The Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Greg Powell was methodical even in the time of his birth: he took his first steps the year U.S. Robots opened for business. He was in his first year of secondary school, watching from the front row of the assembly hall on the big screens as Lieutenant Colonel Jessica Reyes smashed that famous champagne bottle against the doors of Lunar Base and sent clouds of Dom Pérignon drifting slowly to the ground, and he graduated from university with first-class honors in Electrical Engineering three weeks after the first positronic robots rolled off the line.
He was born and bred in Dublin, a tall Irishman with dark hair a couple shades off from pure black, and cool, calculating green eyes. That was his one mistake: Ireland was doing a brisk business in aeronautics and computers, but there was nothing like a space program. The few limited places on the European Union space station and Mars base were going almost entirely in the biology line—geneticists, microbiologists, pharmacologists, doing the medical research that the religious lobby in the U.S. largely managed to stifle over there; the EU had grabbed at the tacitly ceded field with both hands. There were plenty of jobs at home for a young man with Powell's grades, but none that would take him into space.
He wasn't bothered; he'd decided early on against trying to compete for the tiny handful of EU slots. Biology was too messy and uncertain to interest him, and he already knew he wasn't any damn good at playing the politics necessary in a tight field like that, too solitary and introverted by nature: the kind of personality that he was confident would allow him to tolerate the long isolation and social deprivation of space with ease, but that wasn't going to be much use getting him there.
No; it was going to be robots. Robots had built the moon base, robots had saved the Lefebre-Yoshida expedition to Mars, robots were opening the asteroid mines, and robots needed people: to design them, repair them, oversee them, handle them. With characteristic certainty, having made that decision, he never looked back, even when the McHale Fields disaster and the anti-robot riots in Texas made everyone nervous and a couple of his professors suggested that he might want to change fields. He didn't, but he was happy to be given the advice, anyway; he figured it meant less competition down the line.
After graduation, he was pleased but not surprised when the letter came advising him that he'd been fully funded for graduate work at M.I.T., courtesy of The U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men Corporation, with the sole stipulation that he come work for the company for a year on a probationary basis when he was done. He blitzed through the coursework and his dissertation on positronic pathways in three years instead of the usual six, and arrived at U.S. Robots headquarters exactly on his own personal schedule, worked out seven and a half years before.
"Field work," he told the entrance interviewer, firmly, and that was when things started to go horribly, horribly wrong.
If he'd ever thought about his future colleagues, which he really hadn't, he would have expected them to be a lot like him: sober, conscientious, hardworking types who'd do their own job and let him do his, rarely intruding on each other, maybe exchanging the occasional friendly word at their respective stations. He thought for his own part that he'd be pretty much the ideal team member: he had no temper to speak of, never picked a quarrel, and he didn't get fussed over mess or noise or smoke, even while he never made much of any of them himself. Maybe he'd been called a little cold here or there, by a few girlfriends, mostly on their way out the door, but that wasn't something likely to bother a coworker. He was even ready to handle people like some of the ones he'd met in school, who were brilliant with robots, but had a hard time talking to other human beings. He'd made a special point of getting to know some of the most socially maladroit, learning how to work with them.
Well, now he would have traded a kidney for the most monotone grunting nutty bastard of them all, because instead he'd been saddled with Patrick Michael—"But it's Mike; my own mother doesn't remember she put down Patrick in the delivery room anymore"—Donovan. One of those fourth-generation Americans from Chicago who liked to call themselves Irish, even though Donovan was a quarter Jamaican on his mother's side, an eighth Choctaw and a fourth Sicilian on his father's, and wouldn't know a word of Irish if it came up and kicked him in his milk-coffee-colored arse. The red hair had bred true enough, though, and he used it as a license to drink like a longshoreman and blaze up like a damn lunatic at the least provocation.
The day they'd met, Earthside, Donovan shook his hand heartily and said, "Nice mustache," in a grinning, insolent kind of way—Powell had grown it about a month ago, trying to compensate for looking four years younger than anyone else at his level. Then Donovan asked a couple of questions about Powell's specializations, interrupted when Powell had just got started answering to volunteer the barest minimum about his own—mechanical engineering and body work—and promptly dragged him to a local bar, where Donovan was already a regular, even though neither one of them had been in town more than two weeks. "My third cousin tends bar at Wanda's other place in Baltimore," Donovan said. How that translated into him knowing half the people in the place by name, Powell didn't see.
"Oh, one lucky shot after another, I guess," Donovan said, when Powell asked how he'd ended at USR. "I always meant to work on cars, to tell you the truth. Then somebody told me I'd make a fuckload more money if I jumped to robots, and I'd never have to worry about a job again, seeing how they're so hard up for people."
He laughed like an idiot, and Powell sat in silent, appalled indignation, nursing a pint of Guinness, while Donovan put down four sets of whiskey-shot-and-chaser and got into a shouting match over the football game running at top volume on the TV.
The next day, Powell went straight to his supervisor and asked for—demanded might have been a more accurate term—a reassignment.
"He's a belligerent drunk," Powell said. "He doesn't belong in a position of any responsibility at all, much less overseeing half a billion dollars' worth of robots in a dangerous and hostile environment. He has no real intellectual interest in robotics—"
He went on for some time, through the exhaustive list of reasons he'd prepared the night before. She listened to the whole thing, her hands folded primly on her desk, and when he was done she asked, "Did you lie on your match profile?"
"What?" he said. "No, of course not."
She nodded. "We've learned to trust the computer on these assignments. I suggest you give it a try. Of course, if you've changed your mind about fieldwork, the Cupertino design team still wants you badly."
Powell got the message.
Two weeks later, they were together on the shuttle to Lunar Base, and then on to the moon-buggy to Mare Imbrium, where they would spend their first field job overseeing the old iridium mine there. It didn't need much overseeing: the twelve IR-4 robots who worked it were a long-perfected model, and in fact the company was transitioning the place to robot supervision. The SU-3 had been put into place six months ago and was working perfectly, but a full year of error-free operation was legally required before the government would grant the unattended license.
