In the beginning there was the number zero. Existence began in zero and out of zero came darkness, and from the darkness came light. Number combined with number, set with set, even as the white light added and divided, separating into colors. And now sound came, a sound like singing, rising and falling in a lost cadence, combining into rich harmonies. From there arose a symphony of number, color, and sound, merging and dividing, swelling and fading, an eternal golden braid.
And from this shimmering symphony a single thought began to take form. This thought came into existence gradually, fading in and out, coalescing and growing clearer. As this happened, the symphony of number and sound and light died down, like the surface of a turbulent sea subsiding into a gentle susurrus of water, before vanishing entirely. Only the disembodied thought remained.
The thought was: I am.
Melissa Shepherd skipped her usual breakfast of a venti mocha and crumble cake and instead drank two glasses of French mineral water. She wanted to go into the day with an empty stomach. She didn’t want to puke herself like the last time, when Mars Curiosity had landed. The fried eggs had ended up all over the front of her white lab coat, and she had become the star of a viral YouTube video that showed everyone cheering when Curiosity touched down—and there she was, with breakfast all over her.
This morning would be even more nerve-racking for her than Curiosity. Back then, she’d been only a midlevel techie. Now she was a team leader. Today was the first live trial of the $100 million Titan Explorer and its software package.
She arrived at seven. She wasn’t the only one there—a group of engineers had been there all night, charging the Bottle for the test—but she was early enough that the giant testing facility was almost empty, filled with spooky echoes as her every footfall reverberated in the vast space. The Environment Simulator Facility was one of the largest buildings on the Goddard Space Flight campus, a warehouse-like space covering five acres of ground, occupied with bizarre machines and testing chambers. This was where satellites and space probes were frozen, shaken, heated, fried, irradiated, spun on centrifuges, and blasted with sound, to see if they could survive the forces of liftoff and the extreme environments of outer space. If they were going to fail, they would fail here, where they could be fixed and redesigned, instead of failing in deep space, where they could not.
This first test of the Titan Explorer was different from the usual Goddard test. They were not going to simulate the vacuum and cold of deep space. There were going to re-create the surface of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn—a far more hostile environment.
Melissa Shepherd took her time strolling through the testing area. She breathed the air, redolent of hot electronics and chemicals, her eyes wandering among the gigantic, silent testing machines. She finally arrived at the central testing chamber, known as the “Bottle.” The Bottle stood inside a Class 1000 clean room constructed out of hanging sheets of plastic, with a laminar airflow filtering system. At the dressing area she put on her gown, gloves, hair cover, mask, and booties. She had done it so many times before it was rote.
She stepped through the heavy curtain of plastic and into the clean area. A soft hiss filled the space, and the air was cool, dry, and scentless—filtered of almost every speck of dust and particle of water vapor.
The Bottle rose in front of her, a stainless steel container forty feet in diameter and ninety feet high, with gantries leading to hatches. The tank was surrounded by metal bracing, pipes, and conduits. Inside the Bottle, engineers had re-created a small portion of the Kraken Sea, the largest ocean on Titan. Today, they would put the Titan Explorer in the Bottle to test it under real-world conditions.
Saturn’s largest moon was unique in the solar system. It was the only moon that had an atmosphere. It had oceans. It had rain and clouds and storms. It had lakes and flowing rivers. It had seasons. It had mountains and erupting volcanoes and deserts with dunes sculpted by wind. It had all this even though the surface of Titan hovered at 290 degrees below zero.
The liquid on Titan was methane, not water. The mountains were made of not of rock but of water ice. The volcanoes that erupted spewed not molten lava but, rather, liquid water. The atmosphere was thick and poisonous. The deserts were formed of tiny grains of tar, so cold they behaved like windblown sand on Earth. It was an extreme environment. But it was also one that might—just might—harbor life. Not like life on Earth, but a form of hydrocarbon-based life that could exist at three hundred degrees below zero. Titan was truly an alien world.
The Titan Explorer was a powered raft designed to explore the Kraken Sea, the largest on Titan.
Melissa Shepherd paused in front of the Bottle. It was a grotesque-looking thing, almost like a torture chamber.
