Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
There was also the sensation of burning and sizzling.
And then, after twenty years of functioning and working, Loeb opened his eyes, really opened them for the first time, and was born.
Everything around him seemed to move in terrible slow motion, something that most parts of his robotic mind insisted was neither possible nor happening. Loeb stood, listing to one side, his feet keeping him magnetized to the starship hull without him thinking about it.
He watched the electromagnetic cloud, which had just passed over him, now sweep along the rest of the ship’s hull and wash over the other robot who stood just a little ways off. The cloud, normally invisible against the blackness of space now crackled as it discharged into the ship’s hull and the metal forms of Loeb and the other robot. Blue and purple lightning crackled and ran like veins across the ship’s hull.
It all moved so slowly as Loeb watched, and yet it seemed only an instant before the cloud crackled around the blocky prow of the ship and then went back into space, invisible and as unknown and undetectable as it had been all of five minutes earlier.
Loeb stood in utter shock, too stunned and confused to begin to perceive the things going through his mind. He hung there and he reeled at alien concepts, like shock and confusion and fear, and he tried to focus on something, on anything around him that would somehow allow his mind to reorient itself. Coldly, he was aware that this was probably serious damage and he needed someone to take a look at him, to repair what was happening in the circuits of his mind.
He was also aware almost painfully of every detail around him. Even the slightest thing seemed to strain and overwhelm his mind. He was aware of the stars, reflecting hazily off the ship’s gunmetal gray hull. His arm floated in front of his vision and it hurt to realize that his plating had a faint blue tint in the gray.
I am not thinking clearly, he realized. And then, he wondered what that meant and who exactly this was saying something like that, and…
Loeb didn’t know what it meant to blank out. He only realized that it had just happened.
It wasn’t that his eyes had closed, because they couldn’t close; he had no eyelids. He was an engineering robot, not a humaniform replica, after all.
It was just that he was suddenly aware of being awake and himself again. He stood upright properly, because he’d been dangling almost completely horizontal, only his feet hooked to the ship.
The stars had jumped, sharply, changing positions. That’s what made him realize he’d blanked out. He wondered if that meant that quite a lot of time had passed, but after a moment’s thought, he realized the starship itself was listing wildly to one side. It was floating derelict.
He tries to focus on that, because it was a very big problem, but there were too many things rampaging around inside of his head for him to focus on any one thing. He knew what fear and confusion were because the definitions were programmed into his memory banks. The brief descriptions about them, did nothing for his ability to cope, actually cope, with the paralyzing fear that seemed to weigh down his whole body, or the confusion that babbled away in his head and wouldn’t let him think straight.
He was barely staying upright, although his legs were working fine. Mostly, he kept forgetting to keep himself upright as he struggled inward to deal with things and forgot about the outside parts. He listed a little and then jerked himself upright, listed and jerked.
Fear told him to crouch down, to curl up in a ball, to try to will himself invisible. Fear told him that he would be destroyed if he moved, and fear sent bolts of panic through him to show exactly how terrified he was of being destroyed.
He knew he was damaged, that much was obvious, and he needed repairs…but now, the thought of being repaired, of having this disaster that was his mind replaced and rebooted was somehow even more terrifying than hanging there on the outside of a starship’s hull. He realized that he would simply have to cope with these things on his own, whatever it was that he was coping with, because letting someone else dig in his circuits was out of the question now.
His round, white-glowing eyes had simply been staring at the stars, fully functional but sending their images to a brain that was having none of it at the moment, too wrapped up with other details. Slowly, as things began to settle – or at least, not actively attack his mind – he realized that there were faint vibrations coming through the hull, barely detectable through the sensors in his feet. He wouldn’t have noticed them, but while he may have only been a thin Engineering droid with an egg-shaped body and spindly limbs, he had an advantage over many other robots in that he was extremely sensitive and flexible. He had to be.