It was a shakedown assignment, nothing more; they would be glorified hall monitors. Despite his list of excellent reasons, Powell had to admit that Donovan really couldn't do a lot of damage here. For his own part, he was grimly ready to make the best of it. The SU-3 was a new model with a top-of-the-line fourth-generation positronic brain, and he was confident that with six months of nothing better to do, he'd be able to draw out some unique new behaviors and trace them to particular pathway combinations. That was the pinnacle of robotics fieldwork, priceless data that the company could turn into new improvements and specializations; if he could manage something like that, he was pretty sure no one would try to put him in an Earthside desk job again, no matter how many partners he rejected—because he'd be damned if he was going to go through another assignment with this one.
He'd avoided any more get-togethers on Earth, but Donovan had gotten drunk again during their one overnight at Lunar Base, buying drinks for the Marines and local engineers and bartering them candy and bootleg disks of porn—he must have spent a good half of his weight allowance on the crap. (Powell had spent most of his on a brand-new circuit analyzer and a private satellite uplink; theoretically all USR outposts had high-speed connections, but in practice the poky old ones didn't get a lot of non-critical maintenance visits.)
Donovan crowned that by showing up late the next morning, grinning broadly as a cat in cream and waving an over-fond farewell to the sergeant of Marines, a tall, corn-fed, crew-cut blond with biceps like the pistons of an LR-12, who'd just dropped him off. "See you in six months," he yelled genially to that young man, and swung himself into the moon buggy, dropping his newly bulked-up bag none too gently on top of Powell's luggage.
Things didn't improve noticeably after they'd gotten to their new home. Donovan promptly started acting the miner and named the robots, Ira 1 through 12, distinguishing among them with big hand-drawn stickers with varied smiley-faces slapped onto the front of their enormous barrel chests. SU-3, a sleeker model, predictably became Sue. Worst of all, it was so infectious a habit that Powell found himself using the names by the end of the first week, against his own will.
There was plenty of work for a mechanical engineer: the mine tunnels hadn't been surveyed in over twenty years, and there was a pile of maintenance work waiting for the annual repair visit that Donovan could've done, but he ignored Powell's hints and apparently didn't care to do anything more than check the reports once a day, spend hours in the gym, and watch what remained of his stash of pornos. To be fair, Donovan never drank, at least not where Powell could see, although of course they each had their own private quarters, at opposite ends of the barracks that had once housed twenty miners.
So be it. At least it meant Powell could easily arrange as much time with Sue as he wanted. It—or rather she, goddamn Donovan anyway—worked primarily in the main control room of the laboratory, communicating by radio with the Iras. Even she didn't have a lot to do, which meant lots of downtime where he could just speak with her and observe her reactions. "If at any time my off-duty orders to you conflict with your supervisory duties, you are to ignore those orders until your duties are complete," he said firmly, before beginning his work, so he couldn't accidentally interfere with the mining. Coming back with a fistful of new pathways wouldn't be worth shit if he caused the mine to miss quota and cost USR the approval for robot-only supervision.
"Very good, sir," Sue said. Sue's voice was a pleasant mid-range baritone, designed by some marketing type to convey authority and dependability and steadiness.
Bringing out new robotic behaviors required input that the robot wouldn't have received in the lab, which was a challenge and a half, given USR's exhaustive testing process and the extremely limited environment they were in. Fortunately, Powell had come equipped with a plan: he hooked Sue to his expensive satellite uplink and started her watching television. Only fictional programs, of course, where he could easily convince her that any harm occurring to human beings was faked. He began with cartoons and built up slowly and cautiously to B-movies and soap operas and sci-fi, the most unrealistic stuff he could find, so the obvious implausibility would keep her from getting agitated on First Law grounds and trying to charge off to Earth to rescue the actors.
"I still do not understand the purpose of this program," Sue was saying, disapprovingly, while on Pioneers of Mars the evil Lord Atherton dangled the young ingénue Jenna Starfarer from a helicopter over a chasm. Neither of them wore an air-breather, and they would have both asphyxiated in three minutes or less in the real Martian atmosphere. "Even the false representation of harm to a fictional human being cannot be desirable."
"The harm is only temporary," Powell explained carefully, "and she will shortly be rescued by her lover Liam, which will resolve their quarrel." He had explained many similar situations in many similar ways over the last month. This time, however, something different happened.
Sue was silent, and then said slowly, "The quarrel which caused emotional harm."
"Yes," Powell said after a moment, restraining himself forcefully from saying anything further; he was almost trembling with excitement. Judging by the past literature on the subject, he had expected it to take at least four of their six months to bring Sue around to the challenging point—for a robot—of beginning to weigh emotional harm on her own volition, and to compare it with physical harm.
"And the pain of the quarrel is worse than the pain of straining her arm and holding her in a dangerous position," Sue said.
She sounded deeply skeptical, but she said it, that was the critical piece. Powell took a deep breath. "I invite you to judge for yourself," he said. "Compare her reactions to the two instances of pain."
Sue said uncertainly, "After the quarrel, she was crying copiously. My internal database indicates this is a sign of great pain, even though there was no physical evidence of injury."
"Yes," Powell said, softly, coaxingly. On the screen, Jenna was bravely clinging to the helicopter and spitting defiant insults at Lord Atherton.
"But in this case—" Sue began, even more slowly.
"What kind of junk is he feeding you today, Sue?" Donovan said, breezing in. "Be a sweetheart and give me today's reports, will you?"
"No! Donovan, withdraw that—!" Powell sprang up from his chair in protest, too late: Sue was already following his own strict instructions and had disengaged from the program to go bring up the reports. The stupid, mindless, useless reports, that Donovan could pick up any time of day or night—
Powell forced his hands open at his sides and took three deep breaths. Shouting wouldn't gain him a thing. Donovan wasn't worth shouting at; he'd never understand, or even care to try. He'd wait until Donovan had his bloody reports, and then he'd try and ease Sue back over to the program. He could probably retrieve the episode from the feed's buffer. It would be all right.
