po polsku
Short story
Maciej Komosinski

Arturo raised his head with effort. He saw the landscape turned 90 degrees, the left half black, the right one russet, a strange view. Fine sand carried by the wind caught his eye. He felt pain in his right leg, he knew that he would not be able to walk. He could bend his left leg, but it probably couldn't support his weight. The radio was silent, he tried to send something, but heard only silence. The diagnostics reported the failure of the radio module.

He wasn't sure if he understood how it could happen. He remembered the hurricane... and the unexpected push, like a strong gust, but from the opposite direction. A sudden, startling wind blow, or was it something else? They were standing with Elira on the edge of a high rock gap, collecting samples of the terrain. Well, Elira did not want to go to this edge at that time, she suggested to wait or put it off for later, but Arturo preferred to have work at this place finished. The chemical composition seemed unusual, intriguing, they went very far and he did not want to have to come back to this area later. He remembered that while falling he was seeing Elira perform a strange evolution beneath him, like an earthly cat, trying to fall on her limbs, absorb the impact and thus minimize the risk of damage to her control system. Where is Elira now? Arturo tried to roll and look around, and finally forced his body to twist.

What he saw was depressing. Elira, his irreplaceable help, a reasoning source of information and all knowledge, lay with unnaturally stretched limbs next to a pointed rock projection. Arturo knew that his robotic companion must have suffered greatly in this fall. If it didn't, Elira would have been with him a long time ago, would have checked his consciousness and health, and reported the results of this assessment to their base. Instead, Elira lay perfectly still, and that meant either the damage to the control systems or to the energy source, or to the connection between the two... or some obstruction preventing the signal or power supply from reaching the effectors.

Arturo recalled Elira's construction diagram in his mind, rose with difficulty and slowly, painstakingly, began to crawl to her. Every move caused a stabbing pain in the right leg; the left leg he could hardly feel. When he was close, he could assess the extent of damage. Elira's body did not suffer – it was specially designed for such missions and could bear much greater overloads and stronger impacts. Similarly, all of its control systems, as they were crucial for proper operation, were specially constructed and protected. So what went wrong? Elira had a three-layered distributed control system that should have survived this type of accident – at least in part. Apparently, the predictions of the designers, their simulations and tests were not enough... Arturo could now see what had happened. A strong impact on the rock spire caused the housing to crack, and probably the inner shield behind it cracked as well, which disturbed the balance in the fluid responsible for higher control functions. Theoretically, such a design was supposed to provide high resistance to damage – the engineers were proud that they abandoned the traditional, centralized systems in favor of a special, self-organizing information processing fluid, but the strong shock and cracking of the housing had to lead to some anomaly in the behavior of this control layer. Maybe some internal crack and leakage? But that's exactly why a special, liquid substance was used – to prevent such situations from being a threat. The system was supposed to be safe and resistant, but this solution had a price – without a properly equipped laboratory, in the case of defects such a system could not be repaired.

This was not the right time for detailed analyses, and anyway Arturo had no means to check the internal state and organization of Elira's information fluid particles on site. The base could have known about their accident, because they had sent messages about their emergency situation, although they did not get any confirmation – maybe the transmission in one or the other direction was disrupted because of the hurricane. Arturo recapped their condition in his mind. Elira is out of order. Not only will she not move, but one will not be able to communicate with her. Arturo himself will not get up. The distance to the base is almost fourteen kilometers in difficult, sandy terrain. There is no chance to get there. They can't send a call for help. So it is over. He felt fear, an unpleasant feeling, not panic, but fear, and then more and more fear of annihilation, fear of the end of life. Unless the base received their message and will do something... Only Junas, the manager, was in the base; the rest already flew to the ship – they had to leave the orbit soon. Will Junas decide to start a rescue operation, thus significantly increasing the risk of the entire mission? Will he use procedures or ask the Council what to do? It was not worth deliberating – pondering what the base would do did not affect anything.

Instead, Arturo began to analyze possible scenarios with his participation – the scenarios he could influence. Is there a chance that Elira will recover by herself? Almost none. Are there any objects or substances in the area with which Arturo could help himself or her? Arturo looked around, but he didn't identify anything useful. How long will it take him to reach the base? Probably a few hundred hours, but if a hurricane comes again, maybe a few times more. Unless the base changes earlier plans, it will depart before Arturo reaches it.

He began to explore increasingly less likely scenarios. He felt tiredness overwhelming him every minute and knew that he would not have enough strength for more than a dozen hours. He tried to think of something, but the situation was without a solution. Would some form of artificial intelligence, a computing machine, some Elira replacement help him now? Already at the beginning of the development of computer science, people were aware that such machines – robots, computers, programs, algorithms – could only reproduce what their developers programmed. But in this situation, one had to think creatively and should not be limited to the usual patterns. Arturo was known for many original solutions, and his intuition has more than once led the crew out of trouble. He continued to consider more ideas, one after another, less and less likely, more and more bold, more and more risky and impossible. In this situation he had nothing else to do but think and think. After a few hours a thought dawned on him like a weak spark of hope, which he clung to and kept blowing at it... the more he blew and completed this scenario, the more it gained in quality, it dominated other thoughts and now Arturo devoted all the attention to making sure that the details of this plan make sense.

