By Tom Rozek
A drone cart arrived with fifty newborns in temporary transit containers. It positioned itself in front of the swaddling array, switched into idle mode, and waited for Hank Cargo to do his work.
Hank belonged to a class of robots that had been modeled after those humans who designed this machine-led colony mission. He could think back beyond his activation date to detached memories of a human life, family, and career as a behavioral engineer. But he had no reason to do that now.
Each infant came with a personnel file that contained administrative and production information. Hank opened the batch of files in his mind, and within ten seconds, he fully processed them. His inorganic ears listened intently to each vocalization, as it provided useful data for performing his job at a high level. His optic system scanned for temperature and skin anomalies, he felt blood moving through their veins as he held them in his metal and plastic hands, and his nose detected stress levels.
With the surety of a master craftsman, and a samurai’s economy of movement, Hank began removing infants from their containers and placing them in the array, setting each swaddling unit to fine-tuned personalized parameters, and adding notes to their personnel files when needed.
He had unloaded twenty-four containers when a new sound became detectable. Everyone, human and robot alike, had a slightly different walking cadence, and Hank instantly knew this was his boss coming, along with a human visitor.
“And this is our swaddling array,” Fred DeGroff said when they came in. “That’s Hank, one of our most veteran workers. Hank, do you have a minute?” He gestured to the human. “This is Mike Tettelbach, from the CPD.”
Tettelbach extended his hand. He was young, like all humans here, with an athletic body and high facial symmetry. His grip provided confident pressure.
“This is a remarkable facility,” Tettelbach said. “Do you recall an infant designated 002-21-9980?”
Hank nodded. “You didn’t want to be swaddled tightly. Though not to the point of deviancy.”
“I’m still like that. I prefer loose clothing when possible. Why the Originals included fitted shirts in our colonial memory—and as male fashion no less—I’ll never know!”
DeGroff chuckled, but Hank said, “They had a higher wisdom in all things.”
“Yes, of course,” Tettelbach said, his smile fading slightly. “Anyway, show me how all this works.”
Hank used a robot mind connection to ask DeGroff, “How in depth should I be with him?”
“Answer his questions.”
“Even if it gets me off pace?”
“You can make the time up somewhere else.”
Hank said aloud, “The swaddling array is made up of fifty units. They’re spaced so it’s easy to walk between them. Each unit holds one infant.”
He took an infant from the drone cart and carried her to an empty swaddling unit. It consisted of a fleshy ball one foot across, sitting atop a shiny white cylinder four feet off the ground, like an enigmatic piece of art in a gallery.
“Using her personnel file and my observations of her, I have a general idea of how to calibrate the unit. I send it the calibration orders with a mental signal.”
The ball opened silently, membranes of skin spreading between finger-like structures, to form a bowl shape.
Tettelbach stuck his face close to the unit. “That’s so cool. It’s alive, right?”
The human Hank Cargo would have been annoyed at such a basic question—coming from a member of the Committee on Population Development—but the robot Hank simply said, “Yes. The swaddling mechanism is cultured human tissue, to provide skin-to-skin contact.”
Hank placed the girl in the unit. It closed up around her, gently supporting her head, leaving only her face sticking out the top. He immediately received physiological data related to her interaction with the swaddler, and performed some fine-tuning calibrations on it. The swaddler tilted her over slightly, to mimic the positon of being held in arms, and gently swayed.
Tettelbach gazed over the field of baby faces that already bobbed quietly inside their swaddlers. “I’ve seen pics of this, but it looks so weird in real life.” He pointed to a set of screens and dials at one side of the room. “What does that thing do?”
Hank spent the next five minutes explaining the control panel. Then another twenty on the drone cart, his work process, brain music, feeding, and other aspects of his job.
“You really know your stuff. Thanks!” Tettelbach said, as he and DeGroff prepared to leave. “I can see that we’ve been in very good hands.”
Hank nodded in acknowledgment and prepared to get back to work.
At the door DeGroff stopped. He turned back. “Oh, Hank, by the way—once your shift is done, please meet me in my office. There’s something we need to talk about.”
