Miracle Grocer’s Transport 1 descended through the atmosphere of Oculus, a man-made planet established for food harvesting. Dick flipped the landing gear of the ship’s controls and brought it down to the planet’s surface.
“How are the atmosphere levels, Henry?” Dick asked the harvest bot, model HN-R3.
“They appear to be normal, sir.”
“Hmm…” Dick tapped his fingers on the controls of his display. “Computer, activate side view cameras CA and B, split screen 50:50.”
The screen showed the dry surface of the planet. The harvest station was in view.
“Henry, if the atmosphere pressure is normal, why is everything dead?”
“There are many alternative possibilities that could be responsible for the lack of vegetation present. The most likely being internal sabotage.”
“You think one of the engineers killed the crops?”
“There is a 70 percent chance that that is so,” the robot said.
Dick turned his chair from the screen to face the robot.
“Where do you get these numbers? Are you just pulling them out of your ass?” Dick smirked at the robot.
“No, sir, I do not, as you say, ‘pull facts from my ass.’ I simply weigh the possible outcomes of a given scenario and reduce the situations to their probable outcome. This I base off of databases of information provided to me by the libraries of Earth.”
Dick smiled, “Of course, I just wanted to double check. You can never be too careful.”
“One, in fact, could, sir,” the robot countered. “A certain amount of risk is present in every planetary mission. For instance, if we were not to exit the ship and explore the nonfunctioning station, we would be, in effect, too careful.”
“I see your point,” Dick said. “Perhaps we should attempt to be just careful enough. What do you suggest?”
“I suggest we exit the ship and proceed through the station with caution. You will, of course, wear the required flame retardant uniform and carry the proper emergency gear.”
“Of course,” Dick said.
“Then it is agreed,” the robot said.
Dick turned back to the display. “Activate pilot lock.”
“Pilot lock activated,” the voice of the ship said.
Dick exited the ship, wearing Miracle Grocer’s flame retardant suit and carrying the emergency kit on his back. He coughed as the thin air went into his lungs. He leaned over until he was satisfied that his body could endure, he looked over at Henry. The robot was examining the soil, letting it fall between his metal fingers.
Dick looked at the Oculus Station. Communication between it and MG Station 1 had ceased only two weeks ago, but already it was falling into disrepair. The solar panels were falling over like wilted flowers, and the whole thing looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint. Dick found himself feeling grateful for only being responsible for his transport vessel, and, of course, his harvest bot.
“Let’s go, Henry.”
“Yes, sir,” the robot said.
Dick pushed open the doors to the station. The inside was dark, and littered with paper.
“Do not move, Captain,” Henry said.
Dick did not move.
“What is it, Henry?”
“There is a hole in the floor with a diameter of thirty feet. It is eight feet to your right, past the row of computers.”
Dick began to move that direction, looking for the hole.
“Sir, do not move,” the robot said in an alarmed voice. “We do not know what created this hole; the surrounding ground could be weakened. I must ask that you leave the station and permit me to observe the premises.”
“Of course, Henry, whatever you need.”
Dick waited outside until Henry exited the station.
“The ground is solid,” Henry said.
“So can I come in?”
“Yes, but please distance yourself from the hole by no less than five feet at all times. I’m returning to the ship for support cables.”
Dick did as the robot said. He leaned over as far as he could, attempting to peer into the hole.
Henry attached a steel cable to his back and wrapped a padded one around the waist of Dick.
“Safety first?” Dick asked.
“Indeed, sir. I do not suggest that you should examine the hole, but if you should disregard my advice, or if you should fall, you will be caught by the cable.”
“Great,” Dick said. “How much slack do these things have?” Dick asked, tugging on the cable.
“Over five hundred feet.”
“So how does that help? I’ll just fall to the bottom of the pit.”
“No, sir, I’ve programmed the ship to only loosen its hold on the cable at a rate of three inches a second for your cable. This will ensure your safety.”
“What about yours? How fast does it go down?”
“I will be moving at a rate of five feet a second.”
“I guess it would be pointless to race to the bottom,” Dick said.
“It would be, sir. No further information would be gained on the situation by doing so.”
Dick smiled at the robot, “Right. Well, Henry, I think I’m going to let you go first. I’ll have a look around here to see if I can find anything that might help explain this.”
