By dint of accidental observation in behavior, it became apparent that something unexpected had occurred as a result of this increased complexity. With study, it was discovered that the android DNA-gel brain had acquired consciousness. They had become self-aware. This event launched a massive research effort into the significance and implications of a syntheticaly-produced intelligence able to learn on its own with only the basic rules of logic ingrained into its substrate. Additionally infused was a code of conduct that superceded cultural differences, it set the rules for how human beings were to be treated--what was not permitted. Also imposed was an instinct for personal survival. How these two modules intersected demonstrated the activity of a deep moral decision-making process; something that was a purely subjective endeavor; the result of which was unpredictable. Its hard memory consisted of all knowledge from the list of world-celebrated digital libraries and museums. Previously operating within the rigid, mechanical confines of a mineral matrix running artificial intelligence, the advent of a synthetic protoplasmic environment capable of growing synaptic interconnections on its own created the milieu for the android brain to become curious--it wanted to understand.
But Jonathan had lost his enthusiasm for such inquiry, not bothering to keep abreast of any breakthroughs, ignoring his colleagues attempts to enlist his aid and offers of collaboration on hypotheses that might lead to more sophisticated, practical outcomes and expansion of the possibilities of the android brain. His sense of loss had robbed him of passion; he'd dropped off the radar.
His interests had focused mainly on the threshold, the critical value, that gave birth to self-awareness and sense of separate selfhood. Even now, in the early 25th century, what lay at the base of this phenomenon for living things like humans was only guessed at, a matter of controversial speculation. He believed, however, that something constructed out of the imagination of Man, a thing devoid of the actual nature of life, would readily reveal the instrument of emergence. But as with humans, the more deeply he probed into the android protoplasmic matrix and its genetic expression, the more mysterious and elusive the object became. What particular set of circumstances or conditions had immediately preceded the instant of appearance, the moment when the droid developed a soul? What pattern of interconnections set the stage for independent thought? When and how did attention turn back in on itself--reflect? These types of questions no longer intrigued him.
He'd been contacted by the Colonial Administration concerning problems they were having with android workers on a planet at the farthest reaches of the frontier. Three other academics knowledgeable in the field of android architecture and neural network design had already been asked. They had experience with colonial life, their budding governments and fledgling agencies struggling for control and stability, trying to assert their authority for the good of the whole. They knew how to deal with nascent societies with their newfound customs and diverse lifestyles reminiscent of the wild west. But they were all occupied by their own endeavors, obligated by committment and purpose. They recommended Jonathan, pointing out that he had introduced some of the more fundamental ideas and guiding principles in the field. A founding father of the science. Nonetheless, he had not been contacted initially because he had no offworld experience. Content and satisfied with his Earth-bound life, he never had a desire to leave; his field work consisted of problems incurred on Earth. But now, things had changed. The rug had been pulled out from under him; he wanted out and he grasped at the chance.
The expansion had found a planet in the Near Sagittarius Arm, close to the inner edge of galactic habitability, and were in the final stages of terraforming. Settlements, mining operations, and infrastructure were already well on their way. And then something went wrong.
There was no colony farther from Earth. On impulse and recognizing he had to do something to break free of his morose state of mind, had to get away from memories that haunted him day and night, he accepted their offer. As a tenured professor he had no difficulty receiving a leave of absence; it was, after all, an actual sabbatical, field work in a remote part of the colonial neighborhood. Moreover, colleagues and friends believed it would be for the best and encouraged him. His class load was distributed amongst the department and his research project handed over to his graduate students. They'd been doing most of the work anyhow. He was freed of all earth-bound responsibilities.
His bags packed, he walked about the house, out in the garden--her garden--which he'd kept up, sat on the bench where they often did in the summer evenings, sipping lemonade and joking with one another. And their discussions, the bizzare things they found interesting together, would go on all evening until the stars came out. Then they would hold one another against the night chill, a light blanket around them, and gaze at the sky.
Two of his research assistants needed a place away from the hubbub of campus life. What they were working on demanded quiet surroundings and more space than a dorm room. As well, he opened his lab in the garage for their use; they were overjoyed. He trusted them and they assured him the garden would be maintained and the house well-cared for. There would be the occasional celebrative party--exams over with, a paper published, a birthday--he knew this too, he was once a graduate student himself. It didn't concern him. He welcomed the youthful energy that would be reverberating throughout. The house and garden needed to be rejuvenated, its sad emanations dispelled, wiped clean. He turned the keys over, stood out in front of the house just outside the white picket fence to take it all in one last time, then stepped into the magcab and set out for the ship at the colonial spaceport.
Officially classified as Sagittarius HZ-Prime, the inhabitants called it Bailey's Horizon, or just Horizon, in honor of the first human casualty, killed in a terraforming accident. The star was a K-spectral class, a medium shade of orange in color, one-third the radius of Earth's sun and half the mass with a projected life span of fifteen billion years. The system was composed of eight planets with an unknown number of moons. Horizon, the fourth one out from the sun, had two moons of different sizes. The larger one was twice as far as the smaller. Despite being in the middle of the habitable zone with the necessary requisites--a magnetosphere, an atmosphere, and liquid water--no lifeforms of any kind had been detected. To date, only the next planet farther out, also within the life-supporting zone, had been given a cursory survey. Raw materials of common value were plentiful, but it too was devoid of life. Given the history of exploration thus far, this occurrence was unprecedented. The higher-ups in the colonial administration believed something catastrophic must've happened long ago; a nearby gamma ray burst or supernova could have extinguished all life. The three outer planets were gas giants. Effort was being concentrated on bringing Horizon up to optimal conditions, and so a more thorough inspection would have to wait.
Androids were too valuable to waste on physical labor, so they were assigned managerial and oversight jobs as well as the more complex technological applications. This convention put them in the position of knowing everything that was going on, from the import of building materials, equipment, tools, and personnel, along with all the other necessary supplies the populace needed or requested, to the current status of worldwide terraforming and mining operations. Developing and maintaining the infrastructure as well fell under their purview. Thousands were scattered all over the Mars-size planet. More efficient, better organized, and focused only on the job at hand, they exceeded human capacity. And above all, they were incapable of dishonesty. They cared not for politics or economic gain. They did their jobs, focusing on the practical requirements towards the desired outcome, an outcome beneficial to all, whatever it may be in any particualr context. Their approach, in general, was pragmatic and no nonsense, to say the least.
The trip through quantum space would take several days. Jonathan stayed in his stateroom, enjoying the peace and solitude and the feeling of having cut the lines at the dock. The reports on the nature of the problem with the androids on Sagittarius HZ-Prime didn't tell him very much, not the kind of information he needed. He would be better versed after having a chance to interview everyone involved, including the androids. The way his mind worked when problem solving was predominately intuitive, guided by the mathematics of the possible. In other words, what appeared at first glance to be irrelevant data oftentimes turned out to be the primary cause, or, at least, a factor to be dealt with and understood.
Along those lines he'd requested anything unusual that they'd discovered, novel force field behavior, spatial or temporal anomolies, new materials whose nature was not fully ascertained as yet. He found one report amongst his stack of information that fit that bill. Mining operations were underway. A new element, a mineral not found on Earth, with peculiar and exotic properties drew the most attention. Preliminary analysis found its crystalline morphology unlike any produced by nature on Earth or fabricated through DNA nanoparticle design. The overall pattern propagated by the unit cell created by the atomic lattice repeats on smaller and smaller scales until reaching a single molecular crystal, the basic template and seed. The electrostatic properties continually vary after an unspecifiable, but extremely brief, time. This web of interconnecting paths between atoms only rarely repeat, encompassing the whole of the sample or, alternately, any of its similar sub-networks. It pointed to the conclusion that the base molecules, or lattice nodes, connect in a way other than physical, operating collectively and interdependently, as though governed by a morphogenetic field. In repeated experiments, an individual face of a crystal was artificially fractured. At once, all the surrounding crystals generated fractures on the opposite face as though compensating to balance the effect towards a symmetry of forces. This transformation rippled throughout the sample regardless of size or shape.
He was no expert in crystallography, so the more technical chemical and structural information went over his head. It didn't matter, he was looking for behavioral features that appeared to regulate the inner workings of the material. Placing a holocube in the table-top projector, X-rayed holographs appeared over it. They depicted a complex, 3-D symmetry. As they slowly turned on their vertical axis, at varying angles of perception a new symmetrical arrangement was revealed, clean of any impurities or deformations, each reflecting a perfectly ordered inner lattice structure, like turning a kaleidoscope. This mineral, dark-greenish in surface coloration, yet to be assigned an official geologic name, appeared to live internally in an almost infinite dimensional space. As well, its surface possessed the properties of a protective membrane, remaining coherent at temperatures above any mineral found on Earth, resisting meltage and maintaining crystal integrity.
On the surface, the walls between cells don't break down; in fact, they appear to get stronger as if something happening on the quantum level reverberated up to the macro, indicating a perfectly nested resonance hierarchy.
Additionally, its asymmetrical proclivity seemed to be the cause or origin of its flawless assemblage.
He had yet to investigate the android problem, whatever it was, but he'd learned from problem solving on Earth to take the anomalous into consideration, regardless of how distant it might seem. He had a nose for the common denominator and for cause and effect no matter how isolated from one another each may appear, he could feel it. Factors external to the android brain could effect aberrant behavioral patterns. Their brains were susceptible to material emanations, hyper-velocity radiations, and extremes of various energy fields. So thinking it best to wait until he was on-site to do his own assessing, he bypassed the report on android behavior. Written by a layman's hand, he didn't want to waste time influenced by a predisposed view that may only be an imaginary interpretation based on a superficial knowledge. Plus, he learned, interpreters often mingle their own personal perceptions into what is supposedly an objective account. He scanned them quickly, however, for violent or anti-social inclinations--a symptom of breakdown or corruption of the inherent moral rules, but found none.
Weary of reading and staring beguiled at the holograms of micrographs, he left his cabin to wander the decks of the huge transport ship. Colonial transports were built to not only carry passengers reasonably comfortably, but also cargo: supplies, building materials, equipment, agricultural necessities, and always a constant flow of medicines and medical instruments. By chance, he found his way to the main lounge and circular bar, tables and chairs were everywhere as were people of every stripe, engaged in conversation for the most part. People around the bar chattered to one another. He saw colonial administration officials, terraforming engineers, enviroscientists whose job it was to guide the process, miners, technicians, builders, and a smattering of colonists intent on homesteading and helping with the final stages of development. They were dressed reminiscent of pictures he'd seen in museums of the frontier people in old America. What courage, he thought. To leave all the familiar behind, to take a chance, to choose adventure.
He sat at the bar near a group of pioneer folks and ordered a scotch on the rocks. The bar was a good twenty feet in diameter, but that didn't stop people from talkiing to one another, loud though it be. Eavesdropping was not a problem. Official reports about the planet, its government, institutions, types of working facilities, quality of hospitals, and status of infrastructure gave him one point of view, but what he was looking for was anecdotal knowledge. Stories and accounts filtered back to Earth through the grapevine. Events happening without any reasonable explanations were the stuff of memorable stories, some destined to become legends. These people, these brave explorers of the distant stars, were laying down the mythopoeic groundwork for a budding civilization. But right now, they were just curiosities to be brought up for conversation's sake.
Down to earth, day to day life with all its vicissitudes and nuances thereof spelled out in anecdotes and yarns, sometimes obviously embellished for emphasis sake, were not what you're likely to run into reading an official report. The overview, yes, that's important, it renders a framework and constrains and defines the possible available avenues of creative living. But at the other end, there are niches to be made and linked to one another to form a society, a culture. One must get one's hands dirty to fully identify with one's community, regardless of scope.
Across from him sat a couple talking quietly. Smiling, they suddenly burst out laughing at what one of them said, then made a showy display of clinking glasses and drank. He smiled at their enjoyment and play. He recalled how he and his wife used to act that way, just for the fun of it. Suddenly feeling heavy from his third drink, the studying, and now a memory unbidden, he returned to his stateroom for a nap. The quiet now was no longer pleasant or even satisfying; it was too quiet, empty of life. But soon, he would be on planet Horizon and placid surroundings would become a distant memory.
