Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
Outside, they were lone individuals on the plateau that was the side of the ship, surrounded by the black and frightening abyss of space.
Inside, they were alone in the dark, surrounded by bodies and silence. Absolute silence.
Somehow, that was even worse.
The inside of the ship was pitch black. Not even the emergency lights, which would have bathed everything in a dark red glow, were active. The only light were Max’s red glowing eyes and Loeb’s own white ones.
In the pale light and heavy shadows, Loeb could already make out the shapes of bodies. He shuddered, which was entirely new to him.
“Max,” He said quietly.
There was no response.
He turned, and Max stood just inside the airlock, back only inches away from the wall. Loeb had walked forward once they’d emerged, trying to get a better view of the interior of the Damocles.
“Max, are you all right?”
Max said slowly, “Are they all dead?”
Loeb turned away and looked back out across the corridor. The corridor ran left or right away from them, curving away into the interior of the ship. Straight ahead was a small open area with tables and chairs: A recreation area that no one ever used. Recreation was a concept of limited value on a ship full of robots.
There were bodies slumped in the corridors and in the recreation area. Robots of all shapes and sizes and purposes, from spindly Engineering droids like Loeb, to a large hulking robot like Max who had slumped across a table and chair in the recreation area, crushing the chair completely under his immense weight.
Every single body was perfectly still. In the heavy shadows, Loeb supposed that they did look dead. He still wondered at the concept, wondered where it was coming from and why it wouldn’t get out of his head. He tried not to think about it, because there were bigger problems on hand than any malfunction in his own brain.
“I don’t think they’re dead, Max,” Loeb said. “I think the storm shut them down, the way the storm shut the ship’s systems down. I think it just overloaded everything. All right? Come on, we need to check them.”
Max looked down at Loeb and made no move to come forward. He said nothing, but after a moment he very slowly shook his head. The movement caused his red glowing eyes to move and that shifted all the shadows around. They waved and danced and seemed alive.
Loeb would have sighed, if he could’ve. “Max, I need your help.”
Max said nothing. He just stood there, a massive figure pressed back against the metal wall of the airlock, and he stared at the bodies sprawled. They had been walking when the electromagnetic field had sucked the life out of the ship, and they had just fallen in their tracks. Some of them were piles of limbs all clattered together, others were stretched out full length as their momentum had slumped them forward.
Loeb said, “Do you have a light built into your chest? You do, don’t you?”
“Yes, Loeb. I do.”
“Can you at least turn it on?”
Max stayed still a moment and then a triangle in the center of his chest glowed to life. It flashed and then stayed steady, a brilliant field of light that washed everything in bright white. It chased away some shadows and made others deeper and darker.
Loeb went forward to the first robot in front of him and knelt down. The robot was a smaller droid, obviously designed for small spaces and the inside of systems. He couldn’t have been more than three feet tall. Without much difficulty, Loeb slipped his hands under the robot’s side and turned him over. Then, he flipped open the robot’s chest panel and tried to look inside.
His own shadow was made deeper and blacker by Max’s beam of light, and he couldn’t see through it into the chest cavity. Loeb angled himself so that his own shadow would be out of the way, and then leaned closer.
Everything was still intact. Some of the wires that ran from the central power core of the little robot to its processors, its brain, were blackened and a bit warm to the touch. They were intact, though. It looked like too much power had flooded the little robot and he’d shut down to prevent being destroyed. Loeb suspected that was what had happened to everyone on the ship. Indeed, to the ship itself.
He disconnected a couple of the wires, flipped a switch that lay just beneath them, and then put the wires back in. Then, he triggered the robot’s power core which, to his relief, hummed and blinked a couple of red lights and came to life.
Loeb rocked back on his heels as the little robot shuddered and then came to life. It was shaped like a stick figure with a cylinder for a head and a single red light on it which was its eye. It had four arms and two legs and hands on all six limbs.
It’s head swiveled all the way around its body and then it focused its single red eye on Loeb. It chirped.
