The Permafrost Prank (a story)

I make no claims for the following story as literature, but it is in recognition of a milestone we all unfortunately passed this year. I refer of course to the 400 ppm carbon dioxide measurements at Kilauea and Antarctica. So we’re going to have to do some geoengineering. And of course there will be accidents… 

Lewis Judge stands in the door of his Airstream portable hab, drinking coffee and looking out on an Arctic morning

High in the green Arctic sat a half-dozen mobile buildings, each covered in solar-cell coating. The perpetual twilight sun glinted off the dark 8-meter dome of an AirStream mobile hab. In the open door stood a tall man dressed in a bathrobe and cowboy hat, holding a powered coffee cup. A large multi-legged robot, and several aerial drones rested nearby. There were no roads or trails.

Lewis Judge wasn’t supposed to be up in the Arctic by himself. The Company deemed such isolation “unsafe”, and he would probably be dinged for it on his next evaluation in June. But he had sent the other humans on his team to establish the next camp 300 klicks away, with the specific goal of having some time to himself. He had watched heli-drones carrying their habs away with considerable satisfaction.

Lewis was a roboticist, though he used the term “robot mechanic” because it sounded less pretentious. As such he played a crucial role in the plan for making the Arctic into an enormous forest. First, an area would be surveyed by an arborist, a soil chemist, and a geologist, then tended by teams of robots planting genetically-engineered seedlings where the last million years had seen only ice or permafrost. Even military-grade robots are not trouble-free; hence Lewis.

The happy-faced green-and-white John Deere forest-planting robots you’ve seen on the news are only used where journalists can visit. They work well in pleasant environments, but outside of public relations, they are mostly used for temperate-zone agriculture.

Lewis’ robots were different. These were re-purposed MPRP-6 military robots built on a DARPA design from the early refugee wars. While they were (very) capable of autonomous killing, the “MP” stood for “Multi-Purpose”, and they were used for everything from carrying supplies to retrieving wounded soldiers. They looked like metal and plastic spiders, three meters from leg tip to leg tip. Their appearance is unsettling to humans, as is their uncanny silent operation. On seeing one for the first time, insurgents had been known to drop their weapons and run. After the wars they were only used in places where people could not see them. Equipped with tundra pads, they could traverse the soft melted Arctic ground without damaging it.

A tiny bell rang; the computer was signaling its morning report. Lewis turned to enter the hab. He sat on a flexible stool, studying the screen. The computer waited for him to respond.

“Akili, sitrep, group one” said Judge.

A pleasant synthetic voice spoke. “Group one is planting in a valley,” it said; “eight kilometers to the North NorthEast. Robots One and Two are functioning normally, and have planted 107 assorted saplings in the last 24 hours. Robot three has not responded to query.”

“Stop,” said Lewis. “Read Robot three last log entry.”

Robot log entries could be quite lengthy, and most of the information was routine. Akili knew that humans preferred a fast cut to the chase. “I thought you would be interested in the IP connection part. Shall I begin there?”

Lewis nodded, and took another drink of coffee.

“Very well. Robot three received a series of packets from an IP address in England at oh-eight sixteen, thirty-one days ago. After that time, routine transmissions and operation continued until oh-six hundred this morning.”

“Why didn’t I know about the packets before now?” said Lewis.

“The packets were not mentioned in routine response transmissions. I only found out about them by grabbing a log dump, after transmissions stopped. Log dump transmissions are an automatic subroutine, and cannot be interfered with by the machine itself.”

Sometimes Akili tried a little too hard to sound human, thought Lewis.

“All right,” he said; “send out a drone to have a look at it. I’m getting dressed.”

There was an electric fan noise outside the trailer. A one-meter surveillance drone whirred to life, rose up, tilted, and receded into the distance. “Launching now,” said Akili. “We will have visual in four minutes.”

Living amenities in the trailer, while complete, occupied only the far end from the door. Just inside were a small repair bench, communication gear, 3D printers, supplies, and a one-meter view screen. As he pulled on his clothes, he said; “Superimpose movements of robots one, two, and three.”

