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Monday 22 November 2021

Chapter 7

 The Rover Experiment

    There had been heavy rain during the night, everywhere had been thoroughly drenched, and torrents of water had run through the streets. Although it had stopped raining, in the woods rain water still dropped from the trees, and the atmosphere was clean and fresh.
  Life in the village went about its normality; a middle aged woman, No.38 was buying her groceries at the General Store. Citizens took morning tea at the café. The Tally Ho kiosk was open for business, along with the watchmaker’s shop. Citizens promenaded around the pool and fountain in the Piazza, and general store. Three of the taxis plied their trade, while the fourth was being repaired by motor mechanics in the workshop.   “Good morning, good morning, good morning” began the public announcement “congratulations on yet another day. Here is the local weather forecast. The spell of inclement weather will continue for at least another day, with intermittent showers and freshening winds. However a high is slowly moving in and a fine spell of weather to come is forecast for later in the week. Your local amateur dramatics society is currently rehearsing the play ’The importance of being Ernest,’ and on Tuesday Number 72 is to give a piano recital in the Recreation Hall, and ice cream is now on sale, strawberry is the flavour of the day.”

    Two senior gentlemen were sat together on a bench contemplating the free sea, they do that most days.
    “What do you think she meant by that?” said No.113.
    No.189 thought for a moment “Who?”
    “You did hear that announcement, or are you going deaf in your old age?” said the first.
    “These days I just choose what I wants to hear, and I ignore all the rest. Meant, meant by what?”
    “What she said in that announcement, congratulations on yet another day.”
    The other thought for a moment or two “I expect she was congratulating us on another day, by which I take to mean having survived another night.”
    “Now what do you mean by that?”
    “Well they come for you in the night, well not so much now of course because we’re too old. They don’t bother us old folk so much these days, squeezed us dry they have.” said the other.
    “You speak for yourself, I’ve things I haven’t told them, nor likely to!” the first said brusquely.


    “Well she was right, we did survive the night.”
    “Meaning we’re still alive!”
    “Put like that….yes” the other agreed.
    “And one more thing whilst we’re about it” said the first.
    “And what’s that?”
    “Why is it always strawberry the ice cream flavour of the day, who decides these things on our behalf?”
    The other leaned on his walking stick and thought for a moment “Someone who likes strawberry I shouldn’t wonder!”
    “Oh you’ll put up with anything, won’t you?”
    “Do I detect the sound of rebellion in your voice this morning, or did you just get out of bed the wrong side?”
    “My bed’s up against the side of the wall, so there’s only one side to get out!”
    “Rebellion then!” said the other.
    “By jove I’m going” 113 said standing up slowly and purposely.
    “Going, going where?” asked 189.
    “To complain of course!” and he smartly marched away across the Piazza.

    “It’s no good” 189 called out after him, and under his breath “they won’t listen.”

    It had taken a few days to retrieve the Rover MK I from the watery depths of estuary after the collision with the speed boat had caused it to sink. The strong currents had made it particularly dangerous for the divers to retrieve the droid, so the decision was taken to wait for tide to recede and that caused a delay. Eventually the tide went out, and the beach of the estuary had finally been laid bare, which in turn revealed another problem. As the team crossed the sand looking for the MKI Rover it was discovered almost buried, having been sucked down in “the soft,” which was almost like quicksand. It took four men to dig and two Mini-Mokes to pull the droid free of the sand’s grip.

    Two laboratory technicians were assigned the task of assessing the salvaged Rover MkI, the damage caused to it by the collision, and the effect of being submerged in both water and sand. As well as to the question of whether or not it would ever function properly in the way it was designed to do. The fibreglass dome had suffered damage in the collision with the jet boat, and that meant a new dome would have to be manufactured. One of the two buoyancy tanks had been ruptured and needed to be replaced, along with all the electrical wiring. Sinking in the soft meant the sand had got into all the control systems and hydraulics. The conclusion of the assessment was to have the Rover Mk1 scrapped and replaced.

    “This cannot be right” No.2 said after reading the report.
    “You must admit sir, it never achieved its full potential” said No.243.


