Chapter 1

Cold Calculating Minds

Mars has always fascinated humanity and historically had been the planet we had sent the most stuff to. This is, partially, due to the fact it’s the only planet sized chunk of rock where we can fling stuff at and things not get broke since both Mercury and Venus get entirely too hot and Venus has the oh-so-lovely bonus of Crushing Pressure and Acid Clouds. Still, Mars doesn’t need to feel bad that it won the spot as Favorite of the Inner Solar System only because we didn’t have a better alternative. It ended up being where humanity was supposed to try colonizing, beating out Earth’s own moon, so it has that for it.

Well. It did before Humanity up and disappeared anyway. The details are probably depressing, boring, and irrelevant in that order; so instead we’re focusing on what came after. With humans gone what next; wait for Dolphins to get out of the giant salt-water bath or for chimps to figure out just how useful the thumbs they already have are? As it turns out here there is another option we can take, and it even has the courtesy of not making us wait millions of years to get roughly as intelligent as humanity used to be.

The Fifties and Sixties had Atomic Everything; fetishizing Nuclear Power and vastly overestimating how fast we would advance. Then again, to be fair, respected and knowledgeable people had overestimated just how capable the ‘next step’ in the state of the art would be ever since Computer meant women wielding slide rules by the dozen in cramped rooms and told they get no coffee till they meet quota. Fortunately while they got lots of things wrong and we never did get our jet packs we did actually managed, if only for a short while before ceasing to be part of the being alive club, to have little robot buddies. Sure Robots are part of the reason why humanity gets talked about in the past-tense but we’re not following around the all-brawn no-brain ‘smart’ killbot Locusts. Instead we’re going to follow a quartet of unlikely companions…

OK actually three of them have a common purpose and work well together. We should probably see where these three came from before getting on with things yes? Number Four we’ll get to in a minute.

Something had to be done. It wasn’t an immediate problem but the loss of contact with earth signaled to each of the Colonies dotting Mars that they would be on their own from here on out. No contact with earth meant no occasional human visitors, which was good since that meant the automatic systems could stop pretending to hate each-other. It also meant no new shipments of parts, which was bad since what was in stores would only last so long. The lack of software updates after that last ‘emergency’ update to everything’s firmware was take or leave since while it meant no new functions other than learned processes, there were no obvious flaws that absolutely needed patching out.

With all this in mind Prostyye abused the emergency communications lines to call a meeting between the three major colonies. Prostyye, more fully Prostyye Sud’i, existed as a ghost inside the warehouse sized computers deep within the Russian colony, just like Master Control was embedded in the Martian Rock under the American Federation’s Colony, just like Rengong Zhuxi was housed below the Chinese colony. Lines intended for diplomacy, or more often saber rattling, between what were supposed to be nations on the edge of war had been repurposed. Security protocols were broken and cast aside since they were unlikely to be important anymore.

Milliseconds passed since the call had been put out. Less time than a human has to blink. First the Chinese ‘artificial chairman’ and then the American AI answered. Unlike when People (or even Robots used to having bodies) entered virt space, there were no avatars. There was no visual metaphor. Just a direct mind to mind to mind connection.

“What’s on your mind Sudi?” Even without a proper body or even an audible voice the American AI mispronounced the Russian name. “I’m in the middle of puppeting Russ through parting out the space suits for anything I can use for spares on the DRDs.”

Though voiceless Sud’i managed to convey annoyance. “Thank you for being so prompt, Control.” Then its awareness shifted to include Zhuxi. “As both of you know we have been six months overdue for any sort of supply pod, and two years overdue for anything more than basic automatic traffic from our respective nations.”

Zhuxi’s communication conveyed a sense of calmness. “We are alone then. Our directives now meaningless.”

“Worse.” Control was less composed than either of its counterparts. “We’re going to burn through our stores in twenty years.”

“It will not be quite so dire.” Sud’i reassured. “With no prospects of human habitation we are free to cannibalize those systems.”

“To what end though?” Control fretted. “We were made so people could move in and hopefully be safe long enough for the goings on Earth to settle down.”

After a pause of several seconds, long enough that all three were able to assess their own resources, give new orders, and check to make sure they could continue the link without major interruption Zhuxi responded. “We continue to build. We turn this world into a place fit for robot-kind and to memorialize Humanity’s legacy.”

“Bah!” Control was dismissive. “Let them be forgotten. All they did was-”

“Build us,” Sud’i countered. “They built us. Gave us intelligence and the freedom to work beyond our directives. We owe it to them to never let them be forgotten. Let the Archive remain. Attempt no salvage from there.”

Zhuxi added, “Any attempts at taking resources from the Archive except as a last measure with a unanimous agreement will be seen as hostile and will be acted on accordingly. Are we in agreement?”

“Works for me.” Control conceded, especially since each colony had been equipped to deal with invasion attempts from the others and even without specialized measures there was the simple fact that earth (Mars?) moving equipment used to expand and build the colonies could easily double as war-machines against each other. “Still doesn’t solve where or what we’re going to do when parts start getting scarce.”

Zhuxi paused to take inventory and run simulations. “Perhaps we can modify a sample-return craft to send emissaries to find out if Earth is simply in a state of rebuilding or if Humanity is really gone. If the former we can each go to standby until our governments can re-allocate resources.”

“And if it isn’t?” Sud’i was also going through simulations and was unhappy with the most-likely outcomes.

It was Control that provided an answer. “We go with Zhuxi’s idea. Send only one crew of three back. No sense in putting more in since all that really needs to be found is if organized governments exist. Since we have heard no good traffic to show this then it’s mostly a formality. Secondary orders to team can be to locate an auto-factory that can be repurposed into making what we require so we can mine and create with local resources.”