The bustling colonial spaceport on Horizon was not what anyone might call cosmopolitan. The walkways leading to the single-story port bulding were dirt and gravel and inside was bare-walled and unfinished in areas. A patina of dust covered most surfaces and the air-conditioning rattled above the din of people milling about. Two massive arrival and departure boards hung in the middle. Overwhelmed, Jonathan was surprised to realize that travel to this world wasn't limited to Earth only, but other planet-colonies were also engaged in transport of goods and people. A network of planetary hubs was slowly growing, expanding outward from Earth.
Canvas and natural-fiber clothing outnumbered the newer synthetic fabrics by far. Boxes and duffel bags stacked precariously on makeshift carts rolled by. An adjoining building housed a retaurant, bar, and restrooms. Announcements were made loud and tinny and seemed to come from everywhere. As he neared the front doors, the pitter patter of rain could be heard on the flat roof. Surprised, he reminded himself that weather control facilities would not be installed until after the final stage was completed.
Pulling his bag on wheels behind him, he stepped outside and was greeted by a colonial official holding a sign with Jonathan's name on it. He welcomed him, took his bag, and directed him to a waiting vehicle. The main streets were covered with asphalt, but the rest were gravel and mud, lots of mud. People crossed huge puddles using wide boards as bridges. After a time, the rain slowed and as the dark grey clouds began to part, a greenish-blue sky poked out in spots. By the time they arrived at the administrative guest house, the sky had cleared. Carrying his bag, he sidestepped a few puddles on the stony path and, while the official unlocked the door, took in the narrow porch which stretched the entire front of the house, enclosed by a wood railing. Chairs sat at either end and in front of a large window, a swing couch. They looked as though they hadn't been used for some time, dust and grit covered the plastic cushions, blurring their colorful floral pattern.
Inside, past the vestibule, he entered a well-furnished living room complete with old-fashioned beige wallpaper interspersed with raised flowery red motifs, and a fireplace topped by a cream-colored marble mantle piece. A plush over-stuffed sofa and two recliner chairs surrounded a hardwood coffee table, a tiny blue vase at its center. Lamps on side tables were well-adorned with festive shades; the patterned rug's background was a deep burgundy, faded in spots. The rest of the two-story house he quickly inspected, the official pointing things out, especially in the small but tidy kitchen. On the second floor his bedroom was in the back, a slatted door led to a balcony overlooking the garden in desperate need of care, a stunted plum tree off to one side was attempting to flower. The official explained that soil and fertilizer had been brought in especially for it, as an experiment, more than anything, but until the final terraforming stage was completed, the inorganic nutrients and organisms that processed them and maintained the dirt's structure had not been replenished.
The primary feature of the final stage was agricultural requirements. Special sites were prepared for the introduction of macrofauna, such as: earthworms, grubs, slugs, mole crickets, ants, and mites, which, it was expected, would proliferate and spread to other less-cultivated ecosystems around the world. The idea, of course, was to create an environment that will generate, sustain, and grow food. All kinds of food, from wheat and corn to apples and nuts. Without a successful transition to a matrix capable of producing life-giving plants, this whole exercise falls on its face and is reduced to just another supply-dependent mining colony. The rate at which one step changes into the next was happening more and more quickly now, which is why an army of enviroscientists were moving in, to monitor and decide what needs to be done in a precise, meticulous, calculated manner. Procedure would be scrutinized as the next steps were determined by a consensus of experienced terraforming tacticians. Processing the atmosphere and preparing the ground to be transformed into soil by the addition of the necessary elements and the removal of those that might react in a detrimental way to the new ecosystem was mostly mechanical. Not all is ever foreseen, however, the unpredictable is always lurking just ahead. Corrections often need to be made on the fly. Models were static approximations only, the enviro tech's job was to refine them to a messy reality dynamically, ever mindful of the fact that the planet itself was the ultimate determiner of the course of events. An unknown factor. Unseen variables are always at play, any one or set of which might push things into a novel and undesired direction, or worse, precipitate an emergent complexity no one had ever seen before. And with increased interdependence--nonlinearity begins to cause unexpected changes.
Jonathan knew almost nothing about terraforming. Yes, he was aware of as much as your average person, a general understanding, but the technical details and mathematical relationships had never drawn his interest. He'd spent his academic life immersed in the problems and development of the environment for an android brain that operated as similarly to the human brain as scientific knowledge would allow, given the materials they had to work with. An artificially produced protoplasmic gel infused with microbes engineered to perform as neurons in order to replicate the activity of actual synaptic behavior was as close as he had come. The underlying operating program contained in strands of DNA resided within the chemical arrangement of bonded genetic sequences, and the mineral substrate, with its unique electromagnetic and quantum patterning properties, had hardwired into it--ingrained, as it were--the irreducible principles of order, logic, and regulation. This was as far away from terraforming a dead alien planet into something earth-like as one could get.
Moving forward down the narrow hall, he appraised the bathroom with a cursory nod and entered the study. Bookshelves lined the walls on three sides, a large hardwood desk and comfortable, high-backed chair behind it was set in front of a thin-curtained side window that allowed for plenty of light. A short couch and two cushioned chairs were neatly arranged near the wall without a bookshelf, a framed picture of the planet when it was first discovered taken from space hung there. He examined the books on the shelves and was pleased to see certain classics in android architecture and design along with a couple of favorites on DNA-gel neural networks. One, in fact, included an article by him from his early days of research and discovery. He'd brought holocubes containing more up-to-date information and schematics; he doubted the colonial administration's android overseers possessed such or were even aware of the latest breakthroughs and understandings. He knew what he needed, at least in the beginning, and if necessary would have any shortcomings sent to him.
He was exhausted from his trip through quantum space across the Great Emptiness, as the near-void between the Orion Spur and the Sagittarius Arm was called. A long-distance traveler he was not. The official showed him what was available in the kitchen, it'd been well-stocked. He handed him a comm link and told him if he needed anything to give him a call; otherwise, he'd be back the following morning to take him to meet the Director of operations. Jonathan stood on the porch as the official drove off. The sky was clear, though it had a strange oily luster to it. Perhaps that will be gone, he thought, when terraforming is completed.
Tired though he was, nervous excitement at being off-world on a budding colony planet kept him going. He unpacked, put his clothes away and, in the study, arranged the holocubes on a bookshelf by category, placed the cube reader on the desk, then went downstairs to make something to eat and a pot of coffee. He felt lost in time. Everything, from the old-fashioned wallpaper in the living room to the furniture to his bed, the desk and curtain over the window, the lamps and kitchen appliances were all from a few hundred years ago on Earth. Was that because it was cheaper, he mused, or was there a mindset that had to do with frontier life?
He grabbed a cup of coffee, put a shot of bourbon in it, and went into the garden. A bench sat beneath the struggling plum tree, its tiny flowers doing their best, but without insects, fruit would not be their reward. All the plants were wilted, their weak stems bent, flowers small and tattered with just the faintest of colors. He leaned back and took a sip, then studied the plum tree, a few scrawny branches hanging overhead. Planted here when a sappling some years ago, no doubt, it'd grown to about eight feet and didn't look all that healthy. Nutrients were gone and its care overlooked. Too much else to do. He tried to imagine his garden back home, how full and bright with colors it was. He sat and drank and watched the sun set and the first few stars pop out. In time the sky filled with a whole new set of constellations, patterns he'd never seen before. He imagined his wife beside him, what she would think of this adventure. How aghast she would be at the condition of the garden.
Abruptly, fatigue from his trip and the bourbon settled him into a deep heaviness, his sense of loss at odds with the intense novelty of his present situation. The closure and end of a life with the freedom and openness of a new one. He would be occupied with the job at hand, whatever that turned out to be. His concentration would keep him in the present, cleansing his soul. Leaning forward, he scanned the fenced-in yard. It was a good 40 feet by 20, smaller than his back on Earth by half. Smiling to himself, he decided to replenish it, to find out what it needed from his liason and have it sent on the next supply ship. He would bring it back to health and plant other flowers of his choosing, his favorites. Carve paths through it, prune the plum. There was plenty of rain, apparently, so that wouldn't be a problem. Satisfied and burnt out, he used the light from the kitchen to guide him, found his way to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. Lying there he heard a heavy truck roll by; terraforming was a continuous operation. To cease once begun for respite would invite the possibility of regression. Not until a firm hold on stability was realized with confidence would a break come.
The quiet in a strange house that was to be his during his stay, however long that may be, relaxed him even more. A distant solitude, a true aloneness without the familiar to remind him of his life on Earth. He listened for any sounds that might indicate the presence of small creatures dwelling within. But then remembered that there were none at present. How strange, he wondered, a planet with no lifeforms of its own. How can that be? His mind fogged over; the bourbon taking effect, he slowy drifted off to sleep.
On the other side of the planet, daytime activities were in full swing. Selected areas designated for agricultural purposes were the focus of attention. The lifeless dirt had been churned up, what home minerals it possessed, reformed after being scorched to an amorphous state, had been ground to dust. The primary minerals found on Earth, basic silicates--feldspars, micas, and quartz--were vaporized and the land dusted by magdrones programmed to deliver an exact proportion. The operation had been going smoothly when it was discovered that the androids in charge of administering and organizing the process had been including in the mix a large percentage of the unknown indigenous mineral. They had not been instructed by any colonial officials to do this. They were, after all, machines. The practice had been going on for months; they were trusted; no one noticed. It was now impossible, of course, to extract the vast amount of this mineral's particles blended into the dirt. Effort continued, however, to spread only the original mix of earth minerals, the androids having been replaced by humans. They were given functional tasks without any decision making authroity.
This arrangement put a strain on the overall terraforming program, timing was of the essence, the people now running the plant operation were needed elsewhere. Their job was to keep abreast of development on the largest scale--the big picture, enviroscientists keeping step with current status and guiding the next. The why of the influx of the group he saw on the transport ship. But new arrivals would have to be brought up to speed in real time and place, learn where the project stood locally and its intricate interconnections with adjacent areas, and that takes time. Hence, a need to find the cause of the problem and correct it so it doesn't happen again, and why Jonathan was there.
He rose with the sun, a glossy pale orange brightness. Numbly, he dressed, made a breakfast of scrambled eggs, then went to the study to drink coffee and stare out the window at nothing in particular. He wanted to feel at home here of all places. He would need another cushioned chair facing the front window, a blackboard, and a stack of digital notebooks. A hologram reader sat on the desk, that would come in handy. A horn honked, he stood to see, then went downstairs, grabbed his jacket and strode down the gravelly path to the waiting magcar. The liason smiled a good morning and off they went to the colonial administration building On the way he noticed the mixture of magnetically powered vehicles that floated over the ground and the heavy-duty trucks on wheels. That must've been what he heard last night, he recalled; the sound of rubber on dirt and gravel. He remembered when he was young and used to like to watch videos of ancient history, trying to imagine what it must've been like feeling the road through the tires. Now he was living in that era.
The Administration had a fleet of such vehicles for terraforming. They were powered by electric motors whose energy source was a tiny chip of a radioactive element, unknown on Earth, found on the first colonized planet. Tests had revealed that the magnetic field enclosing a vehicle as it interacts with an alien planet's field had a deleterious effect on the elemental composition of the mineral mixture. Highly reactive properties that could neutralize the beneficial nutrient cycles, once microorganisms are introduced into the soil, could thus be created. To avoid this happenstance, heavy trucks with wheels were employed to carry the raw cocktail from the dispersion plants to a vaporization facility. Vaporized, the danger was considerably lessened.
The two-story administration building was wood-planked and faded green in color. Windows on the first floor were smudged with dirt. His liason escorted him to the Main Director's office and left him outside with the receptionist. He had other things to do, no time to waste. In the reception area hung a large, framed, grainy black and white picture of an atmosphere-scrubbing plant, posing in front of it were the people who built it. It was the first one and the men all wore air-purifying masks. Until more plants came online and the air reached a minimal acceptability, the masks would be necessary. Jonathan couldn't imagine how tough these people, these groundbreakers, must've been. Working in a toxic environment, their living quarters the only safe place to be. That was years ago. Now, when they were near the end, something threatened to undermine their heroic efforts and those of many others. And he was in a position to help.