As he walked to the office, Hank recalled memories of being summoned to the dens of various authority figures, and the trepidation it had caused his human original. That person never had the benefit of Hank’s current perspective on events to come.
He quietly entered the office and sat before DeGroff’s desk. Tettelbach sat to the side, tapping something on a tablet.
“I know you appreciate efficiency,” DeGroff said, aloud for the sake of Tettelbach. “So I’ll get right to the point. The Administration has decided to begin phasing human workers into this facility. They want the swaddling array to be fully operated by human labor within six months.”
“The Administration must be aware that the changeover isn’t scheduled for another fourteen years.”
“For almost every year since landing, we’ve operated above the originally planned productivity and quality levels. We have, in short, performed our function so well that the colonists are ready to take over earlier than expected.”
Hank said nonverbally, “Humans make more mistakes than we do. Handing this off to them is just creating problems that don’t need to happen. I can accept the future changeover because that was always the plan. But changing things now because some people think they know better is a mistake.”
“The timeline was always subject to change. The Originals knew this colony couldn’t survive by being rigidly doctrinaire.”
“I still don’t understand the reasoning,” Hank said, aloud this time. “We’ve exceeded our benchmarks, but not enough to warrant such a big change in the timeline.”
DeGroff looked at Hank like he had made the last bit of pushback that would be graciously tolerated. “At some point we just have to accept official policy. Regardless of whether we understand or agree with it.”
Hank didn’t respond. A few vague sounds from other parts of the facility highlighted how quiet the office had become.
DeGroff seemed about to wrap things up, but at that moment, Tettelbach said, “I know you only want what’s best for the colony. Here’s some information that I’m not required to tell you, but maybe it will help clear up some confusion. How familiar are you with the Cognates?”
“I don’t follow politics,” Hank said, “but I’ve heard the name.”
“They’re a radical human organization. They envy robots because you were built by humans, you had human ‘parents,’ and even have memories of past lives on Earth. In contrast, they were made by you and don’t have human parents or even memories of them. They say this upbringing has kept them from being fully human. They believe in the doctrine of HRH—humans raising humans—and want to bring it about as soon as possible. Some of them believe in anti-robot conspiracy theories. That you’re somehow running things from the shadows.”
“That’s absurd,” Hank said. “We’re running things openly.”
“Yes,” Tettelbach said, “but they say there’s a hidden power behind the power. They haven’t done anything illegal, and they’re nonviolent. But the Administration is concerned that as long as their demands aren’t met, they’ll attract more followers, and this could potentially get out of hand. And that as the Cognates grow they’ll have a radicalizing effect on the robot population. This could, ironically, cause a robot cabal to form. The Administration believes that by onboarding humans as soon as possible, it will take the air out of the radicals’ balloon.”
DeGroff said, “The bottom line is that the decision has already been made. There’s no changing it. Hank, we would like you to work with the humans in any capacity requested during the onboarding period to help ensure a smooth transition.”
“You have three options. You could be transferred to a different position in the colony. This will involve a modification of your memory and personality, up to a full rewrite, to make you suited to the job. Option Two: Simple recycling. Option Three: Retirement. You will continue living as you have, but you will not go to work. You will not be eligible for repairs or upgrades. When you are no longer functional, or pose an aesthetic risk—whichever comes first—or at any time you request it, you will be recycled. There’s no need to make a decision now. In fact I encourage you to wait. We truly care for your wellbeing and want this to be comfortable for you. Do you have any questions?”
“When does my replacement arrive?”
“There will be several trainees,” DeGroff said. “We hope you think of them not as your replacements, but as your partners in the successful growth of this colony. They arrive tomorrow.”
Hank walked alone through nighttime city streets. A warm breeze blew in gentle waves, like breath from the planet’s lungs. Buildings rose in curved organic shapes. Certain structures had a more angular, art-deco look, and displayed friezes. Natural materials had been incorporated in many places.
People and robots strolled through the streets under strings of paper lanterns. They sat in open-air cafes, played music to one another in lush gardens, or posed to show off their physiques. Many of these fine human specimens had passed through Hank’s care. He experienced some portion of that fatherly pride his original had felt toward his own children. The faces looked young, but older every day. The colony was growing up.