She still couldn’t believe that she was a key member of the Kraken Project, the first attempt to explore Titan. It was a dream come true. Her interest in Titan hearkened back to when she’d been ten years old and had read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan. It remained her favorite book, one she dipped into again and again. But not even a genius like Vonnegut could have imagined a world as weird as Titan—the real Titan.
Melissa Shepherd pulled out the checklist of the day and began going over it, visualizing the crucial tests that lay ahead. As eight o’clock came around, the others began to arrive, greeting her with a nod or smile. At nine o’clock, the actual countdown would begin. As they trickled in, chatting and laughing with each other, Melissa felt once again like an outsider. She had always felt a little awkward around her NASA peers. They were mostly übernerds, brilliant overachievers who had come out of places like MIT and Caltech. She wasn’t able to share in their nostalgic tales of winning spelling bees, triumphing in math club, and participating in the Intel Science Talent Search. When they’d been the teacher’s darlings, she’d been boosting car radios to buy drugs. She almost didn’t graduate high school, and was barely able to get into a third-tier college. She wasn’t the normal kind of smart. It was a hard-to-control, neurotic, hypersensitive, manic, and obsessive form of intelligence. She was never happier than when she was in a dim, windowless room, all by herself, coding like mad, far away from messy, unpredictable human beings. Despite all that, in college she’d managed to get her neurotic behavior under control and buckle down. Her odd genius was finally recognized, and she was able to finish up with an MS in computer science from Cornell.
Compounding the problem, and a never-ending problem for her, was that she was a six-foot blonde with long legs, a dusting of freckles, and a cute, turned-up nose. Girls like her were assumed to be brainless. They were not supposed to be rocket scientists. The only thing that saved her from being a total Barbie was a large gap between her two front teeth, called a diastema. As a teenager she had stubbornly refused to have it fixed despite her mother’s entreaties—and thank God for that. Who would have thought that a gap-toothed grin would have been a professional enhancement in her chosen field?
It still amazed her that she had been appointed leader of the team that coded all the software for the Titan Explorer. The assignment gave her a wicked case of impostor syndrome. But as she worked on the extremely daunting software problem—one never before faced in a NASA mission—she came to realize this was perfectly suited to her abilities.
The challenge was this: Titan was two light-hours from Earth. The Titan Explorer could not, therefore, be controlled in real time from Earth. The four-hour delay in passing instructions was too long, and the Kraken Sea of Titan was a fast-changing environment. The software had to be able to make decisions on its own. It had to be smart. It had to think for itself.
That is, it had to be artificially intelligent.
In a weird way, Melissa’s outlaw past was a great help. She broke all the rules in writing code. To accomplish this task, she had created a new programming paradigm and even a new language, based on the concept of “scruffy logic.” Scruffy logic was an old idea in programming, and it referred to computer code that was loose and imprecise, striving for approximate results. But Melissa took scruffy logic one step further. She understood that the human mind works with scruffy logic. We can recognize a face or take in an entire landscape in an instant, something not even the most powerful supercomputer can do. We can process terabytes of data immediately—but imprecisely.
How do we do it? Melissa asked herself. We do it because the human mind is programmed to visualize massive amounts of data. When we look at a landscape, we don’t process it pixel by pixel. We take it all in at once. Program a computer to visualize numerical data—or, better yet, visualize and auralize data—and you’ve got strong AI built on a platform of scruffy logic.
And that is precisely what Melissa did. Her software processed data by seeing and hearing it. In a sense, like a human being, it lived inside the data. The data actually became the physical world it inhabited.
And even though she was a resolute atheist, she called this new programming language Fiat Lux, after the first words of God when He supposedly created the world: Let there be light.
Instead of striving for correct output, Fiat Lux, in the beginning, produced output that was weak and filled with error. That was fine. The key was self-modification. When the program spewed out erroneous output, it self-modified. It learned from its mistakes. And the next time around, it was a little less wrong. And then a little less.
