1.1 MILLION YEARS B.C.
1,000 LIGHT-YEARS FROM THE SOLAR SYSTEM
Had English-speaking humans existed, they would probably have translated
the spacecrafts designation as "searcher." Unmanned, it was
almost a mile long, streamlined for descent through planetary atmospheres, and
it operated fully under the control of computers. The alien civilization was
an advanced one, and the computers were very sophisticated.
The planet at which the searcher arrived after a voyage of many years
was the fourth in the system of a star named after the king of a mythical race
of alien gods, and could appropriately be called Zeus IV. It wasnt much
to look at: an airless, lifeless ball of eroded rock formations, a lot of boulders
and debris from ancient meteorite impacts, and vast areas of volcanic ash and
dust but the searchers orbital probes and surface landers found
a crust rich in titanium, chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, uranium, and
many other valuable elements concentrated by thermal-fluidic processes operating
early in the planets history. Such a natural abundance of metals could
support large scale production without extensive dependence on bulk nuclear
transmutation processesin other words, very economicallyand that
was precisely the kind of thing that the searcher has been designed to search
for. After completing their analysis of the preliminary data, the control computers
selected a landing site, composed and transmitted a message home to report their
findings and announce their intentions, and then activated the vessels
descent routine. Shortly after the landing, a menagerie of surveyor robots,
equipped with imagers, spectrometers, analyzers, chemical sensors, rock samplers,
radiation monitors, and various manipulator appendages, emerged from the ship
and dispersed across the surrounding terrain to investigate surface features
selected from orbit. Their findings were transmitted back to the ship and processed,
and shortly afterward follow-up teams of tracked, legged, and wheeled mining,
drilling, and transportation robots went out to begin feeding ores and other
materials back to where more machines had begun to build a fusion-powered pilot
extraction plant. A parts-making facility was constructed next, followed by
a parts assembly facility, and step by strep the pilot plant grew itself into
a fully equipped, general-purpose factory, complete with its own control computers.
The master programs from the ship were copied into the factorys computers,
which thereupon became self-sufficient and assumed control
of surface operations. The factory then began making more robots.
Sometimes, of course, things failed to work exactly as intended, but the
alien engineers had created their own counterpart of Murphy and allowed for
his law in their plans. Maintenance robots took care of breakdowns and routine
wear and tear in the factory; troubleshooting programs tracked down causes of
production rejects and adjusted the machines for drifting tolerances; breakdown
teams brought in malfunctioning machines for repair; and specialized scavenging
robots roamed the surface in search of wrecks, write-offs, discarded components,
and any other likely sources of parts suitable for recycling.
Time passed, the factory hummed, and the robot population grew in number
and variety. When the population had attained a critical size, a mixed workforce
migrated a few miles away to build a second factory, a replica of the first,
using materials supplied initially from Factory One. When Factory Two became
self-sustaining, Factory One, its primary task accomplished, switched to mass-
production mode, producing goods and materials for eventual shipment to the
alien home planet.
While Factory Two was repeating the process by commencing work on Factory
Three, the labor detail from Factory One picked up its tools and moved on to
begin Factory Four. By the time Factory Four was up and running, Factories Five
through Eight were already taking shape. Factory Two was in mass-production
mode, and Factory Three was building the first of a fleet of cargo vessels to
carry home the products being stockpiled. This self-replicating pattern would
spread rapidly to transform the entire surface of Zeus IV into a totally automated
manufacturing complex dedicated to supplying the distant alien civilization
from local resources.
From within the searchers control computers, the Supervisor program
gazed out at the scene through its data input channels and saw that its work
was good. After a thorough overhaul and systems checkout, the searcher ship
reembarked its primary workforce and launched itself into space to seek more
worlds on which to repeat the cycle.
