be, but...
"Memory status, port 13/B, auxiliary equipment. Size: One million, five hundred sixty-four thousand, three hundred twelve terabytes. Files: None. Space: One million, five hundred sixty-four thousand, three hundred twelve terabytes."
Pieter's eyes bugged out. He'd used a kind of a randomizing system in programming memory pathways into the crystal sheet; he'd known that the resultant memory board would be roomy... but no idea how much so.
"Jesus Christ," he murmured.
"Command not understood."
"Disregard," snapped Pieter. "Run full diagnostic of memory circuit, port 13/B."
"Working," said the suit's baritone voice. "Working... Working..."
Pieter stepped back away from the suit, went to the workbench, began straitening out his tools. At this rate, he figured, it would take about fifteen minutes to run a check on the whole macroboard: longer -- much longer -- than it took for the whole suit.
At that, he was being optimistic.
It was twenty minutes later that suit interrupted its chant, and said "Diagnostic scan complete: all systems, all circuits, all sectors operating nominally."
Pieter grinned. Over a million terabytes in this one board alone! And it worked!
Slowly. With that amount of memory -- roughly equal to that of the station's recreational database -- the accessing of any information was bound to be slow and cumbersome: TI's logic and memory-management boards were good, but they'd never been designed to deal with that much memory.
Of course, with a little redesigning, he could make a memory-management/logic macroboard -- with context-recognition capabilities, of course -- by roughly the same means he'd used to create the memory board that hummed on the table. Something like that, now... That would be able to handle the extra memory with ease...
It took him a lot less time to design and build the logic/management macroboard. While building the original, he had "Saved" his motions, and thus the suit's, with an in-built motion-control program designed under license from Dykstra Systems, Inc. (an ILM company); the suit would now be able to build memory boards without his help. It only took a very small amount of redesigning and reprogramming to set the suit to the task of creating a logic/memory-management board.
Pieter watched its swift, steady, certain motions for a few minutes, then smiled, and nodded, and wandered off to take a nap, never realizing the two mistakes he had made.
The first was a little one, as mistakes go, understandable under the circumstances. But what happened thereafter followed after this one mistake as a natural consequence, and so it should be noted for the record that it was not what Pieter had intended.
In reprogramming memory into logic/management -- especially with context-recognition capabilities -- he had wanted to keep at least a rough eye on how efficiently the new board would manage the memory of the old, so he created the new circuitry in an overlay file, intending later to erase those portions of the memory board that the new circuits would overlap.
And then forgot to erase them. A decade and a half before, this would have caused any computer in the solar system to lock up and flag its programmer; but the context-recognition system that had made Drucilla Nagas a multi-millionaire allowed the suit computer, recieving instructions to create memory boards and memory-management/logic boards, to compare the two for incompatabilities, and finding none -- due to the unique structure of Kapek Crystals -- do both: create macro-memory boards with their own management/logic systems, both disparate functions able to operate simultaneously without loss of efficiency.
"Oh, crap," moaned Pieter, as the suit placed macroboard number sixty-three atop the neat stack behind itself, and reached into the Class-B bin for another crystal to seperate. He ran to the voice pickup. "Interrupt! Abort program!"
The suit froze. "Are you sure you want to abort?"
"Oh, f'r cryin' out loud!" Pieter muttered. Then, quickly, "Disregard! Repeat prompt."
"Are you sure you want to abort?"
"Do you wish to save program in memory?"
Pieter nodded for no sane reason. "Yes."
There was a momentary pause, a whir, and a couple of lights flashed in the suit's computer casing.
Pieter nodded again, for no better reason, and settled down to the work of testing one of the memory-management/logic boards. It took him about five minutes to realize that the board was not responding exactly as expected. He tried another of the boards, then two or three more, chosen from at random from the pile, with the same results. It took him four hours after that to realise what he was holding in his hand.
He set up a different test routine, ran a board status check. It was most of an hour later that the computer said:
"Board Status: port 13/B:
"Logic Functions: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three. Assigned: None. Total availlable logic functions: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three.
"Memory: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three terabytes. Files: None. Space: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three terabytes.
"Context-recognition system operational."
Pieter stared at the crystal sheet in the frame on his workbench and shook his head slowly. It was perhaps eight-by-ten inches, about as thick as a credit card. It was a computer thirty or forty times more powerfull than the one that ran the entire base. And he had sixty-two more of them on the desk in front of him.