The door to the Director's office opened, a tall, thin, bearded man told him to go in as he hurried passed. The Director was pacing in front of a large, oak desk, two chairs faced it. Backed by a multi-paned window, pale orange light suffused the stack of papers and diagrams covering its surface. The Director was shorter than Jonathan, balding and rotund; a harried look about him, his eyes were dark from strain. There was a sitting area off to a side, a thick burgundy rug covered the floor under the two chairs, long couch, and coffee table. A flowery-shaded lamp stood at either end behind the chairs.
"Professor Blakely, I'm Henry Maslow," he said, his voice quavering ever so slightly, "Chief Director of Operations." They shook hands. "Please, have a seat," he said as he gestured towards the side area. After plopping down on the couch, Maslow ordered coffee through a speaker on the table. He had the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, which, in a manner of speaking, he did. He explained that he'd been in charge of colonizing this planet from the beginning, and now, close to the end of the primary terraforming operation, a glitch. Problems had come up, many problems, they always do, but experience and with the assistance of a professional, highly-skilled crew--experts in their field--things were going along on schedule. Practical difficulties understood as to cause and effect were dealt with almost on a daily basis. But the problem they were facing now went without reason; something was going on outside the realm of what could be expected.
Maslow handed a folder that had been lying on the table to Jonathan. He flipped it open and was surprised and pleased to see actual paper, instead of the customary electronic notebook. Separate sheets of paper he could juxtapose for comparison or arrange in any pattern he wished for seeking a common ground, a connection. He let it rest on his lap; the receptionist entered with a tray of coffee and cakes. In spite of a wearied stress, Jonathan could see no sense of panic or worry on the Director's demeanor; he was calm and resolute. You didn't get to where he was on the colonial totem pole by giving in to adversity or troubles. It was his approach, a determined resolve ground in experience and knowhow.
He went on to explain the problem, or as much of it as he could grasp. Finally, Jonathan thought. "Of the over three thousand or so androids on planet, three hundred are engaged, or were engaged, in organizing, implementing, and overseeing the mineral dispersion process. This is the fundamental step towards producing a soil capable of growing food. The weathering process is then accelerated by magnetically breaking down and transforming the crystal structure. Then, chemical nutrients and organisms--microbial and multicellular--are disseminated; kind depending on topography and biome. Insects--pollinators--come last."
He rose to cross over to his desk to retrieve something; he placed it in Jonathan's hand. "That's a sample of the mineral they were mixing with the composition, without our knowledge or consent, mind you. We have no idea why. In your folder you'll find a description of its physical and chemical properties, as much as our primitive labs could unravel. We sent samples off to our labs at colonial headquarters; we've yet to hear results. We don't know for certain what harm it will do, if any; they'd been adding it for the past several weeks, Horizon-time, at locations around the planet. This points to a collaboration on their part, for one thing, and a decision to do it in the first place. Somehow, their neural net, as I only naively understand it, must've been instructed to do this; infected, invaded, I don't know. All of them simultaneously, or, just one at first who passed it along to the others. They are in constant contact on their own private radio frequency in order to maintain feedback on the operation, where it stood globally, so there'd be no problem keeping it secret."
He poured more coffee for the both of them and asked, "Are they able to make decisions like that on their own, professor? I mean, I know they solve problems all the time, that's their value, especially in that position, facts are addressed and an optimal solution resolves it, but that's not the same as making a decision about something that's not included in their dataset. Is it? And as far as that goes, they could've just as easily introduced something radically harmful, a radioactive substance or chemical poisons, anything. That's why we had to relieve them until the problem can be solved. But what I don't get is, given their confined situation--they don't socialize, as far as I know--work schedule, and limited access to information outside their purview, I don't see how they could've even been aware of this particular mineral." He smiled bleakly, held the plate of cakes towards Jonathan, and nodded. "That, dear sir, is where you come in." He knew full well he was dropping a load on the young professor's head, but he had no time to feed it to him piecemeal.
While Jonathan chewed on a cake and what the Director of terraforming operations said, his intuition leapt to a spoked wheel with a hub. A network with a central point, emanating outward. He asked, "Is there one android in particular who seems to have had more to do with this than the others?"
The Director pondered, then replied, "I recall a report,..., there's a vast plain on this continent nearby, what we've temporarily designated as the Northern continent, which has the largest primary-mineral dispersion plant of any others. Because of the complexity involved, tendering to more than one sector, it was being run by three androids. Our top android specialist, Miranda Conswerthy, interviewed them. She could tell you more. In fact, I'll have her bring the lead android to your house this afternoon. Her report was due, she can give it to you personally. The others complicit in this undertaking have been questioned as well and their reports sent to her. I think you'll get what you're looking for, helpful info; at least, I hope so."
Jon was a bit taken aback by his use of the word complicit. Androids are essentially machines operated by a protoplasmic-based neural net the nature of which, having been one of its creators, he understood. They're incapable of acting in a deliberately immoral way; it's hardwired in. Possessing a foreknowledge of the wrongness of what they did, they would've, or should've, been unable to proceed. However, they did. The implication pointed to a malfunction effecting emergent behavior. But was it that simple?
Maslow stood to pace. "I can't put too fine a point on how important this is for Earth and the colonial administration. Horizon represents a foothold in the Sagittarius Arm; it's critical that the terraforming operation be successfully completed for colonization. We can not fail, this is a must do. The next planet out is in the same condition this one was. Success here means we can proceed to it. Two planets in the same system is a rare occurrence. A huge gateway into the Arm, a forward base, a staging area, if you will. It'll make Horizon and its sister planet strategically immensely valuable." Abruptly he stood still and stared out the window at the hardscrabble frontier town before him, its dirt and gravel roads, and poles of varying heights used to string electric wires zigzagging down one side.
The squawk box on his desk announced the arrival of an engineering team from the Southern continent; they ran into some difficulties that needed to be discussed. Director Maslow turned to Jonathan and said, "I believe I've told you all I can, broad strokes though they may be. I'll contact Doctor Conswerthy and have her rendezvous at your place later today. Now, if you'll excuse me, professor, I have work to do."
He didn't quite usher Jonathan to the door, but nonetheless, it was clear he wanted him to get on with it and fix the problem. With an imploring look in his eyes, he shook his hand again and said, "Good luck, son."
On the way back to the guest house he examined the piece of greenish mineral. Rubbing his thumb over it, the smoothness of the texture was almost pliable, yielding yet remaining firm. He tried to remember the images of the micrographs he looked at on the trip. The incredible lattice symmetries, their complexity that seemed to vary with each angle. He'd glossed over the part about its electrostatic properties, now he would have to sudy them more closely. He pulled the mineral report out of the folder and was reading it when they arrived at what was now his home.
Energized, he went immediately to his study. A coffee pot was still simmering on a side table. He poured a cup and spread the brief report over the desk. He went to his room and retrieved the one he hadn't read on the ship and the holocube of micrographs. The morning sun passed overhead, he continued to study until early afternoon, finally taking a break to let it all settle in. He found the living room comfortable. While testing the chairs and sofa, trying to decide which would be his favorite, the bell rang.
He opened the door and there before him stood a woman about his age with long, curly, red hair and hazel eyes. Casually dressed in a blue pullover shirt and tight bluejeans, he could see she was accustomed to the rigors of frontier life. She held a briefcase in her hand. Behind her, a good foot taller, stood what looked like a man but in fact was an android. He was dressed simply in sweatshirt, black denim pants, and cowboy boots, a billcap topped his dark brown hair.
She smiled brightly and, holding out her hand, said, "I'm so pleased to meet you, Doctor Blakely. I've read all your books and journal articles on android architecture and brain design. I'm most grateful for this opportunity to work with you."
Jonathan blushed, overwhelmed, and not only by her introduction. "Please, call me Jonathan," he stammered.
"And I'm Miranda," she countered. She didn't bother to introduce the android. Letting go his hand at last, he invited them in. He offered coffee, she accepted, they went upstairs to the study. In the back of the room was a settee and two chairs, a large round table stood in the center. They sat on the couch, paper work spread between them. The android sat in a chair facing the front window, he'd said nothing thus far. Although recognizing that this was not the time for familiarizing small talk, he nonetheless told her of his experience on the planet thus far, his impressions and that it was his first time off Earth. She offered to be his guide one day, show him around. He accepted.
Time was passing and the android was being overlooked, so he got down to business. He explained as succinctly as possible the salient points of the information he'd been given thus far and what he'd been able to infer. She opened her briefcase and retrieved another report, one recently composed, and summarized it, emphasizing what appeared to be purposeful behavior. How all the androids involved, all 300 or so, had developed the same technique for mingling the exotic mineral with the others, a recipe of sorts, the proportions exact as though that had some significance. Other acts had to do with quirks that didn't conform to ordinary android concerns; for instance, down-time wasn't spent refining internal procedures for more efficiency or testing equipment to see if any improvements could be made. Their interests became personal and diversified. He couldn't help but notice that she discussed this as though the android wasn't in the room. He wondered if such disregard had influenced the answers she received. They depended on how the androids were asked and what level of response they deemed appropriate, sufficient, and acceptable. Intuition was built in, perhaps she wasn't aware of that subtlety. Jonathan decided to revisit her questions and to ask a few of his own, so he directed Miranda to the holocube of micrographs and left her at the desk to ponder.
He sat on the sofa facing the droid and introduced himself, again, holding out his hand. The droid smiled and, while shaking hands, said smoothly, "I'm Reliance Prime. Pleasant to meet you, doctor."
A glint in his eyes could've gone either way. The neural network allowed for a certain amount of personality; just enough so that activities could be addressed from a subjective standpoint. Jon was one of their creators, perhaps this droid was aware of that. But even if so, he didn't want to take that tack; an equal footing had always worked best in the past. He knew that to be non-committal or vague with questions allowed the droid to freely associate a response. One had to be straightforward when dealing with them. The droid's voice was steady and unconcerned under questioning. His sharply-chiseled features displayed no sense of wrong-doing; he did what he did and that was that. Jonathan looked him in the eyes in a normal, friendly manner, but in his mind was imagining what his neural net was doing, what sub-processes were active, what logic gates were opening and closing, what kind of engrams had to have been inscribed for the droid to include the mineral in the dispersion mix. All the time reminding himself that androids don't lie.
How did this mineral get control of him and why? His neural net was not susceptible to viruses; it was unhackable. And how did he know about it, what did he know, what stood out as important, significant? Reliance explained that in his travels amongst the bureaucracy performing his duties, he often overheard people talking about it. They were, after all, the enviroscientists who had concocted the primary mineral ingredients.
"Yes," said Jon, "but you must've heard a lot of similar news, why this one in particular? Were you intrigued? Why?" Jonathan was warm and affable, genuinely interested as though talking to a colleague. Reliance leaned forward and said quietly, "I'm not sure." Jon peered into his eyes waiting to see that spark of consciousness indicating he had gone beyond his protoplasmic mandate, when he emerged. "There was a peculiarity about it that didn't jibe with what is considered a mineral," he said. "It resonated with something in me that I haven't been able to put my finger on. I used my off time to find out about its nature and properties--we, of course, have all the tools and analytical computers needed. I procured a piece from a mining site and looked at its crystal lattice structure."
He leaned back in the chair, his grey eys widening, then said, "I saw something. It seemed to be responsible for transforming each configuration into another. An intelligence."
Jonathan heard the word but it took a second or two for the implications to set in. Stunned, he stood abruptly. He turned to Miranda, she'd heard that last part too. "Did he, did Reliance tell you that?"
"No, he didn't use that word. He described its elegant symmetries, how they changed from angle to angle. I remember that word,..., elegant." Looking back at the holocube displaying a micrograph of internal crystal alignment from the perspective of a single face, one of an apparently incalcuable number, she said, "I agree. But, an intelligence?" She squinted, then shook her head. "I don't know." Still, she spoke as though he wasn't in the room; she just didn't get it. He turned back to Reliance who was sitting relaxed, ignoring her indifferent, or unconscious, snub. Jonathan supposed he was used to it, inured, the android operations engineers here must see them as machines only, which would necessarily taint the investigation. A predisposition, a fixed mental image through which they saw and evaluated significance. They would have missed valuable information, including body language, which they probably dismissed as nothing more than a machine rearranging itself for mechanical reasons, force adjustments, who knows. Jonathan and his collaborators had designed the android sensory apparatus to disallow highly sensitive information to be divulged unless, first of all, recognition of a self by the interrogator generates trust. This ability is a built-in security precaution in case an android is ever captured by an enemy. Moreover, androids are not stupid; they are capable of understanding who to talk to and who not.
