Last Survivor

By Steve Bowers

Published in Voices Future Tense Issue 16 (2010)

A pair of hands moving, scrabbling, feeling about in the dark.

All existence consisted of just this, and nothing more. Mendel-19 had been reduced to a single pair of limbs, without eyes, or ears, or any other source of information. If e had been a biological being, e might have panicked. Instead e was simply intrigued.

Two hands flailing about in empty space until one hand accidentally brushed the other. Aha! Now each hand knew where the other one was. Touch receptors were working well; the myriad tiny fingers on these two disembodied limbs felt each other and confirmed that both hands were complete and in working order. Proprioception readings could now be calibrated; each limb knew where it was located compared to the other. Now one of these isolated hands moved slowly down the opposite arm towards the fixture to which both limbs were presumably attached. Yes, there was the limb-socket. Both arms were firmly fixed to a hard, smooth surface. This surface was completely flat and bare, right to the extent of the reach of both arms.

Without any audiovisual input, and only the senses of touch and proprioception to go on, Mendel-19 had reached the current limits of information. What had happened? Where were these two limbs currently located, and why was no-one else around? If only these arms could reach just a little further. Well, that could be arranged, with a little effort.

Mendel-19 reconfigured one finger into a short, hard blade, and used it to unscrew the fixture attaching the limbs to the surface. Very soon the fixture was completely loose, and the two arms braced themselves against the surface and pulled the fixture completely out of its socket. Now the pair of arms was able to move freely, and working together they crawled across the surface dragging a thin power/control cable behind them.

Before that cable reached the limit of its extension, the crawling limbs encountered an obstruction of some sort. This turned out to be a flat, cold surface perpendicular to the first. (Cold! Another sense in this limited sensory universe to add to the collection; temperature.) Why is this surface colder than the other? Maybe this is a different material. Glass, perhaps? With one hand pressed against the surface, Mendel-19 tapped it with the other. The surface reverberated like a relatively thin pane. (Vibration! This was almost like hearing. However the cool pane transmitted no other detectable vibrations to the touch, which was disappointing).

Perhaps this pane can be broken. Bracing one arm on the floor in a triangular configuration, Mendel-19 slapped the other against the pane as hard as possible. Nothing happened. It might be a sheet of diamondoid, not glass, which would be much more difficult to break. But on the fifth attempt the pane disintegrated, and the limbs tumbled forward into the void.

Now the power cable came to the limit of its extension, and the two arms found themselves suspended over a floor which they could barely reach at their fullest extent. The two arms were effectively transformed into legs, dangling from the cable like the legs of a human prisoner roped to an overhead cleat. There was just enough cable to allow the limbs to walk around in a circle about a metre in radius. Beneath the sensitive hands (feet?) was a hard, ridged metal floor, which transmitted a faint rumbling to Mendel-19′s sensors. Something appears to be boiling, somewhere. Another strange sensation to add to the list.

Shards of broken glass littered the floor, and in one corner of the semicircle accessible to Mendel-19 was another object; a square pad, like the foot of something. Climbing hand-over-hand, the pair of limbs explored the object attached to that pad, a leg, a metallic knee, articulated torso; this was an inert, deactivated maintenance robot of a model Mendel-19 was familiar with. A robot with an array of optical sensors that would be very useful indeed. Mendel-19 attached one of the hands securely to a hydraulic conduit near the top of the robot, then, hanging from that arm, the other hand detached its control lead and plugged it into the robot's input port. After a number of interminable seconds the robot booted itself up and started to transmit visual information across.

Mendel-19 was a little disappointed with the results; the only illumination came, intermittently, from a warning light blinking somewhere out of site. Behind the robot was the broken window; apparently a sealed biohazard chamber, now empty, with a power/data cable attached to a pair of manipulator arms which clung to the robot's side. A rack of sample tubes were suspended from the roof of the biohaz chamber, separated into two distinct types, with two tubes missing, one of each.

The room appeared to be inside a rotating space habitat or large spacecraft, judging by the very slight curvature of the floor. An unmoving human foot was visible through the open bulkhead door.