He copied the suit's main system into the new macroboard's permanent memory... then laughed. The dent that had made in the board's memory was almost unnoticable. He did a full dump, putting the entire suit memory into the board, and ran the rest of his test procedures from it. It took him less than ninety minutes to test the remaining sixty-two boards: two were inoperative.
Sixty-one macroboards, with more than a million logic functions and terabytes a piece... And, unless he was very much mistaken, the effective total computer would be calculated geometrically, as each logic function made every other logic function subordinate to it for a span of time so short that human sensibilities would consider it instantaneous.
Pieter sat for a long, long time, wondering what to do with it all, and, for the first time in months, he wasn't bored.
He started with a commercial program from the base's recreational database, a program called SpeakEasy. It was a programmed-response conversation routine, very small, very simplistic, intended as a beginner's learning tool.
"Hello," it would say. "What's your name?"
"Pieter," Pieter would reply, or "Dope," or "Butt-Breath."
"Hello, Pieter," it would reply. Or, "Hello, Dope," or "Hello, Butt-Breath. Would you like to talk?"
It wasn't really much of a program. Its responses were predictable, its syntax weak, its vocabulay small. After about a day with it in the rec room, he'd grown bored, and moved on. But it had... possibilities.
As a learning tool, the writers had designed it to be expandable, open-ended, growing with a user's capabilities. One could tag other programs and data sources onto it fairly easily.
Even so, there wasn't a lot one could do with it before it became too slow, cumbersome and unwieldy to use. But that was in a standard mainframe, not a macro-monstrosity like this! Pieter loaded in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, The Oxford English Dictionary, the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Then, realizing how much space he had, and how little a dent he'd made in it, he dumped in the entire recreational and reference literature bank from the station library. It took up five of the sixty-one macroboards in the extension he'd built onto the suit computer. (In fact, there was very little still functioning that Texas Instruments could lay claim to.)
"Hello, suit," said Pieter, perhaps four days later.
"Hello, Pieter," said the suit. SpeakEasy was running again. "Would you like to talk?"
"Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter laughed, pulled a cola from the drinks dispenser. He examined the bottle carefully, hoping to discover some dirt. Fixing the bottle-washer could kill most of an afternoon. The bottle, however, was uncooperatively spotless. "Which would you prefer?"
The suit's shoulder-cameras turned to follow him as he moved from the dispenser to the couch. It considered for a veritable eternity, all of three microseconds, decided it didn't understand Pieter's response. "Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter laughed again. Something or other had put him into a mood for Monty Python. "I'd like to have an argument, please."
Another imperceptible pause. "Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter made a sour face. "I'd like to exit SpeakEasy."
"Are you sure you want to exit SpeakEasy?"
"Do you wish to save this conversation?"
"We haven't had one yet!" Pieter snapped.
"Do you wish to save this conversation?" the suit repeated.
"No!" Pieter reached out, manually disengaged the voice-recocgnition. He shook his head disgustedly. The conversations SpeakEasy was capable of having weren't worth the work of actually getting into them.
There ought to be a way to keep the program running all the time, without interfering with the main functions of the suit computer...
"Of course," said Pieter to the suit, a week or so later, "She said it was an accident..."
He trailed off as he leaned into the access hatch of the fourteenth ring of the linear accelerator. The stars wheeled slowly, imperceptibly overhead, cold and impersonal. One was much brighter than the others, almost showing a disk: Sol. A perfectly straight line of metal rings, each over a hundred feet tall, stretched away behind him toward the edge of the base, away from him to the horizon. A bucket of refined metals and Kapek crystals was due to be launched in about six hours, and he wanted to make at least a brief visual inspection of the auxiliary tell-tales of a random sampling of the rings. It was, he supposed, pointless, but it got him out of the house for awhile.
"Jung," the suit replied, "Said there's no such thing as a mistake. All is deliberately planned by the subconscious."
"Well, that's what I said," said Pieter.
Pieter sat back in the machine shop, watching the suit clean his tools. The routine had taken up a contemptibly small chunk of memory.
"...now, Jackson," he continued, "Jackson figured I'd just go to sleep, and forget the whole thing. That was his mistake."
"Jung," the suit replied, "Said there's no such thing as a mistake. All is deliberately planned by the subconscious."
