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The Europa Colonists

by Sabine Lucile Scott 2 months ago in science / space / science fiction / literature / extraterrestrial / artificial intelligence · updated 2 months ago
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Chapter One: A Dangerous Bug in One Robot's Code

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. The exterior cameras caught footage of the incident. It was somewhat horrific. There had been some damage with one of the circuits which ran the exit portal usually used for robots exiting to make external fixes on the space station. The door opener had been tripped and a person, a female person, had been essentially ejected from the space station. Usually, robots used this in order to access the outside of the space station but they were always tethered before they exited. The entire area around the ejection portal was sterile and clean. All the surfaces were white and dustless, the cleaning robots went through these hallways a lot, vacuming up any dust and few people came in to dirty the space. Also, they didn't need to breathe, so they didn't need spacesuit enabled with an air supply. The footage contained the moment right after the young woman had been ejected from the space station. She must have been trying to open the window covering further to take more photographs, but the wrong button had been pressed at the ejection location, so she was immediately dumped into the vacum of space just outside the space station. There was a tether for when robots or suited construction workers used the ejection spot to go out into the darkness of space and repair the outside of the space station, but she wasn't connected to this tether at all. Even if she had been tethered she would have most likely died anyways since being out in space unsuited still would have killed her in under a minute. She had been trying to do some photography and even though people were banned from this wing, and only robots were allowed to access and walk about the storage area, she had snuck in with her camera and had been shooting through the window of the portal. The side of Europa which was facing away from the sun often glowed in the dark, and the young woman had always tried to take photos of the unique aspects of Jupiter's most beautiful moon.

The ejection portal was a thick door built into the wall with which would close off the area in front of the portal in under a second and then eject whatever was standing there. It was a convenient location for robots to exit when they needed to fix exterior parts of the space station. The camera and the young woman were both flung outside instantly when she accidentally hit the eject button. The camera slowly floated away and the exterior security camera showed her mouth open suddenly in a silent scream.

This ejection portal was one of the main reasons that this wing of the space station was robot-only. There was air of course, for the occasional humans that had to go in for maintenance, but mostly the wing was used for storage of devices and items like food and water. It was quiet and the white noise of the air conditioner hum was the only sound over the silence. It was extremely rare for there to be any kind of accident in this wing because humans rarely entered it and the robots in this sector were all coordinated by the same neural net; they were supposed to operate as a fully synchronized staff.

The young woman did die after two minutes of slowly floating away from the space station. The first instant that she was flung out she reached out desperately to catch onto the handles on around the outside of the portal, but couldn't reach them as she floated slowly, farther and farther away. The footage showed her screaming and then losing consciousness as the silent scream was cut short by the lack of air. The footage of the young woman dying was the type of video that solidified the fear of empty space that drove people to protest or revolt against the space program back on Earth.

The funeral for the young woman was held the next day. The robots did catering after the ceremony where the general and the pilots of the space station spoke their eulogies for her. The young woman was well-liked and had been friendly, so her death saddened everyone on the space station, even people who did not personally know her. The camera that she had been using was retreived and the photos she had taken through the window of the portal just before her sudden death were displayed on a screen while the pilots spoke about her. She had done a lot of ship photography which included the portraits of the pilots and candid photography of the residents of the station during her time on the station. There had been five photographers on the station, but on this day, the number had been reduced to four. The photos that she had taken of the Jupiter's moon Europa through the portal window were nice. There was sunlight shining brightly behind a cold foggy sunrise on the moon where swirls in the surface ice were captured and the dips and hills in the ice vere visible. The view she had caught right before she was ejected was a rare one that she had been lucky to catch, and the swirls of pale glowing color were more detailed than in most images of the dark side of the moon. The wing of the ship which was mostly populated by the robots reached a unique view that one could not view from other parts of the ship.