“An electromagnetic storm,” Loeb said. “Everything’s overloaded. Do you know how to bring the others back online?”
It chirped affirmatively. It was a nonsensical noise, but Loeb was an engineer and worked with the Spiders on a daily basis. He understood them well enough.
“Good,” Loeb said, “Go to the engineering compartments and start resetting the rest of the staff there. Bring whomever you can back online quickly and easily. If a robot needs additional repairs to be made functional, leave them for later. When you’ve brought others online, instruct them to spread out and start bringing the rest of the crew online. We have a five hundred member crew, and we need all of them online. The ship is floating free in space.”
The little droid chirped. It probably didn’t understand the bulk of what Loeb had said, because it had a limited processing power. It did comprehend instructions just fine. Clambering to its feet, it scuttled off down the corridor, running on all six limbs. Truly like a spider.
Loeb turned back to Max. “See? They’re not dead. They can be brought back.”
Max nodded, something which he accomplished by bending slightly at the waist. Nevertheless, he stayed where he was and merely shifted his chest light to illuminate the next couple of robots who lay derelict in the corridor.
The next robot Loeb tried to re-wire and reboot did nothing, even though none of the wires were burnt and all his switches flipped just fine. Loeb poked deeper, but there was nothing for it. This robot, tall and thin and probably not involved in the more mechanical operations of the ship, was defunct. He was, because the word wouldn’t leave Loeb’s mind, dead.
Loeb didn’t say anything about him to Max. He just turned and moved on to the next robot, another tall and thin one who had crumpled next to his derelict counterpart.
“That one is dead,” Max said. “That one is dead?”
“Yes,” Loeb said, because lying did not seem useful. “And many more will be, you understand? That was a storm of great magnitude. It did so many things with the power currents in this ship, there may be quite a lot of the crew dead. The ship itself may be dead, you understand?”
“Yes, Loeb,” Max nodded. “I understand.”
Loeb turned on his knees and looked up at Max.
“Do you also understand that if we don’t get as much of the crew back online as possible and either save the ship or abandon it, we too shall die? You and I shall cease to function. Do you understand that?”
Max said nothing. He shone his brilliant white light on the scene, a powerful sun with two small red orbs just above it.
Loeb turned back to the other thin robot and opened his chest panel. He removed wires, all of them more delicate and complex than the little Spider droid had been, and he began to reroute around a couple of the ones that had burned out.
Behind him, Max took some hesitant steps forward, away from the wall. His massive footfalls rumbled the deck of the ship. The white light grew brighter and changed the position of Loeb’s shadow, so that it blocked his hands and forced him to stop working.
After a moment, Max’s tentative steps brought him just behind Loeb, his light shining directly down.
“Thank you, Max,” Loeb said, “Can you step a little to the left? I need more light.”
Max did. After that, it was the work of moments to get the wires replaced and rerouted. The robot shivered on the ground before him, and then golden light came on behind the wires that crossed in front of his eye.
“Ddd-am-ged dmged,” The robot slurred. “e-EE-rorr rportded, eorrror –rrrrr.”
Loeb helped the robot sit up. It did so listlessly, but the moment Loeb took his hands away, it slowly went back down to the ground, jerking and shifting in spasms as it did so. Its arms raised, waved like they were attached to strings, and then slumped over its body.
“reppair. Rpa? Er? Er?” said the robot, looking at Loeb.
“Just stay here,” Loeb said, knowing that there was no chance of the robot getting upright, alone managing to roam the ship. “I’ll send someone down to help you. I promise.”
If it meant anything to the damaged robot, it didn’t show. Certainly, it didn’t say anything. All that came out of the thin slit it used as a mouth was a rhythmic beeping noise, and then a tone, and then silence. The golden eye glowed more or less steadily, and it watched Loeb.
Loeb stood up. Max watched him get up and watched him stand there as intently as the fallen robot did. Loeb stood in silence for a moment, thinking. Or trying to think. Or trying to figure out what this thing was in his head which he now referred to as thought.
