Friday, May 17, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Nine (The End)

The Continuing (but here concluded) Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010.

The expedition was almost over.  The two TIGHAR ships – Nai’a and VVs1 – hovered off the northwest reef while Jesse, John and Walt sent ROV down on his last dives; AUV was already tucked away in the forward deckhouse, relaxing.  At the Seven Site they were drilling cores out of trees, flying kites with cameras on them, scanning with ground-penetrating radar, and continuing to scratch along in their excavation lanes, but nobody was really expecting now to turn up a smoking gun, not this year.  Grandpa Tom was pleased with the information they’d collected, but frustrated because they hadn’t finished all the lanes.  Ric was just frustrated.
Last Days at the Seven Site
Karl bores a ren tree
Radar probes the depths
The Site from a Kite
One night I went to the forward deck house to talk with AUV and ROV.  Maybe they could help me figure out what to do about the airplane, and the Sheel family.

“You have come to the right place,” ROV buzzed when I’d explained the situation.  “Machine intelligence is 725% faster and 362 % more reliable than meat-based intelligence.”

“Those percentages have been disputed,” AUV grumbled, “but in general terms….”

“Yes,” I said quickly; “that’s why I’ve come to you – besides the fact that I can’t talk to the humans.  So what do you think I should do?”

Both machines were silent for a time.  Finally AUV spoke.

“It is not our normal function to exercise judgment.”

ROV flashed several LEDs on his display -- red, yellow and green.  “But we understand how it is done.  Let us weigh the facts.  You are certain, Gerald, that what you saw is Amelia Earhart’s airplane, correct?”

“Yes, it looked like it, it’s in the right place, and no other airplane….”

“…is recorded to have crashed here; correct with at least 92% confidence.  So it is almost certainly what the TIGHARs are looking for.”

“Well, they're also looking for evidence of what happened to Ms. Earhart and Captain Noonan after they got here, particularly at the Seven Site.”

“Not relevant for current purposes.  The airplane is the so-called smoking gun.”

“Yes, it would prove their hypothesis.”



“So, the answer is simple.  If your highest priority is helping the TIGHARs do their research, you must find a way to tell them.  You could perhaps access someone's computer....”

Somehow this answer didn’t satisfy.  I couldn't think of anything to say, and found myself just looking out over the dark sea. The sky was full of stars.  A passing pod of dolphins cast sparks of phosphorescence. 

“Perhaps,” AUV buzzed, “that is not Gerald’s highest priority.”

“I’m just thinking of Sheel, and all his chum,” I said softly.

“Living creatures,” AUV said, and if a machine voice can be sympathetic, his was. 

“Meat,” ROV interpreted, but from him it didn’t sound insulting or dismissive.

“Yes, living…..”

ROV's LEDs blazed red.  “They will find it anyway,” he said firmly.

“…creatures… uh, why?  Why will they – who, the TIGHARs? – why will they find it anyway?”

ROV hesitated for a moment, LEDs flashing different colors.  Then they all glowed steady yellow.

“I have imaged pieces of it – probably pieces of it.  73.8% probability.”

“What?  Where?”

“Up the reef slope from the location you give for Sheel’s house, and below the feature photographed in 1937, that the TIGHARs call Nessie.  Linear and curved objects, not consistent with natural formations.”

The 1937 Nessie Photo
Nessie enlarged
“Pieces of the airplane, then, scattered down the reef face!”

“83.976 probability, assuming Sheel’s house is the airplane and Nessie is a piece of landing gear.”

“So Jesse already knows.”

“Jesse does not know.  Jesse has not yet analyzed the imagery.  But when he does, he will know.”

“Oh dear.”

Multi-colored LEDs flashed on both robots.

"Oh dear?" AUV inquired.

"Well, I.... er...."  I lapsed into embarassed silence.  So did they, but their LEDs flashed.  Finally ROV spoke.

“I tentatively, conditionally conclude from your words, Gerald, that when confronted with the reality of the aircraft’s recovery and the loss of Sheel’s residence, your preference is to leave it where it is.  Am I correct?”

