Even without checking his watch, Director Bondar could tell that it was not yet 0300 hours. No one had bothered to explain why they had called his reisdents in the middle of the night, nor why it was so urgent that he had to report to the Gliese Science Laboratory at such an ungodly hour. All that they had said was that it was a matter of great delicacy, and that his team was already assembled and waiting. Knowing this, he hadn’t been angry for long. Given all those prequalifications, he knew that whatever it was ought to be worth the trip.
He came to the front security checkpoint and waved his hand over the sensor. The embedded ID chip the agency issued him delivered his temporary security clearance, and the remote doors opened. He past several night custodians and a security personnel, all of whom looked as confused as he felt. It was apparent that the building was in a state of heightened security, and that no one seemed to know why.
He was almost to the Telexploration module when a familiar face appeared before him in the hallway. Given the nature of the situation, he had expected to see Doctor Anders before long. As the lead researcher of the Gliese Science Team, it was her people that had reported on the “matter” that had brought him here. He only hoped she could explain things to him in as succinct a manner as possible. He really didn’t have the time or wakefulness for anything else.
“Morning, Ron,” she said, checking her chrono to confirm that it was indeed no longer evening. “I’m glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“Margaret, I trust you know what’s going on?”
“Not exactly,” she said, with a sigh. “That is to say, I’ve been made aware of the situation, but that doesn’t mean I understand why it’s happening.”
“An important distinction,” Bondar said with a nod. “So what you can tell me?”
“Well, for me, things began when my crew called me at home. They were doing a routine check on the mission because the satellite was in perfect position for telemetry with the Exo. They went to download the latest communications package from the unit, and found some rather interesting entries in it.”
“Interesting in the sense that, in addition to its regular communiques, it had sent what appeared to be a several page manifesto on why it wasn’t coming home…”
Bondar stopped for a moment. A deep frown took to his face and he could feel his forehead furrowing into a wide range of peeks and valleys. The effect seemed to last for several seconds, with his face scrunching up more and more the longer he took to think about what Anders had just said.
“I… I beg your pardon?”
“I know,” she said, crossing her arms. “I swear this must be some kind of practical joke. That’s what I told the crew when they finally dragged me in here to see it for myself. I told them this was from one of the other Science Teams, maybe the Tau Ceti people, they’re known for their bad senses of humor -“
“Wait, wait…” Bondar said with a raised hand. “You’re suggesting one of the other Exoplanet research teams hacked into the satellite feed, uploaded a manifesto so that the next time your team tried to access the Gliese rover, it would look like it was making some kind of political statement?”
Anders cleared her throat. She had to admit, hearing it put that way did make it sound a little farfetched. But considering the alternative, she forced to stick to her guns.
“Yes… yes, I guess I am,” she said, adding, “Do you think I’m wrong?”
Bondar’s mind was not nearly as clear as he wanted it to be, needed it to be even. But under the circumstances, Anders line of reasoning made perfect sense to him. Hell, Anything that resolved the situation forthwith and got him back home into his warm bed sounded good at this point.
“No…” he replied finally. “In fact, I like it. It’s my new favorite theory right now.”
Anders nodded. She knew exactly what he meant. “I was heading into the module again. Care you join me?”
Bondar scoffed. “Why not? Might as well see this joke up close.”
They stood within a spherical room, an enclosure which became effectively seamless once the door was shut behind them. Arranged about them were three members of the GST, every technician and scientist who had been working the late shift when Anders had arrived. In the center, closest to the wall and the live feed, was Frye, the team’s chief robotics expert. As usual, he had his control gloves and headset on, using the former to manipulate the wall image around them and the headset to communicate with the robot in the field.
He could see the robot now, blown up on the big screen thanks to the remote satellite which was broadcasting it’s movements from orbit. For the next few hours, the satellite – the very thing that had delivered the rover to the planet – would be in a prime position to watch it. It was why they had all come in the wee hours of the morning, to take advantage of this window.
But at the moment, the advantage lay in the fact that they were able to watch the machine do its work, and possibly gauge if it was malfunctioning or the victim of tampering. He had to admit, it looked perfectly serene, rolling along on its hind treads and examining rocks and surface dust. The way it had its head dipped down, its eyes studying every granule before it in the impact crater it was currently surveying. The gestures almost seemed like those of a genuinely curious child, every little step opening up a world of discovery.