   “I’ll admit nothing.”

    “It’s an accurate report on the MKI sir, repairs would be, as you’ve read, extensive. The best prognosis would be to scrap the thing completely and begin again.”
    “That’s your prognosis is it?” No.2 said closing the file.
    “Yes sir.”
    “I see” No.2 said sitting back in his chair “your recommendation is a complete scrappage of the MKI.”
    “Bearing in mind it’s a complete wreck, yes, added to the fact that it failed to perform its original requirements. What would you suggest sir?”
    No.2 sat and considered for a moment “I don’t know. What I do know is the village is without an effective Guardian.”
    “Lets face it sir, the Rover MKI was never going to be that.”
    “You’re not being helpful, you know that don’t you?”
    “Yes sir.”
    “Alright, leave it with me.”
    No.243 turned to leave the office.
    “No wait, let’s begin again.”
    “With the MKII mechanical droid.”
    “An improved mark two mark you!”
    The pair of steel doors slid open and No.243 took his leave.

    In a laboratory the two bio-chemists, No.243 and 253, were busy with their latest experiment, growing bio-engineered artificial skin. A number of Petri dishes containing a three dimensional protein gel which is normally found in the skin. Skin cells from mice and placed in gel, in order to stimulate cell growth the scientists added different factors, which regulate cell growth and survival.
    “The latest batch of results indicates we are on the right track” 243 said reading the latest report.
    “Certainly it’s more pliable than previous batches.”
    “Hello what’s this?” asked 243 picking up one of the Petri dishes.
    “It’s never done that before!” 253 observed.
    “It indicates an adverse reaction.”
    “Yes, but to what?”
    “Isn’t that the one we introduced the two new compounds?”
    “Yes” 243 examined the content of the Petri dish more closely “It doesn’t look like synthetic skin, it more like a membrane.”
    The top of the Petri dish was removed, and instantly the membrane moved and began to form a tiny white sphere. The top of the dish was quickly replaced; the two bio-chemists stood looking at each other.
    “What do you make of that?”
    “Those two new compounds we added have had a positive effect on the synthetic skin.”
    “It moved, it actually moved!”
    “Which means it’s alive!”


    The two bio-chemists stood looking at each other in astonishment.
    “Why do you think it was trying to form itself into a sphere like that?”
    “I don’t know, but look its still trying.”
    The Petri dish was placed in a secure clear plastic isolation box. Carefully the lid of the Petri dish was removed, instantly the membrane formed a white sphere and began to roll and bound about the isolation box.
    “Why do you think its doing that?”
    “I don’t know, what do you think we have created?”
    “I shouldn’t like to think!”
    “Well we’d better start thinking, and have answers ready when Number 2 comes asking questions.”
    “Does he need to come asking questions?”
    “What do you mean?”
    “If we don’t tell him……”
    “You mean keep this under wraps?”
    “Only for the time being, until we understand what we are dealing with.”
    “Do you think it’s hungry?”
    No.243 looked at his colleague “Hungry?”
    “It might be.”
    “How can something like that eat, there’s no mouth, only smooth membrane.”
   253 went to fetch a mouse from the other side of the laboratory and placed it inside the isolation box. The mouse sat inside the clear plastic box sniffing for a moment, then set about preening itself. The white sphere moved, then rolled forward a little. The mouse stopped cleaning its whiskers and began sniffing the air again, panic must have set in because the mouse turned to face the glass wall and tried to climb up out of reach of the approaching sphere. There was nowhere for the mouse to go, it cringed in a corner as the sphere got closer and loser. Then the mouse made a sudden dash for it, but there was no escape. The white sphere was on the mouse in an instant, its membrane covered the face of the mouse which squeaked in fear, its lungs fighting for breath, eventually burning for lack of oxygen as the mouse collapsed, having been suffocated to death. One of the bio-chemists made to extract the poor mouse and carry out a post mortem upon it in order to understand what effect the sphere had had on the mouse. But the sphere had other ideas, suddenly the sphere grew a little more in size and completely absorbed the mouse. The white membrane now took on a pinkish hue.
    “You saw that, tell me you saw that” asked 243.
    253 turned to face his colleague “I saw it, but I don’t believe it.”
    “Now we know how it feeds, through absorption.”
    “That poor mouse, we must destroy this….this thing.”


