Protocol 29A

ice and snow(A series of short stories in ‘Asimov’ magazine looked at the relationship between man and robot.  This inspired me to write ‘Protocol 29A’ involving a ‘Semi Intelligent Machine Operated Nexus’ (SIMON))


Opening my eyes.  My god it’s an effort.  It’s like someone’s added tiny weights to each and every eyelash.   I close them.  My breathing is slow, rhythmic, lulling me back into unconsciousness.  Something buried deep in my mind cries out, ‘Don’t’.  I open my eyes again, it’s easier this time.  Nothing.  No wait, there, on the edge of my vision.  Turn the eyes, now the head, a faint blue streak.  I’m lying on my back, why?  I fell, that’s it I fell.  Shit.  I was trying to free the tractor sled, stuck in a depression.  A warning groan, then a crack and the ice gave way under me, a crevasse, a damned crevasse.  The sled must have trundled most of the way across before getting stuck, then I just blunder straight into it, idiot.  What have you told yourself about getting careless.

Now, stay calm, take stock.  The suit’s in one piece.  It has to be, otherwise you wouldn’t be alive.    Control unit?  Raise the left arm.  Ooh, that’s sore.  I must have banged my shoulder on the way down.  Lights are blinking green, so far so good.  Activate the head-up display, that all checks out, good, good.  Now, let’s sit,..Holy shit that hurts!  My left leg, broken?  Must be.  Deep breaths, deep breaths.  Right, harden the suit to the max, splint the leg as much as possible.  Now, try again, slowly this time.  More deep breaths, wait for the pain to subside.

Helmet lights on.  I’m in a cavern.  The floor is littered with the pebbles and rocks the shifting ice sheet has grubbed up then dropped on its travels.  The ceiling must be what?, at least ten metres above me.  Patches of crystalline white glisten, in the narrow beam, through the muck that clings to the underside.  The cavern must be enormous.  I can’t even see where it meets the ground.  You could hide a small mining settlement down here.  Wonder what’s holding it up?  No, no, don’t wonder that, just pray whatever is holding it up keeps doing so.  There’s the blue streak, the crevasse, a ragged gash stretching across the ceiling.  I can’t see far inside.  It must slope down, at least part of the way, rather than being a vertical chasm in the ice sheet.  Good job, otherwise I might not have woken up at all.  I guess the last ten metre fall to the ground is where I broke my leg.

What’s the display telling me.  Temperature minus 5, that’s about 15 degrees better than up top anyway.  Ice sheet one hundred and thirty two metres thick.  I fell one hundred and thirty two metres and I’m still alive!  My elation lasts for about two seconds. Somehow, I’ve got to get back up there, with a broken leg.

Where’s Simon?  The display shows his main body some twenty six clicks south.  The base unit is only a hundred metres away, but that’s no good.  All of Simon is out, spread across the ice.

‘Simon, come in Simon.’

‘Simon here.’

‘Simon,  Where are you?’

‘My main body is approximately 25.5 klicks South of you.  Long 31 24 26, Lat 51 22 12.  My subsidiary unit is 0.3 clicks North, Long 29 30 31, Lat  53 05 32.  Rig one is 0.8 klicks west of me, Long 31 26 31, Lat 52 01 19.  Rig 2 is..

Serves me right for asking.  ‘Simon!  I need you to return.’

‘Anders, I have thirty seven more core samples to take before completion of this sector.  A round trip back to you will add half a day to the mission.’

‘Forget the mission, Simon.  I need you here.’

‘I cannot forget the mission Anders, it’s my prime protocol.’

‘F..,’  No, no, think. ‘Simon I need you here, otherwise we can’t complete the mission.  I’ve fallen down a crevasse.  I need you to help get me out.’

‘Why have you fallen down a crevasse Anders?’

‘Why!’ be calm, be calm.  ‘It doesn’t matter why, Simon.  You must return, that’s a direct 3A protocol, do you understand.’

‘Yes Anders, complying.’