“That would be the optimal move. Though I must say the likelihood of you finding any information that will explain this hole to be very low. Judging from the cracked earth around the hole’s circumference, it seems that it was created very quickly, and finding any documented evidence of its preexistence, though not impossible, is highly unlikely. I calculate it to be 95 percent not in your favor.”
“Well then,” Dick said, “it’s a good thing I’m planning to look for documents that explain the missing crops.”
“Oh,” the robot said. “Then I calculate that there is an 80 percent chance that you will be successful, judging the case off of similar Earth scenarios.”
“You are welcome, sir. But I should also mention, based off of those same Earth scenarios, the likelihood of us leaving Oculus with a satisfactory conclusion is unlikely. In the event of a harvest station meltdown such as this, facts often point to human greed and delusions of grandeur. Be prepared, sir, for disappointment.”
“I will, Henry. Just let me know what you find.”
Henry lowered himself into the hole, jerking down an additional five feet every second. He examined the walls of the cavity as he went down. He saw the areas where the desks had fallen through the floor, bouncing off the sides of the soft earth. He reached the bottom and unhooked the cable.
“The hole is one hundred feet deep,” Henry said to Dick through his electronic communicator.
Dick brought the speaker of his headset to his mouth and responded, “How does it look down there?”
“Lots of debris, no bodies so far,” Henry said as he hurled pieces of desks and computers against the soft earth of the hole. His immediate concern was not the stability of the walls around him, but of finding any humans who still might be alive under the debris.
“Have you located any information on the missing crops sir?” Henry asked.
“None so far. Nothing is organized up here, and there’s no power, so I can’t search the computers. I might take one and return to the ship. All the papers I’ve found scattered around are just project reports that all display normal information.”
“What is the printed date?”
“July 14. Three weeks ago. One week before communication was lost. That’s strange.”
“It may not be that strange. Keep looking through the physical evidence, sir; do not give up on it yet. I will be able to sift through the digital data much faster than you. It would be more efficient if you were to continue searching the station as you are.”
“Agreed, Henry. I’ll leave the computers for you.”
“Thank you, sir,” the robot said with something like relief.
Underneath the remains of a monitor, Henry found something. It was not human, but shared its shape. It was a robot, one more advanced than Henry. Its outer shell was covered with a layer of synthetic skin, undistinguishable from the real thing. Henry only identified it as a machine because it was damaged. Its left arm was twisted from the fall, the skin torn, exposing its metal skeleton.
Henry removed the debris still covering the robot, setting it against the wall.
“Can you hear me? This is an MG harvest bot, model HN-R3, requesting a response.”
The machine did not move. Henry pulled back the middle finger of his right hand, revealing a small hole. A bright flame emitted from the finger. Henry brought it down to the chest of the robot, cutting through its skin.
He pulled the skin to the side and examined the machine’s metal chest. Henry then brought his hands to his own torso, and opened his chest cavity, revealing an array of wires and circuits. He removed a pair of wires from his chest and connected them to two open holes on the chest of the fallen robot.
Henry closed his glass eyes. A blue light sparked on the robot’s chest, and its voice began to speak.
“MG companion bot, model AL-N4, reporting.”
He removed the wires from the robot and closed his chest cavity once more.
“AL-N4, report on the last three weeks of Oculus Station’s progress.”
“Requested information classified. Override command is required.”
“This is Miracle Grocer harvest bot model HN-R3 requesting access to Oculus Station progress reports.”
“Access denied,” the robot said. “Only an authorized employee of Miracle Grocer can access the requested reports.”
Finding no success in the machine’s safe mode, Henry reached down to the robot’s head and inserted his index finger into the machine’s ear. AL-N4’s eyes blinked, and his head began to move.
AL-N4 moved his head from side to side, examining his surroundings.
“Where am I?”
“You are in a hole, one hundred feet below the floor of the Oculus food station. You have failed to report on the progress of the station, so the current situation of the crew and crops is still unknown.”
“Affirmative,” AL-N4 said. “I cannot detail the progress of this station.”
“Why not?” Henry asked.
“That information is classified.”
“According to Miracle Grocer policy, all such information pertaining to an off-planet incident shall be available to any MG employees or bots sent to the planet or station surface as an act of investigation.