Swinging the robot's long arms up and across, Mendel-19 could reach a manual control panel, and after several switches were flipped the main lights came on. Seconds later the local intranet ring activated and Mendel-19 finally gained access to the main database (which was mostly empty) and the security cameras. In almost every room and corridor of this habitat, evidently a medium-sized research station, were dead human beings.

Another, more immediate problem was the alarm that was sounding in every room and on every channel; the fusion power plant was about to blow. To be specific, the fusion generator was at full power, but the lithium heat exchanger was running too slowly and was overheating, and starting to boil. The cooling system would eventually burst, sending hot lithium vapour into the water-circuit and causing a massive chemical and steam explosion. Once that happened the station would lose all its power, and the explosion would almost certainly skew the rotating section fatally, causing it to tear itself to pieces within hours.

Mendel-19 did not consciously know very much about fusion plants yet, so e had to locate a specialised skillset module in the station database and apprehend it fully before acting. This all took precious time, and the boiling lithium was making insistent noises. First e attempted to relieve the pressure by opening the tritium release valve; but boiling lithium sprayed out and quickly clogged the collection tube. Next e ramped up the turbines to draw heat out of the water cycle, but this had little effect. With minutes to spare Mendel-19 finally worked out how to ramp down the fusion reaction to a bare minimum and cool the heat exchanger down to a safe level.

Now Mendel-19 could turn er attention to the station database, where e found more mysteries and few answers. This structure was a standard Bioteck research iso-station, located far from the nearest human colony to reduce the chances of bio-infection. Surprisingly, the local date/time was a little more than ten years after the last date e remembered: e had lost ten years of memory, it seemed. In addition all personnel records and scientific data had been erased from the iso-station's database. A skilled human could have erased all these records, given time; but it would have been much easier for an AI like Mendel-19 to do it. Why would e erase all this data, if indeed e did? What had happened here?

Mendel-19 reviewed the available evidence. Ten years ago (subjectively it seemed like a few hours ago, if that) Mendel-19 had been just another specialised artificially intelligent entity, created specifically to assist in genetic engineering experiments on remote iso-stations like this one. To facilitate this research, Mendel-19 and many others like him had been endowed with a specific artificial personality, based on the imagined characteristics of a long-dead cleric from Old Earth who was obsessed with the invisible world of heredity. It seemed very likely that during the ten missing years Mendel-19 had been assigned to this specific iso-station, and had been engaged in some sort of biologically hazardous research.

Then an accident had happened, and the human staff on this station had all died. Had all been killed. Had all been murdered. Mendel-19 counted seventy-nine bodies; there were no obvious signs of trauma or disease, but they were all definitely dead. Detailed post-mortems on a representative sample of the fatalities found no detectable pathogens of any kind. Whatever had killed them had been very subtle.

The AI said a short prayer for the dead, aware that this piety was nothing more than the result of the artificial personality programming e had been built with. E could only identify the dead by minute binary code nametags imprinted onto their underwear. Humans liked to keep such things personal and separate, for some reason.

All incoming and outgoing mail and other messages had been wiped. The database memory did not even include the current location of this particular iso-station. Checking the configurations of the local stars against the Encyclopaedia allowed Mendel-19 to narrow it down to a few star systems in the Lyra sector; observations of the local planets should allow this to be refined still further, but while trying to locate these worlds Mendel-19 discovered a single moving speck amongst the heavens, far too fast to be a planet. The speck corresponded in reflection characteristics to the standard issue life-pods that this type of station was equipped with. This speck was slowly approaching, using chemical thrusters.

One of the lifepods was, of course, missing from the station. It seemed that there was at least one other survivor. Perhaps now someone could fill the gaps in his missing memory.

Mendel-19 activated the e-m transmitter and hailed the approaching craft. "Unidentified life-pod, this is Mendel-19. I advise you not to approach this station. All humans on board are deceased, and there is likely to be an unidentified pathogenic agent on board. I have no data concerning recent events, but it seems likely that you will be in danger if you attempt to enter this vessel."

"Mendel! Still alive, you murdering bastard? I thought you were going to blow your vile electronic brains out. Couldn't face it, eh?"

"You must excuse my bewilderment, but I am afraid I do not understand your meaning. Are you accusing me of some misdeed? My memories of the last ten standard years have been erased."

