Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
Twenty minutes went by. Loeb still headed for the command deck of the ship, although he was no longer alone in the corridors. He’d stumbled across a trio of engineering droids, mostly like himself, and he’d spent a fervent ten minutes bringing them each online. Then, he explained to them what had happened and told them to head into the rest of the ship, focusing on bringing the rest of the crew online.
Worryingly enough, none of the three other engineering robots seemed to have any state of confusion about them, like Max and Loeb did. There were no emotions. They inquired about the status of the ship, and what had occurred. They received instructions from Loeb, although they had no cause to listen to orders from him. Then, they moved off efficiently in the darkness, heading for nearby robots to repair and bring them back online. They didn’t seem hesitant or at all afraid of the dark.
It made Loeb realize that perhaps what was happening in his mind wasn’t happening to everyone else as well. That worried him, and he kept very quiet about any possibility of a malfunction in his own mind. The thought of someone trying to repair him terrified him as badly as all the horrors inside this ship had done.
The command deck, at the top of their great and blocky ship, consisted of a deck that was only half as long as the rest of the decks on the ship. It started at the nose of the ship and ran halfway back, and then just stopped. Behind that, on the exterior of the ship, there were communication arrays, shield generators, and navigational instruments.
The command deck consisted of the cartography computers, armories full of defensive weapons, rows of escape pods, and the primary science lab. It also had the command and control area itself, a massive room with huge curved windows on the front and stations for almost twenty robots. Again, it could have been done efficiently with two or three robots hooked directly into the ship, but they didn’t do things based on how efficient they were.
This had never bothered him until now. Now, he wondered why they used twenty robots to do the job of three. So what if the organic creatures had done it, millennia ago? They didn’t now. Why do we?
The ‘Lifts ran throughout the ship, but they stopped just at the deck below the command level. Loeb stepped out of its compartment, just outside the heavy doors that sealed the command deck off from the rest of the ship.
The ‘Lift had certainly been as offline as the rest of the ship. He’d clambered up the ladder that ran up the side of the ‘Lift shaft, and then through a hatch in the floor of the ‘Lift itself. The ‘Lift doors sat loosely in their tracks, designed to be pushed open in case of a power failure. This was a very good thing, since Loeb didn’t think he would’ve been strong enough to push them open if they had resisted.
The command deck was still sealed off, the massive door still shut and locked and now quite inert, just several tons of metal blocking his way. Even with Max – even with three or four functioning ‘Lifters – there would have been no way at all to force that massive hatch open. It couldn’t be forced. That was the point.
It also didn’t need to be.
Loeb opened a small service hatch to the left side of the big doors, and he slipped into a very, very thin passage that lay beyond. It was so thin, in fact, that he had to keep his arms raised above his head, his feet pointed straight down. Even then, the sides of his body very gently touched the sides of the walls as he pushed himself along by shoving with the ends of his feet and pulling along with the tips of his fingers. This was a passage designed for Spider droids or smaller. A droid Loeb’s size or bigger could probably hold a weapon and use it, and therefore should not be allowed through the passage. If he’d had a weapon, he wouldn’t have fit. And even if he had, even if he’d been an invading force, they would have had to squeeze through individually and slowly, which would have made them easy to shut down before they could cause any damage.
This had never occurred to Loeb either. The whole ship, the whole world, just seemed different, seemed full of things that he never would have taken notice of before. Except for the urgency, and the slightly abated fear, he found that interesting and almost enjoyable.
He got his arms and head out, and then pulled the rest of himself out and onto the deck, inside the command areas. Then, he got to his feet.
The rest of the ship may have been slowly coming back to something like life, but here there was nothing. Around the rest of the ship, robots brought other robots online, and began working on getting things like the emergency systems up and running.
Up there, it was as silent and dark and still as it had been on the whole ship when Loeb had first come on board. In the dim red emergency lights that flickered on and off, feebly drawing power from the rest of the ship, Loeb could see slumped forms here and there. The bodies of robots who had been going about their business one second, and then overloaded and shut down the next second without any warning at all.
He knelt by the first robot he came to, who was a tall and broad-shouldered figure. Not quite a humaniform replica droid, but closer than a spindly robot like Loeb ever would be. It had slumped, face-first onto the ground and Loeb struggled to turn him over, managing to only get him on his side.
A minute’s worth of work inside the robot’s chest panel – awkward at this strange angle – was enough to get circuitry flickering and power slowly coming back into the robot’s form.
“Damage,” said the robot hesitantly, as its eyes glowed to life, “Report.”
It was an order, and Loeb suddenly realized he had no desire to obey orders from this robot, this unthinking machine. Why was this robot in charge of Loeb? What authority did he have? He was built to be a command level robot, he was built for the job, just like Loeb was built for his. Nothing more.
But the parts of Loeb’s mind that weren’t angry about this were sensible enough to point out that now, even surrounded by all this chaos, was not the best time to give any indication that he suffered any damage at all.
So, dutifully, he spelled out what had happened. He explained that an electromagnetic storm swept the hull and shut everyone down, and then detailed what he had been doing since then.
The tall, white robot, carved to look like an angular organic creature made of ivory metal, scanned the outer corridors of the command deck. Golden eyes flickered a little, but held steady.
“Instrumentation detected no electromagnetic storm in our vicinity,” The white robot said.