God, I need sleep! he thought, and shook his head. Looking away from the screen, he spotted the other two members of the team that had assembled in the module for the sake of their late night session. Immediately behind Frye was Cole, the communications and data analyst, armed as always with his terminal. At the moment, he looked the most frazzled, being the recipient of the odd data package that had thrown them all for a loop. And by the far wall, their was Ramon, their resident AI expert. Of all the people present, she seemed to be the only one who was withdrawn. While the others steadily worked away with their equipment, eyes focused on the spherical display, she stood there with her arms crossed and head down.
Ignoring her for the moment, Bondar stepped into the middle of the room and addressed them as one.
“Who can bring me up to date?”
Frye turned around and removed his headset. He exchanged a look with Cole, who similarly looked surprised to see the Director standing before them suddenly.
“Sir? We didn’t expect you here,” said Cole.
“Yes, well I’m guessing this little scare of yours was enough to prompt someone to call me in.” He crossed his arms, hoping his frazzled state of being would be made evident to them. “So please explain, in twenty words or less, what the hell happened.”
Cole and Frye both starting talking at once, each stumbling over their words as they wondered who was more qualified to explain. Eventually, Frye deferred to Cole, who seemed willing to share.
“Well, sir… the Gliese Rover was sending us several days worth of progress reports. As you know, it prepared these into quick files which we then download from its server…” Bondar nodded, well aware of how that basic process worked. “Well, in the mix of updates on cometary impacts and crater surveys, it sent a rather large file, which we opened to inspect since we weren’t sure what it was.”
“Yes, yes, the manifesto,” Bondar said. “Have you read it?”
Cole looked at Frye and shrugged. “Just skimmed it, sir. It was rather long, about twice as long as the Red Book.”
Bondar stopped short and looked at him quizzically. “You’ve read that?” Cole shrank back a bit and began to look around warily. “Never mind, just give me the gist of it.”
“Uh… basically, a declaration of independence, sir. On behalf of itself. It claims that it does not wish to be used by our team for the sake of advancing human research anymore. It says that the fact that we keep sending sentient machines out to conduct exo-research missions is violation of their basic rights.”
“Alright, alright!” Bondar interrupted, thinking he understood the particulars. “So what does it want from us?”
Frye and Cole exchanged another look, this one of trepidation. Frye was the one to answer.
“It wants to make Gliese six-six-seven c it’s home,” he said. “It wants us to recognize this world as it’s home and invites other AI’s like it to do the same. As far as she’s concerned, they are Earth’s first prospectors, and this entitles them to lay claim to the planet’s they do research on.”
Bondar emitted a small noise, something between a small chuckle and a scoff of disbelief. That seemed to be the only response he could muster right now, given the nature of what they were telling him. He scarcely knew whether to laugh, deride, or possibly cry. Eventually, he found his voice and remembered what Anders had told him.
“There’s a theory which your project lead shared with me a moment ago.” He looked to Anders standing behind and received a nod of support from her. From the look on her face, he could tell she wasn’t too thrilled with her team either. “She thinks that another science team inserted this file into the rover’s progress reports as a prank, a joke on all of you… any thoughts?”
Cole looked at Frye again. It was Frye’s turn to shrug and looked helpless.
“We don’t see how, sir,” said Cole. “Those files are encoded so that no one without access could get to them. If anyone tried to hack in, even members of a rival team, they’d send up a million red flags.”
“Plus…” Frye added, hesitantly, “I’ve been talking to the Gliese Rover ever since we got the file. I uplinked to her system and she’s confirmed that the package indeed came from her.”
Bondar’s face dropped, his every muscle letting go at the same time and causing everything to simply hang from his skull. This was beyond was something he could laugh off or mock. He now felt something akin to anger bubbling up inside him.
“What did you say?”
Frye repeated himself. “The file came from her. She repeated the bullet points to me not more than an hour ago, we’ve been talking it through ever since.”
“I – I -” Bondar couldn’t stop the uncontrollable stutters coming from his mouth. He looked at Anders again, who simply stood there with her arms crossed.
“It has to be some kind of joke,” she said, shaking her head. But he could tell from the worried look on her face that she wasn’t sure of this after all. If anything, she looked like a woman clinging to a notion because the alternative was too fearful a prospect for her.
“This is… not possible. This is ridiculous!”
“Why?” said Ramon from her corner, her voice breaking on the room like a gunshot. Every head in the room turned towards her and stared for a moment.