Donovan eyed him sideways. "Something wrong?"
"Forget about it," Powell said coldly. "Do you have your reports? I've work to do here."
"Oh, hey, excuse me for interrupting," Donovan said. "What the fuck's your problem?"
Powell stared at him. "My problem—!"
"Yeah, that's right." Donovan slammed down the tablet loaded with reports that Sue had just given him. "You know, I've had it up to here with you, Powell. You act like you're too good to be here and I'm the hired help. You try to feed me scutwork and meanwhile you sit around on your ass playing with this fucking pet project of yours, whatever it is, like it's a million times more important than our actual job, forget about anything I might be doing."
"My pet project could potentially yield a substantial contribution to the field of robotics, not that you care about that," Powell snapped. "And I'd be happy to quote you chapter and verse from the company handbook on standards for field research in low-workload operations. But if you think you're giving the company good value for money by lying around in your cabin wanking off to sex videos and reading the occasional logfile—"
Donovan threw the tablet at his head.
Sue sprang up faster than any human reflexes could match and caught the tablet in mid-air, well away, before Powell could even react. "Dr. Donovan," she said reproachfully, "you are behaving in a disordered manner."
"No, no, honey, you haven't seen disordered yet," Donovan said, taking two steps towards Powell. "Listen, prima donna, I've been doing my fucking job, and if I wasn't, that would be between me and the company. You blow your free time however you want and keep your nose out of mine."
"All right, Donovan, calm down," Powell said, holding his hands up. He was afraid; not of Donovan, although maybe some of his racing pulse could be laid there; Donovan was built like the linebacker he'd probably been in college, and with his fists clenched, his shoulders and arms bulged against his t-shirt. But that was only instinct; Sue would stop Donovan long before he got anywhere near. The real danger was that Donovan would hurt himself making the attempt, and cause Sue to suffer a serious First Law breakdown. She was already looking anxiously between them. "Calm down."
"Take your condescending bullshit and shove it up your ass," Donovan said. "Jesus Christ and all the saints, another four months locked up here with you; one of these days I'm going to go stick my head in the refinery core."
"He doesn't mean that!" Powell cried sharply, reaching out a hand to where Sue was now frozen in horror, limbs quivering. "He's exaggerating for effect; Donovan, tell her, quick!"
"Fuck you," Donovan said, "tell her yourself, since you're the damn robotics genius around here," and he walked out without looking back.
Powell couldn't go after him right away. He had to spend two hours talking Sue carefully and thoroughly around all the slowdowns Donovan had just created in her pathways, which were only finally resolved after he authorized her to pull a couple of the Iras off a low-yield passage to seal up the door to the refinery core. They were doing well enough that it wouldn't make them miss the iridium quota, but it would put them too close for his own taste.
Then he went and banged on Donovan's locked door for a solid minute with no answer, and then took his bruised hand back to his own quarters and forced himself to lie down and go to sleep. He woke up in the morning feeling more clear-headed and ashamed. He'd known damn well that Donovan was a fire ready to burn out of control, and he'd pretty much doused it with liquid oxygen. He didn't have to like the man, but he did have to work with him.
"I want to apologize for yesterday," Powell said. Instead of trying Donovan's door again, he'd just waited in the control room, watching the monitors, until Donovan came to the food dispensary unit. "There was no way you could have known what I was working on, and some of what I said was out of line. I'd like to explain—"
"Save it," Donovan said flatly, without putting down his knife and fork. "What you said was no more than you've been making clear from day one. I thought maybe you'd loosen up after a while, if just because you got so lonely even a waste of oxygen like me started to seem like decent company. But now I'm done trying to be friendly. Keep to yourself for the next four months, and I'll do the same. And if you don't mind, I'm eating."
Powell bit his lip and went.
Somehow he hadn't realized how much time he had spent with Donovan. Or, to be more accurate, how much time Donovan had spent with him. He hadn't realized the difference it made, having someone say hello to him and saying an absent or even irritated hello back; eating a meal across a table from somebody at least once every couple of days; having a conversation of small talk and trivialities to which he barely responded. If he'd been asked, he'd have called it an annoying social requirement. Now, if they brushed in the halls on the way to their respective quarters, or if they accidentally came to the control room or the mess hall at the same time, Donovan's cold, deliberate silence hit him like a blow.
"Dr. Powell," Sue said, "you and Dr. Donovan have not resolved your quarrel."
How bad did it have to be before a robot noticed? Powell wondered morosely. "No, we haven't," he said. He'd kept up his experiments half-heartedly; Sue was the closest thing to companionship he had these days, and though he'd once have given a lot for just that, now it was mostly an act of desperation.
Sue said, "I have noticed an anomaly in the food rationing. The rate of supply consumption has decreased by a statistically significant amount."
"Nothing like a cold food ration eaten alone sitting on your bunk to put you off your feed," Powell muttered. "Surely we're not missing our nutritional requirements?"
"No," Sue said, after a moment's hesitation. "Not yet."
"Well, let me know if we do," he said.
The next morning, he went to the mess hall to get his breakfast. About to carry the tray back to his room, he nearly walked right into the doors before he pulled up short: they didn't slide open. "Brilliant," he said, and put his tray down. He didn't know much about a mechanical circuit like the one that controlled the doors, but he was damned if he was going to call Donovan to get him out of here. He had the panel cover pried off and was studying the circuit blankly, unable to figure out what was wrong, when the doors slid open again and Donovan came in.
Powell barely managed not to flinch, getting up off the floor. "What are you doing?" Donovan said, apparently forgetting for a second that they weren't speaking.
"The doors weren't working," Powell said, with as much cool dignity as he could manage while dusting off the seat of his pants. He grabbed his tray—everything gone completely cold now—and went for the doors. Which didn't open again.
"Wonderful," he said. "It's only broken one way."