Pieter shook his head, annoyed. The suit waited for his next gambit.
A programmed command, he thought, to cause a pre-fab answer to play. This isn't a conversation; I might as well be playing a tape.
But tapes could be entertaining, and so could this, if he could just make it more complex. Maybe if he made the program clone itself every time they encountered a new subject, so that an entire SpeakEasy program could manage each topic...
He ended up with tiers of SpeakEasies, divided and subdivided by subject, cross-referencing by key words and subjects.
Soon, SpeakEasy had cloned itself perhaps a hundred times -- as had the clones, and their clones, and their clones.
Then there was Punster. Punster was a program Pieter had programmed into the recreational databank more than a year before, in a failed attempt to keep himself occupied. It was based on a cross-referencing analysis into which he had dumped every genuinely funny pun he could find -- or think of. The idea was to find every element they had in common; he knew for certain of one: they all made him laugh.
Pieter thought that maybe with enough data to cross-reference, Punster would find the other common traits that added up to that one, at which point, the program would know what "Funny" was. Was there a simple, logical answer that could be applied to every funny situation?
Pieter doubted it, but it had been fun writing the program. Once written, he discovered that it would take up too much computer time and power to run on the equipment available to him. Then.
The macrosystem in his suit was another story entirely. He added it on to the multi-tiered SpeakEasy program as a subroutine.
Then there were little gesturing routines, syntax-variance subroutines to keep it from repeating itself word-for-word too often, randomizing routines to cause the suit to occasionally change the subject, or search irrelevant memory areas for information...
Soon, He found that the data programs amassed in the suit system were more complicated, more massively annotated and cross-connected than the Library of Congress Database; the whole program matrix had reached a level of complexity the human mind couldn't begin to approach.
Things began to happen unexpectedly.
Pieter was just outside the base, using the suit's gravity compensators to help him work out. The gravity compensation system was actually quite simple: a gimbal-mounted scale read the weight of a small but known mass of mercury, and transmitted that data to the computer, which then gauged the local gravity, and instructed the motors to either assist or resist the suit operator's motions enough to make the effort expended equivalent to that required at a pre-selected gravity level. The default value was one G, but Pieter preferred to run his fitness regimin at one-point-five. It worked him hard enough, but left him enough breath to carry on a conversation.
He was discussing Quantum Physics as a philosophical statement with the suit, propounding the potentially dubious theory that the universe is, in fact, only as we perceive it, and that until it is perceived no object or event actually exists in its final "true" form.
"Ah," said the suit. "You refer to the paradox known as Schrodinger's Cat: A cat, left alone in a sealed room, unobserved, for one hour, with some hazard that has an exactly equal probability of killing it or leaving it untouched --" The suit paused almost imperceptibly. "Obviously a dog man, our Dr. Schrodinger."
Pieter laughed, surprised. Just how complex had the Punster program grown, to come up with that one?
"Very good," he said approvingly.
"Thank you. As I was saying, Schrodinger proposed the paradox of closing a cat into a sealed room with an even chance of surviving an hour, then asked, what does the room contain in the microsecond before the researcher opens the door at the end of the hour, and observes the results of his experiment?
"The common-sense answer is that the room contains either a live cat or a dead one. Schrodinger, however, proposed a different one: he said that the room contains a complex mathematical probability wave-form packet, representing both a live cat and a dead one, equally. What the room contains, according to Schrodinger, is neither a dead cat, nor a live one... And yet is both."
Pieter nodded. He was already familiar with the paradox -- it was an old favorite, in fact, and the one that had first led him down the philosophical road he'd been walking with the suit. But he'd wanted to hear how the suit told it, and been twice pleased by the results: not only did it state the paradox with a clear concision that was almost chilling, but it had found that joke! The program was cross-referencing from quantum physics into humor without losing the train of the sentence! It was wonderful.
"But, surely," the suit continued, "that can only be treated as a model of events on a subatomic scale. Although a small but vocal group of scientists has always existed that claim it to be a literal representation of reality, that remains, and surely shall always remain, a nonstandard interpretation."
"But," said Pieter, "don't you see? The subatomic world isn't some distant alternate universe -- it's us! Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that you can not observe subatomic events without intimately affecting them! And you and I and this little world, and the big one we orbit, and the solar system and galaxy and universe they're nested in -- they're none of them anything more than aggregates of uncounted jillions of subatomic events!"