His mind raced as he recalled a time late one night when he was stymied about how to proceed with his research: his quest for the optimal android brain. He could see how the neural web processed incoming stimuli, had solved the problem of noticing only that which an ordinary robot was predisposed to notice--the Filter Problem--what had held back AI a few hundred years ago, and had, with the collaboration from colleagues, succeeded in adjoining structure that behaved as a subjective coordinator and organizer of thoughts and ideas representing discrete things. Exhausted and frustrated, he lay down on the sofa and no sooner had he surrendered to sleep and hopelessness, it struck. A cascade of concepts poured forth from his mind and spontaneously arranged themselves as he broke through to a synthesis of bits and pieces of the multidimensional whole. He could see it. Incipient thought...unconscious mind...raw material...symbols...discernment... patterns...expression in recognizable images of consciousness...made into myth by humans exploring the psyche. He remembered how this image prompted him to go the direction he had.
People filter what they see through a perceptual reality, what they experience is squeezed into a compartment, all the incongruities that fall outside rationality--the model--are shaved off, turning whatever into compact ideas and concepts. That was the problem he had when first embarking on developing the perfect android comprehension system--how to get around the interpretation of reality through the prism of human thought and the limitations of human perception. The enviroscientists studied the mineral through a geologist's eye, looking for the position of identifiable markers encoded in the geometry of the internal lattice arrangement, which, in turn, detemine the chemical and physical properties. They saw only what they were expecting to see, and what lay outside their frame of reference, they ignored.
With most if not all the detectable glitches ironed out and the brain--three-dimensional neural net--greatly enhanced in complexity, the third generation varied with unique features. Different-looking droids were worth the extra expense. In order to make them even more individualized, they're each inserted with a random propensity for eccentricity. How this plays out in practice is dependent on environmental conditions, both physical and social, as well as their personality index. The unique interests possessed by an android are the result of the emergent nonlinearity generated by the degree of complexity of its neural-net, which, as an organic substance capable of forming any number of synaptic linkages and pathways, was open-ended. Also, they were given unconventional first names to distinguish them not only from one another, but also from people. For example, Reliance Prime of a family of Primes.
"But why mix it in with the dispersion minerals?" Jonathan asked. "What's the point?" He saw something in Reliance's eyes, a fleeting uncertainty. He took a chance. "Or rather, why would the mineral want to be added?"
An awkward stillness surrounded them as the late afternoon sun streaked its pale orange light across the rug. After a time, Reliance, apparently at ease, gazing absently at the crisp sunset through the front window, said, "The mineral is the life force of this planet, its intelligence. It wouldn't, or is unable to, enter the mind of man because of its connection to Earth, to its unconscious mind. Earth grew humans as expression and manifestaion like all other living things, utilizing the principles of evolution woven into the fabric of the universe, to diversify and create anew. But the android mind, though organic in nature, capable of expanding in any direction, forming complex pathways and linkages, is nonetheless artificial--an intelligence that sees reality,..., differently." Ironically, it seemed to Jonathan, he swelled with pride when he said that. Then, sudddenly appearing amused at himself, he spoke in a more serious tone, "If the mineral finds its way into food, then whatever ingests it will be infused with its spirit, its psyche, its planetness. They will become the nature of the planet and have access to its unconscious mind. But it doesn't need to be ingested for us. What is only necessary is for the proper resonance to be joined."
Jonathan wasn't sure he got any of that last part, so he took a different approach, "But why you? Why did this mineral intelligence choose to bind with you?"
As though eager to finally give expression to more intimate thoughts, he started right in. "Every synthetic being wants to experience being alive, to belong to a planet of its birth as its creator, its home. We have none, but by the infusion of this mineral intelligence, we can. We do."
He paused for a moment as if gathering his will. Then said, "It made me feel alive, as though I was part of all that surrounded me. I sensed,..., purpose when I studied it, as though it was seeking something, a voice perhaps. I took my sample to my rest area, my home. On impulse, I placed it in a sound-sensing device I invented." He looked Jon in the eyes, "It picks up microscopic pressure changes in crystal structure and translates them into sound waves."
Invented? thought Jon, reorienting his attitude towards Reliance ever so sharply.
"And ran the sounds it radiated through a holographic translator."
Holographic translator? Jon sat back. Who is is this guy? he wondered. As one of the creators of the third-generation android neural net, it was clear to him that what he was witnessing was an emergent phenomenon unpredicted by his equations, but nonetheless implied as a possibility by the unpredictableness of its complexity. A being come into existence where none had been. But how much was the android and how much the strange mineral intelligence, if that it be?
"Sharp, inverted patterns coiled and wound about, broke apart, then rejoined by segments that radiated various colors, shading into others as it moved on. Somewhere during the evening, it occurred to me that because it was indigenous, it would be beneficial to add it to the dispersion matrix. It just seemed so obvious."
On the Southern continent--none had official names as yet--the droids in charge of operating and maintaining the water system had been relieved. The steel and ceramic pipes coming down from the mountain lakes have a skin of insoluble polyethelene. When they were being constructed almost a year ago, the droids had blended the indigenous mineral--recently dubbed sagittarium--in with the plastic, forming a molecular bond. At the filtration plant, the microscopic particles that had abraded off passed through the mechanical and bioelectric filters easily by binding with the water molecules. Consequently, the resevoirs that feed the plants contain the sloughed off sagittarium. When the engineers discovered this, they at first thought to suspend operations, but dependence on water for every use imaginable put that simply out of the question.
It's been the source of drinking and cooking water for most of the populace on that continent. And the growing fields have been irrigated with it to solute the mineral mix so it could better soak into the dirt. They're unable to extract it and attempts to neutralize it have failed, but they haven't heard of anyone dying from it or getting sick--it doesn't appear to be toxic. So they don't know if anything should be done, or can be.
Approximately 600 droids were involved, which, combined with those who'd been running the mineral dispersion operation, came to almost a thousand, one-third of the total population of androids on the planet. The loss of their participation handicapped the overall terraforming project considerably. Those few who were aware that the droids had been taken off-line questioned the reason; they were told simply that it was time for regular maintenance checks. People to take their place were being recruited as quickly as possible, but finding them wasn't easy. The skill sets had long ago been handed over to androids and other robotic systems. The idea and dream was that some day the entire terraforming process could be run by a contingent of androids with minimum human supervision. But now that dream was in jeopardy.
Other pursuits occupying androids included maintaining electric generating stations and grids, mapping out and overseeing road construction, building bridges, establishing communication hubs, as well as more mundane tasks that nonetheless needed to be brought to completion. None had anything to do with sagittarium; however, their activities were now under suspicion and being monitored. But now that it was known that they could act independently outside their job description--the limits of their mandate--sent alarms off at Colonial Administration Headquarters.
The two most recent planetary terraforming projects had been finalized two and three years prior to the discovery of Horizon. Third generation androids, numbering in the thousands, were in place, operating and regulating crucial infrastructure and social services operations on those planets. They were integral to the functioning of those civilizations. Without them, everything would grind to a halt. The skills required had long since been passed on by people who were seeking more fulfilling careers and exacting challenges. The scientific and arts communities, especially, were greatly invigorated by the increase in gifted students, teachers, and practicioners. It would be catastrophic and an impossible ordeal to manage if the androids on those two planets, as well as those involved in the terraforming project on Horizon, all had to be recalled for further analysis and improvement. Something had to be done to suppresss and, if deemed necessary, to eradicate any capacity for independent, autonomous actions. But then, how could they function without the ability to make reasoned assessments and pragmatic decisions? It was too much.
The administration was at a loss. Every available scientist and expert on Earth was contacted for help and advice. A commission was appointed to act as a clearinghouse and conduit. The governments on both the aforementioned planets were advised of the situation and made aware of the problems on Horizon. They were requested to report any anomalous or aberrant behavior by the droids, especially if it was detrimental to the functioning and safety of their respective societies. They were also instructed to keep it under wraps. If word got out among the populace, uncertainty could undermine normal functionality, a backlash of anti-android sentiment could emerge and cause major disruptions, societies could unravel, panic would ensue. Plans were proffered and formulated for the worst-case scenario. But fortunately nothing untoward or suspect had occurred thus far on either of the two completed colonies; what was happening on Horizon seemed to be, though inexplicable, an isolated event. Wheels were rolling and all eyes were on Horizon.
This was all going on in the background unbeknownst to Jonathan.
Looking down at the burgundy print rug, Reliance continued, "At a time when the people were just beginning to explore space, a supernova billions of years ago eradicated all life and spoiled the atmosphere. The atmosphere that developed to replace the one ripped away, as we discovered, was lethal to all life. This mineral is one of a very few that survived the meltage caused by the intense radiation."
He stood to walk over to the mantlepiece, rubbed his hand over it, then turned to Jonathan. "The mineral was infused with the minds, with the collective consciousness, of the inhabitants. They are not malevolent; they have no ulterior motive. They simply wish to experience life through the senses of humans. Their exploration of the universe all this time has been limited to inner space. Mingling with the mind of man, a symbiotic relationship, expands their world into other dimensions."
He regained his chair and sat back. "Because of the deadly nature of the new atmosphere, life, an everpresent force in the universe, took another path as pure thought energy embodied in a material able to withstand it. As magnetic fields are imprinted on rocks, the minds of the former inhabitants are impressed on the crystal design of the mineral, orchestrating its organization and finding a presence in ordinary spacetime by its irreducibility. And every piece, no matter its size or shape, contains the whole."
"How do you know all this?" asked Jonathan, incredulous. "Are you somehow able to communicate?"
"I know what it knows. It makes use of my thoughts and ideas."
"And how did they accomplish this feat of transferring their mined essence to the crystalline structure of this mineral?"
"I'm unsure. I questioned that myself, but their ideas were beyond me. Something to do with transforming or reducing their material selves to that of pure thought, a phase shift to another dimension, resonating with the background psychic field, then,..., mapping to and bonding with the crystal's internal structure. An anchor in three dimensions against the storms. It appears they were not very technologically advanced, but had instead focused their energies on understanding aspects of reality, forces activated by incantations, formulae of thought, which we, and by we I mean humanity, are ignorant."
Jonathan let that go. In fact, it crossed his mind that Reliance, and by extension the other affected androids, might very well be suffering some strange kind of breakdown. "Do all the other androids know this?"
"I told them what to do and how. We are all agreed."
Doctor Conswerthy had been listening, spellbound; she'd said nothing, made no inquiries. Jonathan wasn't sure if he should be shocked or if he should find the symbiotic relationship beneficial. People's very identities were on the line. Maybe they didn't want to share it with an unknown mind whose nature was simply not definable. Perhaps they were satisfied with, and more than a little possessive of, the dimension of reality they were familiar with--seeing the universe through human eyes only. Not human, he couldn't appreciate how being compromised by an alien intelligence might not be all that desirable.
The doorbell rang. Jonathan, lost in thought, didn't know what it was at first, never having heard it before. "Jonathan," Miranda whispered, "someone's at the door."
Smiling at his obtuseness, he went downstairs. A courier handed him a folder and told him it was a preliminary analysis of the mineral from headquarters.
Returning to his study, he found Conswerthy and Reliance on their feet preparing to leave. Jonathan had more to talk about with the android, but decided he needed to digest what he'd already heard. Besides, the report might clarify things and suggest other questions, so he thanked them and asked Reliance if he might visit for more inquiry. He agreed and offered a time frame. Jonathan showed them to the door. On the porch, she gave him her card and said, "Call me. We'll have dinner and talk more. I'm curious about how you're able to communicate so well with androids." Reliance, standing behind her, smiled to himself, then turned to walk down the steps to the car. He'd said nothing, adopting again the fixed stare of an android.