FIFTY YEARS LATER
Not faras galactic distances gofrom Zeus was another star,
a hot bluish white star with a mass of over fifteen times that of the sun. It
had formed rapidly, and its life spanthe temporary halt of its collapse
under self gravitation by thermonuclear radiation pressurehad demanded
such a prodigious output of energy as to be a brief one. In only ten million
years the star, which had converted all the hydrogen in its outer shell to helium,
resumed its collapse until the core temperature was high enough to burn the
helium into carbon, and then, when the helium was exhausted, repeated the process
to begin burning carbon. The ignition of carbon raised the core temperature
higher still, which induced a higher rate of carbon burning, which in turn heated
the core even more, and a thermonuclear runaway set in which in terms of stellar
timescales was instantaneous. In mere days the star erupted into a supernovaradiating
with a billion times the brightness of the Sun, exploding outward until its
photosphere enclosed a radius greater than that of Uranus orbit, and devouring
its tiny flock of planets in the process.
Those planets had been next on the searchers list to investigate,
and it happened that the ship was heading into its final approach when the star
exploded. The radiation blast hit it head-on at three billion miles out.
The searchers hull survived more-or-less intact, but secondary x-rays
and high-energy subnuclear particlesthings distinctly unhealthy for computersflooded
its interior. With most of its primary sensors burned out, its navigation system
disrupted, and many of its programs obliterated or altered, the searcher veered
away and disappeared back into the depths of interstellar space.
One of the faint specks lying in the direction now ahead of the ship was
a yellow-white dwarf star, a thousand light-years away. It too possessed a family
of planets, and on the third of those planets the descendants of a species of
semi-intelligent ape had tamed fire and were beginning to experiment with tools
chipped laboriously from thin flakes of stone.
Supernovas are comparatively rare events, occurring with a frequency of
perhaps two or three per year in the average galaxy. But as with most generalizations,
this has occasional exceptions. The supernova that almost enveloped the searcher
turned out to be one of a small chain that rippled through a localized cluster
of massive stars formed at roughly the same time. Located in the middle of the
cluster was a normal, longer-lived star which happened to be the home star of
the aliens. The aliens had never gotten round to extending their civilization
much beyond the limits of their own planetary system, which was unfortunate
because that was the end of them. Everybody has a bad day sometimes.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.
One hundred thousand years after being scorched by the supernova, the
searcher drifted into the outer regions of a planetary system, With its high-altitude
surveillance instruments only partly functioning and its probes unable to deploy
at all, the ship went directly into its descent routine over the first sizable
body that it encountered, a frozen ball of ice-encrusted rock about three-thousand
miles in diameter, with seas of liquid methane and an atmosphere of nitrogen,
hydrogen, and methane vapor. The world came nowhere near meeting the criteria
for worthwhile exploitation , but that was no consequence since the programs
responsible for surface analysis and evaluation werent working.
The programs to initiate surface activity did work, however, more or less,
and Factory One, with all its essential functions up and running to at least
some degree, was duly built on a rocky shelf above an ice beach flanking an
inlet of a shallow methane sea. The ships master programs were copied
across into the newly installed factory computers, which identified the commencement
of work on Factory Two as their first assignment. Accordingly Factory Ones
Supervisor program signaled the ships databank for a copy of the "How
to Make a Factory" file, which included subfiles on "How to Make Machines
Needed to Make a Factory," i.e., robots. And that was where everything
really started to go wrong.
The robots could be reprogrammed via radio link from the factory computers
for each new task to be accomplished. This allowed the robots to proceed with
their various jobs under autonomous local control and freed up the central computers
for other work while they were waiting for the next "Done that--what do
I do now?" signal. Hence many software mechanisms existed for initiating
data transfers between the factory computers and the remote processors inside
When the copying of the "How to Make a Factory" file from the
ship to Factory One was attempted, the wrong software linkages were activated;
instead of finding their way into the factorys central system, the subfiles
containing the manufacturing information for the various robots were merely
relayed through the factory and beamed out into the local memories of the respective
robot types to which they pertained. No copies at all were retained in the factory
databank. Ane even worse, the originals inside the ship managed to self-destruct
in the process and were irretrievably erased. The only copies of the "How
to Make a Fred-type Robot" subfile were the ones contained inside the Fred-types
out on the surface. And the same was true for all the other types as well.
So when the factorys Supervisor program ordered the Scheduler program
to schedule more robots for manufacture, and the Scheduler lodged a request
with the Databank Manager for the relevant subfiles, the Databank Manager found
that it couldnt deliver. Neither could it obtain a recopy from the ship.