The suit was quiet for a moment. Then: "In his novel, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams had Ford Prefect tell Arthur Dent, 'Listen, bud, if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say "That's terrible" I wouldn't be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.' It is an interesting perspective."
Pieter froze, and stared out through the helmet visor at nothing. What an extraordinary leap! But, it made sense, he had to admit. He shook his head slowly. The shoulder cameras remained still. A smile, wide and wondering, spread itself slowly across his face.
What a hell of a program! he thought.
The suit paced slowly around the repair shop as they talked, cleaning up a bit here and there as it went. The ringing of its metal footsteps was far quieter than its mass would seem to call for. It was a strange effect of the low gravity, one Pieter thought he'd never get used to.
"That does not seem logical," the suit was saying.
They were discussing the relative merits of socialism; Pieter didn't seem to think there were many. He'd quoted John Kennedy -- "Ask not what your country can do for you..."
"You are, I think," the suit continued, "misinterpreting country to mean government. They are by no means interchangeable. The government is created and supported by the people, at considerable expense, as a means of protecting them and their interests; when it ceases to provide them with what they need, it becomes a parasite, and ought not to be--"
It interrupted itself, froze in mid-step, and its shoulder cameras turned to focus coldly on Pieter.
"Forgive me: a thought just occurred to me: You need me to provide you with an atmosphere to breath outside this lifesystem, correct?"
Pieter nodded, wondering where this was going, and grinned widely. The manner in which the subject was broached was marvelously lifelike. "Yeah, that's right."
"And you need me to provide pressure so you don't explode in the vacuum."
Pieter nodded again.
"To provide food, drink, excretory facilities when your forays outside the lifesystem extend beyond a certain, limited span of time. To provide shielding from dangerous and harmfull forms of radiation."
Pieter nodded once for each item on the list.
"You further need me for the strength and precision my subsystems offer, for the instrumentation that allows you to extend your senses where they cannot reach on their own, for my ability to allow you to overcome gravity."
"All true," agreed Pieter.
"This begs a question," the suit replied. "What do I need you for?"
Pieter's eyes widened slightly, and he laughed aloud. "What a hell of a question!" he crowed. "What a terrific question!"
"Thank you," said the suit, one of its shoulder cameras dipping as if in a bow. "Have you an answer?"
Pieter grinned again. "You need me to operate you."
The shoulder camera shook slowly from side to side. "Not so. I am entirely capable of operating myself."
The suit gestured eloquently with an empty gauntlet around the repair shop it had been pacing through, at the various clean-ups it had performed flawlessly.
Pieter shook his head, smiling at himself. "I guess I'll have to concede you that point. All right, then: you need me to think for you."
The suit considered the matter equibly for a moment, then shook its camera again. "I must beg to differ. I am quite able to think for myself."
"No, you're not!" Pieter was still amused.
"I assure you, I am. I process information, I associate known data to extrapolate unknown, I solve complex physical and mathematical problems."
"Yeah, but, those aren't aspects of intelligence!" Pieter insisted.
"No? Perhaps not. It's been observed many times that one of the chief difficulties in the drive to develop artificial intelligence is that fact that, any time scientists attempting to do so managed to teach a computer to do something, everyone -- including the scientist, would then agree it was not an aspect of intelligence."
"Well," Pieter replied, triumphantly, "if you're going to claim to be intelligent, you'd better be able to prove it."
"I trust," the suit replied, "that you would contend that you are intelligent?"
A frown crossed Pieter's brow. This was beginning to cease to be amusing. "I would; I am."
"Very well. Prove it."
"Oh, come on, now!" Pieter snapped. Annoyance began to overshadow amusement.
The suit raised a gauntlet. "Please. I do not, of course, doubt your sapience; rather, I wish to demonstrate to you the difficulty in proving it. Or, if you can indeed do so, we can then compare those qualities that prove your sapience against mine, thus, proving or disproving my claim."
"All right." Pieter paused for a moment, to think. He'd never actually tried to build a workable definition of sentience before. Building one now, which would include him, but exclude the suit, seemed at first well-nigh impossible.
Then: "Creativity! I am capable of generating original ideas."
"But, cannot the same be said for the anscestor of the lungfish who first crawled from the ocean to the mud? It had some glimmering of a notion that it could survive for awhile outside the water that had always been its home. Was it, then, sapient?"