The ship that Toggle was on mostly revolved around Jupiter and approached Jupiter's moon Europa fairly frequently. The construction happening on Europa was a gigantic project. A tunnel from the frozen surface of the planet, through the hundred-kilometer-deep ocean piped molten iron from the core to the surface. The molten iron was formed into parts of an outer shell, which covered the planet and provided a structure for an artificial atomosphere to develop. The end goal was for the planet to be protected from harmful levels of radiation and for the atmosphere to be enclosed and prevented from dissipating into space. Eventually, with the increased warmth that the finished shell would provide, some of the water would evaporate into water vapor, filling the vacant space below the shell. Eventually, this shell would cover most of the surface of Europa and this required a huge amount of iron. The core of the moon was hot and full of iron. Originally, it was difficult to weild the molten iron when it was brought up onto the surface of the ice. The icy surface encased the alien ocean. The iron was forged into the curved pieces that made up the hard exterior surface surrounding the planet and under which an environment would develop. Europa's icy surface was fairly young, only approximately sixty-five million years old. There were cracks and valleys across the surface of the ice shell which were caused by the movement of tides in the cold, yet unfrozen ocean underneath.

Toggle lived on the space station where all of the surface workers lived. There was more than one space station near Jupiter. The construction workers would alternate work and rest days, switching off with the other workers, only working at the surface a couple days at a time. The radiation on Europa's surface was strong and incredibly dangerous despite the space suits that the workers wore as they worked on building the high, iron shielding shell. The microbe-filled ocean environment underneath the ice was sustained by the heavy radiation. The space station colonists had helicopters for dragging each shell surface sheets into position once they had been molded out of iron. Ocassionally, the surface ice would crack and the whole roof-building operation would have to move to another location. At the equatorial latitudes of Europa, the ice was formed into gigantic spikes, making the construction far more difficult. The work on the surface stopped for a week after the young photographer had been accidentally ejected from the portal in the storage wing used mostly only by robots. There were cranes and harnesses used down on the surface for building the shell. Toggle didn't work in physical labor and had never been on the frozen water surface of Europa. She stayed in the space station working on clearing bugs in the code that ran the various machines in the space station. It was an incredibly boring job. On the bright side, she did live on a space station near Europa, millions of miles away from her home planet. Toggle had come to this job on the station when she was young, just out of high school on another station. She knew that once the construction team had covered enough of Europa for the atmosphere to begin to form, she would end up moving to the surface with the rest of the colonists, but that was not projected to occur for several more years.

Toggle watched the general and two of the pilots give eulogies at the young woman's funeral. The general was wearing his blue uniform and the pilots were wearing moss green outfits with black epaulets and elbow pads. The general stated: "Jelilah, or Jelly Bean, as some of us had taken to calling her, was a part of the working community on this space station for fifteen years. She moved to this area of the space station with her parents when she was twelve and knew all the rules for moving about the inside. The fact that she made a fatal mistake just shows that anyone could meet an untimely end on this ship if they aren't careful to follow the rules, which are there for our safety."

The orbit of Jupiter's moon Europa was elliptical, as was the orbit of Ganymede, another one of Jupiter's moons. The time that it took for the space station, which stayed close to Europa, to make trace a full cycle around the planet Jupiter was eighty-five Earth hours. Following the correct path for the ship was a complicated ordeal and two pilots were directing and monitoring the ship’s flight path at any given moment.

The general continued: "Everyone here has probably seen the photographs in many of the hallways that were taken by Jelly Bean. Through her camera we see detailed images of the colors on Europa's surface, resulting from ocean salts being deposited on top of the surface ice. Red, yellow, and brown salts have been deposited by ocean plumes and color the icy surface of Europa."

Everyone in the cafeteria was now sitting down. Roland squeezed into a chair next to Toggle. He lived in a separate wing than Toggle, in his family's apartment. Toggle's debugging job was incredibly boring and she enjoyed hobbies when she had time off after work, in the evenings and on the weekends. She liked watching films while knitting.

Toggle responded, "If you don't want your parents controlling every aspect of your life, just apply for your own place and move out."

Roland winced, "You have no idea how much it costs and I'm still only a journeyman in welding. I don't get paid enough to afford my own place. Well, anyways, my dad knew Jelly Bean. He knew her since she was a kid. He thinks that there was foul play. He said that she had been on this space station for way too long to make a mistake like the one that caused her death."

Toggle said, "Well I've read enough Asimov and Agatha Christie to imagine how this could have been a murder, but it seems like the cause of her death is pretty straightforward. I've been backed up at work for the past week, trying to keep up with everything that I have to debug and this whole thing on top of my work schedule is pretty overwhelming."