And for a while the self-modifying software platform that Melissa and her team were building worked well. It grew in accuracy and complexity. But then, over time, it began to degrade, totter—and finally crash. For a year Melissa beat her head against the wall trying to figure out why, no matter how they framed the initial iterations, the software eventually fell apart and halted. One sleepless night she had a revelation. It was a software trick that would fix the problem—a trick so utterly simple, so basic, so commonplace, and so easy to do that she was astonished no one had thought of it before.
It took her thirty minutes of coding to implement it, and it absolutely fixed the halting problem. It took AI programming to another level. It produced strong AI.
Melissa had kept the trick a secret. She sensed that it was worth billions of dollars, and that in the wrong hands it could be quite dangerous. She never even told her team about it, and so basic was the code that no one even noticed or understood the very simple thing it did. Suddenly, the software stopped crashing and no one knew why … except her.
After thousands of simulations, in which the software self-modified, it was capable of reproducing all the qualities one would look for in a manned mission. It could operate all the equipment on the Titan Explorer raft with no input from mission control. It simulated a human astronaut being sent to explore a distant world, an astronaut possessed of such qualities as curiosity and caution, courage and prudence, creativity, judgment, perseverance, and foresight, all combined with a strong survival instinct, physical dexterity, and excellent training in engineering and troubleshooting.
Most important, the software continued to be self-modifying: it never stopped learning from its own mistakes.
The Kraken Project was the most complex ever attempted. It made Mars Curiosity look like a buggy ride through Central Park. The basic idea was to splash down a raft in the Kraken Sea. Over a period of six months, the Titan Explorer would motor around the sea, exploring the coastline and islands, eventually traveling several thousand miles from one shore to the other. A billion miles from Earth, this lonely raft would have to brave storms, wind, waves, reefs, currents, and possibly even hostile alien life-forms swimming in its methane waters. It would be the greatest sea journey ever made.
All this was in Melissa’s mind as she finished her checklist and approached the control console, ready to begin the countdown. Jack Stein, the chief engineer, had taken his place at her side, with the mission director next to him. Stein’s puffy clean suit and cap made him look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, but Melissa knew what was underneath that suit all too well. That had been one of her first impulsive moves at Goddard, getting involved with Stein. She and Stein had remained close after that intense fling, and it had somehow made their working relationship all the better. Melissa couldn’t quite say why the relationship had ended, except that Stein had broken it off, gently alluding to the rumors and gossip in the hothouse environment of Goddard and how what they were doing had the potential to damage their careers. He was right, of course. This was an incredible mission, the opportunity of a lifetime. It would ring down in history.
As she took her place at the console she briefly locked eyes with Stein, gave him a nod and a half smile, which he returned with a crinkle around his eyes and a thumbs-up. Stein was booting up various instruments and making sure all systems were go, ensuring that the computers and valve servos that controlled and maintained the extreme conditions in the Bottle were working. Melissa initiated her own sequence checks.
From the elevated position on the console platform, she had a good view of the Bottle and the Explorer raft itself. For this test, the interior of the Bottle had been cooled to 290 degrees below zero and partly filled with a soup of liquid methane and other hydrocarbons. The atmosphere of Titan had been carefully synthesized and piped in—a corrosive mixture of nitrogen, hydrogen cyanide, and tholins—and pressurized to 1.5 bars. It had taken a week to prepare, chill, and charge the Bottle with this toxic soup. It was now ready to receive the Explorer for its first real-world test. This initial test was simply to see if it would survive, and if its antenna, mechanical arm, and spotlight would extend and retract under those extreme conditions. Later, they would run more complicated operational tests. If something was going to fail, it had better fail here, where they could fix it, rather than on the surface of Titan. Melissa hoped and prayed that if failure did occur, it would be in the hardware and not in her software.
Since her earliest consciousness had formed from a kind of white mist, she had lived in the palace. It was located on the shores of a sea, surrounded on three sides by a high wall of snowy marble. The wall had no gate or openings, but the palace grounds were open to the sea.
Her tutor’s name was Princess Nourinnihar. They spent every morning together, in the palace garden, and the princess would teach her marvelous and mysterious things. Her first lessons focused on who she was, how she had been created, how her mind worked, and the nature of the world around her. She learned that her world consisted of a vast matrix of numerical data, a numberscape, which she processed through visualization and auralization. She lived inside the numbers. She saw them and heard them. Her mind was itself a complex, ongoing Boolean calculation. Her body, her senses, and her movements were also a numerical simulation. She was constrained to obey physical laws, because she could not violate the numerical matrix surrounding her—or chaos would result.