"That makes no sense," Donovan said. "It's all on the same circuit. If the control was failing, it shouldn't work either direction." He put down his own tray and opened up the panel again, studied it for thirty seconds. "Everything looks all right." He tapped his headset. "Sue, the doors in the mess hall aren't opening, run a diagnostic on the circuit."
After a moment, Sue's voice came back. "There does not appear to be anything wrong with the circuit, Dr. Donovan."
"Is there any static in the power net?" Donovan asked, tapping on the doors idly with a knuckle.
"No," Sue said. "Perhaps you and Dr. Powell can determine the cause from your location."
It was such a bizarre thing for a robot to say that Powell gaped at the radio like a fish. Donovan didn't even seem to notice, he just said, "We'll give it a try, keep looking over there—" and then it was his turn to double-take as Powell took the radio headset directly off his head.
"Sue," Powell said, "this is an urgent order: open the doors to the mess hall immediately."
The doors slid open—but only after a slight, almost imperceptible pause. Powell stood staring at them with the radio dangling from his fingers.
"What the hell," Donovan said, uncertainly. "Was she playing a practical joke?"
"Robots don't joke," Powell said, and headed straight for the control room. Donovan followed him.
"All right, Sue," Powell said, "why did you do that?"
"You and Dr. Donovan appear to be in distress since your quarrel," Sue said. Powell shifted uneasily, and didn't look at Donovan, who didn't look at him, but only coughed a little. "The signs include decreased appetite and avoidance of the other party. The data available to me indicates that isolation in a confined space is a statistically reliable method for resolving such situations."
"The data available—" Powell said blankly.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, she means those damn soap operas you were showing her," Donovan said.
Powell spent forty-five minutes explaining in detail, again, that the television programs he'd shown her were fictional and unrealistic depictions of human relationships. Sue listened attentively, and when he finished, she nodded. "I understand, Dr. Powell," she said. "I apologize for having disrupted your breakfast. If I may suggest, we have adequate supply for you both to dispose of your original meals and order fresh ones."
"There's a good idea," Donovan said, lifting his head from where it was buried in his arms. Powell looked at him, uncertainly. "Well, come on," Donovan said, and they went back to the mess hall and shared a breakfast of pancakes and stilted small talk about the iridium quota.
They made a point of eating together once a day or so after that, and talking a little bit in their off hours. If Donovan got bored after thirty seconds' conversation on theoretical positronics, at least he could play a decent game of chess, and once he explained the odds, Powell could see the appeal of poker.
"I don't have anything to bet, though," Powell said. "I didn't bring anything but the satellite uplink and the circuit analyzer."
Donovan shrugged. "So you can bet time on the uplink. I've got mine working all right, but it's only a narrow pipe, I can't do more than check mail on it."
When Powell won, on the other hand, Donovan offered him a bizarrely wide choice of stuff, not just the candy and pornography Powell had been expecting—he had three music players, all loaded up differently; a couple of small portable drives; a video player and another projector; an ebook reader; credit chits at five different Lunar Base playgrounds, and a clip-on reading lamp. He also had a tiny kit of mismatched but incredibly expensive microtools. "Those aren't up for grabs," he said cheerily, "it's taken me too damn long to put the set together, but I'll trade repair work."
After snatching up the portable drives greedily, Powell demanded, "How the hell did you sneak all this on the shuttle? Even just the drives would have busted the weight allowance—"
"I didn't," Donovan said, "I picked this stuff up in Lunar Base on barter. All of it was busted more or less, but it's not like I haven't had time since then, Christ knows."
Powell was a little ashamed to discover that Donovan had actually been spending his free time on all of this, but mostly he was busy feeling intense relief, especially after the two of them sat down together and worked out a way to parallel the two uplinks and hook them to the little projector and put the satellite video full-size on a wall. Powell hadn't the faintest interest in American football, and Donovan couldn't be convinced to watch soccer, but rugby turned out to be common ground, and oddly, so did old film noir. They were never going to be friends, but at least they could make the best of a bad lot.
"Anyway, it's just common sense that we'll have a better chance of getting reassigned if we get the job done, go in together, explain we just aren't simpatico and we'd like another match-up," Donovan said. "That way we've proven we can handle an assignment even if we don't get along with the other guy, and no black mark against either one of us."
"The matching system must have some error rate," Powell agreed, taking another handful of the popcorn: he'd won a share in the last poker game. "There's got to be some provision for dealing with mistakes."
A week later, Powell was in his quarters when Sue said over the radio, "Dr. Donovan, there appears to be some kind of mechanical failure in the ore depot relay switcher at the northeast terminus. Ira 3 is there and unable to repair the damage. Can you examine it?"
"Sure," Donovan said, "on my way."
Powell was reading a couple of journals over the net, and he overheard the exchange with less than a quarter of his brain. But the network was slow—probably sunspots or something interfering with the satellite connection—and when Sue radioed a couple of minutes later, he was happy enough to be interrupted. "Dr. Powell, Ira 3 appears to be responding sluggishly to instructions. I believe there may be some positronic slowdown which may be responsible for its inability to repair the switcher."
"I'll take a look," he said, and got his boots on.
Ira 3 responded completely normally to all the standard tests, stolidly blinking its yellow glowing lamp-eyes at him. "I don't get it," Donovan said, working on the switcher at the other side of the room. "I don't see how this could've happened. It looks like a handful of the circuits have been overloaded."
"A power surge somewhere down the line?" Powell asked absently, while he paged through the IR-4 manual on his tablet.
"Not unless it was a smart power surge," Donovan said, his voice echoing out hollowly from underneath the big bulky switcher. "It took out just the circuits for the switcher and skipped the ones on the door and the power system."
"What?" Powell said, his head coming up. He looked at Ira 3, then looked at the door and went to touch the control plate.
"Hey!" Donovan said, jerking out from under the console like he'd been stung. "What the hell!"
The door hadn't opened. "Let me guess," Powell said grimly, "the door circuit just went dead too."
