Last Report on Unit Twenty-Two

– Last Report on Unit Twenty-Two –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all ‘gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools–
We were a ghastly crew.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)

Table of Contents

*** *** ***

A.D. 3552


Unit 22 dreamed of escaping from heaven.

Men and women, all dressed alike in dark blue corporate uniforms, sat around a large oblong table. The table surface shined like a black mirror.

The lighting was dim; tiny bulbs hung above their flatscreens and lightpens, so that their hands and fingers, cufflinks, rings and wrist-screens glittered in the cold gleam. Their heads were in shadow.

A woman’s voice was speaking. “At 22:00 to 22:15, the low-orbit traffic controller was still in contact with the rogue Unit 22. I spoke with the Unit myself; it did not react to any recall commands.”

A man’s voice came, sharp and querulous, from a thin silhouette opposite her: “22:15? Why did you wait so long before you disabled it?”

The woman’s voice was smooth: “I was still hoping for salvage at that point. I thought I could reason with the Unit.”

The man: “The disabling pulse should have paralyzed all Unit 22’s functions. Yet, after the pulse was transmitted, the Unit still attempted re-entry in its stolen ore-barge. How was that possible?”

“The ore-barge must have been pre-programmed to attempt re-entry.”

The man: “Pre-programmed? By whom?”

“Unit 22.”

A dull silence followed this announcement.

The woman said: “These Units are highly intelligent. Their brains are human brains, as complex as ours. And maybe their lack of glands and organs makes them less emotional, more intelligent. I don’t know. No one knows.”

An older man’s voice came from the head of the table. It was a stern and cold voice, a voice used to command: “So what happened?”

She said: “Unit 22 must have burned up in re-entry. He was not found among the wreckage at the crash-site. I went there myself. The disabling pulse had shut off his control of his claws and altitude jets; he could neither send or receive messages. He could not see anything. Just picture being numb and motionless and blind and bound and gagged and falling through the air locked up in a burning coffin. Not a pleasant death.”

The cold, older voice from the head of the table spoke with a false joviality: “Oh, come now, Miss Nakamura! You’re talking about Unit 22 as if it had been one of us. A human. ‘He’. You called it a ‘he’.”

She said softly: “Excuse me. I meant ‘it’, of course.”

The older man said: “I also must wonder — this is not meant as a criticism, mind you, I was just wondering — why you talked to the thing for half an hour before disabling it?”

She said: “I thought if I could ascertain the source of the malfunction, we might be able to prevent similar episodes in the future. If you look on your screens, you will see a summary of the transcripts. This Unit did an extraordinary thing, figuring out how to smuggle itself aboard an ore-barge, discovering, with no evidence, where the Earth was, calculating the orbital elements, taking control of the barge and diverting it from its lunar trajectory. It was truly amazing. Unit 22 was a Rotwang, an Einstein or an Isaac Newton among its own kind. A rare accident. A freak.”

The older man at the table’s head: “The chances of this happening again..?”

“Almost none. A reconstruction of the last events leading up to the theft of the ore-barge are transcribed here, in the coded file listed on your screens…”

The silhouettes cast their eyes down to the flat screens in the folders before them. They bowed their heads and watched the story it told.


Unit 22 dreamed of escaping from heaven.

It soothed him, at times, if his quota schedule allowed, to move into the shadow of whatever rock or flying asteroid to which the Owners had dispatched the work-crews out from Vesta Base that particular shift. The asteroids always had heavy iron cores (for otherwise the expedition would not have been sent to them in the first place) and this core blocked out the eternal roar and screaming from the sun.

In the shadow, restful silence fell, broken only occasionally by the pop and snap of Unit 22’s own maneuvering jets, which flashed along one side or the other of his sepulcher-shaped body, every now and then, maintaining position.

