Chapter Six: The Dead Chip

“… For the last few days the only probes we’ve sent down have been the aerial variety. The polar probe has continued to function normally, but we’re being very careful to keep it away from open water, or any other places where life in polar regions is typically found.

“And that brings us up to today.” Earl was in his element. There were a hundred people in the underground hall, and that made it crowded. This was the first time we had all been together since the base was built.

The captain was gray-haired and fifty or so, and it’s amazing what a difference context makes. I’d met her once before. It was three years before the voyage, at a charity function in Washington, where I was hustling for a grant. I only remember her because we were seated at the same table. We were surrounded by luminaries, and I was planning on one or two of them funding me. She was there for the same reason. Both of us were “tradesmen of the professions”—pressing our wares upon the movers and shakers who wanted to personally support the arts and sciences. She was dressed very conservatively and had a dull-but-competent air about her.

Now here she was commanding the ship. At the party, she’d not seemed noteworthy, but here she commanded my full attention. The nondescriptness was gone, and she had an ease and interest about her that were easy to work with. She spoke after Earl.

“I’ve called you all here to get your input on where we should go from here. Unlike a sailing ship’s crew of old, you’re all here to use your minds, not your backs. If you don’t contribute your thoughts, then we wasted our time and money bringing you here.”

The crowd had begun a low murmur; the captain raised her arms, the murmur quieted.

“Speculations, ladies and gentlemen?”

Roberts was first off the mark. He was newly out of freeze and I couldn’t recall his specialty.

He yelled, “It’s genocide!” as he clambered to his feet. “The robots are trying to kill off the creatures. These are killer robots that’ve taken over this world and done away with its civilization. Soon they’ll finish off even these last remnants, and leave nothing but trees and bushes.”

“No, No.” It was Professor White standing now. “The creatures are slowly killing off the robots, but disguising it from them, as we saw at the abandoned city, and as they disguised their depredations against our probes from us. It’s the ultimate in class warfare, with the ultimate guerrillas against the ultimate ruthless oppressors.”

I now remembered: White and Roberts were statisticians, both from Berkeley. Everything they saw tended to come out with political overtones. The two started arguing until the captain told them both to be quiet, and listen to some other viewpoints.

She recognized Mary, who spoke quietly.

“Those creatures could have evolved into what they are now from some previous life-form, as an evolutionary response to dealing with nuclear winters and other robot-inflicted harassment. If that’s the case, then it would appear that they’re close to gaining the upper hand in this long struggle. The robots appear to have lost control of many of their cities, yet they may not even know it. We could be watching the end of an era.”

This caused much murmuring in the crowd. Roberts raised his hand again.

“I find it hard to believe we could be that lucky, to arrive within weeks, or even years, of the end of a million-year era. That violates good scientific thinking—”

“Hah! What would you know of good scientific thinking?” snorted White.

Roberts stared at him coldly, then continued, “What about the nuclear winters? Could the robots be causing those to wipe out the creatures?”

That chain of thought brought more murmurs from the crowd with questions like:

“Has anyone calculated how much fissionable material this crusade must have consumed?”

“How much can be left for the robots to continue this jihad with?”

“Are they close to the end of their rope?”

“What will the creatures do when they win?”

People started rising from the crowd in a chaotic manner. The captain called for order. Rollins, sitting on the podium next to me, cleared his throat.

“Mr. Rollins, I believe you have something to add to this discussion?”

“Thank you, captain.”

Phil Rollins rose and paused a moment, waiting for quiet.

“These have all been very interesting speculations,” he stated in an overly loud voice. “But what we really need to know is: What will happen to us if we get involved in this in any further way?”

He looked around, truculently now. “How long can we keep the robots from finding out about us, or that their cities are getting infested?”

Now Rollins’s eyes were glazing over and his voice was up an octave. “When they find us, will they blast us out of the sky? Or will they just take over our computer, and have it deliver us to them on a platter?” Adrienne straightened in her seat beside me and went ghost-white.