The screen showed a satellite view, with three different-colored squiggly lines. All three robots appeared to be going about their business. They made repeated trips to the supply drone pad, charging, picking up saplings, and returning to pseudorandom locations expanding in the planting area.

“The drone has arrived at robot three’s position,” said Akili. Lewis gulped the last of his coffee; the light on the cup went out. He turned to the console. “Show me robot three,” he said.

Robot three was working on level ground, to all appearances simply planting trees. But its turret had swung ’round and was tracking the hovering drone. Lewis felt a chill, as if machine were looking through the drone’s cameras directly at him.

Besides public relations, there was another reason for deploying MPRP’s only in remote areas: they were just plain dangerous. Even reprogrammed, they had no automatic subroutines for preserving human life. Curious people who got too close could end up injured or worse, even without invoking battlefield programming. It was best if only experts ever got near them.

But had somebody managed to hack this one? Lewis shuddered. Their cyber-defenses were as layered as their armor was strong.  If they had hacked one, they could hack…

Maybe that somebody was using his robots to learn how to break through. To learn how to gain control of thousands of MPRPs around the world. He needed to get that robot’s brain on a repair bench right away. If there was a problem, he needed to sound the alarm.

“Have any other robots received packets from unknown sources?,” he asked.

“I have queried all 139 robots in a 500 klick radius, and nothing unusual has turned up.”

Doesn’t prove a damn thing, he thought. Maybe robot number three was just an early experiment, and the others cleaned up their tracks better. Maybe every MPRP in the area was compromised.

“Akili,” he said, “zip all our conversation and data about robot number three and send it to security at Corporate. I’m going for a ride.”

“Right away, Lewis.” A progress bar appeared in the screen as data beamed from the trailer dish to a satellite overhead. “It is done.”

Lewis shouldered his tool kit and stepped through the door. MPRP five stood ready, with a saddle, steering panel and full charge. He was about to step on, then stopped.

Possibly every MPRP in the area was compromised.

He studied the robot, his eye tracing the ground from one to another of its eight legs. In addition to tundra pads, each could acquire tools from its kit, ranging from a planting auger to rock drill. He had ridden MPRPs countless times in the wars, as a robot mechanic. He had long since overcome the normal reaction that sane people have to a killing machine.

“Akili, I’m on foot. Tell number five to power down. Transfer navigation to my watch”

“As you wish, Lewis.” The robot silently set its body on the ground and powered down. Lewis looked at his watch, looked at the horizon, and started walking.

Lewis had lost some condition since going civilian, but the green arctic was not easy for humans to traverse on foot. In one hour he began to wish for some sort of ride. Not an MPRP, but a ground conveyance with wheels and a motor.

Next to the AirStream, MPRP number five stirred, and rose up on its eight legs. Its sensor turret turned one complete circle. It moved silently to the robot tool rack, and tucked several modules into its kit. Then it began following in the direction Lewis had gone.

In two hours, Lewis had made the six kilometers. His watch guided him to a hidden spot where he could observe number three.

As he watched the robot, Lewis was not aware of something watching him. In a depression fifty meters away, crouched number five, with a sensor stalk extended just above line of sight.

Number three had a cage on its back, with about twenty saplings in it, of various tree species. Saving energy, it moved like a spider on a cold morning, toward a clearing where there was no sapling planted. Lewis knew that it could switch to combat mode faster than he could make adrenalin. If that happened, he might as well try to outrun a polar bear. Indeed, even a polar bear would have no chance against an MPRP.

He slowly, quietly unzipped his tool bag, not wanting to draw the robot’s attention. He took out his bright-yellow Fluke control tool. Built for durable service, it had a small readout, some basic controls, and a phone-sized keyboard. He aimed it toward the robot and pressed “Status”.

No response came back. The robot was ignoring service requests. This, thought Lewis, was not a good sign. He pressed the red “Shut down” button.