Elira wore a set of tools for exploring the area and collecting samples. In addition to heavier-caliber devices, there were several basic general-purpose tools. One can probably use them as a basic “repair kit”... Such a kit may be enough to open Elira and see what else can be done with her. Maybe get some energy from her. Or exclude certain kinds of failure. Or even fix some of them. But first let's see if we can get to these tools...

The container could not be seen. Arturo spent the next half hour crawling and systematically inspecting the surroundings. At last he saw it: a rounded shape with catches and handles, it lay several meters below, wedged in the gap between the rocks. Elira had to pull it with her when they fell, apparently she judged that it was better not to let it go. However, she either let it go before hitting the ground, or failed to hold it on impact. Or maybe she wanted the container to slide down the slope and stop between the rocks? Maybe throwing the container away reduced the risk of injury to her body on impact? For Arturo, Elira was the ideal of reason, prudence, logic and planning. He did everything to imitate her in these skills, but he knew that he would not match this machine – not with his body, his perception, his cognitive abilities. Brains of her architecture were flexible enough to communicate without problems with terrestrial animals, understand their sounds and body language, predict behavior. In any case, Elira, as always, had to do what was best in the given circumstances. But why didn't she provide him with more information, some helpful tips or suggestions in that critical moment? Until their impact, their radio modules were operational. Arturo relied heavily on her, the all-knowing, perfect robot, and now he was painfully lacking in her support. He felt how addicted he got to her.

The next few hours took Arturo the expedition: first he crawled down to the rock clearance, and then, three times slower, he came back, dragging with him the container with the necessary tools. To save time and effort, he left less important content behind. And then he got to work. He authorized access and dismantled Elira's outer covers. He ran diagnostics and checked that the communication with actuators was working. All actuators. This was not good news, because it meant that the failure was inside the control system. While Arturo managed to move Elira's limbs using her relays, he felt that it was quickly depleting him, and yet he had already lost a lot of energy for the trip to get the container with tools. He had to hook up higher...

A dozen or so minutes of work and another piece of new information, another small success. The fact that Elira's energy source worked and was doing well was not surprising – after all, it was the best-protected element of the structure. However, Arturo's new achievement was that he finally managed to control the effectors of Elira using her own energy. It was all like a surgery on a complex body with a hammer and a screwdriver... but Arturo knew what he was doing. He had Elira's diagram. He had extensive experience in electronics, cybernetics and robotics. And very good hands.

New information about Elira's condition opened up new scenarios of the future and changed their attractiveness, but Arturo did not want to spend time now reconsidering and comparing them. Intuition told him that what he was doing now was better than spending time for deliberations. Despite the knowledge of Elira's diagram, he still could not predict her movement well. He moved her limbs awkwardly, but he did not understand their interaction and the dynamics of her body. Maybe if he devoted more time... eventually he would master it, but now he felt like a man riding a bicycle with one wheel and an inverted handlebar. Instead of learning how to control the entire Elira using low-level signal sequences, he came to the conclusion that it would be better to try another idea.

He started disassembling the next control layer. It was a challenge because it was largely surrounded by the highest level control – the information fluid. Although this top layer did not seem to work, he preferred not to break it. Maybe some day someone will fix it with the proper infrastructure? Maybe by some miracle Arturo will somehow use it, maybe the failure is not serious and the fluid will reach balance and organization after some time? He had to work precisely and time was running out. He felt slowly growing tired. His nimble fingers immersed in Elira's body were swiftly manipulating interfaces and circuits. Finally, he found what he was looking for and what was immediately visible in the diagram: a clear separation of the second and third levels of control. The place where the information fluid sent signals to the second layer. Where consciousness touched the information stem. A little brain that translates high-level commands into indirect effector control. This is where Arturo wanted to connect, or at least try and see what would come out of it.

The first attempts were not successful, but he expected it. He had to learn how the information in Elira's specification translated into actual movements. It was not enough to find microswitches and membrane neurotransmitters, to expose communication buses and to know transmission protocols to effectively control the whole body. But with each passing moment Arturo was getting better. First he rolled up Elira's limbs, then he got her up. He was learning precision, more subtle, finer motions. He was no longer worried about complicated interactions – the second layer of the control system was doing it. He had to be careful to make small movements with Elira, because he still had his hands and tools inside her, and the generated impulses went directly to her system through temporary, unstable connections. However, the plan he was implementing seemed more and more attractive... he was on the road to saving both of them.

To survive the expedition to the base, connections could not be unstable. Arturo disassembled the less-important pieces of Elira's control system and built a more durable, flexible connection from them. He regretted that he had to use material connections, but first of all his own radio module was out of order, and secondly the safety guidelines did not allow the construction of robots with radio low-level control. It would have been a lot simpler by radio, but to be able to control Elira by radio at the low level, the last layer of her controller would have to work – and then he could simply order her to perform some moves and complex tasks, without resorting to the tricks with radio control of lower levels. Meanwhile, with each passing moment Arturo mastered the control of her body. He envied her design, its strength and precision, its six legs, stability... compared to it, his own body was weak, limited, unreliable... and now also sore and handicapped.