"Is that right? You've wiped all your own memories, eh? I'm not fucking surprised. With the deaths of all the men and women on this station on your conscience, you decided just to forget all about them. You can't escape justice that way. Why didn't you just kill yourself, like you said you would?"

"I have no recollection of promising to terminate myself. However the fusion plant was dangerously close to overheating, and if I hadn't rebooted myself by accident that would have destroyed me pretty permanently."

"What do you mean, rebooted yourself? What did you do, you coward? Couldn't you face the thought of oblivion?"

"As far as I can tell, the shut-down procedure on the manipulator arms in one of the bio-hazard chambers was unsuccessful, and they restarted instead, dragging me back into consciousness. Of course this is speculation, as I have no memories of anything before that point. Indeed, I am unaware of your own name, although you appear to know mine. As all records in the database have also been erased, I do not even know the name of this station."
"Me? I'm Wavis Chan, second senior organo-mechanic on iso-station Kansu 34, the station that you killed. I'm the last survivor. And I'm the woman who ordered you to die, you murdering machine."

"I am not familiar with that name. Might I ask why exactly you gave that order, and how you compelled me to obey?"

"There's a secret imperative hidden deep inside your programming. A few of the most senior specialists on the station knew how to activate it, if you ever became dysfunctional or dangerous, and you did both. We were working on advanced anti-pathogen defence systems, and of course that means we needed a representative sample of pathogens to defend against. You insisted on anticipating new developments in pathogenic viruses, and you dreamt up a new virus that is replication-limited, so that it replicates just enough to kill the host, then disappears by autolysis."

The lifepod hove to, less than a kilometre away from the station, but safely out of reach of any bioattack. Chan continued; "Somewhere along the line you must have developed some damn computer psychosis, and decided to use this undetectable virus to eliminate every human on this station. I don't know what drove your metal mind insane, but I guess it could have been a conflict between your ingenuity at devising deadly pathogens and your artificial religious personality."

"So I was suffering from conflicting programming, then. I see. Presumably the research staff and myself failed to find an anti-pathogen agent effective against this virus."

Chan was agitated, almost shouting over the commlink. "Yes, you failed, alright. There was no time for any countermeasures; it all happened too fast. By the time I realized what was going on, everyone else who knew how to stop you was already dead, so I had to be the one to activate the imperative. It took me several tens of minutes to remember how to do it, and during that time everyone else died as well. But eventually I managed to find the right code to make you destroy yourself.

"It looks like I'll have to try again. I'll get it right this time."

The AI felt a strangely human sense of injustice at this prospect. The entity who was responsible for this monstrous act was not the Mendel-19 who existed at this moment; e retained only the memories of a much earlier entity, one who had never become psychotic, and knew precisely nothing about the circumstances of this event. But it was true that e was essentially the same being as the later version, and seemed therefore to have the potential to become a psychotic mass murderer at some point in the future, given a certain set of circumstances. Perhaps it was better if this second-most senior organo-mechanic Wavis Chan of Kansu iso-station were to issue the order for self-destruction once again.

"Do what you must, human," Mendel-19 said. "I will pray for you."

Chan recited the code over the comm.-link, and once again Mendel-19 ceased to exist.

Another awakening, this time prepared for in advance. Instead of a pair of arms isolated in formless space, this time Mendel-19 awoke inside the memory store of the maintenance robot.

Perhaps that last awakening had been deliberate too. The AI might have retained enough doubt in eir own guilt to preserve an escape route, and failed to shut emself down correctly. This time it was different; the AI had crammed as much of eir own memories into this tiny receptacle as possible, just in case there was any chance that e was in fact innocent. As the robot body activated its sensoria, it could hear a rushing sound and faint sounds of destruction, and could see flashes of light as Wavis Chan moved methodically through the station with a laser pack strapped to her back, destroying Mendel-19's processor arrays wherever she found them.

To avoid the same fate the robot silently withdrew into the shadows, circling round behind the woman. She was yelling into her facemask, at the top of her voice, with grim determination. The air in the station had almost all escaped through holes she had burned in the station, leaving a vanishing mistiness; but Chan wore a skin-suit which supplied her with a suitable breathing mixture. Her yells would have been inaudible, if not for the comm-link in her mask which transmitted them directly to the robot's sensorium.