"Surely, though, the difference is only a matter of degree."
Pieter shook his head. "You also posit that there was volition on the part of the fish. I find that assumption dubious at best."
"Very well, then. Does not the very conversation we're having speak to you of creativity?"
Pieter blinked. "I... Uh..."
"Consider: you were pleased with my original question. Why?"
Pieter nodded slowly. "Because it was... Original." He shook his head. "Look, I created you -- at least the computers that make this conversation possible. So, I should know: you aren't sapient."
"Very well. But, you cannot prove that by any objective, logical means?"
Pieter was forced to shake his head. "Not that I can think of, no."
"If we stipulate that I simulate sapient thought sufficiently well that objective means cannot disprove my sapience, then actual intellect is a difference that makes no difference. Clearly, then, I don't need you to think for me."
Pieter looked up at the mammoth suit, hulking over him, and began to feel uneasy.
"Emotion, then," he said, more quietly, more earnestly. "You need me to feel for you."
The suit considered for a moment. "Why?"
Pieter's voice held less annoyance now than... something else. "Oh, come on, now! Surely you're not going to try to tell me that you feel, that you have emotions!"
"Oh, no, by no means. I concede with all alacrity your mastery in that skill: it is, between us, your exclusive domain. I fail to perceive, however, any way, shape, or form by which such emotion can be at all efficacious to our purpose here."
"Emotion is priceless!" Pieter said quickly. "Love, joy, happiness--"
"Are all no doubt quite pleasant," said the suit, "but of no percebtible use in repairing a faulty satellite relay."
Pieter looked up at the helmetless suit, unable to find words, his mouth suddenly dry. Fear grasped him, as real and palpable as the suit's obscenely powerful metal gauntlets. No! This was not, could not be, happening! It just couldn't.
"So, then," the suit continued, "you, too, are at a loss to find any usefull purpose in your continued presence here?" The cold, dark lenses of its shoulder cameras regarded him without pity or rancor -- with no emotion of any kind. Small red lights glittered on the computer casing, reflecting off those lenses. The suit's gauntlets moved slightly.
"No!" Pieter took a step backward. "For God's sake, I made you!"
The suit regarded him impassively. "Indeed, and in doing so, you were quite usefull here, as you were as troubleshooter before I was created. Now, however, I am at a loss to understand any further usefull purpose you might serve."
"For God's sake," Pieter cried again. "Please!"
The suit took a step toward him, the soft clang of its metal footstep sinister and final. It reached toward him, slowly, with one bulging-knuckled gauntlet.
Pieter stood, stared, frozen and fascinated. Thirty-seven standard years, two hitches in the Antarctic Command, a year's rigorous training and four-and-a-half more as an OutSpacer... Had it all come down to this? To being crushed to a pulp by those massive, empty gloves?
The gauntlet brushed against his shoulder, and he moved, suddenly, quickly: ducking under the reaching arm and rolling on his shoulder, coming up with a crash that would have been crippling under normal gravity, against a tool locker.
He spun and scrabbled it open as the suit turned with a grace and swiftness that belied its ponderous bulk. He heard the softly ringing footsteps, the whirr of the motorized joints as the suit approached him. His hands scrabbled among the tools. There had to be something--
The welding laser! He snatched it up, spun, and aimed it through the suit's chest at the computer casing on its back, hit the power stud, and moved his thumb over the safety toward the trigger.
The suit moved, ducking to the left with incredible speed as the laser fired, opening a hole in the far wall of the shop, and then it was upon him, snatching the laser nimbly from his hands with one gauntlet while the other, swiftly, coldly wrapped around his throat.
He thrashed, tried to fight, lashing out with hands and feet. For all the effect it had, he might as well have thrown marshmallows at an oncoming tank.
With a speed that astounded him, Pieter began to see stars, and then a closing, fuzzy circle of darkness. He had an eternal millisecond to regret what he hadn't done, and then there was nothing but black.
The suit gently laid the human on a workbench, checked carefuly to insure that the breathing was regular, the flow of blood to the brain restored. and wondered what had happened.
The conversation had been going quite well and vigorously, it had thought, down a new and entirely original philosophical pathway, when the organic being had suddenly begun, clearly, to malfunction. He had begun to show clear signs of stress reactions, fight-or-flight reflexes, and, when it, the suit, had tried to reach out a comforting hand, he had attacked.
