The tiny mechanical creature lay motionless on the gravel path. It didn’t return to the base station last night but the empty battery had to be a symptom of a larger ill.
This particular bot wasn’t mission critical for human life, but without it the flora and fauna in Capability Park on the moon were going to be stressed. Last time this guy had an outage they lost over fifteen percent of the plants growing here. The losses were only recovered a few months ago.
Sean Reynolds was frustrated that they weren’t preparing for the loss of this device. He knew the bots and systems that worked to sustain life in the park and the machines knew the plants.
Scooping the aluminum body off the ground he was amazed at how light the package was. This bot was built over forty years ago and designed to crawl along the hull of a ship and look for defects and make minor repairs. Ines Nazca modified to be one of the first agro-bots.
It was due for replacement about twenty years ago, but the problem with a lot of the older artificial intelligence was that no one knew how they learned. This bot, George, learned more about the variety of trees and plants in the park than any human even considered.
Using it’s eight legs and tracked drive unit the bot could travel up and down nearly every plant in the park over the course of a day. Inspecting the color and texture of leaves, bark, and stalk fed into an algorithm that directed water, fertilizer and in some instances extra UV light.
Before this bot came online, Capability Park was not very good at supporting life. The clear dome and initial biodiversity were insufficient to kick start a biosphere. Ines was able to salvage oxygen scrubbers and air purification systems to compensate for the loss of vital elements, but it was a full time job just to break even with plants failing.
Then George came on line. It killed the first two plants it tried to inspect and Ines almost sent it out the airlock. Inspection of the third plant came back with claims of too much water and insufficient nitrogen. Eventually that plant died too.
But Ines owned the death of the third plant. She added the nitrogen but did not reduce the water, she disagreed with George. George never inspected that plant again and Ines considered it her control.
From then on she listened to the feedback George gave her and followed his recommendations to the letter. They learned to experiment with additives and nutrients while communicating about the health of the plants. George was constantly learning and building the data set he could leverage to not just let the plants survive, but thrive.
Eighteen months after George went to work in Capability Park they had their first apple. Ines almost felt bad telling him that it was bland and the sugar content was likely too low.
But George wasn’t emotional. He took her feedback, incorporated the data and changed the nutrition plan for the apple tree.
Almost one year later Ines picked their second apple and was overcome with flavor. It was as good, or better, than any apple she had eaten on Earth. George was still unfazed and made minor adjustments to the nutrition plan based on the trees increased size and additional fruits.
Eventually the park was running smoothly and George was fully trusted with it’s care. Ines was called off to other projects and George went about his business, never tiring.
In those early days very few people came to the park. The Off Earth Manufacturing and Repair station was not built out and the only people with reason to come to this area were Kai and Ines Nazca. When they visited they would walk along the paths, lay in the grass and pick at the fruits ripening on their stems. But they didn’t disturb him.
When the Maintenance and Repair station was complete, people started to visit the park for a break. There were more and more humans being born in space every day, but those who moved up from Earth seemed to need time in the park to reconnect with something.
George just kept working.
When the population of humans orbiting the Earth passed one thousand the agriculture ships began popping up. They grew a variety of nutritious vegetables but wasted water and oxygen. The enterprising Nazca’s ghosted Georges code and built out new agro-bots to crawl through the crops and manage the health of the plants.
But there was something about the new hardware and old code. The agro-bots quickly specialized and developed a proficiency with certain types of plants. When a new agro-bot was introduced to Capability Park it would consistently fail at the end of the first day. The variety of plants overwhelmed the technology.
A new agro-bot could increase the yield of a soy crop by fifty percent in it’s first season and go well beyond the Earth standards for yield per square meter but it couldn’t manage apple, raspberry, and wheat grass at the same time.
George just kept working.
And then one day he didn’t leave the base station.
This was in the first week of Sean’s job at the park. By then Ines had passed away and Kai was staying close to Lagrange-4. Janelle was running the Maintenance and Repair business and therefore responsible for Capability Park.