The Databank Manager reported the problem to the Scheduler; the Scheduler complained
to the Supervisor; the Supervisor blamed the Communications Manager; the Communications
Manager demanded an explanation from the Message Handler; and after a lot of
mutual electronic recriminations and accusations, the system logging and diagnostic
programs determined that the missing subfiles had last been tracked streaming
out through the transmission buffers on their way to the robots outside. Under
a stern directive from the Supervisor, the Communications Manager selected a
Fred from the first category of robots called for on the Schedulers list,
and beamed it a message telling it to send its subfile back again.
But the Fred didnt have a complete copy of the subfile; its local
memory simply hadnt been bid enough to hold all of it. And for the same
reason, none of the other Freds could return a full copy either. They had been
sprayed in succession with the datastream like buckets being filled from a fire-hose,
and all had ended up with different portions of the subfile; but they appeared
to have preserved the whole subfile among them. So the Supervisor had to retrieve
different pieces from different Freds to fit them together again in a way that
made sense. And that was how it arrived at the version it eventually handed
to the Scheduler for manufacture.
Unfortunately, the instruction to store the information for future reference
got lost somewhere, and for each batch of Freds the relevant "How to Make"
subfile was promptly erased as soon as the Manufacturing Manager had finished
with it. Hence when Factory One had spent some time producing parts of Factory
Two and needed to expand its robot workforce to begin surveying sites for Factory
Three, the Supervisor had to go through the whole rigmarole again. And the same
process was necessary whenever a new run was scheduled to provide replacements
for robots that had broken down or were wearing out.
All of this took up excessive amounts of processor time, loaded up the
communications channels, and was generally inefficient in the ways that cost
accountants worry about. The alien programers had been suitably indoctrinated
by the alien cost accountants who ran the business as alwaysand
had written the Supervisor as a flexible, self-modifying learning program that
would detect such inefficiencies, grow unhappy about them, and seek ways to
improve things. After a few trials, the Supervisor found that some of the Freds
contained about half their respective subfiles, which meant that a complete
copy could be obtained by interrogating just two of such "matching pairs"
and began selecting them as its source for repeat requests from the Scheduler,
ignoring the others.
Lost along with the original "How to Make a Fred" subfiles were
the subfiles on "Programs to Write into a Fred to Start It Up after youve
Made It." To make up for the deficiency, the Supervisor copied through
to the Scheduler the full set of programs that it found already existing in
the Freds selected to provide reproduction information, and these programs,
of course, included the ones on how to make Freds. Thus the robots began coming
off the line with one-half of their "genetic" information automatically
built in, and a cycle asserting itself whereby they in turn became the source
of information to be recombined later for producing more Freds. The method worked,
and the Supervisor never figured out that it could have saved itself a lot of
trouble by storing the blueprints away once and for all in the factory databank.
The program segments being recombined in this way frequently failed to
copy faithfully, and the "genomes" formed from them were seldom identical,
some having portions of code omitted while others had portions duplicated. Consequently
the Freds started taking on strange shapes and behaving in strange ways.
Some didnt exhibit any behavior at all but simply fell over and
failed during test, to be broken down into parts again and recycled. A lot were
Some, from the earlier phase, were genetically incomplete"sterile"and
never called upon by the Supervisor to furnish reproductive data. They lasted
until they broke down or wore out, and then became extinct.
Some reproduced passively, i.e., by transmitting their half-subfiles to
the factory when the Scheduler asked for them.
A few, however, had inherited from the ships software the program
modules whose function was to lodge requests with the Scheduler to schedule
more models of their own kind program modules, moreover, which embodied
a self-modifying priority structure capable of raising the urgency of their
requests within the system until they were serviced. The robots in this category
sought to reproduce actively: They behaved as if they experienced a compulsion
to ensure that their half-subfiles were always included in the Schedulers
schedule of "Things to Make Next."
So when Factory One switched over to mass-production mode, the robots
competing for slots in its product list soon grabbed all of the available memory
space and caused the factory to become dedicated to churning out nothing else.