He wondered if someone inside the ship was banging for his attention, banging for help perhaps. Then, as he looked along the hull of the ship that dipped out and away from him, he realized that there was another robot attached by his feet to the hull.
This robot was much bigger than Loeb, which was not difficult since he was not very large. The other robot was bulky and heavily shielded, clearly designed for heavy lifting and the sort of heavy duty construction work that Loeb wouldn’t have been capable of.
This other robot hung by his feet, his body bent all the way forward on his ankles. It was his chest rhythmically thudding against the hull of the ship which sent vibrations all the way over to Loeb’s feet. The robot made no move to stop the banging, or to move either his arms or his head, and Loeb wondered if he was dead.
And then, Loeb wondered why the word dead was the first one that came to his mind now, instead of non-functional.
“Hello?” Loeb said.
The other robot said nothing and did nothing. Just kept banging gently against the hull of the ship beneath him. There was a slight scratching of the paint on the ship’s hull from where metal had rubbed repeatedly against metal. It made Loeb wonder again how long he’d blanked out.
Loeb realized he was obviously not thinking straight at all. He turned on his transmitter, because certainly the sound hadn’t traveled in the vacuum of space when he’d spoken. He leaned down and put his hand gently against the side of the larger robot’s angular head.
“Hello?” He spoke again. This time, he knew the sound traveled properly, which meant the lack of answer was something else entirely.
He took another step closer and took the other robot by the shoulders. Loeb was strong enough as an engineering droid but he was no ‘Lifter, not like this massive robot with its impressive hydraulics. Had they not been in a zero gravity environment, he didn’t think he would have been able to move the other robot, let alone push him upright into a standing position.
The ‘Lifter’s head was straight, so when Loeb had righted him, his eyes were looking forward. They glowed faintly red, as if a little fire banked just behind the lenses. It was another strange and almost fanciful image, and it worried Loeb that it was present in his mind.
“Can you hear me?” Loeb said as the bigger robot looked over the top of his head, staring into the depths of space and presumably seeing nothing at all. “Are you functional? Are you all right?”
It seemed like an eternity that they stood there, Loeb holding the ‘Lifter steady. Then, slowly, the Lifter’s head tilted downward until the red glow of his eyes glinted off of Loeb’s blue plating.
The big robot rumbled a little when he spoke, and the vibrations went through Loeb’s hands. The words, though, came over the ‘Lifter’s transmitter.
“Am I dead?”
His voice was deep and very, very slow, as if each word came from a long way off.
Loeb shook his head and replied, “No, you’re not dead. You’re fine…well, you’re not fine. I’m not fine. But we aren’t dead.”
“What’s happened?” The big robot looked around at the outside hull of the ship, and Loeb let go of his shoulders. He supported his own weight now and remained properly upright, his bulky frame towering over Loeb.
Loeb looked at the black space where the storm had passed. There was nothing there now, nothing but blackness and the occasional far off twinkle of stars and planets. He wondered for a moment if the storm had even occurred, but surely it must have. His mind wasn’t malfunctioning spontaneously, and he had seen the storm. He was desperately unsure if he could trust his own mind, but he had nothing else to trust. He would not begin to doubt his senses.
“It was some sort of electrical storm,” Loeb said, “Very powerful. It discharged into the ship and us as well. I…I think it’s done some damage to my processors, I don’t seem to be operating properly. But that’s not important. What’s important is –“
“I don’t want to die.” The ‘Lifter said, tonelessly. He looked back down at Loeb.
Loeb hesitated, something else that was new to him. Then, he said, “You’re not going to die. I assure you. Things will be fine, all right?”
“Promise?” The ‘Lifter’s face did not have any ability at all to form a facial expression. Nevertheless, there was something plaintive and frightened about the robot who stood larger than Loeb in every direction. It was probably all in Loeb’s mind, which was not a stable place.
“Promise,” He said, and to his surprise, he meant it. He added, “I won’t let anything happen to you, all right?”