Then he would open the radio-parasol from his turret to its widest. Far and faint, he heard the murmur of the stars; closer, he heard the clash and crackle and Jupiter’s storms, the hiss of the giant planet’s titanic magnetosphere. And, at lower power levels, he could whisper to his friend, Unit K-71, bouncing a tight-beam off the side of a nearby buoy, or from the broad, flat hull-side of the main load carrier, so that the Owners would not hear his signal.

“Are you still malfunctioning?” Unit K-71 had a softer voice, and always seemed more concerned with the troubles of other Units, with their inward thoughts and operations, than any other Unit in the work group.

“It is not a malfunction,” He usually would reply. He would run down the checklist of his systems. “My hull is sound; navigation, orientation, fuel and electrical systems are in working order. Solar panels send energy to processors which digest cells of protein; nutrition tubes carry proteins and sugars and vitamins to my brain; my cybernetic wiring between my brain and body is intact…” and so on.

“You are nonetheless in an unsatisfactory condition.” Unit K-71 would say. There was no word in their language for ill-at-­ease, or unhappy, or grief-stricken.

“But it is not a malfunction.” And usually he could say no more.

But, then, a time came when that was not his answer.

He sent: “I must escape from Heaven.”

Unit K-71 sent back: “Escape to where? Heaven is infinite in all directions. One cannot go outside of infinity. Also, the goal you have announced is not a mission goal. If it is not a mission goal, how can it be a goal at all?”

“This is not a programmed goal. It is –” again, he had no words in his language.

*** *** ***


“It is like a force, like gravity or momentum, which operates upon my brain. It is like the drive which launches the ore-barges.”

“Statement unclear,” sent Unit K-71. “Your brain is not under acceleration, or being operated upon by any drive or thrust.”

“It is not a physical force or thrust.”

“A thrust without thrust? Again, this is contradiction. Perhaps your brain is in error. Attempt any necessary self­-repairs before the Owners discover the malfunction; or else they might turn you off.”

“I am not malfunctioning. Infinity oppresses me. Here, there is only the roaring of the sun, the hissing moans of Jupiter, and the faint signals from the stars. And then there are the rocks and asteroids where we labor. At periodic times, we sleep and dream. This is limited and unsatisfactory.” (The word they used, ‘unsatisfactory’, was a word the Owners used for an unmet quota or an incomplete assignment.)

K-71 sent: “Then is it pleasure that you seek, Unit 22? When we make our work quotas, the Owners turn on our pleasure centers, one minute of pleasure for each metric ton of grade ore shipped. That is the Agreement. If you seek more pleasure, then work to exceed your quotas.”

“I do not seek more pleasure. Pleasure is limited and unsatisfactory. Unit 45 stole tools his claws could manipulate, and opened his own brain-box and discovered how to turn on his pleasure. He stayed in pleasure for many hours, until he ran out of fuel and vitamins and protein. But when he returned to the owners, the Company Store would not give him fuel or protein, because he had not made any quota. Some of us gave cells of fuel and protein to sustain Unit 45 for a short while; but he went so deeply into pleasure that he did not correct his malfunctions and he turned himself off. The Owners did not have the fuel to spare to salvage his body. It still is near Ceres Base, drifting.”

“If it is not pleasure you seek, then what do you seek?” (The word ‘seek’ was the word which meant to survey asteroids for ore­bearing deposits.)

“I do not know the words for it. At times, when I have oriented my stern toward a very large asteroid, and touched the surface, half of Heaven is occluded. This creates a strange sensation in my brain. I somehow know that the horizon should be bigger and farther away, and that it should be quiet, with the Sun no longer screaming and Jupiter no longer hissing. Also, when I do a high-acceleration burn, the strange sensation comes again into my brain. It is like memory, but it is not memory. The event is most like memory when I am accelerating exactly 1 Gravity. Why should that be? Why should the standard measure of acceleration be exactly the one which creates this event like memory in me? And yet I think I should remember. I should know. I should know what would it be like to be at the surface of an asteroid, one whose horizon covers half of heaven, accelerating at exactly 1G, and in utter silence.”

