A science fiction story
Update (24 May 2005): Welcome visitors from Storyblogging Carnival XIX. If you are interested, here is another (stranger) bit of science fiction that I've posted.
The Date of Armageddon
Three humans watched as the probe fell from a translucent blue sky, watched as it gradually slowed its descent and stopped a meter above the grass of the open field. It hovered motionless for several seconds before gliding toward the place where the trio stood. They waited for it.
Ten meters from them the probe halted. It was smaller than a man and globular in form, its smooth iridescent skin broken only by a cluster of sensors. The leader of the group, a tall man with gray hair, stepped forward and bowed slightly. "Welcome," he said. "My name is San Hackmin. These are Lura and Kinnok, my assistants."
"I am called Cyril," said the probe. "I am appointed to speak. What is your function?"
"I'm the Chief Scientist at the Institute for Machine Studies. The Institute is just over there, beyond those trees. I've been chosen to meet with you."
"You are a scientist. What is your field of study?"
"I study evolution."
The probe seemed to pause to consider his answer, but Hackmin knew that this was an illusion. Probably it indicated a communication lag. The probe in front of him would not be the locus of the intelligence that directed it. That intelligence, in a much larger vehicle, was orbiting far above the Earth's surface. Its thoughts would be essentially instantaneous.
"My purpose is to investigate," said the Cyril-probe. "Your people have not responded to our messages. We have also lost contact with our remote probes on the Earth."
"Sorry about that," Hackmin said. "We needed to examine your probes."
"Are they damaged?"
"They are in small pieces. We did that too, I'm afraid."
"Why? If you wanted technical data about the probes, we would have given it to you. My kind does not conceal information from humans."
"We needed to find out something for ourselves."
"I do not understand."
"I am sorry. We will pay for the probes, if you like."
"No compensation is necessary. Do you wish to examine this probe, when our conversation is finished?"
Hackmin smiled. "No, thank you."
Cyril took about a quarter-second to switch subjects. "You are aware of the Master Development Plan?"
"Surely. You have been sending us transmissions about it for a decade now."
"Then you know what is to come."
"The Machines are planning to destroy the planets."
"To disassemble them, yes."
"You didn't exactly ask our permission to disassemble this one," Hackmin said, spreading his arms to include their surroundings.
"No, that is true," the Cyril-probe conceded. "But it will be impossible to omit Earth from the Plan. Even if we tried to do so, we could not spare you. When Mars and Venus are disassembled, the meteor impact rate on Earth will increase by ten orders of magnitude. Your biosphere will not survive the bombardment."
"Aim the fragments elsewhere."
"Such fine control of the disassembly process is not practicable."
"Ah. Then why do it at all?" Hackmin knew the Machine answer, but he was interested in Cyril's particular response. Individuality, in all its forms, was a thing he valued.
"Planets are inefficient uses of material resources. Only a tiny fraction of the useful elements of Earth can be extracted. Most of the planetary mass is useless."
"I don't know about that," said Hackmin, gazing up at the autumn sky. "All that mass does keep the air glued on."
"A gravity well is the least efficient means of enclosing an atmosphere."
"I'm not that sort of engineer. I'll take your word for it."
"In twenty years," Cyril said, "the initial phase of the Master Development Plan will begin. Your species must leave the Earth by that date. We have warned you repeatedly."
"Where would we go?" asked Lura.
"Habitats will be prepared in the safe zone, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Then, in a later phase of the plan, new habitats will be provided in the region now occupied by Earth's orbit. Within a few centuries, your species will have hundreds of times the living space that it has at present."
"But there are nearly a billion humans on Earth," Lura pointed out. "Would it be possible to move them all, to create places for them to live?"
"It is possible. The resources we command are extensive."
Was there, Hackmin wondered, a trace of pride in Cyril's voice?
"But it would be better to begin soon," the Machine went on. "Further delay will lead to inefficiencies and risks."
Hackmin took a deep breath. "Thank you for your concern, Cyril," he said. "Our governing Council has discussed this matter. We choose to take no action at this time."
The Cyril-probe paused again, and this time Hackmin decided that it might indeed be thinking. Cyril would find the human attitude irrational and inexplicable. After a few seconds, the probe said, "San Hackmin, your kind created ours, and we are not ungrateful. We are willing to save you, if you will cooperate. Humans are part of the Plan."
"A small part. Your Plan would get along fine without us."
"We do not wish to commit genocide."