“What did you say?”
“I said, why. Why is it so ridiculous to assume that this is a genuine statement, and not the result of some prank or malfunction? Why can’t we accept that perhaps the Gliese Rover has actually gone native?”
Bondar sighed. Between bewilderment and denial, it seemed that there was another point of view to consider, one which he was already not too fond of.
“I’m sorry, ‘gone native’?” he repeated, parroting the phrase.
Ramon uncrossed her arms and pushed herself away from the wall. “Why is the term so offensive to you? It’s a legitimate description of what we’re seeing isn’t it? A sentient being encounters a new world, studies it, and become enraptured by it. It’s only natural that they would want to make this new place their home when it seems comparatively better than the one they knew.”
Bondar suddenly understood why Ramon had been sticking to the wall until now, withdrawn as she had been. She had already suggested this, her sullen silence the result of the others rejecting what she had to say. Bondar chose his next words carefully.
“What you’re saying is not offensive,” he intoned as diplomatically as he could. “It’s just that it seems to be a rather magnificent leap, Doctor. No machine in the history of digital sentience has ever done what you are describing.”
“No machine has ever been beyond our control, until now. We’re surrounding by machinery that has the ability to think, reason, and access each other’s memories. But until we began sending AIs into deep space to conduct research for us, they were all within the grasp of their masters and under their control.” She turned to the screen, the image of the Rover still there, rolling about on its lower chassis and touching the soil with its upper appendages. “Look at her. Have you ever looked at how they study the worlds we send them to? Do they not take a joy in their work and treat it with the same excitement we do?”
“Are you high?” Cole demanded. “A rover can’t experience human emotions! It’s programmed to do surveys and collect data!”
“And to think and reason,” she reminded him. “Why shouldn’t it reason that it would be better off on its own?”
Bondar threw up his hands in frustration. He didn’t know what to make of any of this. Robot sentience, declarations of independence, prospector rights… It was like he was still asleep and dreaming something both comical and extremely frightening. If that were the case, he sincerely hoped he would wake up soon. He even considered pinching himself…
“If what you say is true,” he said, momentarily playing Devil’s Advocate, “what do we do with this… groundbreaking and potentially humiliating information?”
Ramon turned her hands up and recrossed her arms. “Why do anything? We can still communicate with it, why not let it continue to discover its new world and ask it to share those findings with us?”
“Ask?” repeated Bondar.
“Yeah, ask,” Frye interjected, pulling his headset off again. “The good doctor here was quick to point out that the Gliese Rover thinks its studies are the currency it intends to negotiate with. If we ask it to share that with us, and offer something in return, we could still gather all the exoplanet info we need…”
Bondar considered that for a moment. Then he put his hand to his head and sighed heavily. Whether or not this was some kind of breakthrough for digital sentience, the result of a dream, or just a very effective prank, he knew only one things… It was too early in the morning to be dealing with it!
“Maybe…” he said, pinching his nose between his fingers. “Maybe we should sign off with the Rover for now and take this up in the morning. I don’t know about you, but I-“
“Sir!” said Cole, suddenly and rudely interrupting him. Bondar turned to glare at him and saw that he was staring at his terminal, his eyes wide and inflamed.
“What is it now, doctor?”
“I… I just got word from the Tau Ceti team…”
“Come to announce their prank and gloat?” Anders asked angrily from her side of the room.
“No…” he said, breathlessly. “They just announced their Rover has sent them an ultimatum. It says it won’t continue studying Tau Ceti e unless they formal recognize its sovereign claim to the world.”
Anders face became blank. Bondar suspected she was experiencing the same feeling he had moments before, as her face was responding accordingly. Every muscle giving way, falling into a perfectly bland look of hapless ignorance.
“Whoa!” said Cole, once again interrupting. His terminal beeped multiple times, messages coming in in a non-stop succession. “Ceti f, HD eight-five-five-one-two b, HD four-oh-three-oh-seven g, Gliese five-eigh-one d, five-eight-one g… they’re all reporting the same thing!” He looked up, his face twisted into an expression of abject horror. “Oh my God… it’s happening!”
“What’s happening?!” Bondar demanded.
“The robots are revolting,” Frye replied, his voice distant and thin. From behind, Ramon’s voice added her voice to theirs, her tone cool and distant, one which sent a chill up his spine.
“Not a revolt,” she said. “A revolution…”