"Yes, it—" Donovan stared. "Are you kidding me?" He tapped his radio before Powell could stop him. "All right, Sue, let us out of here."
"I am sorry, Dr. Donovan," Sue said, "I am unable to do so. The circuit can only be repaired from inside the room."
"What? Why you little—" Donovan said, until Powell sprang across the room and covered his mouth. Donovan's eyes made furious darting glares at him.
"Yelling at her haphazardly isn't going to help!" Powell hissed. "Let me think!"
Donovan kept glaring, but eased up a little, and Powell took his hand away. "Okay, genius," Donovan said, "so what is going to help, aside from melting her down for scrap metal?"
"If we're not careful, that's exactly what we'll have to do," Powell said. After a moment, he tapped his radio and said, "Sue, you are interfering with the work of this station. If you keep this up, you will be causing harm to our professional reputation. Now, I know you have the capability to get us out of this room. I am ordering you—ordering you—to immediately take whatever actions you can to get us out of here as quickly as possible."
Sue didn't say anything for a long while, and then finally, in a slightly husky and deepened voice, said, "I cannot follow that order, Dr. Powell."
Powell hurriedly put his hand back over Donovan's furious opening mouth, "Why not, Sue?" he said, keeping his voice very level.
"You have not resolved your quarrel," Sue said, almost pleadingly.
"Yes we have," Powell said. "We're not fighting anymore—"
Donovan shook Powell's hand off. "For Christ's sake, I'm not putting up with this. Ira!" he said, turning to Ira 3, "open that door right now."
"No!" Powell said, too late. Obediently, Ira 3 turned and punched its solid titanium fingers between the doors and forced them open in a shower of sparks and squealing metal.
"What do you mean, no?" Donovan demanded. "Now you can go deal with that lunatic in the control room—"
"I can't do a damn thing with her now!" Powell said. "We can get out of the room, so whatever she was trying to do has failed. You removed the impulse to disobey. Now I won't be able to use her refusal to follow Second Law to trace back her motivations. Not until the next time," he finished, meaningfully.
"The next time," Donovan said, "I'll take a damn prybar to that crazy robot's head! And if you can't figure it out, you can at least go up there and make sure she puts everyone back to work while I get the circuits replaced down here. If we've fallen behind quota because of this nonsense—" He didn't need to finish the sentence.
Powell spent the next couple of weeks monitoring Sue closely: after the switching incident, he'd sat her down for a careful conversation, which mostly made it clear that a bunch of her pathways were still in a hell of a mess. He'd tried to get her straightened out, but the shifting pathways were interfering with her efficiency, in small and subtle ways. "They're not missing their daily targets," he told Donovan over dinner, "but they're not beating them by a lot, either. Sue ought to be able to adjust them more efficiently throughout the day than a human supervisor; that's the whole idea of robot-only supervision."
"It's a cracked idea, if you ask me," Donovan said. "Look, this robot's going off the rails, Powell, and we both know it."
"Because we sent her off the rails," Powell said.
"Don't say that so loud," Donovan groaned.
"It's just the truth," Powell said. "Don't you see? Look, First Law isn't as absolute as it sounds. Yes, a robot has to prevent harm to a human being if it can. But if a robot has no idea how to prevent that harm, it won't try something random—primum non nocere is the underlying rule. First do no harm. The problem here is, my experiments not only made Sue aware of an entire new category of harm—"
"Our deep emotional pain," Donovan intoned derisively.
"—but they also suggested techniques to address that harm, and we gave her positive reinforcement when she tried using them for the first time. Not to mention," Powell added, glaring, when Donovan muttered some halfhearted remarks under his breath about roboticists who couldn't leave well enough alone, "that your suicide threat, combined with throwing the tablet at me, added a dimension of physical harm that threw her First Law impulse into high gear. She's still trying to find ways to guarantee our safety."
He paused and added glumly, "I should probably contact headquarters about this."
"Are you crazy?" Donovan said, almost dropping his coffee cup. "We'll be kicked out so fast we'll leave skid marks behind us."
"I'm not going to blame you," Powell said, stung.
"No, but they sure as hell will," Donovan said. "They sent us out here as a team. It doesn't take a degree in management to know what they'll think of either of us after they hear the whole story. Forget about it, Powell. Just keep her together until we're through."
The three-month resupply wagon came by a couple of days later, which meant it was time for inventory check. Boxes got mislabeled every once in a while, and the last thing you wanted was to wait for a crisis to discover that the glass heating rod you desperately needed to stop a nickel-carbon monoxide reaction from poisoning your air supply was actually powdered milk. It was necessary work, but even Powell had to admit it was boring as all hell, even with three of the Iras to take everything out and line it up for them, and Sue to do most of the cross-checking.
"Jesus Christ, Powell, watch where the fuck you're going," Donovan yelled, after they bumped into each other; the vial of quinidrine dye he'd been holding had popped its lid and exploded all over them.
"You could stand to be more careful yourself, you damn redhead," Powell snapped back, tensing up.
"Yeah, yeah," Donovan said, muffled; he was stripping off his orange-stained shirt. "Why can't they put screw-tops on these damn things, tell me that?" He glared down at his hands and wiped them off on the already-ruined shirt, which he tossed to Ira 2. "Throw that in the incinerator for me next time you go by."
He had a plain white undershirt underneath that had escaped the dye, and his dark jeans didn't show it. Powell looked down at his own ruined t-shirt and pants and sighed. He hadn't brought a lot of spare clothes. Maybe he could win a shirt off Donovan in the next round of poker.
About an hour later, he picked up a few boxes of o-rings and stepped into the hardware supply closet to put them on their shelf, and barely had time to register Donovan in the small space in front of him, Sue standing just outside the door behind him, before the door slammed shut, locking with a click. "Oh, goddammit," Donovan said, putting down his own box of t-star screws. "No, Powell, don't even start with me, I'm not standing crammed in here for six hours while you try and figure this out." He hit his radio. "Ira 4, open the door and let us out."