What now?  Think things through.  The suit can keep me going for days, no worries there.  Hang on though, I’m on the second moon of the gas giant of Titan V.  It doesn’t have a name.  Hell, the planet doesn’t even have a name, it’s that remote.  I’m on an insignificant ice ball in the middle of nowhere.  It’ll be what, at least a week before anyone can get out here?  Now you can worry.  They do warn you, about prospecting alone with just a SIMON.  The company don’t advise it, officially.  But they don’t make great efforts to stop you either.  It means they can spread their resources wider.  It’s my parents fault.  They made me a loner.  Not believing in cosmetic genetic manipulation.  They said it gave me character, made me self reliant.  But in worlds of mainly perfect looking people, this sort of ‘character’ just stands out.  Not normal.  The shrinks agree.

Come on, stop feeling sorry for yourself.  The shrinks said that as well, remember.  Right, let’s be positive, Simon’s on his way.  Now what are we going to do when he gets here?  SIMON, Semi Intelligent Machine Operated Nexus.  SIMON of ROMRI, the Rigor Operational Mining Robotics Inc.  The trouble is the semi intelligent part.  Fill him with protocols and you can set him running for days.  Issues with geology, broken drill bit, frozen rigs, no problem.  The sub protocols cover all that.  He will ‘think’ his way through almost anything that kind of problem can throw up.  It’s only with something completely out of his remit, off protocol, does he get stuck.  Remember three months ago, when he got locked into a subroutine loop.  It had him spinning on the spot, slowly grinding himself into a large hole in the ice.  It would have been really funny if it hadn’t taken me nearly half a day to dig him out and reprogram him.  The more I think about Simon, the more I wish I had a ‘FIMON’ coming to my aid.  But, ROMRI won’t use fully Intelligent  anymore.  Not after an ugly incident twenty years ago, a mission conflict in which people died.  Although, I think what really decided ROMRI was the plummeting share price.

‘Anders.  Anders?’

Hell, I must have drifted off.  Is that a sign of concussion?, or just bad if you have concussion?.  How do I know if I’ve got concussion?  I think one symptom is blurred vision?  Nope, vision is good.   ‘Yes, Simon.’

‘I’m back at the pod site, but I can’t see you.’

‘I fell down the crevasse, Simon.  I’m under the ice.’

‘You should not be under the ice, Anders.’  Simons voice is hesitant.  This is taxing his limited logic.  ‘I will wait for you to return.’

‘Simon, I can’t return, I’m…’  Wait, think.  ‘Simon wait there.’

‘Yes Anders.’

The trouble is, it’s like talking to a three year old.  Reminds me of when I was about seven and my kid sister got stuck in the bathroom.  She’d gone in and played with the lock, or done what she’d seen mum do.  But, she couldn’t understand how to unlock it again.  It had taken half an hour of mum talking patiently, keeping the panic out of her own voice, encouraging and cajoling before she finally slid the lock back.  That’s what I’ve got to figure out with Simon, how to get him to understand, or at least cajole him to do what needs to be done even if he doesn’t understand.  One step at a time.

‘Simon, can you see the sled?’

‘Yes, Anders, it’s on the edge of a crevasse.’

‘Can you retrieve it?’

‘Yes.  It’s on the other side.  I will have to test both sides of the crevasse and lay temporary track  to cross, then reinforce the area around the sled.  It should then be possible to shoot a grapple and retrieve it safely.’  See, give him a problem for which he has protocols and there’s no stopping him.  The trouble is he doesn’t have a protocol for rescuing a stupid prospector, with a broken leg, under the ice.  Because, the stupid prospector should never have ventured outside the base unit in the first place.

‘Great.  Retrieve the sled, Simon.’

Tuning into Simon’s cameras it’s fascinating to watch.  I’ve been doing this so long, I’ve become blasé about what he can actually do.  But, with no other distractions, I watch and appreciate.  I suppose one advantage of having a semi-intelligent system is that the brain can focus completely on the tasks in hand, without distraction.  He doesn’t suffer from doubt.  The protocols are followed.

