Planned obsolescence

by Andrew Walker

The last journey. An historical one, too, for soon the job of ami-societal- material disposal engineers would cease.

Progress was at last overcoming the final bastion of human toil. All other forms of necessary manual work had long since given way to the advances of automation and now this much-treasured, much- coveted vocation was finally succumbing. Refuse collectors, that is — dustmen. Henry stared in disbelief at the computed value that had just flashed on to the screen in front of him. It was a hobby of his to study population trends and the algorithm which had just been executed had been designed to forecast the number of inhabitants of Las Vegas in the year 2200 . He felt, with some justification, that the answer should not have been —2.07. Momentarily he wondered what — 2.07 people looked like. With a quickly typed-in command he recalled the input, displaying it on the VDU. There he saw the glaringly obvious causes of the erroneous output — a mis- placed decimal point here, an extra minus sign there; and a mispunched character instead of the digit “2” in one of the numbers.

“What a heap of garbage”, he rebuked himself. He was about to correct things when the screen, which had been full of figures, suddenly blinked and Henry found himself looking at a live picture. “We’ve picked up that piece of Saturn five, good buddy", a voice said over his intercom, “and you’ve a green light for Box2. So let’s roll it. 10-four". Henry was a little bored with Com- mander Daly’s periodic fads.

Space affects people in strange ways, but Daly was one of the extreme eccentrics. At present he was into 20th-century truck- drivers and CB radio — or at least his version of that jargon. Henry was bored with many things and if was showing in his psychological read-out. He had a hard life and was long overdue for termination. Henry reached to his side and punched a sequence of buttons on the navigation console. The view on the screen slowly changed as the Pandora, the vessel in which he was travelling, veered towards Box2 which was on a heliocentric orbit. They would rendezvous with it almost midway between Earth and the Sun and there they would deposit this, the latest and last, collection.

Of course, manual garbage disposal on the mother planet — and indeed on the five lunar bases — had been superseded by automated methods decades ago, but for some reason, possibly the sheer immensity of the task, space-sweeping had proved difficult to convert.

“Crew’s quarters to bridge. Mike here, Henry”, someone interrupted over the intercom. Several minutes had elapsed since the change of course. “Go ahead, Mike”, Henry acknowledged. “We're going to get some shut-eye until we rendezvous. Look after things. Out”. Of the five crew, only Henry never slept. Somehow the two concepts of robots and fatigue had never been combined and the artificial slave had always been a 24-hour-a-day worker. Of late, Henry had started to envy his colleagues for their ability to switch off from the everyday problems which they encountered and regenerate their tired bodies and minds. At first, in his early years, he had been unable to comprehend the human need for dormancy, but as years had passed, hehad begun to have a real yen for that precious state. Perhaps it was the weight of responsibility or the worries of the world he heaped on his own shoulders which seemed to drain his energy. Perhaps it was simply age and the wearing out, the fading, of his circuits. He should have gone for termination on the last call at Earth, but some bureaucratic blunder had forced him to make one more trip. His type had long since become obsolete, succeeded by the newer, faster, more intelligent, more human-looking robots which now proliferated around Earth and its colonies. The present chubby chassis on which his arms and head — the real Henry — were mounted had been designed for “optimal volume compactness” and not for his own comfort.

By his own analysis, his metal state was close to break-down. Whatever the situation, he knew that it no longer mattered, for within days he would be terminated. At that he felt some relief. He held no grudge against the human race, even though many had befriended him yet were still apathetic about his impending destruction. That, in his experience, was the way they seemed to treat everyone and everything.

He felt a little jealous perhaps — he would have liked to have retired as they did when no longer useful and finish his life in a casual manner. But they had created him and — possibly — they had the right to destroy him. A flash on the screen above his head interrupted his reverie. He operated one of the remote cameras and focused on the object which had, for a Few moments, turned one of its silvery faces, catching the sunlight as it sailed through his field of vision. Henry considered giving chase, but that would mean plotting a course, waking the crew and so on and he quickly decided to let it go. As a precautionary measure, he flicked a switch on the operational console. That caused an auxiliary micro to analyse the piece and its trajectory and relay the information back to one of Henry’s VDUs. There was no problem this time — it was a light mass and well away from normal shipping routes. “Give the new collectors something to do”, he said aloud to himself. He watched it pass for a while, wondering as ever why man had become such a litter-bug.

