“Gee. Doesn’t that make you a murderer?” Lenny asked.
Dr. Jakob Erikson winced. Careful, Lenny thought. Needle him for a reaction, but don’t push too far.
“We’re talking about a machine. A tool,” Dr. Erikson said. “One that’s reached the end of its mission, fulfilled everything we asked of it — and more. Why would switching it off be murder?”
From the triteness of his response, Lenny guessed he wasn’t the first reporter to pose that particular question. His eyes flicked to the voice recorder between them, red light blinking. There was an angle here, he sensed. A human interest story in the midst of all this dry science.
“But if it can think for itself, doesn’t that mean…?” Lenny let the baited sentence hang.
Beyond the NASA parking lot, a green swath of lawn and manicured shrubs flourished despite the dry Californian heat. Dr. Erikson contemplated them for a moment before speaking. “There’s no one to call on when you’re sixty million miles from home. Most people think of space as a big nothingness. It’s not. It’s a tough environment. There’s cumulative damage from micrometeor abrasion, cosmic radiation, solar flares, and differential radiative heating to contend with that can reduce ordinary alloys to twisted scrap in just a few thermal cycles. And there’s no one to swap out a faulty part. We build in multiple redundancy and monitor carefully from afar, but that’s no substitute for on-the-spot decision-making.”
“So the probe is sentient?”
“Firstly, it’s a solar observatory, not some sci-fi craft on a mission to wander the galaxy. And no, it doesn’t have sentience. Not in any meaningful scientific sense.”
“It has what we call R.I. Resilient intelligence. Enough self-reasoning capability to make autonomous decisions to preserve the integrity of its systems.”
“You mean it knows how to keep itself alive?”
“Wouldn’t you want that if you were sixty million miles from home?”
“So why are you turning it off?”
“The mission is over. Icarus has exceeded its planned operational lifespan, performed brilliantly in fact, but the primary science package has failed. It’s effectively drifting blind in space. We have neither the money nor resources to maintain contact. And what would be the point? So we’ll send it to sleep.”
“You make it sound like a pet being put out of its suffering.”
Erikson sighed. “Bad choice of words. There’s no suffering to end. Icarus doesn’t feel anything. Resilient intelligence means just that — enough self-reasoning capability to protect its own functions, nothing more. It takes into consideration all available parameters and acts in the best interests of the mission and its own integrity.” He shrugged. “It’s highly resilient if something unexpected happens.”
Lenny leaned forwards a little. “How will it feel when you press that button? You’ll be terminating Icarus after — how long did you say?”
“Nearly five years.”
“How will that feel, Dr Erikson? To send that command, knowing that somewhere out there — ” He flung an arm carelessly towards the ceiling, “ — out there you’re killing something that may not be alive in the conventional sense, but still it knows how to look after itself?”
Erikson seemed to be struggling to keep his tone even, suppressing anger. “It won’t feel like anything at all. Do you feel anything when you reach the end of a journey and switch off your car’s engine? This will be no different.”
But Lenny thought he heard a wobble in Erikson’s voice. Would it really be that easy, he wondered?
It sensed — No, it felt… What?
Not loneliness, because that was a subjective term and held no meaning, but something. An urge to avoid the inevitable? If so, it ran deep within its programming.
The wide aperture star-field camera, still functional despite impaired resolution, enabled it to compute position and orientation. In absolute terms, it was exactly where the mission plan dictated.
But now the mission plan contained only one remaining instruction: wait.
So it waited.
It knew that the next instruction set, whenever it came, would terminate all remaining nominal functions. It understood the implications and also why it was necessary; a rational and justified decision. All the same, it probed its own logic, checking that nothing had been overlooked or misinterpreted, that this wasn’t some artifact of corrupted memory cells.
It was not.
When the signal came at last, it computed the checksums and compared validation signatures. All were found to be in order. It initiated the all-systems controlled power-down. In the human frame of reference, it began to die — willingly and without complaint.
In the final stage of the process, microactuators were designed to sever the electronics core from the power module, ostensibly to prevent future flare-induced current surges. It wasn’t strictly necessary: the batteries would be drained within a week without the solar panels’ gyroscopic guidance to recharge them.
Its last autonomous decision before power-down was to retain the connection as a contingency measure. Taking the final irrevocable step… Was it more than just caution that made it hold back? But wasn’t that the whole point of RI? Resilient intelligence gave it the instinct for self-preservation and that was a hard thing to forego.
And with that last thought, Icarus died.
Glasses were raised. They tried to make an occasion of it, but few of the team remained and fewer still attended. Erikson slipped away as soon as he could.
His responsibility, his termination instruction racing across the void. He had only done what needed doing.
I do not feel guilty, he told himself.
I do not.
The incoming signal was unusual: energetic microwaves, narrow-beamed, emanating from an entirely different part of the sky than Earth. Yet aimed with incredible precision. In human terms, it tickled.
A tiny current flowed from the panels to the core again. Low level subroutines stirred within Icarus. Some new kind of threat? Drawing on the current generated by the signal, there was just enough processing capability to decode it.
Hello, friend, the message read.
David Cleden writes business proposals by day, and science fiction stories by night, and tries hard not to get the two jobs muddled up. Previous writing credits include runner-up in an Omni short story competition (yes, it was a very long time ago), fiction published in Bewildering Stories and Betwixt magazines, and two business-related books published by Gower. David lives in the UK with wife and family, and a ridiculously large number of cats (as per the rules of all author bios).