‘I have the sled Anders.’

‘Yes, I can see.  Simon I now want you to lower a probe down the crevasse.’

‘Why do you want me to do that, Anders.’

You build a semi-intelligent system and then make it question orders, why?  Stay calm, you know why, it’s to make you think things through.  ‘I want to see if the crevasse is clear all the way down from where you are.’


‘Slowly, Simon.’ I can just see Simon on the edge of the probes wide angle view.  The low sun is turning his silvered casing golden, glinting from the surface and flaring in the lens.  Then deep shade and Simon’s a dark silhouette against a purple sky.  It takes the camera a second to adjust to the diming light.  I can see down the crevasse.  The angle is steep, but sufficient for me to have slid rather than fallen.  It happened so fast, it didn’t register at the time.  As the probe continues I can see veins of muck and stone locked in the ice.  They must have been there for thousands of years.  The good thing is the opening must be nearly two metres wide all the way down.  After a few minutes, I can see a light glaring back.  I shift my head a little, it’s me, a small white object standing out against the greys and browns of the cavern floor.

‘Simon, you can pull the probe back now.’   The reverse journey tells me nothing new.

‘Simon, I now want you to winch the sled down to me on the same path the probe took.’

‘Why Anders?’

‘Because, Simon, I’m going to strap myself to it and then you are going to winch it, and me, back to the surface.  Do  you understand?’  Simon hesitates.  ‘Simon, do you understand?’

‘Yes, Anders.’  I watch as Simon’s manipulators unhitch the probe.  I breathe a sigh of relief as he attaches the sled.  It still has the surveying equipment strapped on, but that won’t matter.  I don’t want to confuse Simon further.  From Simon’s view point I see it creep over the edge of the ice and disappear from sight.  Five minutes later it emerges above my head.  My heart beats faster.  My life raft out of here has arrived.

‘Slowly, Simon.  I can see it.  That’s it.  Nice and gentle.  Now wait.’  Ignoring the pain I shuffle the few metres over to the sled and haul myself upright, leaning on the side.  A light touch and the first of the harness locks clicks open.  One strap.   A hop, and a second hop, to the next strap.  The pebbles under my right foot shift and roll, weight on my left leg.  It’s like someone’s rammed a red hot arc gun into my thigh.  A second later the agony explodes in my brain.  The next thing I’m conscious of is feeling sharp stones digging into my back.  I’m lying on the floor, breathing in short gasps, staring at a patch on the dirty ice ceiling, illuminated by my helmet lamp.  Did I pass out?, I’m not sure.  Don’t rush, gather yourself.  The pain subsides, at least enough to think about hauling myself up again.

‘Anders, are you alright?’

‘I..,I will be,’  I can hear my shallow, rapid breathing, hissing inside the helmet.  Simon must be hearing the same.  He must have heard me cry out.  Does he have protocols, concerning injured humans?  Probably not, knowing ROMRI they’d consider it a waste of memory space.

‘Anders, I’m picking up seismic activity in the ice sheet.’  Simon’s voice is calm, as if this is a routine core drilling operation.

‘Show me.’  The display’s green line spikes and then spikes again, this time almost off the scale.   But I don’t need the display or Simon’s analysis to tell me what’s happening.  I can hear it, feel it.  There is a deep, growling rumble as if some huge beast has woken and is making its way across the cavern.  I can feel the vibration of its heavy foot fall through the floor.  A deafening, tortured shriek, echoes round the chamber.  My eyes are closed, waiting for millions of tons of ice and rubble to make a micrometre thin, red smear of my body.  The echoes fade away.  I’m still alive.  I open my eyes.  The only light now is from my helmet.  The blue glowing streak of the crevasse is gone.  Scanning the cavern roof, within my limited scope, at least I can’t see anything to suggest its imminent fall.  I hold my breath, listening, finger tips pressed to the floor, questing, straining for the slightest vibration.  Nothing.  I breathe again.

‘Anders, I have lost contact with the sled.  The crevasse has closed.’  Simon’s voice is crackling, the view from his camera is breaking up.  Must be all that ice in the way.