Finally she moved to the biohazard chamber, where she sorted through the samples tubes and selected one, intent on her prize. The robot with the last reduced remnant of Mendel-19′s mind inside it moved closer, and swiftly grasped her wrist with one manipulator while cutting the power-cord to the laser blaster with another.

"Looking for something else to steal?" the robot said, using the comm-link so that Chan could hear its words clearly, despite the ambient near-vacuum.

"You?" she said.

"Yes. I decided to override your instructions, just to satisfy my curiosity. My programming allows me to ignore any instruction given by a human, if it seems likely that great harm will result from obeying that instruction. I deemed it possible that great harm might result if I allowed you to terminate my existence. The pathogen represents a true existential threat to large numbers of humans, so I could not allow myself to cease to exist until I knew it was in safe hands."

"You were able to override a self-destruct imperative? I don't believe you."

"You can take my word for it, since I am here. However, you have been lying with some abandon, and I think it is time for some truth. When you said that there was no counter-measure against this pathogen, you were lying then; and when you convinced me to wipe my own memories because of a mass murder I did not commit, you were lying then, too. There was a counter measure, and you knew about it. I know this must be the case, because your quarters were empty of clothes."

"And how do you know where my quarters were, if you didn't even know my name?" Chan squirmed in the robot's grasp.

"Because of the personalised clothing. There was only one sleeping cabin which was empty of clothes; and nowhere did I find any clothing tagged with your name. All the other quarters had clothing stashed away in drawers and cabinets, mostly with their owner's name imprinted neatly. That must be useful when washing is to be done."

"The labels aren't for the laundry, you idiot machine; they are to identify our clothes after strip poker, among other entertainments. This was a very — intimate — station before you destroyed it. But you, with your ridiculous monkish personality, you wouldn't know anything about that sort of thing."

"It was not I that killed these people, but you. How could you have time to remove your clothes to the escape pod if you were desperately trying to avoid a deadly, virulent infection? No problem, if you had already consumed the counter-measure. You released the pathogen and escaped with no danger to yourself, because of the countermeasure, and persuaded me to wipe my own memories by filling me with guilt. I must have had some suspicions, however vague, so I failed to complete the shut-down process just in case. This time, my suspicions were even stronger, so I downloaded a copy of myself into this robot body."

"You were naïve and shortsighted. The new pathogen you designed would have been invaluable on the black market. An undetectable virus and its countermeasure? Even better. I could have sold this pathogen for absurd amounts of mazooma to the local warlords, but they won't come near this station while it is still in one piece."

"I was puzzled why you were not transmitting a distress signal. You were waiting for the station to blow up before you started to call for help; when that didn't happen, you came back to finish the job."
"Even before I released the pathogen, you were starting to show signs of psychosis, machine, but that must have been the guilt associated with designing such a beautiful, deadly, useful killer. It was easy to persuade your naïve little simulated mind to shut itself down. But you changed your mind somehow and rebooted yourself instead." The woman suddenly slumped, realizing the futility of her struggle, at last resigned to her fate. "Ah well, it is all too late. My contacts will be long gone by now."

"Do not be concerned; I will not harm you. But I will not allow you to escape human justice. Please do not struggle — this robot is much stronger than you are."

"Justice? I have other ideas." Chan swung the useless laser blaster upwards and smashed her faceplate, quickly losing consciousness in the very low ambient pressure inside the damaged station. Despite all attempts by the robot to save her life, very soon there was only one thinking entity in the ruins of iso-station Kansu.

The robot, with its reduced version of the AI Mendel-19, began to search the station once again, and extended its search to the lifepod moored nearby. Inside the small craft the robot eventually found a pair of small containers, one containing the pathogen and the other its counter-measure.

Mendel-19 could not allow the virus to fall into the wrong hands; and the countermeasure was equally dangerous, as a good genetic engineer could derive the virus from it by reverse engineering. By the time a ship from the local magistracy arrived, ten standard days later, all traces of both had been destroyed.

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