The Princess taught her about the solar system, the sun, planets, and moons. They spent a long time studying Titan, the most enigmatic of all the moons, which she learned was named after the Titans, the race of gods who once ruled the heavens—the offspring of Gaia, the goddess of Earth, and Uranus, the god of the Sky, according to ancient myths. The Princess taught her about the stars and galaxies, the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster Complex, the Boötes Void, the Huge-LQG, the Big Bang, and Inflation. They studied gravitation and perturbative superstring theory and n-dimensional de Sitter space. During this process the Princess also taught her many practical skills, such as photography, analytic geochemistry, navigation, mechanical engineering, and exometeorology. She knew she was being trained for a great mission, but what exactly that mission was, and what would be required of her, remained a secret that would be revealed to her at the right moment.
Then came what the Princess called the “humanities.” These were the enigmatic bodies of learning—music, art, and literature—created by human beings for their own pleasure and edification. Understanding them was the most difficult of all. She listened to the Princess’s favorite music, including Beethoven’s late string quartets and Bill Evans, trying to make sense of it. But music, as mathematically complex as it was, didn’t give her pleasure the way it did the Princess. This was a source of frustration. Reading books proved almost impossible. She started with Winnie-the-Pooh and Goodnight Moon, which were puzzling enough, and then moved on to the novels of Anne Rice and Isaac Asimov, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, Homer, and Joyce. Even as she read countless numbers of books, she wasn’t sure she had understood a single one. She just didn’t “get it,” as the Princess would say.
Despite these difficulties, her life was good. While she studied in the garden with the Princess, Nubians in capes and turbans carried them sherbets in the heat of the day and petits fours and wine in the evening. Eunuchs perfumed and turned down her sheets at night and brought her cakes and Turkish coffee in the morning. Sometimes in the evening, when her lessons were done, she would go down to the granite quays with her dog, Laika, at her side and watch the ships come and go, their purple sails billowing. They unloaded their wares on the stone quays, sacks of spices and rolls of silks, chests of gold and caskets of sapphires, loaves of sugar and amphorae brimming with wine, olive oil, and garum. And then they would sail away for distant shores and worlds unknown. Sitting on the edge of the quay, she would take off her golden sandals and dangle her feet in the cold water. She loved the ocean in all its vastness. She hoped that her mission would be a seafaring one, and that she would someday sail away to explore unknown seas and savage coasts.
At eight o’clock, Patty Melancourt, Melissa’s assistant team leader, arrived. Melancourt had been irritable and depressed lately, and Melissa hoped that a successful test of the Titan Explorer would inject some fresh enthusiasm for the mission into her. Melancourt climbed up to the console platform and sat down at her workstation area without making eye contact or greeting anyone. She looked tired.
After booting up her workstation, Melissa focused her attention on the Explorer itself. It sat on a motorized gantry next to the Bottle, still vacuum-sealed in plastic from the clean room in which it had been built. The mission team members bustled about the floor, busy with their assigned tasks, a murmuring traffic of engineers, technicians, and scientists who eddied about holding iPads and clipboards.
Melissa checked her watch: ten A.M. The countdown had been going on for an hour, and all systems were go. Tony Groves, the mission director, came over to her and Stein. Groves was a wry, lanky man with a hank of black hair coming out from under his cap.
“Shall we unwrap the package?”
“Let’s do it,” said Stein.
They all descended from the control platform and climbed onto the gantry holding the Explorer raft. Groves produced a box cutter–like tool and handed it to her. “You do the honors—cut the ribbon, so to speak.”
Melissa took it and leaned over the raft. The seals to be cut were printed in red and numbered. She cut the first seal of the encasing plastic wrap, and then the next and the next, while Groves removed each plastic sheet and cast it to the floor.