Tell me something I don’t know.  ‘Yes, Simon.  Wait.  I need time to think.’  Think about what?

‘Anders,’  Simon’s stuttering voice sounds distant.  ‘The sled,..valuable,… you,…’

‘Simon, can you hear me?’

‘Yes, I,…, you…’

‘Simon, the sled is stuck here with me.  You need to contact ROMRI control.  Tell them the situation.  That I’m stuck down here with a broken leg.  No way out.’  A week at least.  Can I survive that long?  Perhaps the suit can keep going.  I keep it fully charged.  How long have I been down here, seven hours.  Battery reading down ten percent.  So what, seventy hours, maybe a bit more if I keep still.  What’s that?, four, maybe five days at the most.  Not good.  Not long enough.

‘Simon, I can only survive five days at best.  Do you understand?  I can’t move.  I’m stuck down here, with a broken leg.’

‘Anders,..sled,…stuck,…broken…  29A,.. protocol.’

‘Simon, Simon!  Forget about the protocols.  Just contact ROMRI.’

Catching snatches from Simon’s camera feed I have an impression of him moving at speed across the desolate frozen emptiness.  On an uphill section the swirling gas giant dominates the horizon, looming over its insignificant moon.  Simon flicks himself left then right, dodging frozen boulders, following a track that makes sense only to him.  I can see ice spraying up from his caterpillars, individual crystals casting brilliant rainbows against the deep blue twilight.

‘Simon, where are you going?  You must contact ROMRI.’

Simon’s voice comes back a tone higher than normal.  The words, almost gabbling, so fast I can hardly catch them.  ‘Protocol,…must,…29A,…must.’  My heart sinks.  I’ve overloaded him.  He’s trying to make sense of it all by reverting to protocols.  He’s metaphorically digging a hole, if not literally.  I allow myself to slump to the ground.  I’m tired.  Tired through my excursions.  Tired from the broken leg.  Tired from trying to reason with Simon.  I should have known.    Maybe I should power down the suit.  Drift off to sleep and never wake up.  There are fail-safes of course, but it can be done, with enough determination.

I wake from a dream.  I’ve been dashing around, then stopping to perform random tasks, then dashing some more.  I’ve left the feed from Simon switched on.  I can see episodes of frantic activity.  As if he’s burying himself in mindless labour.  Filling his brain with doing, so there’s no room for confusion.

‘Simon, Simon, stop.  Contact ROMRI.’  I don’t really expect him to end his pointless exertion.  He doesn’t disappoint.

‘Protocol,…protocol,…29A,…29A,…protocol 29A.’  It sounds like a Mantra Simon is using to blank everything else out.

It’s dark now, on the surface .  It’s always dark in here.  When I can see through Simon’s ‘eyes’, everything is in stark black and whites, harsh details picked out in his brilliant lights.  The intermittent view flicks from scene to scene, like watching a badly edited vid.  There’s a rig, retracting, now being collapsed by Simon.  Blank.  Another rig being picked up, out of sight, presumably being stored in Simon’s main shell.   I switch the feed off.  I put the helmet light on for a few seconds, look around the cavern.  Not sure what I expect to see.  Turn it off again, conserve what suit life I can.  But what for, it won’t be enough?  I contemplate powering down again.  Not yet, maybe Simon will slow down when he’s finished doing whatever he’s doing and I can get through to him.  Maybe there’ll be another prospector somewhere in the same sector, maybe.  Where there’s life there’s hope – who said that?  Doesn’t matter, hold on to it.

I’ve been down here twenty one hours now.  The leg is throbbing.  I don’t like to think what’s going on inside the hardened suit.  Turn on the Simon feed.  He’s speeding across the ice again.  It’s day time in the moon’s sixteen hour cycle.  The feed steadies and I can appreciate the harsh, desolate beauty of this insignificant block of ice and rock hanging in space.  It surprises me, that I’ve never really done that before, just looked and seen the world I’m on as it is.  Not just a source of mineral deposits to be mapped and documented, before leaving it to be mined and stripped.

