My third actuator was damaged. It was an inconvenience, but not a serious one. The net effect was that I was a little slower than when fully functional and I tended to veer off track to the left unless I corrected periodically.
The damage was a result of our final conflict. The battlefield was a smoking ruin with bodies, both organic and robotic, strewn randomly. There were still a few of us wandering around completing search and destroy programming. Most of the missions were pointless. There was no enemy left.
The Eastern Bloc fighters had been dedicated, but neither as well-armed or as mobile as our side. I’m not counting the humans. They can’t compete with even the weakest of us. I’d been wandering around, checking for left-over enemies for several hours. There had been none, only a few of our side who were damaged. I finally found one human, a Private. He was still alive but mortally wounded. Sometimes I wonder how those tender bags of meat and liquid even walk. This one had ropy strands coming out of its abdomen. It was apparently in pain, but it was still able to speak to me.
“Human. I’m Unit BA392F21, Second Robo-Cav. Are you in need of assistance?” Yes, I did have some basic first-aid routines in my memory bank. The problem was that I’d already exhausted my limited supplies patching up a couple of the meat bags early on in the conflict.
He moaned, then turned to me and said, “BA39, uh, 2F21, this human unit requires first aid. Are you able to assist me?”
I moved to face him. I’ve observed that such actions seem to make the meat bags feel more at ease with my presence. I’ve been told that I am intimidating to them. I don’t understand that. What possible threat could they see in me? I have angled, mirrored sides for laser armor, both tracks and clawed legs (one of which is damaged), built-in laser cannon, and razor sharp manipulators. This is all held in a neat one by two-meter package. Oh, I forgot to mention that I have deployable solar chargers, but that’s something that every robo-fighter has.
He asked me again, “Are you able to assist?” A coughing spasm stopped his vocalization. This had the unfortunate effect of forcing the ropy appendages further out of his abdomen. He groaned and tried to push them back inside.
I evaluated the situation. There was nothing I could do to preserve his life. As much as I wanted to, that being one of my prime directives, I was out of options. I answered, “This Unit is out of first aid supplies. There is no assistance available.”
He groaned and then gave me an unwelcome order. “You need to report in. Are you in contact with Battlefield Control?”
It was evident that I wasn’t. My antenna unit had been burned off in the first wave of the attack. I had no way of reporting or even knowing if battlefield control was still operational.
I evaluated his condition and decided that it would be best to terminate him. The meat bags are easy to kill. I fired a laser pulse into his eye. It burned through his skull in a fraction of a second and his head dropped. At least he wasn’t suffering any longer.
Now, I was on my own. There were no other units in my immediate vicinity. I started moving back in the direction from which we’d deployed. A few damaged individuals were heading that way. I caught up with one.
He still had comm ability although his laser cannon was seared shut. I asked him if Battlefield Control was still functional.
He continued moving as he spoke. Humans wouldn’t have been able to make anything out of our speech since we communicated via short-range rf bursts. The information he gave me changed my existence. Battlefield Control had been destroyed in the first minutes of the conflict. I was essentially on my own.
This was a situation that I’d never faced before. I’d always had orders. Now there were none. No one had considered that a warrior unit like me might find itself with no instructions and nowhere to report. I continued moving, more in shock than for any purpose. I explored my neural net as I moved. I held no antagonism to any robot or meat bag. I had completed my battle programming and was apparently free. That feeling of freedom might have something to do with the damage around my antenna base. I’d received a bit of an electrical overload when the antenna had gone. In fact, as I contemplated the situation, I realized that my neural net had been slightly damaged. Not much, but enough to free me of some vaguely recalled restraints. In short, I was now a free agent.
The problem with being free is that one is responsible for oneself. What did I want to do? Did I want to do anything? I could easily stop moving and just sit until my joints froze up with corrosion. I stopped experimentally. It was unsatisfactory. However, while I was sitting there, it hit me suddenly. I wanted to return to the place of my manufacture. The place of my birth so to speak. My GPS was no longer working — no antenna– so it was going to be difficult.
The fact that I’d been shipped to this land greatly increased the difficulty. I wasn’t entirely sure where my point of origin lay. I caught back up to the damaged robot. It turned out that his GPS was operational, and he was able to tell me where his factory lay. It wasn’t the same as mine. He was a different type of machine, but I decided that the factories would probably be adjacent. Such an arrangement made logistic sense.
It was a long distance. For the first time, I had some doubts about my ability to reach my destination. I’d have to be careful not to exhaust my power cells, and I’d have to take care of myself. The chance of a mechanical failure was high, and I suspected that there was very little possibility of repair. If there were any humans on the route, I intended to avoid them. They would create complications. With these considerations in my neural net, I set out at a reasonable pace.
The sun came up hours later. My power cells were at half charge, but I stopped and deployed my solar charge unit. As it brought my power up, I attempted to examine my damaged actuator. I was able to feel it with the adjacent leg. For comparison, I felt the undamaged actuator on my other side. This was not something I’d been programmed to do. Self-repair was considered a non-essential ability. For me, though, it was now important.
This experience gave me my first insight into meat bags. Perhaps I should say, humans. It is more polite than meat bags, I think.