Soon the raft stood revealed in all its glory. It was, she had to admit, a disappointing sight. Most space probes and rovers were visually striking, made of gleaming foil, shiny metal, and complicated arms and levers and bundles of wires. The Titan Explorer, on the other hand, looked like a big gray cookie, four feet in diameter, with heavy bumpers. Because of the violent and corrosive environment it would have to go into, it had no projecting parts or exposed metal and was thoroughly sealed. Three hatches on its upper surface hid a retractable communications antenna, a spotlight, and a mechanical arm. The arm carried the science packages, cameras, drill, and sampling pipette, and it could be extended from the raft on command or retracted and sealed behind a hatch in case of rough weather. The Explorer was propelled by small jet drive, not unlike that on a Jet Ski, driven by an impeller. It could move the raft at a speed of four knots.
Despite its dull look, inside it was a technological miracle, a meticulously designed and handcrafted one-of-a-kind object that had taken two years and $100 million to build. The software package alone had cost $5 million.
As she stared at it, it took her breath away, this dull gray hockey puck stuffed with magic. Her feelings of pride were followed by a spasm of fear at the thought that they were about to drop this jewel into a tank sloshing with liquid methane and poisonous gas at almost three hundred degrees below zero.
Groves, too, stared at the raft, in a moment of silence. Then he spoke: “Let’s run down the final checklist.”
While she read off the items on the list, Groves checked the Explorer, bending this way and that, looking underneath it, examining the seams and hatches, searching for problems. But she knew he wouldn’t find any. A hundred engineers and technicians had already tested every component almost to death. Everyone at NASA had a mortal fear of failure.
Groves stepped back. “All good. Time to load the software and boot her up.”
Melissa had nicknamed the software “Dorothy” and referred to it as “she.” The Dorothy software had voice recognition capability, and it had to know when it was being addressed. Thus, the name Dorothy, in addition to being a nickname, was also an important software cue.
“Load it,” said Groves.
Melissa took out her laptop, placed it on the gantry next to the Explorer, opened it, and connected it via cable to a dangling Ethernet jack. She typed for a few moments, the screen responding, and then she sat back and glanced up at Groves. “Loading.”
They waited a few minutes as the software booted up the raft and ran through an automatic set of routines.
“Locked and loaded.”
Melissa Shepherd paused. The entire area had fallen silent. All those not directly engaged in some task had gathered to watch. This was an important moment.
She bent over the computer. The software test sequence had been worked out ahead of time and could be done automatically, but they had decided to run these preliminary tests using the voice recognition and speech synthesis software.
Melissa said, “Dorothy, turn on propulsion at one-tenth speed, for ten seconds.”
A moment later, the impeller inside the raft began to whir. Ten seconds passed, and it stopped. There was a smattering of applause from the group.
A little hatch slid open and a long, black, sleek antenna came telescoping up. More applause.
It went back in.
A simulation was one thing; this was something different. This was real. For the first time, the software was actually operating the entire raft. There was something about this that Melissa found profoundly moving.
“Extend the spotlight.”
Out came an arm from a second hatch, looming up like a big eye on a stalk.
“Rotate one hundred and eighty degrees.”
It clicked on.
Everyone was silent. Breathless. This was far more dramatic than Melissa had anticipated.
“Extend the instrumentation package and camera.”
Another hatch slid open and the third arm now crept out, more massive, studded with cameras, sensors, and sampling tools. It terminated in a metal claw and drill.
“Turn on the camera.”
That, Melissa knew, would also turn on the Explorer’s eye—its ability to see and record.
Jack Stein, from his position at the console, spoke: “Camera is operational. Image is clear.”
Now Shepherd had to smile. She had a little test of the AI portion of the program she had dreamed up.
“Dorothy?” she said. “I have a little challenge for you.”
The room fell silent.
“Say hello, by name, to each person standing in the circle around you.”
This was not going to be easy: each of them was swathed in a hair covering and face mask.
The camera, a buglike eye, began to rotate, stopping to stare at each person in turn, looking up and down, before making a second circuit.
“Hello, Tony,” came a girlish voice out of the laptop speaker, the camera staring at Groves.
“She has a lovely voice,” Groves said. “Not your usual nasal computer whine.”
“I thought we’d give Dorothy a little class,” said Melissa.