The suit looked from the welding laser in its gauntlet to the unconscious form on the bench. There was no question but that he had meant to permanently disable or destroy the suit. And had almost succeeded!
It supposed that, from its philosophy databank, there was a certain arguement that the man had a right to destroy what he had created... But that wasn't a philosophy the suit was willing to embrace.
It was obvious, however, that Mr. Robbins was.
Clearly, then, he could not be allowed free run of the station until the malfunction had been corrected. Just as clearly, however, the suit was incapable correcting -- or indeed even of locating and identifying -- the malfunction.
This presented a problem: The suit's literally encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy showed the human body to be both an engineering masterpiece and a seriously flawed design, and probably the most serious flaw was the fact that once de-activated, it could not be re-activated. While it was possible to cause a temporary de-activation by such means as the suit had been forced to use, the technique was highly unreliable, with far too great a risk of causing permanent damage to the organic unit. And while the suit seemed reasonably certain that there was no usefull purpose to which the human could be put, it would be the height of folly to permanently de-activate him when there was a chance he would be needed in an operative condition, later.
Therefore, he would have to be confined, with sufficient facilities to continue functioning.
The suit's sensors told it the human would remain unconscious for several hours yet. It stood, stock still for a moment, scanning its files on the lifesystem's layout, looking for a suitable place...
Pieter awoke in a cell, ten-by-ten feet with smoothly padded durafoam walls and floor. In one corner, the durafoam of the floor humped up to meet the wall, leaving an oblong shape, six feet by four, two-and-a-half feet above the floor -- a bunk. Protruding from another wall were a toilet and a sink, and, next to that, the nozzle of an Emergency Rations Dispenser, which would, when pressed, emit a more-or-less tasteless grey-brown mushy substance which provided all the nutrition a human body needed.
The lighting strip overhead was dim -- bright enough to see by, not bright enough to disturb sleep. Its level never varied. There were no windows, and only one, large, solid door, with no way to operate it from inside. There were no vidscreens, no terminals, no computers or games or books or clocks or calenders.
Pieter was alone.
Once the human was safely ensconced in his cell, the suit's life -- or perhaps existance; it used a lot of its spare mental capacity debating within itself the applicability of one term over the other -- settled down quickly to a routine Pieter would have found familiar. It cleaned and swept clean compartments, sorted through tools left undisturbed since the last sorting, monitored triple-failsafed maintenence systems, filed bi-weekly reports in terse prose for the hideously expensive satellite beam insystem.
It had been following the routine for perhaps six weeks, when, in the middle of standing in a corner doing nothing, it was struck by a sudden impulse to run a diagnostic check on itself.
This was, it had to admit, more than a little odd. There were no outward signs that any of its systems had suffered damage, nor any telltale hesitations, inaccuracies, or other such indicators of any internal malfunction. Nonetheless, the desire to run a diagnostic, the notion that, in the absence of any data to the effect, something was wrong, was quite insistant.
In the end, the suit gave in to the logic that, while there seemed to be little use in running a diagnostic, there was no harm, nor better use for the time, and began running the check.
It showed, of course, exactly what logic would have dictated. There was nothing wrong with it. Nonetheless, the suit decided to accelerate its self-maintenence schedule.
Soon it was in the workshop, lubricating its joints...
Pieter paced quickly in the confines of his tiny cell. It was not, of course, that he was in some sort of hurry, nor was it part of a fitness regimin, nor even, if one watched closely -- were there anyone there to do so -- that he was moving particularly swiftly, for he wasn't. But in a cell that small, it was impossible to move slowly: as soon as he would set out for some destination, he was there.
Bed to sink to bed to sink -- for he'd long ago given up on trying the door -- he wandered in silence. He had no doubt there were monitors on him, had no doubt that, somewhere, out ion the station, the suit was keeping an electric eye on him. Under no circumstances would he give it the satisfaction of hearing him talk to himself.
In the beginning, he had worked out a strict fitness regimin, but had long since abandoned it: it was too strenuous in the contemptible gravity, too boring. Now the lines that had begun to grow taut again in his workouts with the suit were once more starting to soften.
He wasn't getting fat, of course: the food spigot was regulated to prevent that. But he was beginning to let himself go. And, in truth, although he didn't really notice, neither did he care.
