Two hours later, we had a fairly clear picture of what we were up against. Bradshaw reported to all of us over the comm system.
“The Mechtrons are a totally robot race; they’re intelligent and self-sustaining. They’ve ruled Alerzion for over ten million years. They were created by the Zorn. Ten million years ago, the Zorn and the Zella had a war. The two species had been competing on the planet’s surface for a long time before that and both were technologically advanced.
“The war itself was rather short but the planning for it beforehand had gone on a long time. The Zorn unleashed the Mechtrons with instructions to destroy the Zellan race. The Zellans had developed devastating weapons, too. The net result was, both races were obliterated and the planet was plunged into its first nuclear winter.
“The Mechtrons emerged from the winter as the dominant species. But their instructions were either flawed or changed by the holocaust. Ever since then they’ve presumed that any land-based animal life on the planet was Zellan, and must be destroyed.
“So for the last ten million years, they’ve been systematically exterminating anything that moved on the planet’s land masses. They’ve been ingenious; they’re masters of flame, bullet, and poison. They’ve also used gas and a few other things so nasty they’re beyond our ability to translate. They’ve even used weather control in the form of nuclear winter.
“But they’ve never succeeded entirely. Life on the planet survived and evolved. And one of the things that evolved is what we call ‘the creatures’. Their ancestors were first noticed about two million years ago.
“The creatures are not sentient as we know it, or at least as the robots know it. They’re masters of camouflage and they know that the robots are their enemies.
“When they first appeared they were just a curiosity to the robots—a sort of half-plant, half-animal. They were one of many strange creatures that evolved under the stress of the robot’s persecution of animal life.
“First they learned how to hide from the robots, then they learned how to attack them. When they threatened to overwhelm the robots, the robots brought down a second nuclear winter. This stopped the creatures for a millennium but it didn’t exterminate them.
“Instead they became quite virulent and displaced most of the other remaining land animal life forms. Since then the planet has been surviving in a state of uneasy face-off between the creatures and the robots.
“The robots spend their time building cities and running search-and-destroy missions. The creatures expend their efforts on hiding and coping with the robot’s attacks. They also spend their time learning how to infiltrate and disable the robot civilization. Whenever the robots feel the creatures are getting out of control they bring on a nuclear winter, such as they did as we were leaving.
“But as we speculated earlier, the robots are on the ropes. The creatures are getting more sophisticated in their camouflage. We witnessed the first time in many millennia that creatures were able to take over a robot city. When it happened last time, they only got one; this time they took over many.
“The robots have evolved over these years, too. They’re aware that even though we may be animal, we’re not Zellans. They’re also aware that time is on the side of the creatures. They’re hoping that because we have the technology to span the stars we might be able to help them end this menace. If not, then like old Spartans, or old Romans, or old whatever military culture tends to inspire you, they’ll remain here, fighting to the last man … machine in this case.
“It’s all very tragic and inspiring. And that’s why the robots are here now and being very open and very polite.”
“Have they made any further threats, Bradshaw?”
“They’ve made it very clear we aren’t leaving here before we help them.”
“How much time do we have before they’re within striking range?”
“Well, the coasting has helped considerably. It’ll be two weeks, and they won’t be very close even then, Captain. They’ll have to make some sort of positive move if they want to threaten us.”
“How about our probe?”
“It’s now about halfway to their ships. So far we’ve seen no mention of it, either in their conversations with us, or in their conversations with the home planet.”
“Alright. It’s been a long session, let’s adjourn and meet again in two hours, to see if we can help these robots, and, if we want to.”
The next meeting was a stormy session.
White argued that, morally, there was no way we could deal with these robots. They were holding a gun to our heads, and we wouldn’t work that way.
Hennley pointed out the robots were already well advanced in the art of mass extermination. There was nothing we could offer them short of a massive technology exchange and research project involving years of effort.
Rollins wanted to know if we did a massive exchange, could we expect to find them following us back to Earth using our own technology? And were we really sure we wanted to help the robots, anyway? We still hadn’t heard the creatures’ side of this story.
Jack asked why not ace out one ship with the probe and make a run for it? There had to be a limit to how many missiles their ships carried. If we handled our beams right, we might be able to disable them all before they found our weakness, then we’d just rocket away.
Finally the captain stood up and said, “Gentlemen, none of these solutions is satisfactory. We now have more extensive data from the computers on all aspects of their culture. I want each you to take another three hours going over this material. I want a way to get us out of here unscathed in a reasonable amount of time.”
Three hours later, White, Hennley, and Rollins came in to the meeting, beaming. After courteous protestations between them as to who should present the idea, White spoke.
“Captain, we took your advice. We went back and compared our notes. Together we researched the levels of technology the robots have reached and their psychology. We’ve been burning a lot of computer power, but it’s been worth it. Here’s what we’ve come up with.”
He paused for a moment to look at his colleagues. They nodded in approval.