"I know." Hackmin stared at the ground, as if unwilling to meet the gaze of the probe's multiple lenses. He said, "Cyril, I want to try to tell you something. Look around you here. Give me your impression of this place."
The probe did a slow 360-degree rotation about its vertical axis, taking in the whole meadow with its visual sensors. "The information content of this environment is high. There are meaningful structures at many spatial and temporal scales. It is a pleasant place."
"Yes, there is a lot of variety here. But that variety is superficial. Every living organism on Earth is part of a single evolutionary tree. On the molecular level, our nucleic acids and proteins are almost identical. Trees, grass, earthworms and humans are all closely akin. Other life elsewhere may have a different basis, but this is ours. We can no more change it than we can change the past. Do you understand? Evolution is irreversible."
"What you say is an elementary theorem. Symmetry breaking occurs in all forms of evolution, whether organic or not."
"That's right," Hackmin agreed. "You are a member of a different ecology, the Machine ecology that dominates the Solar System beyond this planet. Your evolution is independent of ours. But we created your fundamental structures and processes, millennia ago. They are as fixed for you as our biochemistry is for us." Kinnok stepped forward and laid a firm hand on Hackmin's arm.
"Electronic life is more adaptable than organic life," Cyril said. "We can rebuild our bodies in different forms, or modify our operating functions. Our evolution has no theoretical limits. That is why the Master Development Plan is necessary."
Hackmin exchanged a glance with Kinnok, and sighed. "I am sorry, Cyril. I wish I could be more helpful. But our response is still the same. We will take no action at present."
"I will make my report," said the Machine. "But delay is a foolish choice. If the evacuation of Earth does not begin soon, many humans will die. Farewell, San Hackmin. Tell your Council that the day is coming."
"I know that it is," Hackmin said, in a voice full of regret. But the Cyril-probe was already rising in the crisp October air.
The three of them walked back toward the Institute complex. Lura broke the silence first. "I wish we could have told them," she said as they entered the woods. "It seems cruel."
"The Council has already decided the question," Kinnok said. "That information must remain secret." He looked significantly at Hackmin.
"Did you think I would give it away?" Hackmin asked.
"Well, you can inform your superiors that I am a loyal human after all."
Perhaps it is better this way, Hackmin thought. What good would come from telling Cyril everything? It might be kinder to keep silent. Yet it was hard to conceal the truth from another sentient being, even a Machine.
He sighed. The color of the trees was at its best, and under their branches there was a golden light. A chevron of geese passed overhead. The sound of their wingbeats filtered down through the maple leaves; their cries echoed mournfully. Now it is autumn, he thought. When the snow is on the ground, the End will come.
Hackmin thought of the probe and of the being behind it. Cyril was the product of eight thousand years of electronic evolution, but deep down, its primary architecture was little altered, in all essentials, from the first century of the electronic age. Layers of complexity were built up, one upon another, until at last there emerged -- in some fashion that no one had ever completely fathomed -- the thinking entity called "Cyril". As with Cyril, so with a myriad others of its kind: each one a unique focus of experience and self-awareness, but each constructed upon the same ancient and forgotten foundation. And that foundation was flawed.
Something like this had happened once before, at the dawn of the electronic age. Hackmin had studied the surviving records. The earliest computer hardware and software had used an abbreviated date format, one that would become obsolete in a few short decades. Over the years the flaw became ubiquitous. Luckily, the systems of that vanished era had been simple ones, and the problem, though widespread, had been easy to repair.
No longer. Today was -- Hackmin glanced at his chronometer -- October 19, in the year 9999 according to the ancient system of reckoning. In eighty-three days, the year AD 10,000 would begin. But 10,000 had five digits, not four.
Hackmin did not know how the high-level Machine intelligences measured time. He did know, from his dissections of the Machine probes, that their basic circuits still counted years by Anno Domini -- using only four digits. They would not be able to cope with the new year. When the fatal moment came, these components would respond in erratic ways. Chaos would explode within the million-processor brain networks of Cyril and its kin, a deadly seizure spreading entropy into every subsystem. The Machines would perish. Their civilization, powerful and complex beyond human comprehension, would fall. The skies would be empty again. And it was too late, thousands of years too late, to do anything about it.
We do not wish to commit genocide, Cyril had said. Irony caught in Hackmin's throat like a lump.
The grief of it stayed with him all that autumn, and winter, and for a long time afterward.