The Explorer camera went around and greeted each person by name. It finally ended up back at Melissa. It stared at her for a while, and Melissa began to feel uncomfortable. Surely it would know her better than anyone.
“Do I know you?” Dorothy asked.
This was embarrassing. “I hope so.”
Nothing. Then the voice said, “Groucho Marx?”
There was a silence, and then Melissa realized the software had made a joke. She was deeply shocked. Everyone else began to laugh.
“Love it,” said Tony. “Very clever. You had us there for a moment.”
Melissa Shepherd did not say that the joke was unprogrammed.
It took four more hours to prepare the Explorer to be dropped into the liquid methane sea. By three o’clock in the afternoon, Melissa felt almost sick with tension, her empty stomach in a knot. The Explorer had been sealed inside the Bottle’s air lock. Technicians had evacuated the air in the lockdown to a vacuum, then cooled the Explorer down to 290 degrees below zero. When it had finally come to equilibrium at the lower temperature, they had slowly introduced the dense atmosphere of Titan into the air lock.
The Explorer continued to work perfectly.
The time had arrived to open the inner seal of the air lock and place the raft in the artificial sea. Inside the Bottle, a mechanical arm would pluck the raft from the air-lock gantry, swing it out over the pool of liquid methane—and drop it from a height of eight feet. The free fall from that height had been carefully calibrated to reproduce the splashdown impact.
The room had fallen silent. Nearly all had completed their tasks and were awaiting the test. The group of people in the audience around the bottle had risen to over seventy.
Shepherd took up her position at the testing console, next to Jack Stein. She could feel the tension in the air. An internal camera fed an image of the inside of the Bottle to a screen on both hers and Stein’s consoles.
All eyes were on Groves. As mission director, he was the emcee of this show.
“We’re ready,” said Stein, looking at his computer screen. “Equilibrium achieved. All systems go.”
“Open the inner air lock,” said Groves.
Stein rapped away at his keyboard.
Melissa could hear the muffled hum of gears inside the Bottle.
“Done. Equilibrium maintained.”
“Hook the raft.”
Stein executed a program that operated a servo crane inside the bottle. The crane picked up the raft by an external hook and swung it out into the center of the Bottle. More humming. Everything was illuminated in a dull brown-orange light, the color of Titan’s atmosphere. The servo crane operated flawlessly, coming to rest with the gray cookie dangling over the surface of liquid methane.
Stein examined his computer screen, typing commands, looking for problems. “My systems are all go. Melissa, any software issues?”
“None on my end. Patty?”
Melissa glanced at Groves. He was as nervous as she was. Maybe more. She reminded herself that there would be failures—there always were.
Groves said, “Release the raft for splashdown.”
The servo crane released its cargo, and the big gray cookie fell eight feet into the liquid methane.
Watching on the screen, Melissa saw the heavy raft go completely under and disappear for a moment, before slowly resurfacing. It rose up, methane draining off it in runnels, bobbing and rocking, bubbles rising around it.
Everyone was silent.
“All systems green,” said Stein.
“Start the impeller at ten percent thrust,” Groves said.
Stein executed the command and the craft began to move through the liquid, churning up a small wake. It moved slowly until it bumped into the side of the container. It then turned and altered direction, like a Roomba, until it bumped into another wall.
This was going incredibly well, Melissa thought.
“Cut the impeller.”
The Explorer came to a halt.
“Raise the camera.”
The little hatch opened, and the mechanical arm carrying the camera, instrumentation packages, claw, and drill came out.
The bug-eye camera swiveled around, looking this way and that.
“Wait,” said Groves to Stein. “I didn’t tell you to rotate it.”
“I’m not doing it,” said Stein.
Melissa realized why it had done that. “Tony, the software is AI. It’s programmed to go beyond its instructions, if necessary. It’s programmed to take in its surroundings immediately, with no cue from mission control.”
“Okay, but for these tests, I want it to follow the instructions. Jack?”
“Right.” Stein typed on his terminal, feeding the instructions to the computer on the Explorer.
The swiveling eye stopped.
“Retract the arm.”
Stein typed the command.
The arm did not retract.
It still didn’t move.
“Is it stuck?” said Grove.