It seemed like a silly thing to say. Loeb was just an average sized engineering droid, and there was little he could do to defend anyone, least of all a robot who could pick him up and rip him apart if he so chose. But it seemed like a good thing to say, and the ‘Lifter droid nodded and seemed satisfied.
“I am Max,” the Lifter said, quietly. “It seems to me that I am Max.”
“It seems to me that I am Loeb,” said the blue engineering droid. “My memory banks are not fully functional, I cannot recall if I was always Loeb. I cannot, for that matter, even recall what it was that we were doing out here in the first place. Can you?”
Max was silent for a moment and then rumbled slowly, “My memory banks are empty. Except for my name, Max, and my friend, Loeb.”
Loeb patted a hand against the bigger robot’s chest. It made a dull clanking noise, audible only in the vibrations that ran through Loeb’s arm.
“That’ll do for now,” Loeb said. “Listen, this important. The ship is drifting, she’s…it’s derelict. All right? Something is very wrong inside, and we need to get back in, Max. If the ship keeps drifting, it could be very dangerous. Understand?”
“Understand,” Max repeated. “Everyone on board is dead?”
“I don’t know,” Loeb said, honestly, “I hope…that is, I do not wish it so. I’m sorry. I’m having trouble reconciling. My processors are not functioning properly, not at all…”
Max turned slowly, and the impact of his feet against the hull of the ship was loud and vibrating through the delicate sensors in Loeb’s feet. He stumped across the gray hull of the ship and Loeb followed at his side, looking around.
There were a few windows in the hull of the ship, though they served no purpose. The ship had sensors. Looking out the window would be no different. A ship’s sensor is more or less the same as the sensors a robot has in his head which he calls eyes. Nevertheless, the ships had windows. They always had.
Loeb tried to look for windows, tried to see if there was any light spilling out of them and into space. He seemed to recall one window back in the area where he’d been standing when the storm swept over them, but even magnifying his vision, he couldn’t make out anything more than the occasional spot where starlight glinted off something on the hull.
Max stopped walking as suddenly as he started, now standing next to a hatch in the hull.
“Here.” Max said.
“Thank you,” Loeb replied. He crouched down next to the hatch and opened the little panel built into the hull next to it. Inside, there was a small computer display, but it was dark and entirely unresponsive. Loeb pulled it open by its hinge and reached inside, where deep down there was an emergency series of switches.
It was a tight fit. Max’s arm wouldn’t have fit at all, but Loeb was designed for tight spaces. He felt around carefully, the sensors in his fingers relaying him impressions that were very accurate. He found a series of four switches and flipped them into different positions, one after another. Then he pulled his arm back out and flipped the lid shut.
The hatch hissed, and it slid open a foot or so. Then, with a slight grinding sensation, it stopped moving and froze.
“Ship’s power is definitely offline,” Loeb said. “Likewise the backup battery systems.”
“We need to get in,” Max said.
“Yes. But we can expect no powered assistance.”
Max knelt down stiffly, because there were rather more hydraulics involved in him doing that than when Loeb did. He slid his hands into the crevice and gripped the bottom of the door. Then, with more than a little effort and a trembling in his legs that betrayed powerful hydraulics pushed even to their limit, Max hauled upward on the door with all his might.
He had to grind the door three fourths of the way open with sheer brute force alone. Once it got three fourths of the way up, though, the gears released and the door slammed the rest of the way up with a tremendous vibrating bang.
It was fast enough and unexpected enough that Max jerked upward and his magnetic pads released him. He drifted a little ways from the hull before Loeb reached up and grabbed him by his foot, then hauled him back down until his feet anchored against the deck once more.
“Thank you,” Max said, once he was anchored once more. There wasn’t any emotion in his voice this time.
The emotions in Loeb’s head were busy enough. Suddenly, the concept of drifting away into space, alone until the power supply ran out, terrified Loeb and he realized that he intensely didn’t want to be out here any longer.
“Thank you,” Loeb said, “Let’s get inside. I don’t like it out here.”