My empty head ached, but I had to acknowledge that he was right.  I nodded.

“I interpret that as an affirmative, correct?”

“Yes.  Correct.  Affirmative.”

“Well then….”  Lights flashed all over the display panels on both robots; for the first time I realized that they communicated with each other via by a wireless network.  The LEDs settled down to a steady green glow.

“We have decided,” ROV said, “that we will not let them find it.”

“What?  How.”

“ROV will cook the data,” AUV buzzed, and I swear there was glee in his voice.

I looked from one robot to the other, confused.

“Cook the data?”

“I will adjust the resolution on the imagery so as to make certain images very hard for a meathead to interpret, and I will muddle the navigational data….”

“So,” AUV put in, “even if they do see something, they won’t know where it was.”

“This will not save Sheel’s home forever,” ROV cautioned, “but I calculate between a 77.2 and 99.8% probability that it will delay its discovery at least two years, considering the typical frequency of TIGHAR expeditions and the challenges inherent in fundraising….”

"And the lifespan of a sheel," AUV added, "is only two years."

“Oh.  But….”

“But calculating the probability of human actions is not an exact science.”

"And there is a 99.714% probability of new generations of sheels."

"However, they will not be our sheels."
My tibiae and fibulae felt weak; I leaned heavily against the bulkhead.  “But – your job is finding the airplane!  How can you just decide not to?”

“It has been said,” AUV buzzed after a moment, “that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  There are how many TIGHARs?”


“Eight hundred seventy seven world wide at last count.  And how many sheels?”

“Uh…. Four thousand eight hundred and – uh – forty six.”


“One can also consider qualitative factors,” ROV hummed, somehow sounding self-satisfied.  “Is having a secure and happy home not more important to meat creatures than solving some historical mystery?”

“Whose solution,” AUV put in, “has less than 0.2% probability of making the world a better place for man or machine?”

I sat slowly down on the deck.  “You guys are making value judgments?”

“Many capacities of the machine mind,” said ROV – a bit pompously, I thought – are not yet understood by meatheads.”

"And plastic is derived from organic molecules," AUV added.

So that’s how it happened.  Something Jesse couldn’t explain scrambled ROV’s data, greatly compromising the maps he tried to make, and obscuring the suspicious things that ROV actually imaged, while leaving enough innocent things to be seen – the rope, some steel bars that were probably lost fishing spears; things like that – that the TIGHARs thought they were getting a more or less accurate picture even if they couldn’t tell just where anything was.  Ric blamed Jesse, Jesse blamed machine errors, and nobody ever guessed that the machines did it deliberately.

Departure Day: the Boats Come Aboard
And then the day of departure came.  SSv1 left first, for a cruise around the island before heading back to Samoa.  Awhile later Nai’a winched in her boats and turned her prow south.  The TIGHARs lined the rail and watched as the island’s shores slid past; I watched out the salon window.  I could make out filmy shapes hovering over the remains of the Norwich City, and knew that Ismael and his brethren were wishing me a safe journey, insh’allah.  Honk and Honkette flew over and dipped their wings before flying back to little (well, not so little) Honkito.  I couldn’t see Polly, of course, and who knows where Clavicle was.  A whale spouted in the distance, and I fancied it was Ginger.  Dolphins played in our bow wave; red-tailed tropicbirds hovered over our wake.
Niku falls astern

And as we slid past the southeast end and began to take the long rolls of the unimpeded Pacific, I thought I saw a couple more ghosts watching us from the shore.  One of them had curly hair and a checked shirt.

SSv1 overhauled us not long after Nikumaroro had dropped over the horizon astern, and quickly left us behind, but we all made it safely to Apia in Samoa after three days at sea.  There Grandpa Tom took off my legs again and with Tom Roberts’ help packed me back in my box.  I rode a truck to the shipping company’s warehouse, and it was there that I was able to get out, work my way across to the office in the dark of night, and start composing these letters to you, Noah and Jake.

Samoa in sight

With love, your peripatetic (Polly said that means wandering) skeleton,

Noah, Jake, and their mom anxiously await Gerald's homecoming

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