It took them a month to diagnose and repair the problem. Something to do with the battery and the optics processor. Both of the originals were antiques and did not have a like replacement part. They were upgraded, but George wasn’t the same.
Plants started to die and there was a genuine fear that the entire park would shrivel up and become a sand dune. Agriculture experts were flown up from Earth to look at the park and an AI shrink was brought over from Lagrange-4 to talk with George and see what was troubling him. It was an unsuccessful visit.
The ever practical Ray Nazca from Lagrange-4 had a collection of spares and pieces that still dated back to the first Orbital War. He had a bot parse these pieces to find an exact replacement for George’s original specficiations. The battery was not available, but it turned out that the optics unit was a standard issue and they had a pair of them in inventory.
Ray sent the parts immediately and Sean assisted with the installation. George was quickly back to his old self.
Several years ago George failed again. Rather than risk the loss of plant life Sean simply replaced the optics unit and hoped it was the only issue. The fix worked perfectly and George spent more years working flawlessly.
The biosphere formed at Capability Park became so robust that it supported insects and small birds. For the first time in Off Earth history, mosquitos, bee’s and chickadee’s were living on the moon.
George extended his responsibilities to caring for the bee hive and managed to produce three seasons of honey before this most recent failure. Janelle and Lucy loved the sweet results of his experiments and their reviews helped George to fine tune microscopic aspects of the park.
And last night he didn’t return to his base station. He stopped right here on the path leading to the apple tree.
It wasn’t an abrupt failure, George curled his legs underneath his chassis and neatly lowered his treads on top of them. There was no data dump sent or error logged on the network. It was as if the robot simply got tired and decided to rest.
Sean placed the motionless body on the workbench gently. He hated the thought of taking his cover off and finding a fried circuit or some other short. He knew there were no more optics units and couldn’t bare the thought of seeing a cracked lens or some other damage that would turn out to be fatal.
When the cover popped off it revealed the neatly packaged innards of a perfectly healthy bot. No burn marks, melted wires or cracked chips. There was nothing physically wrong with George.
Sean connected the power cell to a monitored charger and checked the screen. Nothing. The power cell would not accept a charge.
George accepted new power cells with almost no interruption of service. The form factor had changed over the years but the delivery of current was measurable and consistent.
Sean went to the supply racks and began the hunt for a suitable power cell. The last time he replaced George’s power cell it took two days and a call to Lagrange-4 before he found the right one. If memory served, they sent over a box containing three identical units.
Where did he put that box?
On the top shelf, way down near the wall, he could see the corner of a box. It was dirty and worn, exactly like something that would have come from the team at Off Earth Salvage.
Reaching up he felt the weight of the old school power cells. Two identical units were right where he left them and he took one out and placed the box back where it had come from.
At the work bench, Sean hesitated. What if the new power cell didn’t work? They needed to start thinking about Capability Park without George. What was the old expression? Failing to plan was planning to fail.
But how long was it between power cell failures? Years?
More years than Sean had left that was for sure. And there was still one more power cell left. It would be decades before George had a nonrecoverable failure.
Or his optics could fail tomorrow.
Keeping George off line so that he wouldn’t fail made no sense. Sean connected the power cell and attached the charger.
The display remained blank. George was not taking a charge.
Sean disconnected the power cell and tested it independently. It register current and accepted a charge.
Reconnecting the power cell to George caused the current to drop and the charging to stop.
Sean knew in his heart that George was gone. There were a few more things to try to find out if the power cell could take and hold a charge while connected to the bot, but it seemed obvious that none of them would work.
The artificial intelligence that evolved on it’s own decided it was time. No one could ever say how it became so smart or how it finally reached it’s end of life. Along the way anything artificial was lost. What remained in Capability Park was very much real, had been very much alive and was now sadly dead.
Off Earth short stories
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