“The key to the situation is that the robots themselves have evolved over the last ten million years. They’re no longer the mindless killing machines they were initially designed to be. They fulfilled their mission and then went beyond it. Since then, for a long time they were killing out of habit. Lately, they’ve been killing out of self-preservation.
“Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“No, not yet.”
“The robots can learn! They can change their ways!” White was yelling and waving his arms frantically towards the ceiling, then he caught himself and calmed down.
“Excuse me: The robots can learn. They’re up here now because they want us to teach them. We’re their ‘space gurus’. So let’s teach them! But not about technology; let’s teach them about toleration!
“Here’s the way we see it, and Omni figures we’ve an above average chance of having this work.
“The robots would like to see the creatures eradicated from this world. At this point, so would we. They’re an abomination, and they wouldn’t’ve developed at all if the robots hadn’t been engaging in systematic extermination for all these millions of years.
“But that is also the key! There are other life forms on the planet besides creatures. It’s likely some of them are even creature-eaters. They haven’t developed because the robots are more effective at suppressing creature-eaters than they are at suppressing creatures.
“If the robots were to back off and not kill anything, then the big ecological niche they’ve created for the creatures would disappear, and with it creature dominance. The creatures could disappear entirely. Or they might survive as a rare species in some other niche that matches their specialty. Other more normal species would become dominant.
“In either case, they cease to be a threat to the robots.”
“There’s more. The robots don’t have to remain passive in this process. We calculate that it’ll only take another two to three million years for another species of human-level intelligence to evolve. Once this happens, the robots can teach them civilization. They can pass their learning and heritage on to the new inhabitants, and nurture them in the ways of peace.
“Think of it. They can become GODS instead of demons!” White was yelling once again, but this time it was his finale.
The captain thought for a moment, then another. “You say you’ve checked this out with Omni?”
The men nodded.
The captain turned to me. “John, this is partly your area, especially in trying to understand creature capabilities. What do you think?”
“Captain, the plan has merit. As best we can tell, the creatures identify the robots with technology, just as we identify breathing as part of being alive. They seek out technology and attempt to bugger it up. This seems to be as much a part of their nature as flying south is for some birds.
“How they recognize it we don’t know. Once they’ve found some they attempt to stop its operation without revealing they’ve done so.
“The only flaw I see is that it’s likely the creatures will always seek out the robots. Even if other competing life forms are allowed to dominate, where there are robots there’ll be creatures seeking them out and attacking them. If the creatures survive the couple million years it’ll take for the new human-level intelligent creatures to evolve, the original creatures will bugger their technology as it develops, too.
“Although in that case it’s likely the new intelligent life won’t be too adversely affected, because they’ll start out with creatures as one of the givens of technology development on their world, just like our world started with iron that rusts and fiber that rots as givens of its early technology.”
“Thank you, John.”
The captain turned to the other men. “Omni says it is possible we can get the robots to agree to this?”
The men nodded again.
“What are the odds of it working?”
Omni spoke. “We have a 90% chance of being right about the evolution scenario, and we have about a 60% chance of convincing the robots the plan is feasible.”
Phil continued. “That’s right now. I’m not sure if it took into account the problems John just brought up. We have the computer working on how to present the idea in a way most likely to gain robot acceptance. We figure having one computer mind figuring out another should gain us some real dividends. The computer is currently reviewing their psychological roots as we have deduced them from their language lessons, to research the most convincing negotiation strategy to pursue.”
Hennley finally got his two cents in. “At first glance, we’re fighting their instincts, their earliest programming. Arguing logically against that’ll be about as effective as it is arguing logically against human instinct; it usually flops.”
“On the other hand, these robots did not kill us outright so they’ve learned to accept reason over their instincts in at least some instances. We have to work on making our plan sound like one of those instances. That’s what Omni is working on right now.”
“Excellent, gentlemen! This sounds excellent!” The captain was glowing. Then she frowned. “But we’re still going to have to pursue alternatives. How long before you’re ready to present this lesson on tolerance to the robots, so we see if we can get out of here?”
The men consulted for a moment. “It will take about eight hours, Captain.”
“Thank you. Gary, how is the probe coming?”
“The probe’s been coasting towards their ships for the last three hours. It makes its closest approach, about 250 kilometers from the talking ship and 50 from its twin, in another two hours. So far the robots have taken no notice of it.”
“What’s it going to take to have the probe match course with those ships at close range, say 50 kilometers from the one that doesn’t talk to us?”
“We can do it with low power if we start right now.”
“Start now. Let me know how long before the robots report the probe’s presence. I want to know what their response is. I want to see if we can get them to open one of those ports for us without getting the probe blasted out of existence.
“We’ll meet again in three hours, when the probe is in position, if the robots haven’t done anything unusual before then.”
Then she said to the beaming trio, “That’s all the time you’ll have before you’ll have to start robot-convincing.”