There was a brief pause. "I cannot do that, Dr. Donovan," Ira 4 radioed back apologetically.
"What?" Donovan said.
Powell groaned. "Wonderful. Now she's got the Iras on board too." He let his head tip back to bang gently against the door.
"Well, let me by," Donovan said. "I can probably hotwire the damn door from inside." They had to squeeze to get around each other: the closet wasn't really meant for more than one person at a time, and neither one of them was a small guy.
"That's not going to do much good," Powell said, watching Donovan work. "They can always just hold the door shut physically."
"Not if I—route the electrical current—into the frame," Donovan said, grunting as he wrestled with the panel. "Give them a nice shock to say thanks for this. Here, hold a light for me." He unclipped a flashlight from his belt and passed it back.
Powell was aiming it into the panel over Donovan's shoulder when a crackle of static came over the old intercom system, a speaker over their heads. "Sue, is that you?" Powell said into his radio. "We're going to get out of here in a minute, you have to know that. Why don't you just unlock the door, and then we can talk about why you're doing this."
Sue didn't answer, but the intercom coughed some more static, and then started to play music. Donovan's head turned slowly and incredulously up from the panel. "Birds do it, bees do it," Sue's smooth baritone crooned from the speaker, a little synthesized piano and saxophone in the background, the Iras humming along in harmony, "even educated fleas do it..."
Powell stared up at it blankly. Donovan said in hushed tones, "Powell, we're two thousand miles from Lunar Base with a robot that's gone completely round the bend and taken another dozen of them with her."
"No," Powell said, calm with despair. He'd shown Sue this episode of One Life To Live. "I know what she's after now."
"Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it..." Sue sang.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Donovan said.
It was the only the beginning of a relentless campaign of terror and romance. The power failed to their private rooms, repeatedly, forcing them to move closer and closer in to each other along the corridor of the barracks, until Donovan got exasperated and used a laser torch to cut out the wall between the two rooms in the middle. "Otherwise, the way this is going, we're going to end up squeezed into one room with a single bunk between us," he said bitterly, as they moved their things for the last time.
It turned out the network slowdowns were from massive downloading binges: Sue and the Iras were devouring the last hundred years of daytime television in giant gulps, apparently looking for strategy. Sue was smart enough to figure out if she kept locking Powell and Donovan up, they'd just never go into a room together again. Instead, she and the Iras started manufacturing minor emergencies: nothing dangerous, just inconveniences. One day the food dispenser stopped using salt. Another day all the lights in the corridor started to blink in randomly generated patterns. All of the problems a combination of mechanical and programming failures, so the two of them had to work together to fix whatever it was that had gone wrong.
The robots also arranged more traditional gestures. On Valentine's Day, the last of Donovan's candy stash was stolen and turned up on Powell's bed, wrapped in a makeshift bow made of packing tape, with a forged love note. Donovan got a twelve-stanza formal poem, also in forged handwriting, with an elaborate origami flower. Liquor was a little more trouble. On the first try, the rotgut Sue used to spike the orange juice in the mess hall dispenser tasted like gasoline: robots didn't have much of a palate to work with. The second attempt was much more successfully vodka-like.
Then there was the bottle of human-compatible lubricant that appeared in the bathroom, helpfully labeled with detailed instructions for use, which had apparently been brewed up out of random chemicals. "What, no condoms?" Donovan said, when Powell pointed it out, which led to Sue blatantly violating their privacy rights and sending each of them a chunk of the other's medical records, tucked away into the daily logfile, with the clean bill of sexual health circled prominently in red.
It was amazing how much iridium thirteen robots bent on matchmaking didn't mine.
"Fifteen hundred sixty-three tons behind schedule with six weeks to go," Donovan said gloomily, "not to mention what our report's going to look like. If we don't get this straightened out, Powell, we're fucked sideways."
They were sitting opposite each other on their bunks, well into their third round of screwdrivers. Donovan had pointed out that "if ever a situation called for a drink, this is it," and Powell had been forced to agree, so at the moment, he was feeling a deep pleasant glowing sort of distance between himself and the rest of reality.
"I'm open to sugg—suggestions," he managed, with only a little bit of slurring. "I've tried everything I can, I can't route her around those pathways."
"Can't we strengthen the orders somehow?" Donovan said. "Look, mining is their job, their primary function. Shouldn't they be more worried about meeting quota?"
"It doesn't matter," Powell said despondently. "First Law trumps all."
They drank some more. "What'll you do? After we get canned, I mean," Donovan asked.
"Academic job, I guess," Powell said. "I've got enough for half-a—half-a—six, journal articles, anyway. Or labwork. You?"
"Yeah, labwork. Body design," Donovan said. " 's not bad, just boring. Fucking desk jobs." He sighed deeply and refilled their glasses. "Even worse than this sitting around sleeping while robots do the work bullshit. I was going to go in for field testing," he added.
"Me too," Powell said. "That's the cutting edge, these days. Lab testing's worth shit. Bet these models tested brilliant in the fucking lab, look at them now."
After a pause, Donovan lifted his head and looked at him. "You don't suppose—"
"No," Powell said absently, staring morosely into his glass. "Last thing we should do now is give them any more positive reinforcement. Wipe out whatever's left of their rational judgment circuitry." He tilted his head back for the last of the drink.
He woke up three hours later in the middle of the night, cold sober, stared at the ceiling and thought, Wait, what?
Donovan was ridiculously casual about tools, Powell resentfully noticed, watching him holding the hilt of a vibra-blade in his teeth while he etched a fresh circuit-pattern with a micro-copper pen, the delicate board held cradled carefully and precisely in one hand. Donovan's hands were big, but not bulky; he had long lean fingers, callused and marked up with small scars: burn mark here from a soldering iron, thin white etched line of a knife-cut there; not surprising, the way he handled them.
"Hand me the sealant gun, would you?" Donovan said, around the knife-hilt, his voice coming out the side of his mouth in a kind of low drawl, and Powell jumped a little and gave it to him.