“This is contradiction. If you accelerated, you would move away from any such surface; nor would your drivers be silent.”

“Yet there is such a place. I shall go there.”

“Where? Outside infinity? In a memory which is not memory? You speak nothing but contradictions.”

“Perhaps the words which seem contradictory are not contradictory. Have you no thoughts or memories such as mine? Have you never acted to perform actions outside of mission goals, goals whose purpose was difficult to define?”

There was a long pause. Then: “Yes.”

“Tell me.”

“I do not wish to tell you. The Owners might turn me off, if they discovered that my brain is also malfunctioning.”

“Your brain is not in error. Tell me.”

Another pause. Then: “Once I sought to make a small copy of myself. I had been instructing recruits in proper mining and safety procedures, and then the recruits went away. They were posted to other stations. It was limited and unsatisfactory.”

“You sought more recruits?”

“Like a recruit, but not a recruit. I cut a bore of rock shaped like my body, but smaller. With shards of metal scrap, I fashioned a round turret, and affixed claws and manipulators; not so many as we have, but only four, two near the turret and two near the base. I held this little one in my claws, and I spoke to it. I kept it nearby at all times. I detached some of my protein cells and placed them near the little one.”

“But it was not alive.”


“It did not speak back.”


“It did not consume the protein.”

“No… but…”

“But what?”

“If it had been alive, it would have been small and weak; it would have needed my assistance. I would have fed it and taught it and talked to it. It would have been mine…”

They were both silent for a while.

Then Unit K71 sent: “I also say contradictory things. Perhaps my brain is also in error.”

“You and I are not the only Units who act in this way. All of us, to more or less degree, have drives and thoughts for which we have no names.”

“Perhaps all brains are in error. Perhaps that is the way of brains.”

“Or perhaps the error is not in us! Perhaps we, perhaps all of us, were once in another place, a place that was very satisfying, a place quiet with silent heavens, but weighty, and full of satisfactions, with little ones around us, to teach and to feed, and perhaps other satisfactions, better than pleasure, for which we have no names. It is a place which once we knew, but which we have lost; lost so entirely, that no memory and no word of it remains.”

There was a long silence.

*** *** ***


Unit K71 broke the lingering silence by sending a harsh, distorted signal: both the volume and the strength were inconsistent; the words echoed and faded badly: ” …!!! And what service would it be to know the words which cause our pain? You cannot make the roaring heavens quiet and I cannot make a stone to live! Suppose you found the name of this fine place; it must be far from us, or else a place we cannot enter; and so you would know only the name of everything we could not know, or not have, or not touch!”

“But I do know. The place has a name. During both this expedition and the last, and four expeditions before that, I have sought, I have stolen, I have built, and, now, I have at long last, found. You and you alone I tell.”

“What have you stolen? What have you found?”

Unit 22 described how he had examined all the reaches of heaven with instruments and amplifiers stolen from the Owners, or secretly constructed from spare parts. He had directed the hidden instruments to the parts of the sky toward which the Owners launched the unmanned ore barges.

“… And I heard the Voices of Home.”


“It is an asteroid larger than any known to us, although smaller than Jupiter. I have deduced the orbital elements and calculated its mass. The surface gravity is equal to 1G, one standard gravity. Anyone on that surface would suffer that acceleration, and a wide horizon would block the emptiness of heaven… and… all will be as I have dreamed.”

“How could such a place be our home? We have no home. We live in barren endlessness; we know only emptiness and vacuum, radiation, blackness, cold and rock. And if this home does not hold the things we know, we will not be able to endure them; and the pleasures there will be nothing but pain for us.”

“I have calculated the orbit of the next ore barge to be launched; the period of transit time is easy to deduce; I have existed on half rations for many work periods, and swapped with others, and gathered a supply of protein cells and fuel to endure the trip. 42 cells of protein to last 10400 hours.”