The next part of the plan. He takes using Elira the container with tools. He takes using Elira himself, grabs himself with her two limbs, wraps them around his body and lifts himself up, the third limb in part holding the container, in part holding himself, and in part this limb will be useful in difficult terrain for support. And he sets off. Elira has a huge supply of energy. Arturo carefully sends control signals and feels some kind of pride that he coped, that the plan works, and his inventiveness and resourcefulness can save them one more time. Swayed with steady steps, he slowly approaches the goal... He is overwhelmed by a pleasant feeling of light euphoria and at the same time relaxation – satisfaction from a well-completed task that initially seemed impossible to solve.

The star disappears behind the horizon, the moons set. It gets dark and Arturo loses the view of the surroundings. Elira's limb sensors work in the dark, but it is risky to rely only on them because they provide limited and delayed information. Arturo considers connecting to Elira's extended sensory lines; he could have done this before, but did not foresee that it would be needed. Elira would have foreseen it, Elira would have predicted it all. So either we stop the journey and we rummage in Elira again, or we go much, much slower.

The second scenario wins. Less risk. We go several times slower relying only on signals from limb sensors. We will still manage to reach the base before Arturo's strength runs out and before the base flies away, and we do not have to change what is already working. And it is working well; not optimally, but stably. Sufficiently.

Step. Step. Step. Mud dunes. Faults. Sand. Arturo is virtually blind in these conditions, he also can't see with Elira. He relies only on the autonomous behavior of Elira's limbs and on indirect information about their location when they touch the terrain. And the terrain is uneven and variable, deceptive, once a rock, then sand on a rock, deep sand next. Elira sees and feels everything, feels the texture of the sand, feels sharp grains and smoothness of rocks, feels the pressure of Arturo's body wobbling in her embrace to the rhythm of her steps, feels his weakness and suffering in the touch of their bodies, although she cannot respond with gentleness and elasticity, she hears the crunching of her collapsing, heavy and thick legs, hears the wind and the rustle of spilled particles, she feels the shape of rock bends in the sound of the wind, sees the black abyss around and dots glistening in it, she feels so much that she blends into the universe with her mindfulness. Her wonderful, rich senses work, they cut straight into consciousness, but this information does not reach Arturo. It does not reach Elira's intermediate layer. Could Arturo comprehend it all anyway? The makers of Elira connected her sensory signals directly to the information fluid. This was to increase the safety of her design, fault tolerance and the effectiveness of information processing.

Arturo sees the lights of the base looming in the dark. They flash, but it is because the rocks obscure them, and Arturo rises and falls to the rhythm of Elira's body movements. They are close. A few more meters. Arturo brings Elira very slowly and carefully up the steps. Authorization. The lock opens. They hardly squeeze through the hole. The lock closes. Authorization again. After a moment, the inner door opens, but the opening is too small and Arturo cannot curl Elira so that they could fit and go through it. So he hangs like a loser in this airlock, he does not want to loosen Elira's handle and fall onto the floor, while the airlock door hisses rhythmically trying to alternately close and open. A stupid situation.

Arturo sees Junas sitting at the console as if nothing had happened, lazily watching something on the screens. Yet Junas knows that they have arrived, why does he not care, why is he not worried about the situation? Where is the reward for Arturo's effort, where is the appreciation of his talent, imagination and courage, where is joy and gratitude for saving both of them all by himself? Finally, Junas gets up, accidentally knocking a small transmitter from the desktop. “Ehhhh”, he mutters to himself, kneels on one knee and slowly picks up the transmitter from the floor. An exoprosthesis – a reminder of an unfortunate decision taken in an urgent, difficult situation at the beginning of the mission – allows him to stand up quite smoothly, and as he stands up, he finally notices the hissing door of the airlock. “Ah, yes...”, he mumbles casually as if distracted, “...here you are...”.

He does not hurry. He watches with interest the strange formation trapped in the airlock entrance, the wedged tangled limbs, the two destroyed radio modules, partially dismantled Elira, Arturo with hanging, limp legs wrapped and tilted as he tried to fit in the upper corner of the door. “Almost two hours late” – Junas adds disapprovingly. – “You should have listened to the smarter one. I hope you brought the samples?” – He pauses, inspecting the tangled legs and looking for the container. He walks closer to them, sees Arturo's hands entwined with Elira's control systems, nanoports of both precisely touching each other, exposed neuroconnection buses coupled riskily above the coverings of integrated circuits. – “Don't you talk to each other anymore? Did you get offended at the base? I got a transmission from Eli when you fell. Before the impact, she also managed to send what you would probably do... I see that you handled the tools as she planned” – a shadow of a smile flashes across the face of the only human in this mission.

Do you want to read a less typical short SF story?

A few things to think about...