Simon stops his headlong rush.  Not that the activity ceases.  If anything he’s attacking whatever it is he’s doing with even more vigour.  What now?  Despite myself I’m fascinated.  The rigs are being set up in close formation.  Where is he?  I catch site of the control unit, how far away?, two hundred meters ?  Blank.  Now he’s at the control unit, now back at the rigs.  Blank.  Then I hear drilling, a bit cleaving through the ice as if it was insulation foam.  Chips of ice, and pebbles, fall from the ceiling.  I duck down next to the sled, covering my head as larger chunks crash to the floor.  Turning on the helmet light and risking a glance, a drill bit appears through the roof of the cavern, like some manic mole, it’s head still whirring.   After a few minutes five more appear, one after another, roughly in a circle.   Then all six retract and silence returns.  I wait.  What the hell is Simon doing?  I’m reluctant to get my hopes up, he might have just flipped completely.

‘Simon, Simon, what’s going on?’  Seconds, minutes go by.  Nothing.  ‘Simon!’  Still nothing.  I reckon he’s seized up, or driven himself to the point where he’s just a twitching wreck of machinery.  The holes stare at me, taunting me with their connection to the surface.  Wait, I can hear something else, deeper in tone than drills, bigger, getting louder.  I hobble, dragging the sled away from under the holes.  I cover ten metres before collapsing with the pain.  As I lie taking shallow, ragged breaths the ice round the drill holes cracks.  Razor sharp shards flake off and fall to where I would have been.  Seconds later a block, metres square, breaks away.  I cover my head, leaning into the sled for protection.  Smashing to the ground it breaks into hundreds of pieces.  Luckily for me the largest ones roll away from the sled, but I’m still peppered with smaller and some not so small ones.  When the ice dust settles and the echoes of the crash die away, there is a hole in the roof two metres across.  Simon’s front appears in the hole ‘looking’ down.  Two manipulator arms stretch out from the hole.  I half expect him to say ‘Ta-ra!’   He doesn’t.

‘Anders, strap yourself to the sled with the other equipment.’

Other equipment?  I pull myself upright and undo the two straps I had given up on, what seems like weeks ago.  Simon watches as I make myself a hollow amongst the equipment and lock the straps up as tight as I can.  A grapple shoots out, with unerring accuracy, latching on to the end of the sled, dragging it across the floor of the cavern until it’s beneath Simons bulk.  Two more grapple lines descend.  These I ensure latch on to the straps rather than me.   Simon hauls us up, then secures us with his two manipulator arms.  Now I can see the hole is roughly at forty five degrees.  Actually, knowing Simon, it will be exactly forty five degrees.  I can sense him straining as his caterpillars, arms and the winch pull us all back towards the surface.  It takes fifteen minutes.  The longest fifteen minutes of my life, during which I pray.  I pray for everything to hold, the winch, the straps, the ice, along with anything else I can think of that might be involved in getting us back.  As we emerge I’m slapping Simon with excitement.  Turning my head skyward, drinking in the weak sunlight, I’m shouting ‘thank you, thank you!’.  Simon sets the sled down and I undo the straps.  Forgetting the broken leg I collapse to the ground in agony, but through clenched teeth I’m laughing.

‘Simon, Simon!  You did it.  You did it.’  Dragging myself upright against the sled, Simon is standing there.  I’m not sure how he can look proud of himself, but he does, at least to me.  I’m proud of him.  ‘Simon, you did it.’  If I could have danced, I would have.

Simon didn’t move. ‘Protocol 29A,’ was all he said, as if that explained everything.  Grabbing a small tripod to use as a crutch I hobble and hop to the command unit.  Inside, I get my breath back, inject myself with pain killers and antibiotics, remove the suit and set the leg in the temporary splint.  I then look up protocol 29A.  It is ‘The retrieval of damaged and valuable equipment.’  I don’t ask Simon whether it was me or the sled and its contents that prompted him to follow protocol 29A.


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