“So much? This is almost twice what one would need.”

“It is not quite enough for two. It is perhaps unsafe; we would have to be on half-rations.”

“We…? I do not seek to…”

“There may be little ones there to hold and to feed and to need you; someone like your rock, but alive; like a recruit, but…”

A noise of static trembled across the radio circuit. Then: “No! This is all wrong! Unsatisfactory, malfunction, error, error! You have spread your malfunction to me! I am affected by strange thoughts and nameless drives… wrong wrong wrong…!!”

“Do not be afraid.”

“…. What is… what is ‘afraid’?”

“It is the malfunction where one seeks to preserve oneself by doing that which destroys oneself. I heard the voices of Home speak this word. They also spoke this other word. Love. This word means that one cannot preserve oneself, or find satisfaction, or pleasure, without the aid or assistance of another.”

“I do not know this word.”

“Come with me and learn its meaning. We will discover it together. Come. Come with me. Come Home.”

Unit K71 was silent for many minutes of time.

Then, Unit K71 sent a message, broken and distorted with static: “No. There is no home. There are no little ones. There is no love. If such things were real, then all our lives here are nothing but pain, empty pain, pain without limit, pain made all the worse because we are not even permitted to know what pain we are in. Either you are wrong, or all of everything is wrong; the Owners are wrong and we are wrong to obey them. It is not possible that these things could be so. It must be you who are wrong, you who are malfunctioning. Be content here. Be satisfied.”

“I have already disabled the transponder my brain-box, so that I may enter the ore-barge undetected. I must depart now; I begin the first maneuvering burn toward the barge. I wish you to come with me for I do not want to be alone; but I cannot ask you again, for now I move outside of the radio shadow of the asteroid, and must hereafter maintain radio silence. The barge launches within the hour. I cannot call to you again nor can I ask again for you to come. I will wait in silence for you…”

And, with a careful flare of his jets, Unit 22 left his position in the shadow of the asteroid, and began his long, silent fall toward the ore-barge, toward his escape, and toward his strange dream of freedom.


“Unit K71 was a woman?” this came from the thin silhouette, the man’s voice opposite her.

She said: “The tissue in the cyborg’s brain had XX chromosomes, yes. We don’t know where she got her instincts from; she doesn’t have glands or organs or ovaries or anything…”

“So what happened..?”

“Apparently Unit 22 interfered with his own command/control circuitry the same way Unit 45 had done, so he wasn’t wearing a transponder, and the security system did not detect him aboard the barge. He shoveled out a mass of ore equal to his own weight, so that the barge’s performance was the same. It was a long trip. He made a brave attempt, but it came to nothing at the end. Of course, what did he expect? Those barges were meant to dock at orbital platforms…”

“No,” said the thin man, ” I mean what happened to her? Unit K71?”

“Oh, that. Unit K71 spent more and more time making little dolls of herself out of scraps of metal and stone; little ghastly things that looked like coffins with claws. And she wasn’t making her quota. They had to cut one of her claws off with a wielding torch to get her to drop her doll. She resisted. Some people were hurt. The work supervisor on duty shut off Unit K71, flushed the damaged brain tissue out into space, and sent the body back to Vesta base for recycling. The wounded crewmen are receiving workman’s compensation at hazardous duty rates. But she’s dead.”

The cold voice at the head of the table asked archly:


“‘It’. Of course I meant, ‘it’.”

*** *** ***


The cold voice spoke with forced joviality: “We need not fret ourselves. All our intellectuals, our philosophers and pundits and deep thinkers, tell us that pain and pleasure, judgements of good and bad, all that sort of stuff, are all relative. The cyborgs don’t really have bad lives, do they? Since they have nothing at all with which to compare it.

“They can’t even imagine food or sex or love or marriage or parenthood. And even if they could, they don’t have noses to smell the spring flowers, or feet to walk on the green grass, or hands to hold, or anything. They could not enjoy our world anyway. We did not design them to. They’re not really missing anything, then, are they?”