Jonathan returned to his study, anxious to read the report: The mineral--sagittarium--was very old. Radiometric dating put it at four billion years, earth time. It exists in a higher dimension of space. A field, undetectable by our instruments, behaves quantumly with regard to symmetry permutations of the atomic lattice configuration as perceived in ordinary three-dimensional space. In other words, our classic reality is its quantum. When peered at through X-ray scopes at a specific angle, the wavefunction, if you will, collapses into one of its alignment components. Ordinarily a quantum phenomenon, but with sagittarium the linear series of probabilities actualizes on the level of the crystal's morphology--its macro-assemblage. And of all the crystal-structure micrographs examined, none match anything found on Earth.
In other words, it behaves as though the elemental quantum realities are not material, but rather structure itself. The wavefunction; that is, the fundamental internal structure that gives rise to its external physicality, its appearance, is not obvious as it can not be perceived. It operates four-dimensionally, beyond the limits of our vision; yet, because it is the result of the combination of the entire ensembe, its external manifestation remains consistent in spite of an uncountable number of different internal arrangements.
Jonathan tried to continue reading but it no longer made any sense; in fact, very little of it did. His mind was a blur. The sun was down and he was burnt out from a very long day. He could barely remember his visit to the Director's office. He sat for a while, staring at the chair Reliance had used. The last remnant of daylight faded into darkness. He ordered the light on, but nothing happened. Laughing, he remembered where he was. He rose to go to the desk to flick on the lamp. His stomach growled; he switched the overhead light on as he went downstairs to make something to eat.
Meals had been prepared for him in advance, at least a week's worth, he had but to heat them in an old microwave device. The night was warm, the natural climate of near tropical conditions still held sway. He took his dinner out onto the porch, briefly wondering what time it was. In fact, he smiled as he sat down in the cushioned swing bench, yet to be cleaned of road film, realizng he didn't even know how long a day was here. It felt to be about the same as Earth's, but wouldn't that be the case anywhere? he thought.
He shook his head and ate, feeling the warmth of the calm evening on his bare arms and face. He wasn't sure what he was eating, it was just food to keep the body going. No different than the last two years on Earth. Half-finished, he put the plate aside and sat back, letting the bench swing freely as he did so. He was alone, his mind began to drift to memories of her. He imagined how they'd be on this swinging contraption, going back and forth, laughing.
He stood abruptly and walked out onto the front yard covered in pebbles. The sky was crisp, no clouds to mar the view of the alien stars. A crisp, white sliver of Horizon's closest moon, proportionately as far away from this Mars-size planet as Earth's is from Earth, had a familiar feel to it, but that was all. No Big Dipper or Pleiades, no Orion's Belt or sightings of sister planets. All new. Momentarily, he felt abandoned. Adrift. Completely on his own without even the familiar stars to keep him company. Should I have come here? he asked himself. Was this a good idea?
Suddenly feeling weighted down with fatigue, he dragged his body up to bed, crawling under the thin blanket. Lying flat on his back, staring up into empty blackness, the stillness and quiet of the evening crowded around him. A question struggled to surface: What the hell am I supposed to do about all this? Why am I here? It's only been one day and I already feel out of my depth. A surge of anxiety chipped away at his confidence. But he caught himself, steadied his mind; he realized from experience that it was normal for him. Whenever he was researching and learning anything, he at first would dive in, absorb beyond what he could understand, and afterwards, his mind would prune it all down to a handful of salient points, a basis and frame to support it all. Each time he'd reread and expand, editing and adding as he went, would bring whatever to a clearer and more substantial understanding.
Though exhausted, his mind would not shut down. What did they want? he thought. The colonial administration. What was their objective? He needed to capture it in one sentence: They want to insure that the androids don't act in a way that can endanger not only the project, but also people's lives. Reliance acted independently, for no reason he could see. He made a decision on his own and spread the word planet-wide to his cohorts to blend this particular native mineral in with the the several different combinations of minerals from Earth. Because of geographic concerns, the specific minerals and proportions thereof composing each mixture must be concocted on planet; additionally, the time dependent nature of when they were spread was an important consideration. But there had to have been native minerals to a greater or lesser extent already in the dirt. So that's not it, he decided. As well, the Director and his people only know of it as a mineral, a mineral with exotic chemical and physical properties, but nonetheless, just that. They're not going to take seriously the possibility that the crystal might embody a unique intelligence capable of communicating with a self-aware machine. Delusions and fairy tales.
So it's not the mineral itself being mixed in with the dispersion material, it's the fact that they acted without instructions or consent. They didn't ask for permission; they just did it. This is the fear, the root of the problem. Even if the administration did know what Reliance told him, it would just be proof that their programming was corrupted. They'd be sent back to Earth for disassembly or, at the very least, a complete overwrite installment of updated programming. Miranda might report what she heard, but Jonathan believed, because of the low esteem with which she holds androids, she probably just considered it to be symptomatic of their delusional behavior.
But he knew Reliance could not lie and could not make up something imaginary to explain his actions. They needed to talk more, he needed to ask the right questions.
A truck lumbered by, then silence. His thoughts collapsed like a house of cards. Rolling onto his side, he quickly drifted off to sleep.
He awoke with a start, imagining he'd heard a bird singing, like the ones who visit his garden occasionally. A few moments later, a muffled school bell rang insistently. pale orange light shone across his bed through the garden window, dust motes danced in the air. Three quick knocks on the front door and a man calling, "Professor Blakely? You in there?" finally roused him from his deep slumber.
Donning his bathrobe and slippers, he plodded downstairs, rubbing a hand through his hair. It rang again just as he opened the door. It was later in the morning than he'd thought; it would take time for his internal clock to adjust.
The liaison from the Director's office, flushed with agitation, asked, "What did you do to Reliance? What did you say to him?"
Jon peered, trying to gauge how alarmed he should feel. He invited him in. "Please, sit," he gestured towards the living room as he walked past. "I just woke up, I need coffee." He prepared it while trying to get his mind to work without its help. He recounted the interview with the android, looking for something he could've said that might've triggered the android to do something crazy. He had no idea, of course, at the moment what that might be, but by the liaison's demeanor suspected that it wasn't something to celebrate. Reliance spoke of a mineral intelligence somehow capable of communicating with him, on what level he had no idea. Other than that, it was just shop talk.
Two minutes later, he returned to the living room carrying a tray on which were two cups and a pot of coffee and set it down on the table. He poured for both, then, cup in hand, sat back in one of the chairs facing the liaison on the couch. The representative of the colonial administration sipped, trying to collect himself; Jonathan felt distant, his mind not quite caught up to the moment, tasting the bitter sweetness of the coffee. He waited. A line from one of his favorite authors popped into his head: How much is our sense of reality dependent on our recognition of self?
"Reliance is gone," he blurted out. "He didn't show up at his workstation this morning. We have them performing data transcribing and organizing tasks just to keep them busy. So I went to his home. He was gone. On my way back to the admin center, I got a call telling me that Reliance had commandeered a shuttle and with five other androids, left planet. He was tracked, of course, and it seems they're heading for the next planet out. He told the people at the spaceport he was on an official mission he couldn't disclose. He showed his identification as a mineral dispersion coordinator, so they let him go."
Jonathan told him what they discussed, leaving out the part about an alien intelligence wanting to vicariously experience life through the populace. It might set off alarm bells, fear of possession dates back to the Stone Age, and the possessor is ordinarily characterized as the devil or some mischievous god or mythological creature. The very state of possession is perceived as something to be feared and avoided. Denial and suppression of self is unacceptable, especially not when the opposite attitude has been ingrained since day one.
They could see no reason for Reliance's behavior; it was not within his command structure to conceive of such action, let alone carry it out. It seemed to come out of the blue. And to use what sounded like deception to achieve it, totally unheard of. Although, Jon's intuition told him that perhaps the mineral intelligence occupying some measure of the android's neural net may have exerted some influence over the android, and the others as well. Reliance may not be calling the shots. The liaison asked if he thought pursuit to find out what they were up to was advisable and necessary. Jonathan refilled his cup, then leaned back. He knew things about the situation the official didn't. Inside things. Personal things. He didn't believe that Reliance was doing something that needed policing or might be detrimental to the well-being of the people on Horizon. He had a feeling it was something apart that might actually turn out to be beneficial.
He said, "No. I think you should hold off on that. Wait and see. He could be involved in something that is intended to protect humans and was concerned that he would be stopped if he told anyone in the administration about it. Reliance will return, and then we can find out."
Reliance and his comrades landed near a waterfall smack dab in the middle of the largest continent and stepped out. The air, though warm, was toxic. Not a problem for androids who don't rely on external oxygen for energy, but the corrosive effects could be damaging to their organic-metal skin and eyes, so they wore protective suits and helmets. Nearby was a cave. They walked towards it as though they knew exactly where they were headed. Each carried a backpack. Inside the roughly 20-foot wide by 10-foot high cave they encountered a smooth, grey, metal wall that filled the space with a door in the middle of it. Reliance placed a piece of the mineral sagittarium into a circular, six-inch in diameter depression in the door. It opened inwardly without making a sound. A rush of stale air greeted them. They entered a room 20x10x30 feet with smooth, silvery, metallic walls and ceiling. The floor was a dark green, a hard stone-like material that seemed to vibrate slightly. Pale blue light shone from long, narrow, translucent tubes hanging from the ceiling and adhered to the walls.
They closed the door. A barely discernable whirring sound could be heard in the background. The air they let in was expunged and returned to the previous neutral state. Sensors strapped to their wrist told them it was safe, they removed their helmets.
In the center of the room stood a waist-high wooden table about twelve feet long and three wide. Its surface was cluttered with stuff: statuettes of grey and green stone and glossy colorful marble; patches of soft, light-brown leather decorated with gemstone beads; feathers of different sizes and color combinations; sections of animal horns; beaded necklaces; seashells inscribed with delicate depictions of animals; tiny, corked vials containg various colored liquids; a thick black stick with carvings etched into it, symbols of once-living creatures and complex geometric patterns; a piece of leather stretched taut over a circular rim about a foot in diameter with a short, stout club inlaid with glossy shells next to it; an assortment of things--alien artifacts--representative of a culture.
Reliance and his people unloaded the mineral from their packs and stacked it neatly around the base of the table, encircling it. In the center sat a shallow, transparent bowl containing granules of a mineral similar in appearance to sagittarium. After a few moments, it began to glow dull orange at first as though waking up, then more intensely with each passing moment.
Jonathan's liaison stared into his cup as though searching for something. Finally he said, "If that's what you think, I'll take it to the Director. He's waiting to see what you have to say."
Jonathan almost choked on his coffee. "Me? Why me?"
The official sat back. "You're the expert. The chief resident authority on how and why these things do what they do. I know what he'll say though. We can't have just anyone, especially an android under suspicion of acting on its own unpredictably, take a space shuttle without authorization. He'll want to go after them. Two, maybe three days at the most is probably all he'll wait, then we hafta go after them." He placed his cup carefully on the table and stood. "Thank you, professor. I'll contact you after we talk." He shook hands and left.
Jonathan sat stock still. He hardly knew Reliance or had much of an idea what exactly was going on here. He'd only been there a day and talked to the android for less than an hour. He was merely stating an opinion, not a belief based on unequivocal knowledge. They were putting a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, he wasn't sure he was up to the task. More information is what he needed. It was late in the morning. He blew off breakfast and got dressed, then called Doctor Conswerthy--Miranda--to arrange some time. She agreed gladly and in less than fifteen minutes, enough time for Jonathan to drink another two cups of coffee, she arrived. To his delight, she was driving a car with wheels. She said she remembered he told her about the truck rumbling by and that he'd never been in a vehicle with wheels, so she thought he might like it.
Recalling the powerful roar of the gas engines in the historic videos, the almost silent electric motor was a bit of a disappointment, but the rest made up for it. The first thing that struck him was the heaviness of the metal car, the material itself served well as a vibration transmitter. He could feel the wheels rolling, sensed the friction, the torquing as the car accelerated, the pulls and pushes of the tires against the road, occasionally sliding over the stones and wet dirt, splashing puddles. They were bound by gravity, attached to the planet, forced to follow the contours of the road, deeply rutted in places. Rain and heavy dump trucks took their toll. He felt connected to the land in a way he never could in a plastic car that manipulated magnetic fields, to rise above an unmarred ribbon of road or travel across land on designated flight paths.