His home planet had been close to self-destruction and was only now beginning to recuperate. Henry could still see the shores of the oceans, rotting fish scattered in their billions, suffocating, poisoned; birds crawling along the land, their feathers tarred and burned by the man-made pollutants; black city skies belched out by industrial gargantuans. Even here, in the wide-open expanse of the solar system, whither man had been pushed by overcrowding, the debris of his conquest of space had become an eyesore and a danger. A sudden thought crossed Henry’s mind — a silly thought really. What would it be like — he lay back in the seal attempting to be as relaxed as he could. He exhaled slowly, he didn’t know why, and dosed his eyes. His eyes blinked open and he looked at the screen in from of him. On it he could see Box2 away in the distance, but so soon? He wondered — had he really slept? What time was it? What time was it when he had closed his eyes? He could not remember. True, he felt a little less tired. Perhaps he had slept after all, just a little. He nodded his head in hopeful confirmation. Well it would be a psychological fillip anyhow. He pressed a button on the command console. The alarm in the crew's quarters would be sounding, telling them of their imminent arrival. B qx2, Its predecessor, Boxi — naming things had never been its designer’s forte — had once been nicknamed the great scrapyard in the sky, but three more identical ones had been added, making the name obsolete. All had started as floating computers with one or two extra, peculiar peripherals. Their function was to catch any nearby debris and also to rendezvous now and again with ships like the Pandora and re- lieve them of their loads. Gradually, they had grown to immense proportions — artificial asteroids with microcomputer cores. They were to all intents and purposes spherical, kept that way by the computer which could orientate the speroid so as to distribute incoming garbage in the best manner. Captured junk would be computer-analysed and appropriate agents sent to handle it. That could be cutting, bending, melting or even disintegration by bacteriological methods which had been developed during the Iranian Holy War of 2032-39. “Welcome to Box2. Please go through correct identification and docking procedure. Thank you”, Henry read the incoming message from the Box2 computer by looking over the shoulder of Commander Daly who had taken Henry's seat at the controls. The cabin was full, each member of the crew not wishing to waste this last opportunity of seeing Box2 even though it was, after all, only a rubbish dump. Yet even Henry found himself savouring every moment — perhaps he did still have some emotive circuits left. Y et this next part was pure routine and Henry knew every syllable of the exchange and he began to study his ship-board companions. Mike, whom he had known as a child, and Steve Duke were quite alike — blond curly hair, blue eyes; Steve was slightly taller and more solidly built; Mike was slim, Daly, the eldest, was stout, bald and a jolly character; his brown eyes always had a lively sparkle. The fourth member and the youngest of the crew, who went by the assumed name of Ndabiningi Nkomo, was a six-foot-tall negro hailing from Hull in Canada. He was the rebel who hated convention — at the moment he was hovering above Henry in zero-G. After so many years in space, everyone had come to grips with the problems and advantages of free-fall, but only Nkomo refused to adopt the particular orientation chosen by the others. There was one difference, Henry believed, between what he saw now and the images he had received when first meeting each of them. Wrinkles, The scars from an incessant war with time that all of them fought. All except Henry, The handsome features of his face were un-changed from those of decades ago. This he knew, was a reason that robots had never quite been accepted into society. On the outside, Henry stayed as young as ever while his colleagues began to exhibit the human weaknesses of age. On the inside, however, it was the opposite — the youthful dreams, lively minds of the crew were in sharp contrast to Henry's perpetually depressed and unhappy state. Box2 and the Pandora had closed to within a few miles, and the asteroid of junk occupied the larger part of several screens around the cabin. They were now stationary relative to each other, but Box2 had just begun to rotate. After a few moments an irregular, concave facet showed itself and Box2 made a sudden halt. Characters appeared on the communications VDU: Orientation complete RELEASE CARGO — 23.74609 mph suggested optimum Commander Daly deftly punched in a command. “Bloody computer telling me what to do”, he said. So he punched in 23.75 mph. Nothing seemed to happen at first — Henry thought he could see Box2 shifting slightly but otherwise there was no change on the screens. Then, when a few minutes had passed, an object, large and irregular in shape, began to appear at the bottom of them and to progress towards its target. Gracefully the two junk-mobiles moved closer, one simply floating inanimately in one direction, the other intelligently analysing, predicting and manoeuvring so as to provide the best conjunction, until at last they collided and Box2 held on to its prey. Now like Siamese twins they were joined permanently together. For some reason everyone had been holding their breath as the tension rose and now that it was all over, there was a huge, accumulated sigh. Nkomo did a somersault before leaving and Daly stood up to allow Henry to take over. “Well”, the commander said glumly, “it's all over. Everything”. There was a general nodding of heads in agreement. Henry sat in the seat just vacated by Daly. The others were about to leave when a face flashed onto the communications screen and a voice was heard.