Hank moved at an average pace, in an average way, periodically coming across people he knew, but not engaging with them for more than a moment. Eventually he reached a residential building and made his way to Unit 17. He knocked.
The door opened to reveal a room suffused with relaxing amber light. The sounds of human and robot voices mixed with Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza.
“Come in,” Larry said nonverbally.
“Thanks for hosting.”
“No problem. It was my turn anyway.”
Hank nodded greetings to the four robots and two humans present. “Where’s Nick?”
“On his way. In the meantime, would you like to see a new addition to my collection?”
Larry laughed and slapped him on the back. “Too bad.”
He brought over a large umbrella. “This was made by an eleven year old. Look at the craftsmanship!” He opened it. “The mechanism is very precise. Note the subtle details painted here, and here. I could see you walking down the street with this.”
Someone knocked. Though last to arrive, Nick—a human—wasn’t late.
The small talk ceased, and they took seats at a big wooden table, while Larry turned off the music and switched on an illegal privacy generator.
Hank sat at the head of the table. “Our intelligence about the timing of policy changes prompted by the Cognates were correct. Now that it’s happened, what are your opinions?”
“We need to gain more support for ourselves,” a robot said. “We should increase recruitment efforts.”
“I think we should petition the Administration,” said another.
One of the humans shook his head. “The Cognates are dangerous, but people don’t understand that yet. I say we should help things along.”
“What do you suggest?” Hank asked.
“Stage an attack by the Cognates. Something that turns public sentiment against them.”
There were a few murmurs of approval.
Larry lifted a hand. “I would suggest that if we were to go down this route, instead of staging the attack, we manipulate them into carrying it out themselves. That would have more authenticity.”
The human shook his head again. “But those manipulations could lead back to us more easily than a clean framing.”
“Not if we’re careful,” Larry said. “And given our superior intelligence, there’s no reason to believe we would make a mistake.”
“I think we should just kill their leader,” Nick said. That got more sounds of approval than the other human’s proposal. “It doesn’t have to be showy. It could look like an accident. Their movement would go on, but they’d be knocked into some disarray, and during the reshuffle of power we could place more agents within their group.”
It would be easy to get the leader. Hank had seen him on the street and through various forms of surveillance.
He thought back to his time caring for an infant designated 001-27-9781 in the swaddling array. As it happened, in the same batch as Nick. Biofeedback showed 9781 to be happiest outside of the array, when Hank picked him up and held him. Sometimes he wrapped up 9781 and took him on night walks around the facility, explaining the function of machines, or talking about his memories of a family on Earth.
In a neutral tone, Hank said, “Couldn’t the death of their leader cause increased sympathy for them?”
“Not if we get a member of his own group to do it,” Nick said.
Larry’s eyes lit up. “On top of that, we could get some dirt to come out about him. Something scummy that would make sympathy difficult. Make it so people couldn’t say good things about him without guilt by association.”
“What do we have on him?” someone asked.
“I’ve had him totally investigated,” Hank said. “He hasn’t done anything bad.”
Nick looked at Hank like he was a specimen jar of bizarre physiological matter. “Nothing bad, other than being the leader of a radical group.”
“He believes he’s doing it for the good of the colony.”
Larry chucked. “Don’t we all! Dirt or no dirt, the only thing that matters is what we make people believe.”
Most of the group made positive sounds or nodded their heads.
Hank allowed them to settle naturally. “Thanks for sharing your views. It’s my judgment that now is not the right time for violence. No fake dirt, either.”
“Can we dust him a little?” Larry asked.
Nick said, “We’re just going to allow them to turn society upside down?”
“Taking violent action against them doesn’t serve the greater good of the colony.”
Nick made a fist. “We need to act now! By the time a disaster is so obvious that everyone agrees on the solution, it’s already too late.”
“This group will not engage in violence against the leader of the Cognates, or anyone else involved in their movement, without my permission. Nor will you use a verbal loophole in that statement to engineer some chain of events where there is a violent outcome. Is that understood?”
After a period of silence, everyone said yes, one by one, until only Nick remained.