All sorts of emotions rampaged around in his brain. He was afraid of the dark and the shadows, afraid of something jumping out at him, it seemed. It was entirely irrational, of course, because he knew full well that there was nothing operating on this ship except for him, Max, and the little Spider droid he’d sent on its way. There were no nameless creatures in the dark. Certainly, there were no organic creatures.
He was scared of the blackness pressing in around him. He was also overwhelmed by sheer enormous size of the task that lay before him. Five hundred robots on board this ship. Even though it could be operated and run by three or four robots designed to run a ship, this ship had a crew of five hundred. It was for the look of things, because a ship this size would have needed a crew of organic beings that same size to run it. They didn’t exist anymore, but the robots still based everything on their standards.
Who knew if any of the engineering crew would come back to life, either under the Spider droid’s simple repairs, or under his own more advanced skills. He didn’t relish the thought of trying to bring the ship back to life more or less on his own.
As he stood there and thought, the robot at his feet said over and over again, “rap-guh-air…erroy….ror…rorror….dmged-d…”
Max stared at him, silently.
“Max.” Loeb said, without thinking what to say after that. He was silent again for a minute, and then added, “Max, you remember where the engineering compartments are?”
Max was also silent for a moment, and then said, “Yes.”
“Can you go down there? It should be along the same route the Spider droid took. Go down there and see what condition the power chambers are in, please. Call me when you get there. If the shunts have closed down, they’ll require my password to open, and they’ll require your lifting to get them open again. Without the chambers, we’re not going to be able to fire emergency thrusters and correct our position, understand? We’ll spin into an asteroid, or into another electromagnetic storm. That’ll kill us for certain the next time.”
Another long silence. Max looked around at the bodies, the walls, the ceiling, the darkness. His white light shifted as he turned his neck and his upper torso to look.
Finally, he looked back at Loeb and said simply, “I don’t want to. It’s dark. And dead.”
“Max, please. I need you to do this. Please?”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t. I have to get to the command deck. That way when you bring the power online, I can fire the thrusters and stabilize us. All right? Please, Max.”
Another very long silence, another traveling stare at the floor, ceiling, bodies, dark.
Loeb certainly didn’t blame him for not wanting to go anywhere. He personally wanted to crawl back into the airlock, shut the heavy rolling door, and just wait there until someone better functioning and better able to handle all of this came to get him. He wanted someone else to open the heavy door and tell him it was all right, and then he’d come out into a brightly lit ship full of operating robots. And then, he could just go back to his duties and all of this would be behind them.
He knew well enough that wouldn’t happen.
“Is it….dangerous?” Max finally said.
Loeb shook his head. “No. It won’t be. Just go down there and call me when you need the password. I’ll walk you through it, okay? The Spider bot is already down there, it’ll have dealt with anything dangerous.”
Max said, “I’ll go. I will call you, Loeb.”
Max turned away and lumbered down the corridor, heavy footfalls vibrating everything around. When he walked past a couple of robots that weren’t lying on the carpeted parts of the floor, they rattled loudly against the deck, metal against metal. Every now and then, Max and his blazing chest light would stop and navigate carefully around fallen bodies that couldn’t simply be stepped over.
In a moment, Max and his chest light had rounded the bend and headed deeper into the ship, only a pale glow visible and growing weaker by the moment.
Loeb had no chest light. He turned up the brightness on his eyes, which provided only a small bit of extra illumination. He could see well enough in the dark, because he didn’t always work in areas where there were enough spaces for him to bring a light in with him. Still, even with his eyes working at full power, all he could make out were the black shapes of the wall, the gray shape of the floor, and the occasional lumpy form of a body, sprawled here and there.
He advanced slowly down the corridor opposite of Max, heading for the command deck and looking at the ground for any sign of important robots that he should activate on his way. His lights also faded slowly away, leaving the airlock area in the darkness.
“erororr,” said the golden robot lying on the ground. “dmaged. Dmgaded. Farror, fail fail….er…..”