She continued, "I think that your dad is being paranoid. This could be a mystery like in Asimov's Robots series or in a Ms. Marple story, but I doubt it. Jelilah was just a normal person, a professional photographer, who made one stupid mistake that unfortunately lead to her death."

The caterer was in the kitchen and lining up plates for the robots to take out to the people attending the funeral in the cafeteria. There was an applause for the last pilot who spoke about the times he had spent with Jelly Bean and then the caterer began cussing. She was in the kitchen alone, since all the rest of the cook staff had gone out in the cafeteria to listen to the eulogies once they had finished preparing the plates. The caterer, Wendy, was frustrated because there was a bug with the kitchen robots that she had recently sent in a work order for. The kitchen robots would pick up plates off the counter which they would then take into the cafeteria in order to distribute the food and drink to the patrons attending the funeral. Oddly, the robots would only pick up the plates from the counter if they were lined up along the edge. This was a new bug and it was frustrating for Wendy. As a result, someone had to stay in the kitchen during the eulogies to line up the plates and cups in the precise manner in which the robots would actually pick them up. The robots on the ship counted as space station machines themselves and any bugs in their code were reported to the department in which Toggle worked.

"Toggle," said the caterer, "Can you come here a minute?"

The cook kept her voice low since there were still people out in the cafeteria, discussing the sudden death of the young photographer.

Toggle snuck off into the kitchen where the robots were carefully lifting plates off of the counter and carrying them one by one into the cafeteria to serve food to the people who had come for the funeral. Roland followed her into the kitchen.

The caterer introduced herself as Wendy. She was middle aged and had a nice smile with lines around her eyes. Wendy explained: " I'm having an issue with the robots picking up items from the counters. I've figured out how to work with it but I am essentially forced to place all of the plates in a straight line as the robots will not pick up plates that are more than a foot from the edge of the counter. It just takes more time. I submitted a work order to look into the code for the cafeteria food-distribution robots but they haven't been fixed yet and it's extra difficult to deal with today because of the huge volume of people who came for the funeral."

Toggle watched the robots for a few moments and tried moving a plate farther from the edge of the counter. The robot reached for the plate, but did not pick it up. She sighed. "I'll look into this first thing tomorrow morning."

The density of Europa is approximately the same as Earth’s moon. Ice and liquid water are responsible for six percent of the total mass, which means there is enough ocean water for the moon of Jupiter to become a terraforming project. The planning for the mission began in 2016 at NASA. The lessons learned from the Viking missions were integrated into planning for the landing mission. The general population of Europa colonists lived for now in the space station above the surface while only construction workers and construction robots would land on the surface to prepare the moon for the next step in terraforming.

Toggle had been born on the Europa mission in a space station in 2053. Her parents left Earth on the mission together when they were twenty and she was born several years later. Toggle had been on the surface of Europa before. Iron was extracted using a submarine that was placed in the cold ocean and traveled forty kilometers down through the ocean to the rocky surface where the submarine would lock onto the rock and extract iron ore and then the iron would be piped to the surface. Back on the surface, the iron was melted and poured into forms to make pieces of the metal shell under which the colonists would move into to begin the terraforming process. The cold ocean and frozen ice layer contained minerals which were separated out and added as nutrients to the food supply and the compost which was being stored for the gardens that would be built under the shell later on.

The next morning, Toggle was checking for overdue work orders in her mailbox. There were twenty-five and she found the one concerning the robots distributing food in the cafeteria. It took a while for her to pull up a manual of these specific robots and review their code until she found the bug that caused them to not pick up items from the counter unless they were at the edge. She removed the bug and updated their software, then contacted Wendy to let her know that her robots should be working again.

As she scrolled through the mailbox full of work orders, Toggle noticed something that she had not noticed before. Toggle found a work order from the storage maintenance team. One of the robots in that cold, empty, and lonely wing had been on the fritz and was taking orders too literally from members of the team. It would overhear parts of conversations and act on those phrases, taking them as orders when the team members hadn't meant to direct the robot into doing these things at all. This was a problem that was affecting only one robot in the storage area.