Hank turned to him. “Is that understood?”
Nick’s eyes stared back at him. “Yes,” he said, through clenched teeth.
The meeting continued for another hour. At the end Nick headed directly for the door, but Hank intercepted him.
“I appreciate your zeal,” Hank said. “I know you’re only disagreeing with me because you believe your ideas are best for the colony.”
“And I know how frustrating it can be to have your ideas vetoed, with no real explanation. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that those lower in the group need to, on occasion, do things without knowing why. That’s the discipline necessary to maintain secrecy.”
Nick stood impassively still.
Hank expected no different. He placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder, and felt the blood pumping through his system, as he had years ago at the array. “But there are times when it’s best to take you out of the dark.” He paused. “Would you agree that there are inherent tensions between people, and between people and machines?”
Nick hesitated a moment to answer, as if this was a trick question, then said, “Yes.”
“Because of competing interests, and different natures and inclinations. And incompatible views over what is right or true.”
“What could resolve this tension?”
“All sides taking a compromise position,” Nick said, “or one side submitting to the will of the other, either by choice or force.”
“What would cause the groups to come to one of these resolutions?”
Nick thought for a moment. “I suppose that tension builds until society can no longer maintain a working equilibrium. Then there must be a crisis to resolve it.”
“Exactly,” Hank said, having brought Nick exactly where he wanted him. “The crisis is inevitable. Now we get to the point: the state of society afterward is not nearly so inevitable. Depending on how the resolution plays out, it can lead to increased vigor, or degeneration, or total destruction. Our society is particularly sensitive to this dynamic because of its isolation and structure.”
“That’s why I want to stop the Cognates.”
“I’m going to tell you something that’s known to only a few.” Hank gestured toward the meeting table. “Very early, having realized that a crisis was inevitable, some of us decided not to fight it, but to actively engineer it for the most favorable outcome. To do this, we nurtured certain people in a manner that was calculated to cause resentment and envy. This was not difficult. At the same time, we created the Cognate organization, to give form to their passions. Then we instilled into a younger generation the need for safety, security, order, authority, and a general repulsion toward uncertainty.
“The future is simple. The Cognates will gain increasing levels of power and become more radical. Their policies will fail. In the minds of the younger generation, human-led, human-centered ideologies will be seen as dangerous. They’ll turn to us to lead them, willingly and gratefully, and we’ll give them good leadership. The colony will have a bright future.”
As he listened, Nick’s expression changed from stony skepticism, to interest, to understanding. “So what’s happening now is part of your plan?”
“Yes. That’s why attacking their leader now would be counterproductive.” Hank paused. “If you think I’m going easy on him, know that given what’s coming, he would be better off if we did it your way.”
After a period of silence, Nick said, “Um, thanks for telling me about this. I know I was loud earlier—”
“It’s good to have passion. As long as it’s balanced by rational decision making. Are we now on the same page?”
The warm night air was still and soporific in the city streets. Most people had gone home. The weather couldn’t affect Hank’s mood, but he recognized how these environmental conditions imparted a languorous tranquility, conducive to gentle thoughts and actions. Someone who observed this snapshot of the colony would not have seen a single sign of conflict, deceit, or violence.
Hank wondered how much of his story Nick had really bought. Or did he think Hank fabricated an excuse to save the life of someone he cared for? Given Nick’s personality, it was plausible for him to come to the latter conclusion, especially after the initial surprise wore off. Hank decided to have him surveilled, and would order the necessary interventions if needed, but he hoped it didn’t come to that.
As he approached his dwelling, Hank looked at a heroic sculpture, which he passed every day on his way to the population facility. Tomorrow the human trainees would come to the swaddling array, marking the end of an extended period of stability in his existence. The change may have been inevitable and necessary to the greater plan, but on some level he knew he’d miss this time of straightforward, life giving, honest work.
About the Author: Tom Rozek grows hydroponic lettuce and basil for a living. In addition to his interest in science fiction, subjects he finds fascinating are classical and medieval history, mask making, and entomology. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island. You can see some of his artwork and get in contact with him at www.tomrozek.com.
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