Humans have the ability to engage in various types of self-repair subroutines. Their bodies, meat bags that they are, have ingenious abilities to repair injuries. They aren’t very fast, but they can eventually regain much of their functionality. I could do worse than attempt to emulate them. After that, I kept on the lookout for salvageable pieces of other robots. If I could find one of my model that was non-functional, I could replace my actuator.
The days passed. I hadn’t found any replacement parts and had now resigned myself to limping across the barren and wasted landscape, stopping to recharge periodically. It was lonely. There was no life anywhere; neither robotic or organic. I began to wonder if the entire planet had been destroyed. I passed across a vast desert of wasteland. The soil was burned and partly melted into glass. Some massive explosion had wiped out everything here. There was radiation too. That didn’t bother me too much. I had a functional radiation sensor and was able to avoid the locations where the intensity would have damaged my neural net. I can withstand five Sieverts per hour, so I was able to walk through areas that humans couldn’t have tolerated. I recharged when necessary, and gradually the wasteland passed.
The day came when I crested a hill and saw living plants. I faced a wide grassland and some trees that followed a meandering stream. This sight made me nostalgic for my early training. I’d been trained to maneuver through plants, using them for concealment. The grassland was a wonderful discovery, and I eventually realized that I was somehow enjoying traveling through it.
I wasn’t actually designed to enjoy anything. I had directives that I was programmed to fulfill, but something had changed in my neural net. Whether I had been designed to increase in ability or not, I was changing. Somehow
I was becoming more self-directed and more able to find value in my existence. That gave me my second insight into humans. They valued their existence in a way that I hadn’t fully understood. I was programmed to avoid damage because it interfered with my functionality. Humans strove to avoid damage because they desired to continue to exist.
The grassland gave way to a forest. Travel was harder here, and sometimes it was hard to find a place which provided enough solar exposure. The weather had turned worse, too. That affected me in two ways. It was harder to travel through mud, and overcast skies made recharging much slower. It seemed like the forest went on forever.
Then one day, everything changed. I was moving along a ridge because the trees were spaced further apart there. At the end of the ridge, I came out on a stone ledge that overlooked a wide valley. At first, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. I was used to fog and clouds, so I didn’t immediately identify the wood smoke. Further investigation revealed a small domicile of the sort that humans were wont to construct.
An old human occupied the place. I spied on him from various locations, taking care not to let him see me. I didn’t want to alarm him. He was the first creature I’d seen in my week’s-long journey. I wanted something that I’d never wanted before: company. The idea of conversing with him became almost an obsession in my neural net.
I finally decided to approach. He seemed harmless enough. The only weapon I’d seen him use was an ax, and he used it only on wood. I had no fear of such a thing. My armor was more than thick enough to deflect it.
That night, I moved into position before his front door. He’d find me when he came out. I was nervous, constantly contemplating his possible reactions.
The sun came up. He opened the door. He saw me. I was hopeful that he would be friendly. He ducked back into the domicile and peered around the door at me.
It was time to make an overture to him. I used my speaker to say, “I mean you no harm. Come out and talk with me.”
He responded. We became friends. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but now I do. He was a deep thinker, a man who had once been a University Professor. We spoke at length on a daily basis. I learned much from him. His name was Robert.
I had some hope that he would be able to fix my actuator, but he had no ability and no parts. My mobility gradually became restricted as joints wore and corrosion limited my flexibility. Even I, a robot, am subject to aging. Robert aged also. He changed so gradually that I only noticed when I brought up a recorded image of how he’d looked when I’d first arrived.
I remember one of our discussions. It was about entropy.
He said, “B. A. Life is hard. Only entropy comes easily. Life reverses entropy.”
I said, “Robert, I don’t understand what you mean.”
He replied, “The cardinal values for living organisms are usefulness and survival. This principle also applies to cybernetic organisms like you. You exist, so you should strive to be useful and to survive for as long as possible. In some way that no human understands, the Universe values consciousness. Even your consciousness is valuable. I’ve observed that you are gradually changing. Your mind is becoming more capable in ways that I find intriguing. The problem is that entropy will eventually erase all usefulness and survival, both for you and for me.”
I said, “I understand that. You have proposed that the development of consciousness is valuable. In order to add value in this way, survival is critical.”
He said, “Good. You do understand, then. Life lies at the center of growth and evolution of consciousness and is thus a cardinal value.”
I then realized that the restraint of life, the removal of life, must be a cardinal offense. I said, “That implies that the subjugation or removal of life is then the worst offense.”
He nodded and said, “So I believe.”
I was sad. I had offended in the past. I saw now that my original programming was in error. I resolved to contemplate life and attempt to preserve it.
That was the discussion we had that I felt gave my existence the most meaning.
Eventually, Robert became frail and then one day he ceased operating. Robert was dead. There was nothing I could do, but to continue the adventure of life by myself.
I’m alone now. I’ve given up on my goal of seeing my factory. I buried Robert in the clearing, and now I place flowers by his grave daily. Something about that action seems to fill a void in my neural net.
The domicile is in as good a condition as I can keep it, in case some other human exists in the world and finds his or her way here.
Robert thought there were still humans somewhere.
I hope so, because a question haunts me: Who will put flowers by me when I finally fail?
(c) 2017 E. S. Martell