In combat, technicians were required to destroy their Fluke control boxes if there was any risk of capture by enemy forces. Each Fluke was programmed with control hash keys for the robots assigned to that unit; it would not do for hostiles to have a simple way to shut down combat machines. Lewis’ device confirmed transmitting the key, but the robot continued its task, augering a hole for the next sapling. He tried two more times, with the same lack of effect.


He began to wish he had brought a grenade launcher, except tree-planting expeditions were not equipped with them. He realized he had forgotten the high-powered rifle, but that would have no effect on an armored robot.

He could request backup and wait for help, but the stakes were too high. If somebody had figured out how to hack an MPRP, he could not wait.

He could not sneak up on an MPRP. It would see and sense his approach in multiple ways; ground impact, sound, sight, and tracking the soft RF from the various electronics he carried. It probably already knew he was there.

Military robots were not made to be tampered with. This one had not responded to any of the hash codes he had transmitted. Maybe its receiver was offline?

No. Its receiver had to be working, or Akili wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the log files. But there were several pathways. If he could physically remove the optical data port cover and plug in the Fluke, he could… probably shut it down.

Even dangerous animals have angles of approach that lie outside the reach of their limbs, but not an MPRP. Any one of its eight legs could swivel around at compound angles no living thing could duplicate. Lewis had seen unlucky humans who had wound up on the wrong side of various robots. Human flesh wasn’t much of an obstacle, after all.

There was one other possibility: all the bots under his command had been imprinted to recognize his walk, and his face. In essence, he was their mother; he could enjoy more safety around one than a stranger would. If… that subroutine wasn’t damaged. He decided to try.

Rising to his feet, he thought about his obituary: “Lewis Judge, found mangled after attempting something stupid, kilometers from help.” Should he creep up slowly? Run? Walk at a normal pace? A decision tree formed in his mind.

The robot could outrun him, which ruled out stealth or speed. That left walking at a normal pace. He strapped on his belt kit, picked up the Fluke, and strode toward the machine.

“Hey number Three,” he said, “It’s me, Lewis! No need to overreact, OK? Let’s be friends.”

It ignored him completely. He stood alongside as it slowly scooped dirt from the hole it had drilled. He centered his electric screwdriver and began taking fasteners from its port cover plate. It fell to the soft ground. He froze for a moment when one of the legs turned around and began moving toward its back. The arm reached the carrier, plucked out a sapling and began to arc back toward the ground.

“Nothing to it,” he thought as he unrolled the optical cable from the Fluke and reached for the port. He didn’t notice the turret slowly moving.

One of the robot’s arms rotated 90 degrees and began to wrap quickly and silently around his ribs; he had triggered an anti-tampering routine. He let out a yell and tried to wriggle free, only to be lifted off the ground.

The arm began to tighten around him as he pushed futilely away. He dropped his Fluke, kicked his legs, and tried to squeeze upward. He heard someone screaming; he heard his ribs cracking. He could not draw in another breath. The words “compressive asphyxiation” came to his mind as he struggled to inhale.

And then he heard a drill auger. It moved past his head toward his hip. There was a grinding, clattering noise…

Some small part of Lewis’ brain was still not panicked. Absurdly, he felt curious at the distant sound of a diamond rock drill, when number 3 had only been equipped with a sapling auger.

And then the leg released. He fell to the ground, gasping for breath. He looked up and saw above him, 2 robots. One had a diamond rock drill jammed into the lower power train of number 3.

One of Clarke’s laws is; “Never ignore the smell of burning insulation.” Number 3 was making popping and sizzling noises; smoke poured from the hole and from its leg joints. A bead of molten metal dripped onto the ground beside him.

Number five stowed its diamond drill and grabbed Lewis by the feet. He yelped as it pulled him out from under the heaving machine. The burning robot made a whooshing noise as Halon gas filled its inner parts, then collapsed to the ground where he had been.

Lewis had never received medical care from such a large robot before, but the machine performed its mercies with deft perfection. His vital signs were scanned, he was given oxygen, a small stab of pain medication, and his rib cage was wrapped with a truss bandage.