It suddenly struck Toggle what must of happened to Jelilah. She ran through the microphone recordings from several of the storage area robots searching with data from Jelly Bean's voice that was stored in the database. She found the moment when Jeliliah had been ejected from the space station and determined that it was not Jelilah who had pressed a wrong button, but the storage area robot which was nearby and misunderstood what she was requesting help with. It pressed the ejection button, breaking it while causing the ejection, accidentally causing the woman's death. This was due to a pretty serious bug but only a couple storage area workers had noticed the problem and seemed to have forgotten the smaller incidents by now, since no recent work orders had come in since the week before.

Toggle had successfully solved the mystery of what caused the death of the young photographer, but unfortunately, she was indirectly the one responsible. In the real world, logic systems like the Laws of Robotics, made up by Isaac Asimov, were impossible to implement, and in terms of modern robots, were not realistic at all. The safety rules had been programmed in, but Toggle's most recent software bug update had caused an override function that made the robot in the storage area more dangerous to interact with than it was supposed to be. She was gripped by a sudden bout of paranoia, realizing that there could be very unpleasant consequences of her mistake since several of the pilots and the general were angry about the Jelilah's death and had vowed to punish whoever was responsible. Toggle didn't want to be punished, but she was sure that the incident- Jelilah's death - was partially, or completely, her fault. Toggle was the last person to push updated code to the robots in the storage sector. The bug fix that she had written was supposed to make the robots more interactive and more efficient when following orders from the human workers. She found the sound file from the robot which had been at the scene at the exact moment when Jelilah was suddenly ejected from the ship. Jelilah had been trying to open the window covering further and had said to the robot "Can you open the window a bit more?"

The robot's code had been made to understand phrases more literally with the last update that Toggle had pushed into the machine's "brain" and its next logical step was to open the ejection portal rather than open the window covering over the portal window, which was what Jelly Bean had been requesting help with. Jelilah hadn't pressed the wrong button, the robot had. It wasn't Jelilah's fault that she was dead, it was the fault of whoever had altered the robots behavior the week before. It was Toggle's fault. Toggle's mistake had been to make the robots more literal-minded, processing verbal data even before safety rules. Jelilah's death was entirely Toggle's mistake and no one could know.

After realizing that she was at fault and would probably be found out if any of the pilots decided to investigate further, Toggle remembered that was that there was a saved version of the work order, as well as the damaged code that the robot had been running, kept in the memory banks of the machine room. The pilots who lived and worked in the different modules of the space station were the most technically trained people on the space station and were treated as community leaders. They had access to whatever information they asked for and could essentially do whatever they wanted. The general was the main person in charge, and was the individual that the pilots reported to. In less than a couple of days, if they asked the right questions, the pilots could figure out what had really happened to Jelilah and that Toggle was to blame. Toggle would have to travel to the machine room, avoiding detection, and break in to delete the evidence of her mistake. Toggle felt bad; the guilt felt heavy for a moment. Her mistake caused a terrible tragedy, but she did not hold herself responsible for what had occured. The incident was her fault, but the mistakes in the code update she had written were understandable and she forgave herself for them. Toggle had never had much interest in feeling remorse.

Talking with Cessna, Roland's younger sister at the drinks fountain machine late the next morning, Toggle was having trouble covering up her concern about being found out. Cessna picked up on her nervousness and assumed that Roland had finally made a move on Toggle. He had been planning to for a while. The two of them were the same age, 21, and they had known each other since they were fifteen. The space station had different sections and they had spent their childhoods in separate modules, but their friendship had been close ever since they had met. At this point, Cessna was just waiting for Toggle to announce that Roland had finally asked her out on a real date. Cessna said, " I think that it's great that you and Roland have always gotten along so well."

Toggle gave her a thoughtful look and then asked: " You are doing an internship in the data center, as part of your high school computer science education, if I remember correctly?"

Toggle needed a way to get into the machine room where the data banks were kept. She didn't know the access code and guessing it could take forever. Perhaps, she could get some information or maybe the actual access code from Cessna.

Cessna replied, "Yeah I do," she tilted her head, suprised by the question. "I have this access card that scans me in, but there is also an access code. They won't tell me what it is; using the card makes sure that they know who entered the machine room and when, but I'm sure the access code isn't that complicated to figure out. Sometimes I try to simulate calculations on how long it would take me to guess the code depending on the length: I've seen my boss type it in, it's twelve characters."

