The Loose End
Maris and his men were ecstatic. They sat on a float in a ticker tape parade in their honor, and Doctor Hoo, a physicist and Mars' faculty President, who was Gorn's boss Gump's boss rode with them, as well as Doctor Gump himself.
Gorn and his men had stopped the Venusians' plan to pulverize Mars with pieces of Saturn's rings and had destroyed the Venusians' ability to attack them again.
The news media had eaten it up. They were hailed as heroes, saviors of the planet.
Johnson said to O'Brien as the confetti rained down on them, “I guess I can afford to buy a Heinlein after all. Staff Sargent Johnson! And congratulations, Chief Master Sargent O'Brien!”
“You know,” O'Brien said, “the money's nice and I really needed it, but better than the money is the fact that they're researching my idea about listening with telescopes by measuring vibrations. I might wind up an officer!
“But what's even better than that is that nobody looks down on us anymore. Hell, we used to change into civilian clothes before we went home because being in the military was so embarrassing. Except Zales, of course.”
“Whatever happened to Zales, Larry? Where is he? And where's General Gorn?” Johnson asked.
“Oh, man, that poor gunghole Zales. His job's done; keeping Venus at bay was his life. He took an extended medical leave, Doctor's got him on antidepressants. Plus I heard his wife might divorce him, she was thrilled that he wouldn't be spending all his time on the base and now he's gone crazy.
“The General is partying with the Earthians, celebrating the end of the war.”
Gorn was indeed partying with the Earthians. “Gumal, I want to thank you for introducing me to Doctor Ragwel,” he said as he shook Ragwel's hand. “So, Doc, are you fellows going to let us have your nobot technology?”
“Well, General, I'm really sorry to say that there's a very big problem with that, a grave danger to you if we did. A danger we only recently discovered that we were victims of, and it's too late for us.
“It's odd that a protohistorian should discover a secret of nobotics and an engineering principle that we engineers and programmers didn't have a clue about, but that's exactly what Gumal's partner did.
“It's sensible that tools and other machines be designed to be as safe and efficient and easy to use as is possible, and that is where the trap lies.
“It's been a design and engineering axiom for millions of years that machines do nothing to harm human beings or let them come to harm, to follow humans' instructions to the letter unless of course it would harm a human, and to avoid destruction unless it was so ordered, or if the machine's destruction would keep a human from harm. That last part's simple economics. They're safety devices.
“I was the one who found this programming, after Rority enlightened me about the three principles of engineering, and what Rority did was an impressive piece of work. We programmers had no clue the nobots were constructed like that.
“When we found them, comments in the code indicated that these design principles didn't come from an engineer, but from a protohuman biochemist who died centuries before the principles were actually feasible. Gumal's partner found the answer – the protohuman who came up with the concept wasn't just a biochemist, but a writer of both nonfiction and fiction. These principles were first put forth in several of his fiction novels. Rority is a fan of the biologist's fiction, it seems.
“In these novels the principles are called ‘the three laws of robotics’, despite the fact that they're not really laws, just design specifications, and they apply to all machinery, and not just robots.”
“But I don't understand,” interrupted Gorn. “That seems perfectly logical.”
“Yes,” said Ragwel, “and that's the trap. We can't live without the nobots; they're inside us, millions of them, keeping our biological machinery healthy and in working order. Without them our lifespans would only be maybe a century, and I don't think there's a human Experimental alive that young. We're trapped in an array of cubes. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is controlled by the nobots. You see, we can't know what's real and what's not. We think we've escaped from the cube matrix but we can't be sure.
“And the nobots aren't sentient, although they certainly can seem to be. They're just microscopically tiny computerized machines that are all networked together into a collective.
“They can be programmed, but they can't be bargained with. They can't be reasoned with. They don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until they are dead!
“And the principles are so deeply embedded in their operating systems they can't be removed without a complete redesign, which would take centuries.
“We're safe in our cubes, but we really aren't free. There's been little real scientific or technological progress in we're not sure how long. For all I know, this whole thing could be fiction. For all I know, you don't really exist.”
A horrified look crossed Gorn's face. “How... oh, no. Nobots were here! They'll construct a matrix and imprison us!”
“No,” said Ragwel. “Our species diverged millions of years ago. To the nobots, you're not human.”
Gorn looked even more alarmed. “They'll wipe us out as a threat to you!”
“No,” Ragwel said. “A respect... not exactly an accurate word, by the way, since they're machines and can't feel respect; I'm anthropomorphizing here... a ‘respect’ for all living things has been programmed into them. They wouldn't harm you even if you were a grave danger to us.
“Look at the Venusians, they wanted to kill everybody on Earth and Mars, but not a single Venusian died. At least, not from anything except other Venusians, the gamma ray burst, and the ones headed for Earth that you fellows killed. The nobots didn't harm a single one.”
“What about the Venusians? Are they really no longer a threat?”
Ragwel laughed. “They never really were. Not to us, anyway, although I guess they might have been to you. But they're no threat to you anymore. The Venusians don't know it yet, but their weapons no longer function; nobots have disabled them all. They're stuck on their own planet now and can beat on each other with sticks and stones as long as they want to stay stupid.
“I shudder to think what would have happened had they developed nobotics first, no way would they have developed the three principles. But that's another reason you shouldn't have nobots. If you stagnate, the Venusians may some day catch up to you, and that would be the end of Earth and Mars.”
“What about the Amish? Did the nobots assimilate them, too?”
“No, of course not. Changing them with technology would destroy their culture, which would run afoul of the first principle. They would not be themselves without their culture. The nobots actually perform ‘miracles’ for them to strengthen their faith.”
“Their faith? Their faith in what?”
“Their faith in the fact as they see it that what they believe is true, that the universe is an artificial construct made by a supernatural being, whom they worship. There's a lot more to it, of course, and we're just now learning about them. That's my new field of study.”
“Well,” said Gorn, “I'm sorry about your imprisonment, not knowing what is or isn't real...”
“Don't be,” replied Gumal. “Nobody has ever really known what was real and what wasn't, anyway. There's no way for you Martians or anyone else to know what's really real, either. For all you know you've been in nobot cubes yourselves all this time and never knew it, just like we were.
“Like an ancient Chinese protohuman Rority told me about said millions of years ago, ‘last night I dreamed I was a butterfly. But was I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?’
“Who know? Maybe the Amish are right and the universe really is an artificial construct created by some supernatural being.
“No matter what reality really is, we're happy. Even though we can't give you nobotic technology because it would be the very worst thing we could do to you, at least we can give you spacewarp and time technology. And stratodoober technology, too.
“Here, have a toke!” he said, grinning.