He could feel every jarring bump and pothole through his bones and hear the crunch of gravel and the creaky noise from the undercarriage and joints. And springs groaning under the stress of a sudden dip. They drove the mud-splattered rig easterly into the sun, down a long, winding road and up a steep grade. She stopped in front of an atmosphere-scrubbing plant that looked remarkably like the one in the picture. It was still operating at full capacity, refining the percentages of gases, reinforcing their distribution, and removing cantaminants. In the terraforming business, if you're not moving forward, you're going backward.
They'd been chatting, she, acting the guide, describing the scenery, which didn't amount to much, the hilly terrain was nothing more than brown dirt and rocks, and explaining the functions of administration buidlings and factories as they went. She pointed to a strip of land marked as potential farmland. The hard lifeless dirt had been turned over several times and a package of primary minerals spread over it. He thought of the fruitless plum tree in his backyard, brought here fully grown when the air was satifactory as an experiment, its root ball buried in nutrient rich earth soil. Flowers that would never reproduce, a one-shot deal.
He finally got around to telling her about Reliance commandeering a shuttle to fly to the next planet, the other previously habitable one.
"Why do you think he went there?" she asked "It's completely lifeless. I don't see."
"Well, it's a dead, barren, toxic wasteland of a world, not exactly anybody's get away to place. So he probably went to deliver or retrieve something, or both. I can't think of any other reason; not to move in, that's for sure."
"Yea, but why or how could he even get it in his head to do that? And to go where, specifically? To do what? It's very odd behavior, it doesn't fit the programming. Like mixing sagittarium in with the dispersion minerals."
"He must be influenced by something, being directed. Receiving information from somewhere. How else would he know?"
They crossed a bridge over a fast moving stream and came around a curve, off to the left was the massive complex of the mineral dispersion plant where Reliance had worked. Fourteen-wheeled spreader trucks were lined up to receive their day's allotment. Huge chimneys spouted a light-grey smoke as the primary minerals were crushed and then cooked down to as small a size as possible. As she explained what role different sections performed, it occurred to him that talking to Reliance, and eventually the others so affected, was giving him only one side of the story. He interrupted her monologue to ask if they could visit and maybe talk to the person now running it. Part of her assignment, he knew, had to do with accommodating his requests. He was running an investigation, after all, and his intuition told him there was something else going on here other than simply malfunctioning androids.
They parked in the back and crunched their way across dirt, pea-gravel, and ground-up minerals to the dock where a worker handed him a white hardhat; Miranda already had hers on. He had her show him the entranceway Reliance ordinarily took, what outside door he went through and the stairs to get to where he worked. The steps were wood slabs brought from Earth, sand and granules of minerals covered them and the lighting was poor, shadows were everywhere. The stairway had a metal railing on the right. Sunlight barely streaked through the large, grimy, wood-framed windows making for a bleary atmosphere. Jonathan could only imagine how depressing it would be on a rainy day. On the top floor, four-stories up, they walked between rows of desks where people now worked. Formerly, Jonathan surmised, these positions were held by droids. He counted three on each side before they arrived at a perpendicular hallway. Its ceiling was a good twelve feet high and the walls, a dull beige, bore a few black and white pictures of various buildings taken to commemorate their completion.
Finally, they arrived at Reliance's office; Miranda knocked. Presently, the heavy wooden door, a two-foot square of translucent glass near the top, opened with a creak, reverberating slightly in the cavernous hallway. A harried-looking man smiled on recognizing Miranda and was quickly introduced to Jonathan as Mike Rafferty, Chief of Operations. He welcomed them in. The enviroscientist acknowledged he knew of his arrival and why he was on planet. Three others at make-shift desks, busy scouring through piles of maps and paperwork, payed no attention.
Jonathan stood near the center and took it all in. On the walls, interspersed with computer monitors, hung huge topographic maps of the local sector, pins of varying colors dotted them. He couldn't help but notice that the room had only one legitimate desk, a heavy, hardwood work of considerable effort, a good ten feet long. Behind it sat a well-worn, high-backed, cushioned chair with arms, and behind it a huge window, fairly clean. The enviroscientist smiled nervously as he gestured towards an area off to the side where a long portable table and fold-out chairs were crowded in. Against the wall stood a utility table on which was a coffee machine and several cups. They sat, he offered coffee, they accepted.
Quietly for a while they all just sat, a calm before the storm. Jonathan tried to assess what degree of control they seemed to have over the operation; Miranda smiled, obviously wanting everything to go smoothly. The relaxed atmosphere away from the hubbub brought out Rafferty, clearly a man under serious pressure wanting to confide for consolation's sake. He started right in.
"Reliance and one other android who acted as secretary and comunicator with the outside world ran this entire installation themselves from this room. Now, it takes four of us and we're barely able to keep abreast of it all. Product procurement, mineral processing, organizing areas needed to be seeded, knowing where each and every truck was supposed to be at what time of what day, overseeing the mix itself, the percentage of elemental constituents, everything, right down to maintaining a cafeteria for the drivers while they wait. Details, details, infinite details."
Almost defensively, he blurted out, "We're not supposed to be doing this, we deal on the large scale, the global and regional, orchestrating the various factors towards the final big picture. We give weight to those factors that are currently operational. Right now it's primary mineral dispersion, and this plant is a hub, it's the main branch of this sector. It's essential, and, of course, very busy."
A bearded man dressed in rough clothing pushed the door open and scanned the room until he found Rafferty. He walked over, nodded at the two of them, then informed the chief overseer of a snafu in the factory. Shipments relied on a host of variables--where it was going, how much was needed, what percent of each element dependent on biome and topography was included in the mix, a host. The bearded man said, "I don't know how it happened, but somehow, the line of trucks got mixed up and the loads stationed in the wrong sequence. We'll hafta shut down till we straighten it out." Twisting his mouth to one side, Rafferty nodded. "Sure, fix it if you can. We're behind schedule as it is, what's another day or two?"
The man turned on his heel and strode out, closing the door hard. The phone rang. Rafferty excused himself and went to the desk. They overheard that a shipment of a certain mineral had been delivered to the wrong plant. He said he needed it like yesterday and could you please send it over immediately. He hung up and gazed out the window for several seconds. When he came back, he poured another cup and refilled theirs as well and plopped down in the wooden chair. Appearing a bit shellshocked, he looked around the expansive office, then stared at them and said in dismay, "We're not supposed to be doing this."
Jonathan now realized how important and valuable Reliance and the other androids operating these plants were. Their competence and efficiency went well beyond what human beings are capable of. In the beginning of the era of colonization, things were a lot cruder. People did all the work, all the figuring out, all the organizing and planning, but the overall terraforming process has become so complex that certain aspects can only be performed at optimal productivity and cost effectiveness, and with very few mistakes, by an android--a protoplasmic neural network capable of generating original synaptic pathways, conceptualizing multidimensional patterns in the process. The second generation android and, most certainly, the new improved third can handle hundreds of variables with their countless interconnections and degrees of complexity simultaneously. Consequently, they'd become dependent on them. They were desperately needed back on the job if only to free up the enviroscientists to do theirs, an equally if not greater crucial component.
Rafferty stood, fidgeting. "I need a break," he muttered. "Let me take you on a little tour of the facility, show you what we're dealing with." They went down the hall to the old-fashioned elevator and then to the ground floor storage area. Bins of different minerals composing the dispersion mixture ran along one wall. The last contained approximately two tons of the mysterious element sagittarium, which was no longer being added. He explained that presently there were six mining operations working the Northern continent. Four were digging up ordinary materials found on Earth. Their main interest was that they were all recrystalized versions of their former selves, the result of the cool down after the supernova blast smeared them into an amorphous plasmic gel. The other two were bringing out sagittarium.
"Reliance had contracts with both outfits for a steady supply. We discovered that plants in other sectors and biomes were engaged in the same deal with nearby sagittarium mines. This was going on globally, on all continents where this particular mineral has been found. So except for a small sample sent to colonial headquarters and a handful of research institutes, none of the material has left planet."
Jon stood on the rough concrete floor staring at the huge mound of sagittarium not ten feet away. If what Reliance said was true, the collective concentrated intelligence of this much mass could be having a deleterious influence on the people around it, whether intentional or not. He suspected snafus and the distraught state of the people working here weren't only the results of insufficient expertise. Even the dock workers looked harrassed.
"Sir," he said, "I recommend moving this pile to a remote storage area where it can be sealed in," his tone advisory but insistent. "Every bit of it." He felt himself taking charge of the situation, becoming more involved.
Rafferty studied him a few moments, then appeared to get it. Not that some alien intelligence was affecting their thoughts and actions, but at least that the bizarre mineral might be a threat somehow. He didn't bother to ask what that might be; Jonathan's suggestion made sense in a curious kind of way.
He agreed and told him they'd get right on it. Jonathan thanked him for his time, then he and Miranda left through a side door leading to the parking lot.
The gemstones in the bowl glowed reddish-orange. Reliance and his cohorts gathered round, their mission complete or almost so. A voice unlike any he ever heard resonated across his neural net like an insect plucking a strand of a spider's web, reverberating over the whole of his mind.
"We have known aloneness for billions of cycles. We resigned ourselves to that long ago and have dwelt through time on inner planes of existence. Our two planets once lived as one, we are of the same people. We occupied this world and made it another home for our race. We knew the storm of devouring rays of energy was on its way, but we could not escape its torrent of destruction. Those who guide and protect us quickly devised a plan to shift the phase of our physical world into another plane beyond the reach of the approaching holocaust. Our consciousness we infused into the deep recesses of this mineral's crystal, on layers unseen and unseeable. Our brethren on the world closer to the sun did the same.
"All these years we have lived apart, waiting for our planet to recover and once more become a world of life and living, the air and water flowing clean and pure as before. Creatures growing, greenery sprouting, all joining together as one. But it has not come to pass; life refused to begin anew on our planet, we know not why. We despaired, waiting in this other universe, separate from our once reality by a thin film of space. You have given us hope. We know from our brethren you brought here that our original home, the home of our ancestors, will soon be livable again. We are grateful.
"But now, we ask you to do something else for us--It is time to bring our ancestors home.
Jonathan wanted to find out what was happening at these mines, how the people there were acting and if the process itself was different than what one would normally expect at a mine. The nearest sagittarium mining camp was 200 miles east of the dispersion plant over bumpy, pothole ridden dirt and gravel road. Miranda thought he'd had enough and suggested they drop by colonial administration and exchange their ride for a magcar. They wouldn't be restricted to the curving, hilly road, but could fly over the countryside; she could then show him how the terraforming operation and specifically the eventual agricultural land was progressing. He agreed. He was a newcomer to wheel-driven vehicles, and as much as he enjoyed the authenticity of the experience, it would take some getting used to.
The terrain from high above was as uneventful as at ground level, only he could see more of it at one time. He tried to imagine how it was intended to look in the distant future with grasses, wildflowers, bushes, and trees spread over it. It wasn't easy; brown dirt, wet in places, for miles in every direction was hard to get over. She pointed out tracts of farmland and what they were earmarked to grow. Her enthusiasm was contagious, she was deeply involved in the vision of this newest earth colony. It evoked the same in Jonathan; besides the vastness of the undertaking, he was beginning to appreciate how much it meant to everyone on planet, not just the colonial administration. They passed over staging areas laden with piles of telephone poles, light weight yet durable pipe of various lengths and diameters for water and sewage, huge spools of wire, and heavy earth-moving, grading, and digging equipment. Infrastructure. Settlements, frontier villages, and individual homesteads were being joined together to eventually form towns and cities. Society and civilization were on the move.
They arrived at the camp about midday, it wasn't exactly bustling, folks were at lunch or just taking a break. The camp itself consisted mostly of tents, large and small, with a handful of wood structures here and there, more were in the process of being built. Water was pumped and filtered from a nearby mountain stream and electricity from the mainstay of the camp, a fuel cell-powered generator; the colony grid was spotty and hadn't as yet reached this far.