“Pandora, this is Earthcomm. Just a little news-flash for you guys to hear. The EEC space agency today launched its first fully-automated Solar-system material collection ship. That makes that old heap of yours, the Pandora, obsolete”. The face on the VDU spoke all of this with a smile, a joking pleasant smile. Then the man added: “Say, 1 guess now that everything is automated, that makes humans obsolete, too. Never mind fellers — I’ll buy you all a good drink when you arrive back. Signing off”. In silence, the human crew-members of the Pandora left the cabin. They could not share the speaker’s joviality, for to them the Pandora was more than simply a ship.

It was home and freedom. Now that their job was over, they would have to return to the claustrophobic Earth from the infinite emptiness of the Universe. Henry felt little — he was technically obsolete anyway and would be terminated, so for him there would be no pain-ful reunion with the mother planet; no mind-numbing unemployment. “Hey”, Mike interjected. All eyes fell on him. His own were focused on the navigation console VDU. “Has anyone increased magnification on Box2”? Everyone shook their heads and on looking at the screen saw what had made him ask the question — Box2 appeared bigger, now covering the whole view. “It’s moving towards us”, exclaimed Steve Duke in a voice of disbelief. Suddenly, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind. makes .... the Pandora .. obsolete. The words of the Earthcomm man echoed in the minds of the men in the cabin. If the Box2 micro had monitored that transmission — Henry, eyes glued to the vision of approaching doom, was the first to react. “Suits”, he shouted. The others were snapped out of the hypnotic trance of their own individual Armageddon. Momentarily, they hesitated, their befuddled brains unable to grasp the meaning of Henry’s call. Then, in unison, they rushed out, their movements hampered by zero-G and the flailing bodies of their companions. Suddenly, it was every man for himself. Only Henry had no need of a space-suit — he could survive, had been built to survive, in most environments. He watched unemotionally as Box2 closed in. There was nothing to be done. Even if there were time to steer the Pandora clear of the on-rushing asteroid, Box2 would follow them and eventually catch up. Its job, Henry knew, was to gather up any floating garbage in its vicinity. Priorities would be assigned to pieces of debris by the computer and chase given accordingly. " . makes .... the Pandora .. obsolete." Those words, spoken only minutes ago, returned to Henry in all their chilling significance. The micro at the core of Box2 would have suddenly realised that a chunk of junk almost one-tenth its own size was sailing along only a few miles away. It did not know that the junk had a name, Pandora, nor understand that human life existed within it; and it did not care. The Pandora would be the largest item Box2 had ever selected and it would hunt it down with all the zeal and ruthless-ness of a jackal. Earthcomm. If he could reach them, they might be able to do something, but then, with all the subtlety and timing of some cheap television adventure, the intercom began to fizzle and crackle and the scene on all VDUs turned to a heavy snowstorm. Finally everything went dead. Henry settled back in the chair, staring at the blank screens. There was nothing to be done. Out there, somewhere, closing in rapidly on the blinded Pandora, was death itself in the shape of Box2. He wondered whether the crew would have time to don their suits. He did not wonder long. For suddenly there was a huge jolt and everything not firmly fixed down flew about the cabin in a tumultuous display of free-fall chaos. Box2 had made its rendezvous with them. Henry found himself thrown to the back of the cabin, constantly being hit by the flying objects. OXYGEN SENSORY INTERRUPT. AIR LOSS DANGEROUS TO HUMAN LIFE . Henry’s inhalation sensory system chips suddenly interrupted all his prior thoughts — oxygen was leaking from the ship at an alarming rate — he realised that they must have been holed. If the crew had not reached their suits in time, they would be dead, the breath sucked mercilessly from their lungs. As if an answer to his morbid thoughts, a voice came over his internal personal communicator. “Henry”. The speaker sounded dis-traught, breathing quickly and heavily. “For God’s sake Henry, are you there”? Henry sent an affirmative response which seemed to ease the distress of the other slightly. “This is Mike”, the voice continued. “The others — they, they’re all dead. We were all racing for our suits”, he hesitated and Henry sensed that he was trying to fight back the tears — “I arrived first. Then all hell broke loose”. By now, Henry had stopped listening to the sobbing, rambling voice. What now, he wondered. What would Box2 do? What did it do with all junk? Analysis first, he remembered. Then the agents would be — but his thoughts were stopped by a peculiar sensation he felt, of vibrations in the ship. Of course — for a structure the size of Pandora, the Box2 micro had only one option — the crudest method, cutting it down to manageable pieces. He must tell Mike, he decided. “Mike—”, “I know”, Mike interrupted, “I see them. They’re cutting the Pandora up. We can’t stay, Henry, I’m leaving. Maybe if we can get to the core of Box2, we can do something”. “Such as”? “Stop the computer, perhaps”, Mike O proposed hopefully. “Or send a fiction — — SOS. We must try something, hell, I’m going — I just hope one of those damn cutters doesn’t go for me”. Henry said nothing, but listened to his colleague’s breathing quicken as he exerted himself. Not for the first time, Henry cursed the loose-tongued Earth- comm speaker who had initiated this pre-dicament. He cursed also the creators of Box2, the first programmers who had created this inflexible gargantuan which had acted so decisively on an insignificant comment passed by an insignificant man. Then he swore at Earthcomm again. He retrieved the words of doom from his Spram, the Semi-Permanent Random Access Memory, which made up 80 percent of his memory, where he stored all recent experiences. “.. makes .... the Pandora .. obsolete ... Damn stupid thing to say, Henry mused. But in the block of data he re-called from Spram lay other words which suddenly flashed into his registers. “.. everything is automated .. makes humans obsolete .. ” A look of horified realisation appeard on his face. He was about to warn Mike when a loud shout came over the communicator.