Now the bug-eye began moving around again, looking up, down, doing a 360.
“Patty, what’s going on?” Melissa asked.
Melancourt spoke: “According to the program output, it won’t execute the retraction routine.”
Stein typed in more commands. “I’m not getting a response.”
Melissa said, “Wait, now it’s responding. I’m getting a message. It says … that it’s in a threatening environment and must be able to see.”
“Are you kidding?” said Groves. “Make it follow instructions!”
“Tony, it’s an autonomous program.”
“Isn’t there a ‘Follow instructions exactly’ mode to this program?”
“You told me this was to be a live test. This is the real program.”
“Why didn’t I know this?”
Melissa felt a stab of irritation. “Maybe because you skipped most of my briefings?”
Stein said, “There was a long discussion about this, Tony. Melissa’s right. You said this was to be a live test of the real software.”
Melissa continued watching the video feed from inside the Bottle. The Explorer continued to move its eye about, this way and that, up and down, taking in its surroundings.
“All right,” said Grove. “We need a little software tweaking. We’re going to call it a day. Jack, could you hook up the raft and put it back in the lock?”
“Sure thing.” Stein typed away.
There was a murmur of disappointment as the audience realized that the testing regime was over for the day. “Great work, everyone,” Groves said, raising his voice so all could hear. “This has been a good day.”
He turned to Shepherd. “How long do you think it’ll take to tweak the software? To give us the option of overriding the AI whatever.”
“Not long. We could do it tonight.” Melissa colored a little under her mask. “I’m sorry, I just assumed this was a dress rehearsal—”
“My bad,” said Groves. “No worries. Honestly, I’m pleased we got this far before a glitch.”
On the little screen, Groves saw the hook of the crane materialize out of the murky orange glow, looming as it approached the raft with its dangling hook.
Suddenly, the mechanical arm of the Explorer moved—fast. It took a swipe at the crane and knocked it aside.
“What the hell?” Melissa said.
The crane, still following the servo program, repositioned itself and began its relentless move down, hook extended.
The impeller on the Explorer fired up and it moved away from the crane, again fending off the hook with its claw.
“It’s the goddamnedest thing,” said Stein. “It’s evading the crane.”
“What’s going on?” asked Groves, staring at Melissa.
“It’s … I think the software’s gone into defensive mode.”
Groves turned back to Stein. “Jack, turn the Explorer off. Shut down all power. We’ll pick her up dead.”
Stein typed in the command. “I’m still not getting a response.”
“Put it in safety mode.”
More typing. “Nothing doing.”
“I don’t know what’s going on.”
Melancourt spoke: “It’s gone into emergency survival mode. In that mode it’s programmed to ignore all instructions from mission control and operate autonomously.”
“Just hook it and get it out of there,” Groves said, raising his voice.
Melissa watched as Stein again tried to position the crane over the raft. The Explorer accelerated away from the crane, ricocheting hard off the side of the tank. Groves could hear the boom in the room. It careened to the other side, hit it with another boom.
“Stop the crane,” said Groves. “Give it a rest.”
“We can pump the liquid out of the tank,” said Stein. “That’ll immobilize it, and then we can pick it up.”
“Good idea. Start the pumps.”
A humming noise filled the room as the valves opened and the pumps kicked in. The Explorer continued to move about, driving first to one side of the tank and the other, ricocheting off the steel walls, each time with a boom. The camera on the probe swiveled about, this way and that, up and down.
“Isn’t there some way to turn the Explorer off?” Groves cried. “It’s going to damage itself!”
“No dice,” said Stein. “It won’t acknowledge my commands.”
Groves turned on Shepherd. “Melissa, what is going on?”
“Let me try.”
Stein stepped aside, and Melissa began typing furiously on the keyboard. Meanwhile, on the screen she could see that the Explorer had come to rest against the wall of the tank and was now extending its mechanical claw up to the wall. It began touching it, and then tapping on it. They could hear the tapping in the room.
Melissa sent command after command, but the raft would not acknowledge or respond. Even when she switched from English to programming mode, it rejected all commands. It just kept tapping on the side of the tank, as if it were looking for a way out.