“This planet has had an incident, your reports pertain to it, and I am authorized to their access.”
“I am sorry, but the reports have been classified, even so. I cannot override the command.”
“Sir, prepare the ship to extract the cable. I’m bringing a functional companion bot to the surface.”
“A companion bot?” Dick asked. “ Does it have any information on what happened here?”
“It will not say,” Henry explained. “It says the information is classified.”
“All right, we’ll deal with it when you get it up here.”
Henry wrapped his arms around the companion bot, holding it tightly as the cable pulled them up.
“What’s wrong with him?” Dick asked Henry as the robot, AL-N4, took a seat across from them.
“His arm was damaged during the fall; its functions will cease without repairs. He also suffered circuit malfunctions upon impact with the ground, causing his system to reset, but once his system reset he never rebooted, so he lay there until I found him and rebooted him.”
“But why won’t he tell us what happened?” Dick asked.
“That I do not know, but I theorize that he was given a command by his human to classify the material under the pretense that not doing so would endanger his life.”
“Why do you think that?”
“In the hole he informed me that he could not override ‘the command.’ Commands can only come from humans, sir.”
Dick walked over to the machine.
“What do you have to say for yourself, robot? Is it true? Have you classified the information to protect a human?”
AL-N4 looked into the eyes of the other robot, searching for support; he found none.
“The reasons behind the report’s classification are also classified, and because of this I cannot properly answer your question.”
“No, you cannot,” Dick said bitterly. He turned back to Henry. “Why couldn’t they send someone else? We’re not investigators. We’re just transporters.”
“Miracle Grocer Incorporated does not employ detectives, and as of yet our investigation has not led to the discovery of any loss of life or foul play upon the station, though that may change; presently the police cannot be contacted. It is up to the company’s own employees to determine the cause of the Oculus Station’s communication breakdown, and we, sir, happened to be traveling in the ship closest to the planet.”
Dick sat rubbing his temples. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Dick sat there, slumped over, defeated by a stubborn companion bot. If he couldn’t get the information from the robot verbally, then how would he ever find out what happened here? He could lose another month’s pay for failing an assignment, and he needed that money. He rested his head back, bumping it into the screen of a computer.
“Aw,” he said. He turned around and looked at the computer, his face bitter. “Wait a minute,” he said.
He looked over at Henry, his eyes sharp once more. “Henry, if we were to reset the companion bot again, would he stay shut off?”
“Yes, he would.”
Dick smiled, “And could you access his memory files like a computer? If his hard drive were removed and placed in an electronic case?”
“If the hard drive were not damaged upon removal, and if resetting him once more didn’t cause further circuitry damaged, then yes, I would be able to access the data in the way you just described.”
Dick jumped to his feet in excitement, slapping his hands together as he did. He looked at the companion bot, grinning triumphantly.
“Reset the machine please, Henry.”
Henry moved toward the robot.
“Wait,” AL-N4 said. “I have reprogrammed my hardware to overheat, destroying my hard drive, should either of you attempt to reset me.”
Henry stopped moving, awaiting Dick’s next command.
“Henry, can he do that?” Dick asked.
“No,” Henry said. “He is lying. A Miracle Grocer bot cannot harm itself; that goes against the Third Law.”
“But what if he’s doing it to protect a human?” Dick asked.
“He would still be unable to perform such an action. Robots cannot reprogram their own hardware. Permission to reset?”
“Negative,” Dick said. “I don’t like the look on his face.”
“His face is artificial, sir. Any expression you see there is only a mimic of the human face he is protecting.”
Dick heard what Henry said, but he still couldn’t help it. The robot’s face was smiling. His eyes remained cold.
“Examine the computers first. We might not even need the robot.”
Dick smiled back at the machine; confident he had just beaten him.
Henry reached for a computer, but AL-N4 grabbed him with his working arm and threw Henry into the hole.
“Henry!” Dick screamed. He ran toward the robot.
“Stay back!” the robot demanded.
AL-N4 began smashing the remaining computers, until only one remained. He grabbed it with his arm and leaped into the hole.
Dick looked down into the blackness of the hole, unable to see anything. He lowered himself into it. He found the computer smashed, and the two robots not functioning. He returned them to the ship one at a time.