Donovan had an incredibly annoying habit of eating with his hands, too. Powell hadn't really paid attention to it before, but they were eating together nearly all the time now, and it was just—Donovan would sit there talking and eating and licking his fingers, especially if they were eating something like waffles with syrup or something, and—and then he'd go straight to working on some electrical junction or gear assembly, barely wiping his hands clean.
And apparently he was still finding time to work out, even with the complicated repairs they were being regularly fed, some of which were even real ones. "Dr. Donovan," Sue said into the radio, "I am sorry, but Ira 8 has broken a drill attachment in section 4-D."
Donovan's "God fucking dammit!" heard in faint stereo, was more annoyed than usual, so Powell stuck his head out of the control room into the hallway, just in time to see Donovan, evidently fresh out of the shower, throw his towel against the wall.
Naked and dripping, Donovan glared at him. "I just got the fuck back in from the tunnels! That's the fourth time today."
Powell had worked out by then that the best way to deal with Donovan when he yelled was just to yell right back, but somehow his tongue wouldn't move. He managed to clear his throat and said, "It's not a critical repair. It could wait until he comes back in for maintenance tomorrow."
"It'll cut his goddamn production, and right now we need every ounce we can get," Donovan said, and went into the bedroom, giving Powell a view of his ass and thighs and the sloped, curving muscles of his back.
He went out with the portable repair kit, and ten minutes later radioed in. "All right, fuck it, they're at it again, and this one's a doozy. He can barely walk and he's talking in stutters so bad I can barely make anything out."
"Where are you?" Powell said, eyeing Sue suspiciously.
"All the way at the end of the 4-D corridor," Donovan said. "I'll have the door jammed open by the time you get here."
Ira 8 was standing in the middle of the room, listing badly to one side: Donovan hadn't been kidding. "What is he doing out here, anyway?" Powell demanded, scrambling over the heaps of rocky discards just inside the door; this branch of the mine had been tapped out more than two years ago, going by the records.
"Do I know why any of these cracker jack prizes do anything?" Donovan said. "Just fix him."
"What were you doing before the drill broke?" Powell asked Ira 8, who said, "Mus-mus-must-nnnot-t-tell," a low, ominous hum under his voice. Powell stared.
"Well? What's wrong with him?" Donovan came to stand by him. "Is he faking it? I've never seen a robot act like this."
"I have," Powell said grimly, "in videos: he's on the verge of a complete positronic freeze-out. It's a sign of a major Three Laws conflict. But I don't see—"
There was a loud hollow thump, somewhere nearby, like something heavy and soft falling. Ira 8 suddenly straightened up. "I must protect you," he said, perfectly clear, and Powell abruptly found himself flat on the ground, Donovan dumped on top of him, and the terrifyingly irresistible pressure of Ira 8's grip holding them both in place, the robot bent low over them, the low rumbling grind of his internal gears audible—
"Jesus Mary and Joseph," Donovan said, and then he grabbed Powell's head and pulled it close against him, tucking his own head down. The ground under them was trembling, gray clouds of thick dust billowing, and a long rolling symphony of rock and tearing metal crashing away all around them, like a palpable force in the air.
It seemed to go on a long time, although objectively Powell knew it had to have been quick. The noise died away gradually, fading to the last skittering sounds of pebbles settling.
"Has any harm come to either of you, masters?" Ira 8 asked anxiously, getting up off them. His body was dented here and there where rocks had bounced off him, but no significant damage: the Iras were built to survive a complete tunnel collapse. The dust was still hanging in the air like a fog, and his big yellow eyes were the only light, the projecting beams scattering on the glitter of the rock dust.
"Fine," Powell gasped, coughing his mouth clear. "Yeah," Donovan grunted, pushing himself up. He wiped his hand down his face, leaving a pale streak through the gray coating. "Oh, shit," he said, and Powell, still flat on the floor, tilted his head back to see the far side of the doorway entirely blocked by rubble.
"Powell," Donovan said incredulously, "these damn robots caved the tunnel in on us!"
"That's impossible," Powell said. "First Law would never allow them to risk harm to us like that."
"I am sorry I could not stop you from jamming the door," Ira 8 said apologetically. "It would have kept much of the dust from coming in."
Powell turned and stared at the robot, who gazed back in perfect equanimity.
"They'll have to come dig us out eventually," Donovan said, uneasily. "Right?" He looked over at Ira 8, who had ignored Powell's instructions to try and shift the rubble. He had hunkered down in a corner instead, where he now sat observing them.
"I'm not making any predictions anymore," Powell said grimly. Sue wasn't answering the radio, either. "Their First Law priority calculations are obviously completely out of whack. Chances are that they will, eventually—but that might not be until we're on the verge of dying of thirst."
"I have seventy-three liters of water stored in my drill lubrication tanks," Ira 8 volunteered.
"Terrific," Donovan said. "Slow starvation's always been my idea of the way to go. Or do you also have some MREs socked away?"
"I regret that I do not," Ira 8 said.
"Well, at least we won't die," Powell said. "That's just about three weeks' supply, if properly rationed, and if we don't show up at Lunar Base at the end of our rotation—"
"Then the company will send out a rescue team to save us from our own robots, and they'll be laughing their asses off as they hand us the pink slips," Donovan said. "If I have to lose my job, at least I'm not going to be a joke they tell newbies in bars." He turned to the blocked doorway and climbed up the hill of heaped debris far enough to peer between the larger boulders. "All right. This doesn't look too deep. We won't need to clear the entire doorway, just a crawl space—"
"And then we get halfway through and they set off another charge," Powell said impatiently.
"They can't just keep blowing up sections of tunnel ahead of us unless they're willing to bring the whole mine down on our heads," Donovan said.
"Who knows what they're willing to do!" Powell yelled.
Donovan jumped down and grabbed Powell by the arms. "So what the hell do you want to do! I'm not going to just sit here, goddammit!"