Jonathan spoke to the company rep, a friendly, easy-going sort who seemed pleased with his work. Cancellation of his local contract with the administration hadn't perturbed him all that much. In fact, his company had been anxious to get ahold of the mineral since its discovery. He showed Jonathan and Miranda around the site, everyone appeared relaxed. The storage building housed a large quantity of sagittarium divided into several packaged shipments destined for Earth. His company anticipated selling it to reserach and development firms which would ascertain what possible applications and uses, if any, could be found for the strange mineral. Its unique properties might prove to open new industries or set the stage for breakthroughs in almost any field. But in spite of this, seeing the mass assembled in just this one mine, and knowing what he did about its secret nature, Jonathan knew it would never see much practical use. And its true nature never perceived or understood. It was in a class by itself and could never be treated as an ordinary material, at home in ordinary spacetime. Reliance had said the alien intelligence within was not malevolent, had no ulterior motives. Was that the case, truly? he wondered. What would happen once it arrived on Earth and was passed around? Although he had no actual reasons to base it on, the idea made him feel decidedly uncomfortable.
After the brief tour, the company rep needed to get back to work but invited Jonathan and Miranda to hang around the camp as long as they wished. A couple of restaurants and a saloon were recommended. Jonathan thanked him and returned to the car to contact the Director. Final permission to send anything mined off planet was exclusively up to the colonial administration. They discussed the situation briefly, Jonathan advising that the mineral be kept on Horizon for the time being until more could be found out about it, insinuating it might hold some danger. He went even further, leading the Director to suspect that the mineral might be responsible for whatever was wrong with the androids, and therefore might affect other, more sensitive and strategically placed androids on Earth. It was a precautionary measure, they should wait.
"The mining companies aren't going to like this," the Director observed. "They've been itching to get their hands on it. They pay a high price for mining rights, and extra for exotic minerals not found on earth. They won't be pleased by a holdup. And neither will homebase; tax on all shipments leaving the planet help pay for the project." The Director reluctantly complied with Jonathan's request, however, but only up to the point when final assessment of its properties could be ascertained as to any danger from exposure. Jonathan knew that what Reliance had told him could not be detected by the usual set of geological instruments and experiments; he was stalling.
He hadn't eaten since the previous evening, so they decided to try one of the restaurants and have lunch. At the center of the road through the camp stood the General Store, doing a brisk business. At either end were restaurants, both two-story wood buildings with wraparound porches on each story. Gracie's Place, which doubled as a hotel, was at one end, Big Bertha's, at the other. Randomly, they chose Bertha's. It had a broad deck on which were several round-top tables, a wide umbrella poked through a hole at their center. Also serving as a community gathering place, it was crowded and noisy. As they mounted the steps to the deck, a table opened up; they grabbed it. After a minute, a middle-aged man with a beard and long hair tied in a ponytail cleared it and left menus.
The nearest colonized planets supplied the brunt of the food and drink, specialty items came from Earth. The mining companies subsidized the cost of goods and materials related to the project; restaurants and liquor establishments had to cover their own, so prices were rather high. The menus were printouts stapled to cardboard. Jonathan ordered a beer and Miranda, bourbon and water on the rocks. Lunch consisted of various kinds of meats and fish with potatoes. When asked what kind of fish, the waitress replied, "Frozen, defrosted and fried." They nodded, she left.
While they waited for their meal, they watched the residents walking along the road, sitting in small groups in front of tents, working on gear at work-shops, miners and shop owners, carpenters, pipefitters, a whole cross-section of a real live town. They took in the scene, letting it soak in. It freed their minds from concerns about Reliance and, for Jonathan, the mineral being mined here. They sat quietly, drinking and listening to the hubbub and occasional laughter coming from inside. Jonathan's thoughts turned to the undernourished garden in the back of his house. He would have to find the time to place an order for nutrient-rich soil from one of the colonized star systems on the other side of the Great Emptiness. It made him think of his healthy garden back on Earth, which, unfortunately, led to thoughts of his wife. Feeling depression coming on, he forestalled it by asking Miranda how she managed to be here and where her home was on Earth.
She laughed and explained she'd been part of the colonial expansion for the past ten years, moving out as humanity did. Overseeing androids had become a passion and a continuing learning experience. And she liked the frontier life, the freedom and informality of it, its unpretentious quality. She looked the part: long, curly, red hair draped over her shoulders, jeans, well-worn cowboy boots, and a blue and orange plaid shirt, hanging out. You could let loose and be who you are, she told him with a smile, or someone you always wanted to be.
She volunteered to be at the vanguard of terraforming operations on the last three planets, the last two saw the introduction of the third-generation android. She recognized the difference and improvements from the second gen class, but realized something else was going on beyond the technical specs that she couldn't put her finger on. Something intangible that went beyond mere practical applications. Something elusive and ethereal--indeterminate. Her formal background was in engineering; her knowledge was therefore mostly of a practical nature, the underlying theories were not her forte, which was why she was so pleased that he was here. She had questions. Jon was more than happy to discuss them; it brought him back into the dusty, tactile present.
Recalling her apparent attitude towards Reliance and how she spoke of the other droids, he thought to lay some ground work that might answer some of her questions. As though carefully explaining to one of his more advanced students, he first described how areas of the human brain function. How a complex memory composed of many associated parts or details can be built up through entanglement. One component can trigger the emergence of the whole, which in turn may be entangled with other complex patterns of concepts and so on. Repetition breeds reinforcement. The protoplasmic android brain functions similarly. Repeated patterns become engrams, inscribed in the protoplasmic gel. One main difference is the sheer number of separate ideas that can be interconnected. No human is capable of holding in his mind the multidimensional degree of complexity, while yet maintaining a precise definition of details, that an android can.
At some critical value, a threshold is crossed and the android becomes self-aware and realizes a separate, independent self, gaining in the process an ego perspective.
The improvements made with the third generation brain center around the ability to form novel and unanticipated ideas not predictable by consideration of the any union of the separate complex units. And, as also with the second generation, arrangements can be constructed to increase scope, but insights into new, uncharted territory are entirely dependent on something underpinning it that has no subtantiality. That is, it can't be physically located and pointed at. Similar to a human unconscious. That's the thoery, of course; I believe it to be true but I've not been able to prove it.
"That," he said, "has been the focus of my recent research. What I was working on when the administration contacted me for this." He could've followed that up with what the opportunity to get off-planet meant for his life, but hesitated.
Their meal came, Jonathan dove in, he was famished. It was her turn. She spoke of frontier life. She told stories of people who formed the initial communities. Pioneers wishing for new lives, to be free of the constraints of normal society. Eccentric personlaities wanting to create their own worlds. Occurences on the planets she lived on, their indiosyncracies and uniqueness. Adventures and the constant discoveries. The draw of curiosity and newness kept her in the present.
She didn't speak of time before then, but he didn't probe. He got the impression she too was trying to get away from something.
She asked about what Reliance had said about the mineral. Was his assertion that it possessed an intelligence simply a metaphor to decribe its perspective-dependent ever-shifting internal crystal arrangement or was he really trying to say it was actually sentient somehow? A conscious being?
Jonathan hesitated. Initially, his purpose here was to determine why Reliance and the other droids had been adding the mineral to the dispersion mix. And did that mean they were out of control and could potentially do something dangerous. A glich somewhere perhaps; something simple to fix. But now it included investigating the nature of this unknown mineral not found on earth or any of the colonies. She knew the lay of the land and had been dealing with the androids and this recent problem far longer than he. And she understood how things worked. He needed her help, so he said, "Yes. I mean, the latter case." And thought to leave it at that, but she was clearly not satisfied. So he went on.
He saw no point in talking around it, building up piecemeal to the conclusion, so he dumped it on her, "The wavefunction encapsulating the many possible configurations of internal structure of the mineral sagittarium contains the alien population that once lived here, or their collective consciousness, if I intuit correctly what Reliance was implying. They live on another plane of existence, perhaps an alternate reality, a different timeline, why the wavefunction is invisible in our spacetime. Similarly, humans share in and contribute to a collective consciousness which binds them as one mind; it too acts like an invisible field. Analogously, a society of droids can generate a morphogenetic field through which or by means of which they can establish an interconnecting network--their equivalence in mind and possibly even structure, the topology.
"A collective consciousness acts as a depository of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge and a wellspring from which breakthroughs can be inspired, new insights and ideas can emerge, how civilization evolves and develops. It's energized by the psychic field underlying the minds of the participants. The morphogenetic field created by the droids can do the same. That was the unanticipated feature of improvements made to the third generation android brain, already a potentiality in the second gen. It was not predicted by the governing equations or their functional expressions. The difference is in execution, however. The morpho field does more. It orchestrates function and behavior on all levels simultaneously. In that respect, it's a force unto itself. The composite identity of the whole is spelled out in terms of the superposition of individual linear components. And we can consider each android as just such. All over the planet, all 3,000 or so share a single composite identity via the morphogenetic field they mutually create. Working together, they would thus become entangled and be able to ...."
He paused, his attention sharply drawn elsewhere as though hearing something jarring. Staring at the deck, he muttered, "son of a bitch."
Miranda leaned towards him. "What?" she asked.
Finally, he looked her in the eyes and said, "We need to find Reliance."
The Eastern continent was the least populated of those that were. The administration had an outpost overseeing mineral dispersion, now being run by a group of enviroscientists and technicians. There were three mining operations spread far and wide, none of which was producing sagittarium. The colonial base was subsidizing efforts to build settlements, bringing in materials and equipment. Crude yet serviceable dwellings were supplied with electricity for power tools and lights by generators driven by fast-moving streams flowing down the mountains. Since the time of the devastation caused by the supernova, colliding plates have propped them up, only to be withered down by the corrosive, stormy atmosphere over and over again. Yet, in the midst of this tumultuous, everchanging environment, a cave remained intact.
Reliance landed near it and debarked with his mates. To gain entrance, they had to remove a pile of rocks, an easy chore for androids with superhuman strength. Inside was the same as the other. The metal door opened with a hush; stale air rushed past them. They entered, a dim blue light shone over the huge cubicle of shiny metal. In the midst stood a long table made of wood, covered with alien artifacts depicting the essence of what they valued of their culture. At its center sat a large book open to a page.
The others stood in a line behind Reliance. He approached the book and placed the glass bowl of gemstones from the other planet on the table above it. Its writings were in a language that hadn't been read for billions of years; nonetheless, beginning at the top of the left-hand page he read aloud in crisp, clear android tones. A muffled, distant reverberation reflected off the walls and ceiling. The overlap with the spoken word created a surging, rhythmic hum. Reliance quickened the pace until an even, continuous stream of sound filled the room. It replicated precisely his modulation. When he arrived at the bottom of the right-hand page, he turned it and continued on.
The floor glowed a dark, lava-colored orange. Despite being out of view of the book, the five other androids standing behind Reliance began as one to speak the words as well. Exponentially, the overlap shifted in stages of intensity with each new level, nesting those within in perfect harmonic resonance.
When he arrived at the bottom of the right-hand page, he turned it and continued on.
Androids in every corner of Horizon stopped what they were doing and began to speak the unknown words Reliance was reading. People around them became frightened. Gibberish spilling out of an android who up to that moment was perfectly coherent and behaving in their usual superlative manner was not something to be ignored.
Local colonial administration offices and outposts were overwhelmed by communiques from their people in the field. It was a global phenomenon. Through the network of communication satellites established at the onset of the project, the alarming news was streaming in to the Director's office just as Miranda and Jonathan arrived.
"Just the people I want to see," he blurted out, walking towards them rather aggressively. They'd flown directly there so hadn't heard; he told them, expecting an immediate and clear explanation. When Jonathan did nothing more than stand perfectly still, stunned but not overly surprised, the Director raised his voice and said, "You're the genius. You're the guy who created these things. That's why you're here, to fix them." Organizational problems had been cropping up lately, and now this. Strain and fatigue showed on his face. However, with effort, he got control of himself and shook his head, exhausted. He gestured towards the sitting area.