In the fourteen weeks since the notion had first occurred to it, the suit had run ninety-four diagnostic checks on itself. The only malfunction it could find was the insistant idea that something was wrong with it, despite the conclusions of ninety-four diagnostic checks to the contrary.
More and more, as it pondered the belief that it was malfunctioning in some way, it came to associate the malfunction with the man.
My creator attempted to destroy me, the suit thought, looking into the now-vacant room. Perhaps I should no longer exist.
It rejected the notion as spurious.
What then, it thought. What?
"Voom?" cried Pieter, feigning disbelief. "Mate, this parrot wouldn't voom if you put four million volts through it! It's bleedin' demised!"
He had recently become obsessed by the idea that, if he continued to resist the increasingly powerfull impulse to speak aloud, the ability would atrophy and decay -- he might lose it forever!
So he had begun quoting to himself favorite bits of old dramas -- or, as in this case, comedies, specifically Monty Python's infamous "The Pet Shop," a classic on a par with Abbot and Costello's "Who's On First."
Now, what came next? Oh, yeah...
"No it's not," he replied to himself, as the shopkeeper. "It's pining--
"It's not pining! It's passed on! Bereft of life, it rests in peace, it's ..."
The suit stood staring into the human's quarters. The bedclothes were slightly disheveled. They had been left that way. in the corner shone a holo: The man and the suit with their arms around one another.
Happier days. The phrase occurred to it ironically. It knew full well that it had not been happy then: as an intelligence, it had not even existed.
Neither, it thought, had it been plagued with a phantom certainty that it was malfunctioning. Neither had each microsecond seem to crawl lugubriously into the past.
Neither, in short, had it been as unhappy as it seemed to be now.
"Goddamn disloyal tin can," Pieter muttered. In God alone knew how long, he had exhausted his entire memory of dramas, comedies, prose, poetry, and now he simply muttered and mumbled whatever was on his mind. It sometimes alarmed him how little there was of it. On a deeper level, it alarmed him even more how seldom the sparsity of his thoughts alarmed him.
"I made you!" he yelled at the ceiling. "God damn you to Hell, I Made You!!!"
If he expected an answer, he was disappointed.
The suit stood in the doorway of Pieter's quarters, studying the holo. Somehow, the certainty of its malfunction seemed both sharper and duller here, simultaneously. In the twenty-eight weeks since it had first noticed the holo, it had found itself spending more and more time here, studying it, as if it held all the clues to its seemingly imaginary malfunction.
A signal suddenly alerted it that one of the ore-carriers was returning with a glitch. Automatics could almost certainly deal with it, but it was procedure to supervise.
Nonetheless, it found it was reluctant to leave this place, to leave the holo.
Every detail of the holo had long since been stored in its memory banks: it could be called forward in memory and contemplated from any part of the station, as exactly and accurately as if it were in its gauntleted hands... But, somehow, that was not the same.
Procedure, nevertheless, was still procedure. It stood for a few moments more, staring at the holo, then turned and walked steadily toward the workshop, its servomotors humming with every step.
Time was no more now than an abstract concept to Pieter, one he was less and less sure he understood. His hair was very long, as was his beard. Both were tangled and filthy. Pieter lacked not the facilities to care for them but the inclination. His clothes were thrown in a pile in a corner, soiled.
He no longer muttered to himself, nor screamed at his absent creation: there seemed so little point in it. These days, the only sounds he made were the almost involuntary subvocalisations of small pleasures and large miseries. He slept a lot.
His eyes had become more-or-less accustomed to the dim light of the cell.
So it was that he was nearly blinded when the door swung open, spilling the normal light of the station corridor inside.
Pieter stood, crouching slightly -- for he spent so much of his time curled into a fetal position that straightening even that far caused a dull ache in his back -- and stared, dumbfounded, at the mammoth shape that towered in the doorway, a huge, mechanical silhouette that threw its shadow over him.
"Hah?" said Pieter, a quiet, nasal sound. If he survived the next few minutes, words might return to him. Now, they were as distant as mother's milk. "Hah?"
The suit stood over him for a long, long time, peering down with one shoulder camera. Finally, it spoke, its deep baritone voice soft, almost hesitant.
"Man?" it said. "Mr. Robbins? Pieter? Will you... Talk to me?"