    No.243 paused and considered “If we do that we could be throwing away an opportunity.”
    “An opportunity for what, think of the danger. Does it have intelligence?”
    “Intelligence, I should hardly think so.

    “Well it didn’t think twice before it absorbed that mouse! We are bound to inform Number 2, if this thing were to get out. Imagine if it were large enough to attack a man. We are bound to inform Number 2, what else can we do?”
    “After we have run some tests on it and learned what it is we are dealing with. And I want to examine those two new compounds we added in order to encourage stronger growth.”
    “Yes, Roc2h Vt4 and Er2b
    “But that’s three, you added a third compound?”
    “Only to this one, to see what would happen if Er2b was added in order to counteract the possibility that the cells would not bind together.”
    The laboratory was completely sealed during the running of a series of tests. It was proved that the white sphere could increase or in fact decrease its mass or size. But the both were relative to its original size which was roughly the size of a table tennis ball. Although it was living membrane it had a quality of a balloon, in that it offered no resistance. A number of creatures were introduced to the sphere’s environment, and it managed to defend itself well again large spiders. A scorpion fought well and managed to sting the sphere, to which it displayed a negative reaction. So there was the instinct for survival, but instinct was not necessarily intelligence.
   “How are we to access intelligence?” 253 asked.
   “There is a measure called the encephalization quotient that estimates intelligence by comparing an animal's brain to that of a typical creature of the same size. But here we have a problem, and the problem is?” asked 243.
   “This membrane has no brain!”
   “Therefore intelligence must be zero rated, but if we implanted a  basic artificial intelligence…..”
   “Artificial intelligence?”

   “Visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making” the basics along with a controlling agent “because the last thing we want is for this thing to be come self-aware!”
   “And if it doesn’t have a brain?”
   “We implant the AI into the membrane itself, so that it’s the membrane itself that does the thinking.”
   No.243 thought and considered “You know what is slowly developing don’t you?”
    “We know how the MK1 was very disappointing.”

    “Its performance lacked a great deal.”

    “It was fine on the road.”


    “Yes but it was supposed to be an all-terrain vehicle, on land, on the sea, in the sea.”
    “Be fair it did go on the water.”
    “And sank, it was supposed to go up walls.”

    “Well that was never going to happen was it?”

    “How do you mean?”

    “Well it behaved like a Dalek when it came to the steps.”

    “You mean it couldn’t climb them.”

    “Although it stumbled down them alright.”

    “So what do we think?”
    “Well the MK2 will perform better.”

    “Developed on a much larger scale of course.”
    “Of course, but which one of us will take the plan to Number 2?”

    The pair of steel doors opened and the white coated figure of No. 243 marched smartly down the ramp and across the floor and stood before the grey curved desk behind which No.2 sat in his black globe chair.

    “You wanted to see me?”
    “Yes Number 2.”
    “What have you there?”
    “The latest report on Rover MK2” No.243 said handing his superior the file.
    “You mean the Rover mark one.”
    “No Number 2, things have moved on apace. There has been an unexpected development.”
    No.2 opened the file and began to read……“Is this right?”
    “Yes Number 2.”
    “A creature of living membrane?”
    “Yes Number 2, but at the present time it is on a very small scale. We need to develop it on a much larger scale if it is to become the village Guardian.”

    “It says here you were working on growing synthetic skin.”
    “Yes Number 2, but three compounds were added by accident, the result being a piece of living membrane, which has formed itself into a sphere……”
    “Which suffocates its prey and absorbs it!”
    “Yes Number 2, it’s not a pretty sight.”
    “What prey?”
    “Has the absorption caused it to increase in size?”
    “No Number 2.”
    “What are you going to do about that?” he asked closing the file.
    “We intend to scale up the process several hundred times, so that a sphere of some 6 feet in circumference can be released from the main mass.”
    “Main mass, how much of a mass?”