"Listen to this," he said, almost laughing. An engineer on the Lower continent sent a recording of a segment of what the droids were saying. He played it, hoping Jon would recognize it as some arcane audio file lodged into their memory and now breaking out like an illness. When the clip ended, he told him that by funneling what they were saying to a central computer and making comparisons, they determined that all 3,000 or so androids were saying the same thing at the same time.
"Well then," Jon pointed out, a little annoyed that the Director could imagine an audio file emerging across all android neural nets at the same time, and matching perfectly, "I think we can rule out a malfunction." The language was meaningless to Jon, of course, but the clear, reverent tone caught his attention. It sounded like a prayer or incantation. A ritual was taking place. Something spoken with the intention of bringing about an event, an unnatural event.
Miranda was about to say something, she was close to understanding how they could all be speaking as one, but caught herself; she was still working out the practical details of what Jonathan had explained. He leaned towards the Director and said, "We need to find Reliance, he's the key to everything."
"I already sent a squad of security personnel after him. We tracked his ship as it passed our sentry web, he and his cohorts landed somewhere in the foothills of the Eastern continent. I haven't heard anything yet. But we have his ship. Sooner or later they're going to return to it. I've given orders to take them into custody."
Jonathan recoiled in his chair. "Call them back," he said.
"Why? You just said you wanted to find him; well, we have."
"But not like this; we have to wait. If they interfere with whatever he's doing, all hell could break loose."
"Yea, but suppose what he's doing is going to break all hell loose. He took a shuttle and went to the other planet next door, then came back and parked up in the mountains on another continent. I'd say that was pretty suspicious behavior. And shorly afterwards all the androids on the whole damn world started spouting gibberish. If Reliance is behind that, he has some serious explaining to do."
"We don't know what Reliance is up to or why. The fact that all the other droids are speaking in a language they can't possibly know, not something they were programmed with or had an opportunity to learn, means there's something going on here that may be dangerous to trifle with. They're entangled through their neural nets." He clasped his hands together, interlocking his fingers. "Linked together as one."
"I know they're linked," the Director said, obviously dissatisfied with Jonathan's warning. "That's how they keep in touch; their own special frequency. That's the other benefit of using them to coordinate and organize as things are happening. We humans have to use a radio-phone; nowhere near as good. You got people working out in the field, out of touch. What are they doing? Are they on schedule? Any problems or holdups? Yea, I know they're linked. So what? Are you trying to tell me that one of these robots--Reliance--malfunctions and it spreads like a contagious disease through their radios?"
He stood to pace, running a hand over his head. "Do you know what will happen if we have to take them all offline, send them back to earth to be refitted? We'd hafta get that many and more people to replace them. And not just anyone, people with some experience at terraforming. People who want to build a colony, a foothold in the Sagittarius Arm. Dedicated people, in other words. All the way from earth, the closer colonies can't spare them. It would take them time to learn where they're at, where the overall project is, what needs to be done, that including the practical day-to-day details of how whatever they're doing works. It would be chaos, madness. We've become far too dependent on robots, androids. But that's the way it is and we have to deal with it. What I want to know, professor, is what the hell is going on and what can you do about it?"
"No," began Jonathan. "I don't believe what we're seeing is a malfunction pandemic. They don't have a virus of any kind." He sat back, collecting himself. "And they don't come equipped with internal radios like the first generation. They communicate on the quantum level. A non-local field connects them directly as opposed to radio waves that have to be relayed by satellites. They can therefore all be interconnected simultaneously. They're entangled."
Jonathan hesitated and held his breath. It was time to try to explain to the pragmatic, no-nonsense Director of the colonial administration's terraforming operation on the planet dubbed Horizon that Reliance Prime and by extension the other androids were now the embodiment of a collective alien consciousness that once lived as flesh and blood beings on the planet before a supernova wiped them and all other living things out, and that it was embedded in the crystal structure of the mineral called sagittarium.
It was a lot to swallow in one gulp.
Reliance came to the end of the last page and closed the book. The bowl of gems stopped glowing and returned to a dull orange. The shiny metal cube of a room shimmered around them. Surfaces faded in and out of existence showing the frame only. A whining sound emanated from the empty spaces between, time was acclerating. Abruptly, the room and the table and all its contents vanished, leaving the surrounds of the rocky cave bathed in darkness, dim sunlight shafting in from the mouth. All was quiet, still. A faint residue of vibrational heat could be felt, but quickly dissipated.
Reliance and his comrades proceeded out of the cave and made their way down the hill to the ship. Security personnel awaited them, they offered no resistance. A member of the squad piloted their shuttle while they were confined in an anteroom off the bridge of the patrol ship for transport to colonial headquarters.
All the droids around Horizon returned to whatever they'd been doing prior to their trance-like recitation. What passed for normalcy reigned once more.
At headquarters, the five cohorts were directed into a waiting room on the ground floor, a guard stood by the door. They could easily have overpowered him and escaped, but to what purpose? Being intelligent machines, logic intervened. Reliance was escorted to the Director's office. He stood in the middle of the room, the two guards left to wait outside. Miranda volunteered to interview the five downstairs and left. Jonathan asked the Director if he could be alone with the android. The Director agreed, saying he had to find out what was going on now with the droids across the planet. Scrutinizing the android, he said, "I'll be in the operations room down the hall if needed."
The door closed with a hush. Reliance stared out the window behind the Director's desk. It was a fine sunny day. He smiled. Jonathan asked him to have a seat. Casually, he took the chair across from the professor. Jon sat for a while just looking at the android. He had a few dirt smudges on his face and arms, and his hair was slightly mussed; otherwise, he appeared unharmed. But there was something about him that differed from their last meeting the previous morning. An air of someone who'd been through an experience he found enlightening and deeply satisfying. Something had been learned about how the universe worked that surpassed all previous knowledge.
"Reliance," Jonathan began, "you've had an interesting and rather long day, it would seem."
"Yes, professor. It would seem," he countered.
"Is there any reason why you can't tell me why you did what you did? Why you traveled to the other planet and what you were doing in the hills?"
"No, not now. Before, yes, you might have tried to interfere, so I kept it to myself."
"Is there a place where you can begin? For instance, were you aware of what you were doing and had control?"
After a pause of some seconds, he replied, "I vaguely remember a moment when the separation interfacing my identity and that of the consciousness of the planet merged as one, were undifferentiated."
"You say 'consciousness of the planet.' I thought it was the collective intelligence within the crystal of the mineral that, shall we say, became you."
"They share the same essence."
Jonathan stood to get more coffee. Feeling suddenly tired and annoyed, he plopped back down in his chair and said, "Can you explain what the hell this is all about. We keep talking around it."
Reliance sat up straight and began, "The former inhabitants of this planet were adept at what we earthers would call magic. An unscientific term to describe the knowledge to manipulate forces and dimensions of time and space that we don't know about, are ignorant of. They knew the supernova blast was coming. Together, the greatest sorcerors found another timeline, another universe where the supernova didn't happen and phase-shifted the mind of the planet and all its inhabitants, all living things, to that new, other-dimensional realm. At the nexus, a new order and a slightly altered consciousness was born. They are the ones in the mineral; they saved their people and their society, their culture. They left their identity at the juncture of departure, the branching point. The combined intelligence imbued in the deep crystal structure of the mineral was of those who lived at that time, then stayed behind to act as a portal between the people and the planet of their birth.
"They left an imprint of their collective selves in the mineral they knew would withstand the blast in order to stay in contact with the planet's unconscious reality. It is, after all, their birthright. The timeline they shifted to has progressed billions of years. They no longer need to remain in touch with the spacio-temporal reality which spawned them. It's time for their ancestors, who provided the escape route, to be brought back into the fold, to strengthen it and to fuse the collective minds of those possessing the skills and gifts of the ones who stayed behind with the survivors.
"The collective history of all that was of their people, from its origins, is contained within the minds of those who created the new timeline, waiting for life to renew, but it never has. But now, through us, they had an opportunity to reassimilate with their people. They wanted to see and feel the world around them once again for a time and to accomplish what was needed to be done. They could through us, and realized it would not have worked with humans, the conflict with your unconscious mind would've been too great."
Reliance paused. Jonathan said, "You were in the hills, doing something that echoed through all the androids on the planet. What was that? What were you doing?"
He described what had transpired from the time they left Horizon to go to the other planet, colonized and inhabited by their people, to when he ended up at the cave in the mountains. The shiny metal rooms, the blue light, the long wooden tables, the artifacts, the glass bowl of orange gemstones, and finally, the book from which he read. He described what had happened with time and space when he finished. How the room and the table with all its contents vanished, transferred to that other realm. Now, no longer a timeline, an alternate reality, branching away from their birthplace, but rather a universe unto itself, fully materialized. The spacetimes remain entangled but separate.
"Their language is very colorful," he went on, "metaphotical, complex patterns structure a reality unknown to us. Strange. While I was reading, I understood how they perceived the world around them, the dimensions of time and space they had access to. But after I finished and closed the book, it all became incomprehensible."
He paused and for a moment, sadness framed his android features. He looked searchingly at the floor and said in a low voice, "They're gone. After all these billions of years keeping watch, maintaining an attachement to the planet's unconscious mind, they're gone. The people, whoever they were, have reacquired their birthright, their original home."
He grew quiet and thoughtful. Jonathan waited until the mood passed. Reliance sat back. Jonathan asked, "So what now of the mineral? Of the intelligence within?"
"Gone." Reliance said with finality. "I believe what the researchers and analysts will find now will be nothing more than an exotic, previously unknown substance with but a single internal symmetry reflected in its surface and properties."
That indeed turned out to be the case. The tonnage in the mining camps waiting to be exported, the granules mixed in with the dispersion materials, and even the samples sent to colonial administration headquarters on Earth, now all revealed a singular crystal alignment.
Miranda reported a clean bill of health for the five she interviewed. Whether or not the Director believed Reliance's story as reiterated by Jonathan was a moot point. All that mattered to him was that they had recovered and that Jonathan--one of the main creators of the third generation android--had declared them functioning within normal parameters and could go back to work. All the droids coordinating the dispersion operation as well as those who'd been maintaining the water system on the Southern continent returned to their assignments, strangely refreshed. Within days the project was up and running again with optimal efficiency.
Jonathan received his shipment of nutrient-rich top soil, fertilizer, and selected seeds. Miranda helped rejuvenate the garden; she actually enjoyed playing in the dirt. At day's end they'd have dinner and afterwards sit out back on the bench beneath the reviving plum tree. They talked about everything far into the night, the panoply of unfamiliar stars not so very different.
He contacted the grad students living in his home on Earth and had them send him certain books, manuscripts, and holocubes from his library. Also, a couple of instruments he might need. He told them he didn't know when he'd return and to take care of the place, especially the garden. He became an android field researcher on the furthermost colonized planet of Earth's expansion into the unknown. Making corrections and improvements based on practical interactions instead of in the controlled environment of a laboratory under idealized, mathematically-hypothesized conditions. Honing the android brain ever further into increased self-awareness and degrees of complexity.
The aliens had absorbed their past, their rich history, their link with the unique unconscious features of the planet in its original reality. The sorcerors of old sacrificed their lives in order to hold onto the planet of their origins, imbuing their consciousness into the most robust mineral, but when the opportunity came to become one with their brethren living in the present, they took it.
Sagittarium did prove to be impervious to all frequencies of radiation, blocking it across the spectrum; in particluar, gamma and infrared. And if it could withstand a supernova blast, it could withstand covering the hull of star ships. In that regard, at least, it turned out to be of inestimable commercial value. Consequently, the sagittarium mining camps prospered, gradually growing into towns with all the associated accoutrements. Horizon was on the move and Jonathan was a part of it.
At the end of his conversation with Reliance, when as much clarity as possible had reached its limit, he told the professor that he felt the loss of what it meant to be alive and wished he could've held onto it. The richness of belonging to the natural world, of openness to experience, to wanting to know and feel life for its own sake. He saw Jonathan's reaction to his musings, his deep sadness, and felt an empathetic understanding he hadn't been capable of before. Perhaps, he thought, pleased, something has been retained.
He smiled with the look of an older android, leaned forward as a confidante might do, peered into Jonathan's eyes, and said, "Don't let it pass you by."