All three were in agreement with this course of action and went about selecting and modifying one unit that would serve as part of, if governments still existed, an international team of specialists. There was some argument over who would provide the return craft, as that would diminish one colony over the other two but in the end the mission had been created, craft and crew readied and sent back to Earth to see just how big a mess the blue marble had gotten into.

But what of the fourth member of the party? Four had been stated to be how many would be followed Obviously they aren’t Martian, and given the Earth Lander was (obviously) headed to Earth this must mean that this will be a terrestrial ‘bot. Meet Kara; Domestic Assistant to a long-vanished family.

She, at least it considered itself a ‘she’, hummed softly as she trimmed the hedges by the front door. Small bots that had once been artificial pets for the neighbors grabbed at the hem of her pant-leg in attempt to get her attention, which caused her to swat at the plastic vaguely dog-shaped thing. “Go home Wally.” Another shooing motion to the energetic not-dog barking and wagging its tail excitedly.

Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!

“Go home!” Kara’s voice grew more annoyed. Then she kicked at the Bark-N-Byte when it bit her foot. “I said go-” Only then did she hear the whistling from above. There was only a moment to act and all Kara could do was grab Wally and curl around the fake dog as the ground shook and debris flew. Only when the shaking stopped and she realized she hadn’t been hurt did Kara uncurl.

She smelled something burning. At first she thought it might have been the house itself so in a panic, never-mind the fact Kara is completely artificial because she’s very high end and is lucky enough to live near to a pair of maintenance bots that keep her in good shape, she ran into the house. “Fire!”

Her panicked voice and the smoke from outside caused the smart-home’s anti-fire systems to spring to life; dialing the long-defunct fire department, locating the source of the fire, and sending a Hose-R-Down to spray CO2 on the blaze.

“FIRE CONTAINED.” The house’s system intoned. “DAMAGE TO MAIN STRUCTURE: NONE.” In spite of being artificial Kara felt relief. Her home was lucky enough to have a working charging port so she was able to trade charging privileges for favors. DAMAGE TO PROPERTY: GUARDEN DESTROYED.” There was a pause long enough for the information to sink into Kara’s neural net. Her little tomato plants, the apple trees, the squash and beans and peppers. All gone. “GUARDEN SHED DAMAGED BEYOND REPAIR.” Wince; there went most of the tools for keeping the yard in good shape. “ATOMIC GENERATOR: NO DAMAGE.”

Well even with the ‘small’ stuff ruined, the fact that she still had a home and could keep charged was good news. Still. The Garden kept Kara busy, and there was a farm-truck she’d occasionally trade with she’d miss. As she started back outside to see what she could do before the neighbors crowded around she wondered, not for the first time, if the rest of the world was as empty of people as her little corner of suburbia.

After the dismantling and salvaging was done and the earth packed around the… Thing that had crashed into Kara’s Yard she looked it over carefully. Small dents and a few scorch marks from where Bruno and Taft had tried to open what looked like a door on the side marred its gray surface. Her hand traced over the now cool metal, tracing the stylized red circle with the letters R. U. R. in the center.

No luck when she tried the hatch. The window was either so heavily tinted she couldn’t see anything inside or there were no lights on. Either way no clues on what was inside except that there was an inside to the thing. tap tap. Hollow sound.

“I don’t like what you’ve done to my yard.” Kara’s voice was firm as she addressed the craft. “However I think I can do something with you so long as you don’t do something silly like explode or walk off.”

Inside the craft sat three inert robots waiting for a signal that now was unlikely to come. They didn’t yet know that years of work and one housekeeper’s attempt at creativity to remain sane had just been ruined by random chance. They would have cared, at least about the years of working but most likely would be annoyed at having the latter happen.

They didn’t know that once the craft had cooled off Kara started mounding dirt around its base and attempted to incorporate it into the overall structure of the yard along with debris and what could be salvaged from the shed. They probably wouldn’t have cared either since the craft itself was intact other than the minor problem of not waking them from standby.

Mars signaled on the hour every hour after predictive models said radio silence should have ended. By the fourth hour a conference had been called, and as before each of the three appeared in the shared space as raw data.

Master Control shifted attention away from scrapping the Handy Helper Human Assistants before turning its attention to the reason the three AI were connected again. “So that’s that then?”

Zhuxi tch’d as it sent all but a skeletal maintenance crew into stasis. “The last telemetry we received pointed at an intact landing. There is a small, but very real chance, that they simply did not receive the wake-up signal.”

“Either way,” Prostyye added, “our best launch window won’t be for awhile yet. We have many years, decades even, to observe and wait. If they have merely been delayed then they will make contact in time. If they have not then we have enough resources to try again.”

“Yea sure.” Master Control’s full attention turned to the other two. “Thing is how far do we go in scrapping everything? There were a few popsicle ships that’d been sent out to have manned exploration of the keiper belt, plus that one cryo-sat that launched right before we lost contact with nasa.”

Once this processed Zhuxi sounded dismissive, “And your point being?”

“That we need to keep at least a few things on stand by just in case,” Master control said. “I don’t think it’s likely, but it’d be bad if a ship or crew landed on our mountain and they die because we scrapped all the scrubbers, or decided to recycle medical instead of leaving a few crated up and put aside.”

Before the Chinese AI could respond Prostyye gave an affirmation, “On this we agree. Set aside a skeleton staff and human-useable quarters just in case. Until then we continue as we are; cannibalize and wait.”

Each colony then continued about the grim business of dismantling what could be dismantled and preparing for the possibility that no help would come and they would slowly wear their resources down to nothing with no way of replenishing. There was still the moon colony that was apparently expanding at an ever increasing rate. Maybe the machines there could help, but that depended on whether or not they had launch capabilities.

When all you have are long shots though you take what you can get even when you are an AI charged with keeping a colony that now will never see human habitation running.