Finally he screamed, “We need to shut down that infernal machine that runs our lives and leave now!”

Rollins’ ravings led to bedlam. As the shouting and arm-waving escalated, I heard Adrienne mutter, “Rollins, you bastard. You mind-raped our computers once, fool, I’m not going to let you do it again!”

She jumped from her seat and charged Rollins. For a moment they were at each other’s throats before we pulled them apart. When we did get them off each other, Phil was breathing heavily and rubbing his neck. He had a scared look in his eye that had nothing to do with computers; Adrienne was a husky girl. (After that incident Phil was a lot more careful in his wording about the “infernal machines”.)

With some difficulty, the captain restored order.

“People, I’m glad to hear such refreshingly different points of view presented by such brilliant minds in such logical fashions.”

“This situation is complex, stressful, and critical. Many of us have built up emotional biases on these issues that will cloud judgment if they are not confronted. I’ve let some of you carry on at this meeting to demonstrate the results of such attachment if unchecked.

“As I’ve said, this is not a sailing ship of old, but there are still times when the needs of discipline will outweigh those of free expression.

“People! Those times are fast approaching! This is the last time I will permit such an outburst until this crisis passes. We are going to need answers and we will need them fast! You must all remember how to work with each other, not at cross-purposes.

“Those of you who did ‘rise to the occasion’, thank you for expressing your viewpoints. We need those points of view. You are not to be censured, even if some of you did get a little overenthusiastic in your expression. But now I want you all to consider carefully your own beliefs and what you’ve heard today. I want you to start thinking with your brains, not your glands. I need these speculations turned into concrete plans for us.”

She concluded with a great flourish, “I want you all to think again on what we’ve learned at this meeting. We will meet again tomorrow, with prepared thoughts … and open minds.

“Good night.”


The next day the meeting continued.

“Well, people, what do you have for me today?” asked the captain.

Mark stood up first. “It’s time we go down. We need a sample of this life form if we are to study it properly. The probes can’t seem to catch one, so we need to send a person.”

“The probes seem to catch more than they can handle,” commented the captain. “How is a person going to do better?”

“If we send a man down in a craft that isn’t using radio or electricity, then the creatures will ignore it—it won’t be technology as they recognize it. A person could parachute down, get a sample, and then rocket up with a solid fuel rocket pack. He could be intercepted while in the air.”

“It sounds real risky, Mark. Would you be willing?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m proposing it.”

The captain looked at him long and hard. So did the rest of us, trying to fathom why he would be willing to take such a risk. He was a good man; the stuff heroes were made of. It would be a shame to sacrifice him for something hopeless or silly.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” she finally said gently. “Let’s hear from some of the others now.”

Adrienne stood up. “The robots we can understand. They have an organized civilization that is functioning along principles we can recognize and deal with. The creatures, on the other hand, are totally out of our realm of experience.

“They’re obviously a super-chameleon species that is quite facile at imitating electromagnetic radiation from the visible wavelengths through the microwave range. Have we checked above or below that range? Can they imitate in the ultraviolet range or the high-frequency radio range?

“This species is so different that even if they’re intelligent, they must have their own ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, and what to do about them. We really don’t have a good idea yet of how intelligent or aggressive they are. They could see us as a threat, they could see us as an opportunity, or we may merely be a curiosity to them.

“Regardless of what they are thinking, through us, they might threaten Earth. Look at how they have fought these aggressive robots to a standstill. What could they do to our civilization, if they got loose on Earth?

“The robots we could likely fight off, but these creatures.…”

Mark suddenly got a funny look on his face. He listened intently to his ear piece, jumped up, and interrupted Adrienne. “Well, we may have an opportunity to find out. One of the tamper alarms just went off on the air probe that’s coming back here.”

“You’re out of order, Mark. … But what do you mean?” asked the captain.