Toggle assured Cessna that she wasn't trying to get into the machine room, she was just curious what it was like to work there since she was considering applying for a change of workplace. After the conversation, Toggle left the cafeteria to go back to her room where she paced back and forth, trying to decide what to do. Toggle wasn't considering changing her workplace at all but she was going to need a way to figure out the access code to get to the data banks. Suddenly it occurred to her that she may be able to figure out the access code if it had been typed in near a microphone. Of course, she didn't have access to any wires worn by the programming staff in the machine room, which were classified, but she did have access to the microphones built into the robots which ran the code she was in charge of editing.

She quickly wrote a program that would look through location history of the robots and would pull up data on whichever ones had entered the machine room in the past several weeks. There were two, but one had been standing too far from the console where the access code was typed in. She found the audio from the second robot, which had been standing right next to the console as the code was being typed in. She used a program to match the keystrokes, but it was not configured for the type of console into which the access code had been typed. Toggle played the clicking sound over and over again in her headphones until she was able to recognize each keystroke. She had to rely on her own brain to label each key with a unique sound and decode the keystrokes on her own, using her hearing and writing the matching letters, numbers and symbols down by hand.

Once Toggle had generated the access code by analyzing the typestrokes, all she needed to do was determine a time when no one would be inside the machine room. Europa lined up in two pairs with the moon Io and also with moon Ganymede. The change in gravity could be felt on occasion when the moons were lined up and the moon was being tugged by the other moon it had paired with. On these days, people rarely worked in the machine room because the artificial gravity was weaker there, so as not to damage the effectiveness of the machines within it, and the room was generally empty.

What the task to cover her tracks would require would be entering the machine room and accessing the memory bank servers. She would have to introduce another bug, once which she had stayed up late to write. This small program would identify all copies of the robot's data from the date of the incident, including the voice and activity file and delete them permanently. That way, if it occurred to someone else to search the robot's memories for any interaction with Jelly Bean at the moment of the incident, nothing would come up. Jelly Bean would be considered completely at fault for making a fatal mistake on her own and evidence of Toggle's involvement would never be found. Of course, it did occur to Toggle that she would have to replace the robots data with some other activity and sound file so that the space would not just be blank for part of the day, which was unheard of and would cause a panic. She found a generic sort of sound file for a storage area robot and uploaded it to her program so that it would replace the deleted sound file with this other one which made it sound like the robot was retreiving items from a storage shelf to bring into the main part of the space station.

Toggle went out of her way to run into Cessna again in the cafeteria. The younger girl woke up later than she did so she casually hung around later than she usually did, reading the space station news and slowly eating her ice cream for desert. Cessna finally found a seat across from her, which was normal since Toggle was very close friends with her brother Roland. Toggle decided to find out when the machine room would be empty. It was more like a series of rooms, but the nickname for the wing was "the machine room."

"I was wondering when you would have a work break. I know that moon pairing is coming up and it has an affect on your work schedule. We should plan to do something together on one of the days that you're free. My work schedule is pretty flexible."

Cessna gave her a suprised and quizzical look. Usually, Toggle only hung out with her brother Roland alone, and on occasion, Cessna would tag along. Cessna liked Toggle a lot and looked up to her as a role model; she responded: "Actually, we don't work in the machine room Thursday through Sunday because of the gravitational changes; we could hang out then."

Toggle continued, "I was thinking of going down to the games area on one of those days. We could do bowling or air hockey; those are my favorite out of the games they have."

"Friday works for me," said Toggle, and she went to refill her ice cream cup.

Someone was always working in the machine room except for the days when there was in issue with the gravitational flux due to the pairing with one of the other Jovian moons and the weaker artificial gravity in the machine room made it impossible to work. Toggle had four days to pick from and she felt that Saturday was going to be the day she got in, deleted and replaced the sound and data file from the robot's saved memory, and essentially cleared her name from being a suspect in Jelilah's murder.

sciencespacescience fictionliteratureextraterrestrialartificial intelligence

About the author

Sabine Lucile Scott

Hi! I am a twenty-eight year old college student at San Francisco State University majoring in Mathematics for Advanced Studies. I plan to continue onto graduate school in Mathematics once I am finished the plethora of courses which remain.

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