    “Large enough for perhaps three spheres to be released at the same time. Eventually a large containment area will be required, thus controlling it in an isolated environment.”
    “At the bottom of the sea.”
    “And this containment area will stop this…..this thing from spreading.”
    “Yes sir.”
    “How will that work?”
    “Scientists are already developing a Perspex cube.”
    “Has this……thing shown any intelligence?”
    “We intend to give it artificial intelligence.”
    “Artificial intelligence?”
    “It’s all in the report sir.”
   “And controlled how?”
   “Through telepathic communication. We have established that once AI…..”
    “AI?” asked No.2.
    “That once artificial intelligence sir has been implanted, it will be the membrane itself which will do the thinking. The Guardian or Rover to be released by a command, we thought orange alert would be the command. It would also act as a warning to people that Rover has been released.”
    “And it will become operational, when?”

    It took the bio-chemists time to speed up the operation, to create a larger mass of Rover MKII on what could be termed an industrial level scale. Small amounts were created in stages and contained in large glass bottles filled with water in which it developed into a perpetually moving thing, as blobs of varying sizes rose and fell, making long streaks, like wax in oil of an astro lamp as one of the bio-chemists observered. It was fascinating to watch, even relaxing if one watched for long enough.
    Scientists developed sections of a strong clear Perspex cube which when constructed off-shore at the bottom of the sea by divers, made the containment area. The transference of the large mass of the Guardian from laboratory to the containment area was akin to putting the genie back into the bottle. Thus by creating a whirlpool over the containment area the mass of Rover MKII was transferred from M. S. Polotska.

    In his office No.2 and the bio-chemist-No.243 were watching the large wall screen depicting the perpetually moving mass of Rover MKII.
    “And you’re sure it’s perfectly secure?”
    “Yes Number 2, until released of course.”
    “And once Pandora’s box has been opened?”
    “We shall use a telepathic command signal which it will return it to the containment area.”


“You make it sound so simple” said No.2.
    “It will become second nature.”
    “Second nature, well we’ll see. When do you propose to test this….this Guardian?”
    “Tomorrow, we shall require a subject of course.”
    “Of course” agreed No.2.

   The day was warm and sunny, citizens promenaded around the pool and fountain in the Piazza as usual, some carrying colourful striped umbrellas to act as a parasol against the sun. The ex-Admiral and his flag officer were sailing plastic boats in the free sea, while a taxi drove round and round the Piazza. Two Top Hat officials of administration passed through on their way to the Town Hall. A maid pushed an old woman in a wheelchair, as an elderly gentleman wheeled a Penny Farthing bicycle about and made no attempt to ride it, while a man in a red jersey and straw boater rode a tricycle, as two young women rode by on bicycles fitted with candy striped canopies. In many ways it was an idyllic scene watched in the Control Room by No.22 the Officer of the watch, she being a middle aged woman, with light brown hair, wearing a dark green polo necked jersey, who stood with No.2 viewing  the wall screen.

    From a small balcony set in a nearby wall another stood taking in the exact same scene as he leaned on the railing. To No.4 people seemed to be settled to life in the village. He had been greeted by smiling, happy passers-by.
    “Beautiful day” someone said.
    And there is that salute, he had been surprised at how easily it had come to him, using thumb and index finger put to the eye, be seeing you. At times it seemed an innocent greeting, but later it becomes more sinister as one realizes that surveillance is everywhere.
   Then there came a disturbance in the Piazza, a young man in a striped jersey had been sat on the edge of the pool reading a copy of The Tally Ho. He was approached by a burly set man in a red jersey.
    “That’s where I sit” said No.130.
    The young man looked up at the burly set man, then to his left and right, then standing up he took a step or two to his right and sat down.
    “Are you trying to annoy me?” asked 130.
    The young man looked up from his broadsheet a second time “Now why would I want to do that?”
    “You’re in my place again, I sit there.”
    “There’s plenty of room.”
    “That’s not the point, I sit all along here, and you need to scoot!”
    “Do I?”
    “Yes, and if you don’t scoot I’ll do terrible things to you. I’ll hit you ugly, I’ll batter you up and down the length of this Piazza, it will be a