“This morning I got a report of a malfunction on one of the air probes. It wasn’t one of those transformations into bogus units, just a report of a bad stabilizer, so I ordered the unit back here for repairs. Now I’m getting reports of tampering from the unit.”

“Can you get anything on internal visual?”

“I have, and it appears we have a dead chip on board.”

“A what?”

“See for yourself on the display screen … one of the chips just got up out of the board, rolled over, and died. It’s quite comical to watch, actually.”

Mark directed John “Stardrive” Jones, the probe maintenance engineer, to show the video on the conference screen. A few people, including me, laughed when what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary IC chip got out of the circuit board, and started crawling around like a drunken centipede for a few seconds, then curled up and stopped moving at all. A few people, including Dr. Hennley, turned totally white.

He said, “Then the air probe is creature-contaminated. What about the others?”

“Those are reporting normally, for what it’s worth.”

The captain took control.

“This is getting serious. Jones, order ALL the probes that have been in the planetary atmosphere—even once—to self-destruct. Do it immediately, but do it in a way that we can monitor from space that they’ve followed the orders. Obviously, any reading you get from the probe itself is suspect.

“And while you’re at it, order the disabled ones blown up too, and see what happens. We’re still in touch with them, aren’t we? I want to see just how convincing these little devils can be.

“Wait, not all of them. Skip the one headed home for repairs. Jones, I want you to arrange a special reception for that one.

“Everyone! We’re on a class nine plague alert—the highest we can go to. Nothing, I repeat NOTHING, that touches that probe will ever touch this base or the ship! If they infest our quarters, it could easily mean our lives.

“As an extra precaution, I want the ship up and orbiting the planet at the L5 point, with half the crew in it, when that probe lands.

“Jones, I want you to have a remote repair site readied. In addition to whatever other precautions you deem fit, I want the site surface for a kilometer radius around the landing point fused to glass at least five centimeters thick. I don’t want any of those critters burrowing their way out of the probe and somehow finding hospitable terrain on this moon. Let them cook in solar UV or freeze in the surface cold.

Jones began to protest, but almost before his mouth was open, the captain was hurrying on.

“Yes, I know there’s no air out there. But I also know we designed those probes to be tamper-proof. And if one of those critters hadn’t passed out on the way up here, we’d probably be shaking hands with a couple thousand of its relatives two hours after you started repairs.

“These critters are getting curious about us. They know a little, and that makes them real dangerous.”


All the probes were ordered into the open and the self-destruct order was sent to all of them simultaneously. Three of the known good probes blew up instantly. Three, including the polar probe, “blew up” three seconds later. All four of the known bogus probes also blew up after three seconds. However, none of those that paused before blowing up could be seen to do so from space.

“Those bastards. They had control of almost every probe. It took them three seconds to figure out what the auto-destruct code meant. Then they imitated a blow up on what they transmitted to us. They’re damn tricky.”

The third meeting was called shortly thereafter.

“People,” the captain began grimly, “it’s obvious we are outclassed. I’m not going to risk crew or ship against a creature that virulent. There’s nothing to gain by our remaining here, except a fuller assessment of the creature’s capabilities.

“They’ll always be too dangerous to trade with and it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to communicate meaningfully. It’s highly likely we’ll get eaten, and highly probable that these creatures could ride with us back to Earth if they get the chance to do so. We aren’t going to give them that chance.

“All personnel will be on the ship when it launches for L5. We will continue the repair and investigation remotely from there, via the base. Once we’ve learned what we can, we’ll sterilize the repair site and leave this system as fast as possible. Before we go, bring in all the sensors—all of them. We’ll leave one multi-sensor stealth satellite at the L5 point to keep an eye on the planet, but that’s it. I don’t want these robots, or creatures, to ever find out any more about us than they already have.

“This means a massive freeze-up program. We’ll have just five days to get everything packed and aboard the ship and to put ninety people back in hibernation. Mary, please prepare me a freeze-up schedule, and let me know what help you’ll need.”