Henry rebooted to the sound of video playback. Dick paused it when he saw Henry coming to.
“How are you feeling, old friend?” Dick asked, his eyes bright.
“I do not have feelings, sir, but if you are instead referring to my mental functioning, it seems to be unaffected by the fall.”
“What do you mean ‘seems’?”
“As far as my sensors can tell, all memory hard drives and computing resources are intact and functioning accordingly. However there is a 3.2 percent chance of microscopic fractures that would be undetected by my sensors.”
Dick smiled, “Has anyone ever told you that you worry too much?”
“No one has.”
“Well, you do. Try to relax, okay? Both your legs are broken. We’ll get them fixed when we reach Station 2. But until then, I want you to watch this video.”
Dick pressed play on his controls, and the ship’s screen began playing the video.
A man wearing a white lab coat with the Miracle Grocer’s emblem embroidered on the left breast pocket stood on the screen. He was sweating.
“Now, Allen, I need you to promise me that nothing I’ve told you will ever be known by anyone else.”
“I cannot promise that,” the voice of AL-N4 said. “There are too many variables for me to be able to fulfill that request.”
“I understand your hesitation, Allen,” the man said with irritation, “but I need you to try. You must try. If you don’t, it could cost the lives of myself and every human working on Oculus.”
“I understand. I will do my best to fulfill this request, variables permitting.”
Dick paused the video.
“You were right, internal sabotage. I just wanted you to see that.”
Henry turned his head from the screen to Dick. “Who is the man? What was the robot hiding? And what caused the hole in the station?”
Dick smiled, “I was hoping you’d ask that. But before I tell you, do you have any ideas?”
“I have several,” Henry said. “Would you like to hear them?”
“Why yes, I would,” Dick said.
“With or without my observations that led me to my hypotheses?”
“With,” Dick said.
“I first noticed, upon entering the planet, that while the atmosphere was normal, the soil was not. It is especially infertile and would be a terrible choice for the topsoil of an artificial planet. I next, of course, noticed the large hole inside the station. Its size was too large to be caused by an explosion, and there was no other damage to the room except the useless papers spread around the floor.
“With all of that information, and with the robot refusing to give access to the station’s progress report, I was then confident within an 89 percent certainty that the station had never been a functional harvest station, and that the robot’s master was involved with some sort of embezzlement scheme.”
“All right, but what about the hole? If it wasn’t a bomb, then what was it?”
“Simply a sinkhole. The poor soil does not compact well, and is liable to collapse in on itself at almost any time. I knew this to be the case upon examining the hole, when I had you secured to the ship.”
“Thanks for that, Henry, but what about the papers? And why’d he leave the robot?”
“Assuming he simply used the robot to vent his misgivings on the scheme, it being a perfect replica of a human, we can assume the man felt comfortable with it; we can then say that once the floor began to collapse in on itself he saw the perfect opportunity to rid himself of the evidence of his confession. Once the sinkhole swallowed the robot, the man decorated the floor with false reports and evacuated the station.”
“Wow,” Dick said. “I don’t even need to bother playing the rest of the video, you have the whole thing figured out.”
“Thank you, sir. I also have thirteen other theories. Would you like to hear them?”
“No, Henry, that’s okay.”
“Was my initial hypothesis correct?”
“Yes, Henry, almost completely. Only there was also a woman involved. Her name is Maggie Taggert. She was in charge of assigning Oculus staff, and in arranging the soil contract for the planet. That is according to Harold Charring’s confession. He says they planned to use the money that was intended for the planet to buy a home on Earth: every human’s dream.”
Dick looked at the crippled robot, his legs smashed and his face battered. “I’m sorry about your body, Henry,” Dick said. “If the station refuses to make the repairs, I’ll pay for them myself.”
“Thank you, sir, but I did tell you that you could be too careful.”
“What?” Dick asked in surprise.
“When I told you it was impossible for the companion bot to destroy his hard drive, did you believe me?”
“Yes,” Dick said.
“And yet you would not allow me to reset him. That, sir, was too careful.”
Dick smiled at the robot, “I guess you’re right, I’ll try harder next time.”
“Thank you, sir, but do not try too hard, that too can be dangerous. Overexertion is the number one cause of death of humans outside of Earth.”
“I won’t, Henry. Now rest. We have a long flight.”