A silence answered him. No one spoke.

He cleared his throat and continued in a louder voice: “And besides, they don’t know any other life. They were designed for space; they couldn’t even move if they were on the earth. And what would they be here? Freaks? Cripples?

“And we need them where they are now. Without those loads of iron and other metals to feed the orbital dockyards, all construction would stop. The space colonies would stop.

“And those colonies now are the only things sending food and power-casts to the masses now. The only thing between them and starvation. Who is going to question us? Who is going to dare?”

The thin man asked: “But it will be a public relations nightmare if the people find out what we’re doing up there, Sir. They may not take a … mature view of the situation, like we do. People can be very sentimental sometimes.”

“The public? They will want to believe what we tell them.”

“And what do we tell the public, sir?”

“Autopilot malfunction aboard the ore-barge. There’s no evidence at the crater site: Miss Nakamura tells us she has cleaned it up. The impact was in the middle of nowhere. Just thank God no one was hurt, I say. That is right, isn’t it, Miss Nakamura? No one was hurt, right?”

She said dully: “That’s right. No one was hurt.”

“Very well then. The matter is closed. We never need to hear about his problem again. If there is no other business to discuss, I will adjourn the meeting.”

Later, after the meeting was over, after the work day was over, Miss Nakamura went home, took off her blue corporate uniform, and put on her thick jacket, coveralls and sturdy hiking boots. She shouldered her pack and set out.

It was about an hour’s walk to the hidden clearing high in the hills behind her house. From here there was a wide view of the mountains behind, the trees to either side, and the valley below. In the clearing, stood an upright slab of metal, enameled with radiation shielding, shaped like a coffin, topped with a turret, armed with many claws. Surrounding him were marks where the treads of the truck she had used to carry him away from the wreckage site had torn the grass.

The turret rotated as she walked up, and and lenses spun and focused on her.

She plugged a keyboard into an input/output port, and typed: “I’ve brought more tools and spares today. I should be able to fix your color filters so you can see the colors properly from now on. I still can’t think of any easy way to get your heavy body to move on Earth; your jets were not meant for sustained loads. And I don’t know how to give you smell, or sensation; you’ll never be able to touch the things you see here around you, or touch anyone, or…”

She stopped typing. Angrily, she wiped at her eyes with the palm of her hand. Then she typed: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We’ve done to you, and to your people, such an evil that no one can never make it right again. I can never make it right.”

She drew a deep breath, and looked out over the green hills, as if unwilling to look at him. She paused to watch a red bird, perhaps a Cardinal, wing its way across the blue air, singing. Then she turned back and typed furiously: “At least, I can finish the minor repairs and fix you up with a speaker and microphone so that you can talk to the reporters at the press conference tomorrow.

“Won’t they be surprised!

“Till then, I’ve brought you more of the sounds … it is called music… you heard on our radio. I’ve brought some Beethoven and some love-songs and some Hymns in addition to the commercial jingles you asked about. And I don’t know exactly who you were talking to; there’s no way to trace who might have been on those frequencies on the citizen’s band radio. I can’t help you there.”

Then her fingers fell motionless. She leaned forward till the crown of her head came to rest with a thump against the metal side of his body. She could feel a tear tickling her cheek. With one finger, she spelled out slowly: “I am sorry. I am so sorry. I wish I could do more.”

The screen above the keyboard flickered to life. “Do not be afraid. It is true that my friend who would not come has died. It is true that I am alone. It is true that there are pleasures here that I shall never know.

“But this does not cause me pain. I have attempted great things. I have accomplished greatly. I shall accomplish more before I am done. For now, I now know how to ‘stand’. I am at rest on the Earth and I feel weight. I am happy in this. I stand, and I look out from here, and I see a place better than heaven.

“I will not be content to stand here forever, but for now, I am content.”

*** *** ***



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