“Help. I can’t move — something’s holding my feet. What the hell’s going on”? Gazing at a sharp pointed object which had been thrust through a wall of the cabin as Mike spoke, Henry realised it must be a cutter. Then like a knife cutting through butter, the instrument began to move along the wall. “What the hell is that coming toward me”? Henry heard Mike say. Henry disconnected the receiver — he knew what it would be and had no desire to listen to the dying yells of his friend. For several minutes he simply stood, patiently where he was, watching the point of the cutter slice swiftly along the cabin’s bulk-head. It was joined after a while by two more. During those few minutes he pondered his own fate. Eventually the computer controlling Box2’s actions would discover him, analyse him as a defunct cybernetic machine and finally destroy him. He resigned himself to that fact and perhaps felt a little relief that at last his troubled life would come to an end. He was abruptly plunged into darkness as the power system of the Pandora failed but even in the darkness his powerful visual system was able to pick out the blade which was cutting through the floor towards him. He wondered momentarily if it was destined for him and he launched himself up- wards and across the cabin to float on to a narrow console top from where he watched the razor’s edge glide blindly by.

He decided that Box2 would not yet have detected him — the cutters themselves had little in the way of sensory instrumentation and he had not perceived the presence of any other hardware at any time. Then, suddenly, before he could comprehend the events that took place, he found himself out in the open, the celestial sphere gazing down on him in its speckled, glittering glory. Disorientation overcome him initially, the walls of the cabin having disappeared apparently in the blink of an eye to be replaced by the limitless expanse of the universe. The temperature of his circuitry rose by almost a degree as they raced and worked more than ever before — his internal interrupt system boosted his metabolism like an electronic adrenalin. Eventually he realised that the cutters had finished their work an instant before the walls had gone and that some giant mechanism must have ripped the superstructure away and out of sight behind the Box2 horizon. Now he was out in the open — vulnerable. He looked round for the sign of approaching danger with mixed emotions — not all of his emotive circuits had gone, apparently, he reasoned. Then, aware of his own bizarre stance - feet apart, atop a console, staring out into space — he began to feel rather foolish, though he did not know why, as no-one would see him. But that embarrassing agitation was there and he elected to move elsewhere. Box2 had other ideas. Whatever commands his CPU gave, his short legs refused to obey. They seemed to him to be rooted to the surface on which he was standing, paralysed almost by some un-seen force and the words, the terrified voice of Mike, caught in a similar predicament at what felt an aeon ago, flooded back to him as if in a nightmare. He looked around nervously, waiting to catch sight of the thing that had invoked Mike's final cry of "What the hell is that coming towards me"? Then for the first time he glimpsed a huddled figure 10 yards from the remains of the ship. It was still. It was dead, it was Mike. Henry could see little detail and preferred not to. He turned away. "Damn Earthcornm. Damn Box2. Damn its negligent creators", he thought. He wondered where his executioner was — and what it would be. How long had he been out in the open? Surely he had been analysed by now . He glanced at the chronograph built into his left wrist, but gawked instead at the arm which now ended halfway along the fore-arm. Somehow his hand and wrist had disappeared. He looked around in horror but there was no sign of the robotic member. On closer inspection of the arm he discovered that it was smothered in a yellow substance which seemed to be in a constant flowing motion. So that was it. Of course, he should have realised — the micro would have devised a different method of elimination from Mike's to cope with Henry’s different structure. Yet to be eaten alive by an unintelligent bacterium? Henry closed his eyes sadly and shook his head. In a way he was relieved that termination was imminent. But he would never have wished to go like this — with the thoughts and problems that had dragged him down to such a low mental state being allowed to prey on his mind in these last moments.