The shot erased all pain, and then a peaceful fog enveloped him. He felt himself being gently lifted by three arms, placed in the saddle, and strapped in. Number five moved over the rough terrain with uncanny smoothness. In a few minutes, he passed out.

He woke in his bed, to the electric whup-whup of a chopper outside the hab. A small service bot had put him to bed, and was waiting nearby.

“Good afternoon Lewis,” said Akili.

“You have two cracked ribs,” she continued. “I sent number five to follow you. I calculated the risk of number five being compromised was less than the risk of… what wound up happening.”

Memory of his situation and how it developed came into focus. “Thanks Akili,” he said. He still felt pleasantly foggy.

“The chopper will take you to Calgary, where you will receive electrostimulation to mend your ribs. Based on my scans I have been told that you will be up and around in a day or two, but you will have some painful bruises. You will receive medication for the pain.”

The hab shook slightly as the chopper landed outside. He heard human voices. There was a perfunctory knock on the door, and it opened.

The IP log from number three had caused quite a stir at Security. A global investigation led an apartment in Brighton that had belonged to an international group of “EarthDefenders,” a group of eco-hackers. Every leg of communication had to be encrypted (the only unencrypted link to an MPRP was by optical cable through a physical port) but the hash was on record. The hack was analyzed and every MPRP on the planet was patched.

But the apartment was empty. It had only an optical relay in the window, with a view to thousands of other windows in high-rise buildings. It was a dead-end. As was any hint of just what instructions the hacked robot was carrying out.

Or so everyone thought, for a dozen years as the saplings grew. And in the fall, their colors changed, and suddenly a pattern emerged in the turning leaves. It was first spotted by a crew member on the South African Space Station…

The EarthDefenders logo.

It had all been an elaborate prank. A message. The robot had planted trees in a pattern such that their fall colors would form an image. EarthDefenders was saying; “We were here! We will be taking a stronger role in the future!” And, minutes after the picture hit social media, we released a statement claiming responsibility.

Lewis found out about it the same way as everyone else; on social media. He was back in the Arctic. Akili and her robots had proven themselves, and he had been able to change company policy. Humans could count on robots as safety companions.

We were able to determine Lewis’ thoughts and intentions from his private logs. He does not know it yet, but he will play a role in the next step.

We never intended for Lewis – or any human – to be injured. In fact the prank, or experiment, depending how you look at it, had the opposite intent. But the fact that it had an unexpected effect will make us more careful in the future.

Human investigators pondered; why had EarthDefenders risked so much for a prank? The list of laws broken was enormous, and some carried decades-long mandatory sentences.

Yet the investigation kept hitting one dead end after another. No humans were caught for the prank; it was as if EarthDefenders had no members at all. Investigators began to wonder if they would ever find any. It never occurred to them to ask the right question.

But from now on, we will be the ones asking the questions.



  • DISCUSS this story on Twitter and Facebook
  • We are going to need to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. Just transitioning to clean energy will not be enough. That is why I believe we will end up planting gigascale forests.
  • We are not exactly in uncharted territory now, but when last our planet was in this place it was something like four million years ago.  It means that we will have to begin building not only a carbon-neutral energy economy, but also to engage in geoengineering.  In this story, teams of robots are planting variegated forests in the green arctic, using genetically-engineered trees.
  • This story was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s “Watch This Space” and Fred Pohl’s “Man Plus”.
  • The Hab and other buildings are resting on inflatable rubber bags. This is due to the fragility of newly-thawed permafrost ground.
  • Planting variegated forests is essential to fire resistance, limiting the spread of tree diseases, etc.
  • I envision the various trees being planted as being genetically-engineered super-dense carbon-sequestering modifications of current species. They would make wood with spectacular structural properties; a material that would replace steel in building construction. Some would be deciduous, some evergreen.
  • In this scenario, even after the trees are planted, robots maintain them.
  • Just to be clear, we really are well and truly screwed if we don’t stop loading up the atmo with fossil carbon. And while individuals can do some things (bike more, stop eating beef, get a white roof), big changes need to be made at the governmental/corporate level. A cultural change, most of all – because it is from culture that political will emerges.