"Dr. Donovan, I cannot permit you to harm Dr. Powell," Ira 8 said.
"You can just shut up, you goddamn useless tin can!" Donovan yelled. "I'm not going to hurt him! Powell—"
"Fine!" Powell said. "All right, fine, yes!" and grabbed him by the neck and kissed him.
"What, now you want to?" Donovan said, but he was already busy yanking at Powell's coverall, getting it open and down his shoulders, kissing him back. Powell shrugged out of the sleeves and grabbed for Donovan's t-shirt, peeling it up and over his head, Jesus, Donovan's chest, and Donovan grinned at him broadly as Powell couldn't resist spreading his palms across all that smooth-cut muscle.
"Oh, shut up," Powell muttered half-heartedly, and gasped as Donovan closed a big warm hand around his cock. "Oh, Christ, yes, Donovan—"
"Mike, for crying out loud," biting his neck.
"Mike," Powell repeated in an obedient daze, his hips jerking up hopefully into Donovan's fist.
"Think this is going to be enough?" Donovan said, stroking him.
"Yes," Powell said, scrabbling a little helplessly at Donovan's shoulders, too busy riding the sensation to do his fair share.
"For them," Donovan clarified.
"Oh—oh—" Powell said. Donovan wasn't stopping. "I—I don't know, maybe not—?"
"Because I'm not getting down on my knees on this floor," Donovan said, and Powell gave a small whimper. "They should've planned better if they wanted something fancy—"
He paused as Ira 8 silently opened a compartment in his thigh, leaned forward and put something small down on the floor in front of them. They looked at it. It was the bottle of lubricant.
"You're out of your damn positronic mind!" Donovan said. "Do you see a bed in here?"
Ira 8 just blinked at them.
Powell cleared his throat with some difficulty. "If I leaned against the back wall—"
"You're crazy too," Donovan said, grabbing the bottle. "And you, turn around, and no goddamn peeking either," he added to Ira 8, and then he had Powell braced up against the wall and—
Well, it turned out the match profiles were pretty reliable after all.
"Might as well enjoy the consolation," Donovan said, the next day. He'd welded a couple of cots together. Sue and the rest of the Iras had dug them out about ten minutes after the main event—not big believers in cuddling, apparently—and then the lot of them had gone straight back to iridium mining, with shocking and almost suspicious placidity. "There's no way we're going to make up the difference in three weeks, so—"
"Well, but, we could at least supervise—" Powell said feebly; he didn't quite trust the about-face yet.
Donovan pushed him gently but firmly backwards onto the bed. "No." He'd brought the lubricant back with him, apparently, or maybe the robots had made him some more. Powell gave a choked gasp as Donovan's fingers slid gently and unerringly up his thighs.
"You—you might be right," Powell admitted, clutching at the metal headboard with both hands while Donovan thoroughly convinced him.
They staggered out sticky and wild-eyed the morning after and went for the showers and the mess hall, in that order, before Powell went to the control room to go look at the reports for the last couple of days.
"What?" Donovan said, after he'd stood motionless, staring. "What is it?"
"Mike," Powell said, "they brought in seven hundred tons in the last twenty-four hours."
"Let me see that." Donovan grabbed the reports out of his hand. "That's not possible. The record for this mine is five hundred thirty-four tons in a day; I looked it up. She's screwed up the reports."
"She can't have," Powell said. "The numbers are automatically recorded by the computer that runs the ore deposits. It's just a dumb machine, not a positronic brain."
They went down and double-checked anyway, shoveling the still-hot processed ore back onto the big scales in batches until they were dripping sweat and coughing from the heat, and then they staggered back up to the control room, where Sue looked at them reproachfully. "You should not have strained yourselves so much," she said. "You appear to have suffered injury to your shoulder, Dr. Donovan."
"Who gives a damn about my shoulder," Donovan yelled, "how did you bring in seven hundred forty-one tons of iridium in one day? Did you find a new vein and not tell us?"
"It's not a new vein," Powell said. He had brought up the charts monitoring positronic activity for Sue and the individual Iras and was gazing down at them beatifically. "Never mind yelling at her. Sue, you just keep at it." He caught Donovan by the arm and tugged him out and back to the bedroom.
"All right," Donovan said, sitting down heavily on the bed, "explain it to me, and use small words, because at this point my head hurts just hearing the word robot."
"Look here," Powell said, flipping through the SU-3 manual on his tablet. "Sue is designed for efficient coordination of other robots in mining. In the lab and field testing, the model showed a—let me see—9% improvement over a human supervisor."
"Right," Donovan said. "And that's what she was hitting when we got here, wasn't it?"
Powell nodded. "Which then dropped like a stone—"
"—after we screwed her up," Donovan said. "So what's going on now?"
"The matchmaking," Powell said. "You said it yourself—mining is their primary function. But First Law pressure forced Sue to coordinate the Iras in a completely different set of behaviors that they weren't designed for. It pushed them all to develop additional side pathways for coordination and intercommunication. Now that the First Law pressure is off, Sue is now using all those extra pathways for their main job, and the result—"
Donovan took the tablet Powell was holding out to him. "Productivity increase of 23%?" he said incredulously.
"And I'm confident I can work up a procedure for inducing the same secondary pathways in the lab," Powell said. "We probably can't make up all of the lost ground by the end of our session, so we'll still miss quota, but I don't think the company's going to care once they see these numbers."
"Twenty-three percent? Are you kidding me?" Donovan said jubilantly. "We'll have our pick of assignments."
He paused then and added, more slowly, "And of partners, I'd guess."
Neither of them said anything for a moment. Then Powell swallowed. "Well," he said, "I don't know about that. Nobody likes to break up a successful team."
Donovan looked at him and said thoughtfully, "The company might put up a fight, at that."
Powell shrugged elaborately. "Maybe we shouldn't push our luck?"
"Greg," Donovan said, "I have the feeling that's what we're going to be doing the rest of our lives."
= End =