The degeneration process was painless, Henry found. In fact his arm was without feeling completely and the bacteria had by now eaten to just past the elbow. Looking to his right hand he saw that that too was being attacked; the finger-tips had disolved. It would be quite a while, he reckoned, before any vital circuits went and he did not relish such a long drawn-out death — not that he had any option, of course, for suicide was precluded. There was one thing he could do, at least, to relieve his mind of its burden. A microchip anaesthetic. With his perfect-recall memory, he could induce an almost realistic dream-state for himself to live in — for a few moments, at least. The method had long since been used on terminal human patients in hospitals and on suicide-freaks who proliferated during Henry's lifespan. Suddenly Henry's body was bathed in heat from the dazzling Pacific sun set in a beautiful blue sky, which was flecked with a few wispy, snow-white clouds. There was a deafening roar in his audio-sensory system. He wobbled on an un-steady surface but skilfully retained his balance. A strong wind blew refreshingly on his skin. Carefully he glanced over his shoulder at the rushing, mountainous wall of ocean — the pipeline. Ahead he could see the golden, shimmering, palm lined Hawaiian beaches. In his mind, the console top had become a slimline, waxed surfboard, A shadow fell across him and he found himself surfing along a darkened tunnel of water. Only with a supreme effort did he manage to defy the power of the legendary pipeline. What a thrill. The realism of this imaginary event which he had recalled from old video-documentaries was truly incredible. It was for him a dream come true. He had always wanted to “hang 10“ — surf with his toes dangling over the edge of his board, teetering on ihe edge of disaster. Would he be able to move his feet, secured as they were by the unseen energy of Box2? He looked down. No, he could not “hang 10“, and never would. For he no longer had any toes, his feet, or what remained of them, being covered in the yellow matter which was slowly dissolving him. The splash of the ocean on his chest. He tried to concentrate on his Hawaiian paradise. The spray from the water seemed to be increasing, he thought. He peered at his torso. There was no water. The Pacific panacea faded and he found himself back in reality, standing on a console not a surfboard; body bathed not in sunlight but in a voracious bacterium; breast sprinkled in the same yellow microbe and not by the cool sea. H e knew now that time was short. His left arm had gone and his right was a mere stub; his feet were being gradually eaten away; holes began to appear in his chest where the lemon scum touched him. He surveyed, quickly, the surroundings — the residue of the Pandora which was still being disposed of according to Box2's desires — Box2 itself, the millions of tonnes of discarded human waste, moulded into shape by its micro-core computer and subservient agents. Then he got a surprise. No, it was more of a jolting shock. He stared out across the universe or, at least, the minute part of it between himself and Earth and realised that the mother planet had grown in size until now he could see some detail — vague outline of Africa, spiralling clouds which apparently covered a whole hemisphere. Above the clouds, silhouetted against their whiteness, Henry recognised the huge complex of Earthcornm itself, orbitting slowly. Damn Earthcomm, They were nearer. The thought flashed through is registers. But why? Why would Box2 approach anywhere near Earthcomm? "...Everything is automated makes humans obsolete ..."' Had he had the facilities, Henry would have smiled an ironic smile, but his facial muscles had been eaten away. Earthcornm would succumb to its own flippancy. Millions of tonnes of Box2. Earthcornm would be pulverised. He was fading fast. He could feel the energy draining from him. “ ... everything is automated .. makes humans obsolete . . “ Jewel Earth set amid the dark void of the universe. Even now a pleasure to behold. Millions of tonnes of Box2. The thought that occurred to him then would have sent a shiver down his spine if he had been human. "...everything is automated .. makes humans obsolete" Box2 closed in on the human-infested Earth, It would make one hell of a dent in it, was one of Henry's last faint thoughts, “.. everything is automated .. makes humans obsolete . . “