When Factory Two went into operation under control of programs copied from Factory
One, the same thing happened there. And the same cycle would be propagated to
Factory Three, construction of which had by that time begun.
More factories appeared in a pattern spreading inland from the rocky coastal
shelf. The instability inherent in the original parent software continued to
manifest itself in the copies of copies of copies passed on to later generations,
and the new factories, along with their mixed populations of robot progeny,
diverged further in form and function.
Material resources were scarce almost everywhere, which resulted in the
emergence of competitive pressures that the alien system designers had never
intended. The factory-robot communities that happened to include a balanced
mix of surveyor, procurement, and scavenger robots with "appetites"
appropriate to their factories needs, and which enjoyed favorable sites
on the surface, usually managed to survive if not flourish. Factory Ten, for
example, occupied the center of an ancient meteorite crater twelve miles across,
where the heat and shock of the impact had exposed metal-bearing bedrock from
below the ice; Factory Thirteen established itself inside a deep fissure where
the ice beneath was relatively thin, and was able to melt a shaft down to the
denser core material; and Factory Fifteen resorted to nuclear transmutation
processes to build heavier nuclei from lighter ones frozen in solution in the
ice crust. But many were like Factory Nineteen, which began to take shape on
an ill-chosen spot far out on a bleak ice field, and ground to a halt when its
deep-drilling robots and transmutation reactors failed to function, and its
supply of vital materials ran out.
The scavenger and parts-salvaging robots assumed a crucial role in shaping
the strange metabolism that was coming into being. Regardless of what the Schedulers
in the various factories would have liked to see made, the only things that
could be assembled readily were the ones for which parts were available, and
that depended to a large degree on the ability of the scavengers to locate therm,
or alternatively to locate assemblies suitable for breaking down "digesting"and
rebuilding into something useful. Factory Twenty-four was an extreme case. Unable
to "metabolize" parts directly form any source of raw materials because
of the complete failure of its materials-procurement workforce, it relied totally
on its scavengers. Factory Thirty-two, on the other hand, could acquire raw
materials but couldnt use them since it had been built without a processing
facility at all. Its robots delivered instead to Forty-seven, which happened
to produce parts for some of the scavengers being manufactured by Thirty-two,
and the two factory-robot organisms managed to coexist happily in their bizarre
form of symbiosis.
The piles of assorted junk, which shouldnt have accumulated from
earlier phases of the process but had, were eaten up; the machines that broke
down were eaten up; the carcasses of defunct factories were eaten up. When those
sources of materials had been exhausted, some of the machines began to eat each
other. The scavengers had been designed, as they had to be, to discriminate
between properly functioning machines and desirable products on the one hand,
and rejects in need of recycling on the other. However, as with everything else
in the whole, messed-up project, this function worded well in some cases, not
so well in others, and often not al all. Some of the models turned out to be
as likely to attempt the dismantling of a live, walking around Fred as of a
dead, flat-on-its-back one. Many of the victims were indifferent to this kind
of treatment and soon died out, but others succeeded in developing effective
fight-or-flee responses to preserve themselves, thus marking the beginnings
of specialized prey and predators in the form of "lithovores" and
This development was not always an advantage, especially when the loss
of discrimination was total. Factory Fifty was consumed by its own offspring,
who began dismantling it at its output end as soon as they came off the assembly
line, and then proceeded proudly to deliver the pieces back to its input end.
Its internal repair robots were unable undo the undoings fast enough, and it
ground to a halt to become plunder for marauders from Thirty-six and Fifty-three.
The most successful factory-robot organisms protected themselves by evolving
aggressive armies of "antibody" defenders, which would recognize their
own factory and its "kind" and leave them alone, but attack and attempt
to destroy any "foreign" models that ventured too close. This gradually
became the dominant form of organism, usually associated with a distinct territory
which its members cooperated in protecting collectively.
By this time only a few holes in the ground remained at opposite ends
of the rocky shelf to mark where Factories One and Two had once stood. They
had failed to keep up with the times, and the area had become the domain of
Factory Sixty-five. The only trace left of the searcher spacecraft was a long,
rounded depression in the ice beach below, on the shore of the liquid methane