terrible sight to look upon. I’ll tear out your liver and feed it to the cat!”
   The young man stood up and made to walk away.
   “Oi, you, how dare you turn your back on me!” 130 said, and reaching out pushed the young man into the pool of the Free Sea.
    He sat there watching his copy of the tally how floating in the water. He stood up and wading through the water he approached the burly set man and punched him. At which the two men started to struggle with each other in the water, punches were thrown, and water splashed everywhere. No-one attempted to stop the fight, in fact no-one was taking any notice as the young man was being held under the water by the bigger man.
   Suddenly over the public address system came the voice of No.2 “Be still!”
    At hearing the command “be still” everyone in the Piazza came to a sudden halt. This focused No.4’s attention as the citizens stood as still as statues. The Mini-Moke had come to a stop, and cyclists dismounted their bicycles. In the Control Room No.2 and the officer of the watch stood watching the tableau on the wall screen, suddenly a small white sphere appeared at the top of the water spout of the fountain. Then increasing in size it floated through the air towards the big man who was holding down the young man in the water. Suddenly the man released his grip and fell backwards. The white sphere emitted a sound akin to someone breathing through an aqualung, a bicycle pump, and Gregorian chant. The man got to his feet and staggered back, but the Guardian was on him in an instant. He lashed out with his fists, but the sphere offered no resistance, the man fell back as white membrane covered his face suffocating its victim into unconsciousness. Then it moved away, rolling and bounding through the Piazza, down the steps and across the nearby lawn. Suddenly the spout of water appeared again from the fountain, and the citizens went about their business as though nothing had happened.
    One man, No.4, who having observed what had just taken place, didn’t believe his eyes still watched as an ambulance appeared on the scene. Two medics took a stretcher from the Red Cross trailer waded into the water, and pulling the unconscious man out, they placed him onto a stretcher and into the trailer, then drove away to the hospital. No.4 turned his attention away from the Piazza and looked over his left shoulder up towards the Green Dome.
    Approaching the front door No.4 pulled on the wrought iron bell pull and the door to the Green Dome opened, the Butler stood in the foyer to bid him welcome with a gesture of a gloved hand. He followed the Butler through the open French doors up the short ramp and through the opening steel doors. The Butler bowed and took his leave as No.4 marched down the ramp and approaching the desk leaned over it and stared at the man sat in the globe chair behind it.


    “What was that a few minutes ago?” he demanded.
    “And a very good morning to you Number 4” 2 said offering his visitor tea.
    “No tea, this isn’t a social call.”
    No.2 leaned forward out of his chair and placed his empty cup and saucer on the tea tray “Oh very well, let’s get it over with!”
    No.4 repeated his question adding “What’s that white “thing” all about?”
    “Don’t want to know much do you! It was a demonstration.”
    “Of the power we exert over the good citizens of this community. It was also a test of Rover, being the Guardian of the village. It was a test which I hasten to add, it passed with flying colours” said a smiling No.2 who had particularly good reason for feeling happy with himself.

    “You set the fight up of course” 4 said accusingly.
    “Did I?” 2 said indignantly.
    “And the man it attacked and subdued?”
     “You saw for yourself, he was taken away by ambulance to the hospital. The doctor will keep him in over night for observation” 2 explained “I’m informed the after affects can be pretty unpleasant.”
    “And the Guardian?”
    “Oh far superior to the mark 1, which you encountered that time you attempted to escape. You rammed it with the speed boat and sank both of them, you will no doubt recall.”
    “This Guardian….”
    “Will serve and protect both the village and its community, and woe betide anyone who should get on the wrong side of it” 2 warned his visitor “now if there is nothing else…..”
    The brief interview being clearly over, No.4 took his leave, the pair of steel doors closing behind him with a resounding clang. No.2 poured himself another cup of tea, and helped himself to the last custard cream.


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