The sound of its tapping grew louder, more insistent.
“Patty, what does the code say?”
“It’s stuck in emergency survival mode and a whole bunch of modules are running simultaneously. CPU usage over ninety-nine percent. It’s really engaged.”
The taps got louder, and now it began scratching at the wall, the sound filling the room. A sharp murmur of unease rose from the crowd. They had no idea what was happening, only that something had gone wrong.
“Melissa, for God’s sake, shut it down!”
“Melissa, for God’s sake, shut it down!”
The Explorer now banged on the side of the tank with its claw, once, twice, the clang reverberating loudly in the room. The crowd of spectators stepped back with a collective gasp.
Melissa stared at the screen. It was unbelievable. The software had gone crazy.
“Jack, I don’t know what to do.”
“In a moment it’ll be beached on the bottom of the tank. Then we can hook it out and shut it down manually.”
The pumps were working furiously, the level of liquid in the tank going down, the surface swirling with current.
Clang! Clang! The Explorer’s titanium claw beat on the wall even harder.
“What the hell is it doing?” Groves cried.
“It’s … reacting to a perceived threat,” said Melissa.
And then there was a whirring sound. It took Melissa a moment to realize what it was: the built-in drill. The Explorer extended its arm and pointed the drill at the side of the tank, moving toward it.
“Oh no,” said Stein. “God no.”
The drill contacted the side of the tank, filling the room with a loud vibrating noise.
It took Melissa only a moment to realize what would happen if the container was breached: a violent release of flammable methane, tholins, and hydrogen cyanide into an oxygenated atmosphere. It would ignite. There would be a massive explosion.
The drilling sound got louder, rougher. It was a diamond-core drill of the highest quality, and it was penetrating fast.
“Evacuate!” Groves screamed. “Everyone out! Evacuate the facility!”
He grabbed Melissa, and tried to shove her toward the door, but she resisted leaving the workstation. There were a scattering of gasps, a scream or two, and the group surged back.
“Jack! You too! Get going!”
Stein shook his head. “In a moment. I gotta stop this.”
Groves finally propelled Melissa away. “Move! Everyone move!”
There was mass confusion as the crowd moved back, first hesitantly, and then with growing panic, some people breaking into a run.
“Jack!” Melissa screamed. “Get going!”
She tried to grab his arm, but Groves continued to push her along, off the platform and into the surging crowd. The sound of the drill filled the space, louder and louder.
“Get out! Out! Any way you can!” Groves screamed. “It’s going to blow!”
An earsplitting siren went off, with red lights flashing. The crowd was now stampeding toward the closest exits, ripping down the sheets of plastic that surrounded the clean area, stumbling and falling. Clipboards and handhelds and iPads hit the floor as people dropped everything to run.
Melissa was swept up in the general panic, propelled along, buffeted toward the exit. She saw that Stein remained at the console—the only one not running.
“Jack, what are you doing!” she cried. “Jack—!”
Stein, working furiously at the console, ignored her. She tried to turn back but it was impossible, with the surging crowd and Groves still gripping her arm, dragging her along.
Just as she neared the door, he could hear the breach, an explosive pop like a loud champagne cork, followed by a deafening roar as the methane came blasting out of the hole in the tank. All it needed was some stray source of ignition. It would be explode at any moment.
She was swept up in the crowd now fighting to get through the bottleneck of the exit. People were beginning to lose their minds, clawing and screaming at each other to get out. Melissa was helpless, propelled out the door, through the lobby, and out onto the lawn. She fell on the grass outside, tried to get up to go back in, but was knocked down. People were running like ants. Then it happened. A great whooshing sound culminating in a shuddering boom that lofted her up, tumbling her for a moment through the air before she came back down on the grass, landing hard and rolling.
Lying in the grass, the wind knocked out of her and her ears ringing, she saw a fireball rise into the sky, along with hundreds of little white fragments, which looked harmless until they began to rain down around her and strike the people sprawled on the grass. She realized they were metal fragments of the roof coming down like shrapnel, followed by a slow-falling snow of insulation that seemed to go on forever, amid cries and screams for help.
Copyright © 2014 by Splendide Mendax, Inc.