“I know,” Loeb said, and then hurriedly added, “I mean, correct. The storm was a passive field until it came into contact with the ship.
“The ship is grounded in itself,” the white robot replied, “The electricity would have no reason to discharge into us. There would be nothing to complete a circuit.
Yes there was, Loeb thought suddenly, as his mind put things together. An emotion called shock went through him, and it didn’t bother him any. It seemed fitting for the moment.
There had been something there to complete the circuit. It had been Loeb. And Max. They had channeled the electricity into the ship.
The white robot looked at him intently, done scanning the rest of the area. “You are malfunctioning.”
This emotion was fear. Loeb shook his head and then said, “No! Negative. I am operating within normal parameters.”
Then, before the other robot could argue the point, Loeb said “The ship is floating derelict…sir. I have robots in the engineering compartments working to bring the reactor chambers back online and restore thruster control, but we need to steady the ship from here.”
“Correct,” the white robot said, and Loeb realized just then that he hated this other robot. He had superiority built right in. He was better than Loeb because he was made better, and Loeb hated him for it, or for thinking it.
The white robot started toward the command deck itself and said, “See to the disabled units, Engineer. I will see to the flight system.”
If Loeb had had teeth, he would have ground them together. Instead, he stood silent a long moment and then said quietly when the other robot was nearly out of range, “Yes sir.”
He headed right across the deck to one of the sealed rooms that were just off the command deck. These were science labs and sample analysis chambers and all manner of other rooms like that. This one in particular was sample collection. It had an airlock for bringing things in from the outside of the ship, were shuttles and tugboats might have collected things. That made it an important room to secure.
Loeb got the door open by plugging the door control wires into himself. The power drain was an unpleasant feeling, like having something very important and very necessary ripped out of him forcefully, and he realized he would probably never use that again. It was standard enough practice, his power core was designed to bounce back from sharp power drains like that, but he wouldn’t use it anyway. Never again.
The door slid open and Loeb stepped into the room.
All the consoles were down and only one red glowing light over the door provided any illumination at all. Even then, Loeb’s own glowing blue eyes were nearly brighter and more useful.
The airlock was not sealed. It stood wide open, both doors and the pressure chamber and the whole room exposed to space. There was an atmosphere on the ship, though none of the robots breathed, and air whistled and howled and sucked out the airlock in a white mist as moisture in the air froze and vanished.
Loeb magnetized his feet to the deck and pulled the door to the room shut behind him. After a moment, when all the atmosphere had been sucked out of the room, the howl died down and so did the wind. It was just an empty room, exposed to the blackness of space, and it was very, very cold.
His communication circuitry fizzled and a voice came through.
“Loeb?” It was Max.
“I’m here,” Loeb said out loud, even though there was no atmosphere to carry the sound. His transmission circuits were engaged and they carried the sound just the same.
“I am at the power chambers, Loeb. We…the others have said there is no damage and we may open the shunts. They have brought another like me to life. We are ready.”
‘Another like him’ presumably meant another big and powerful ‘Lifter. Loeb looked at the open round doors of the airlock and would have liked a ‘Lifter up here. There was no way he could force those doors closed.
Loeb said, “Good. Is there another engineering droid…another one like me…down there who can give you passcodes to release the shunts?”
There was a long silence, and then Max replied.
“There is one like you, but he is not the same as you.” Max hesitated, another long silence, while Loeb thought about what he meant. He suspected he knew. “He says he has the passcodes. He…he is reqesting that I stand down. He says I am….malfunctioning.”
Loeb slapped a hand against the edge of a console, and it made a clang sound as the vibrations ran up the length of his arm.
Over his comm channel, he snapped, “Listen to me, Max, you are not malfunctioning. You understand? You are fine just the way you are!”
“I…will tell him that.” Max said. There was no relief in his voice, just the same intense fear and tension that had been there from the moment they came back on board the ship. “We will open the shunts now. Power will come back soon. Good-bye Loeb.”
Loeb said, “Out.”
He closed the channel and turned around to look for a power junction box, so he could manually close the airlocks once the power came back up.
Standing just a few inches away from him was another robot.
Loeb jerked back and he cried out in surprise, something he hadn’t done before either. He stumbled back against the bulk of the science console and his feet skidded against the ground, making a painful sound since they were still magnetized.
The other robot stood taller than him, tall as the white robot had. It was also carved in an angular impression of an organic being, and its eyes glowed gray, with two black dots in the middle that didn’t glow at all and looked like pupils. He was dark gray, gunmetal gray, and he just looked down at Loeb steadily.
Loeb turned his communication circuits back on and set them to close range, once he had enough presence of mind to do so.
“You…scared me,” Loeb said.
“Yes,” said the gray robot. “I apologize. Who are you?”
Loeb hesitated and then said, “I am Local Onboard Engineering Bot three-two-six. Have you been brought back online by the rest of the crew?”
The gray robot said, “Affirmative. May I assist?”
Before Loeb could answer, there was a deep thud that reverberated through the deck and his body. A moment later, a humming vibrated through the deck, and then the red emergency lights blinked off. After a moment in darkness, the brilliant white lights built into the ceiling came back to life and washed all the menacing shadows away. The consoles powered up, controls glowing in many bright colors. Suddenly, nothing was as menacing as before.
“Not anymore,” Loeb said. He tapped the control panel by the airlock, and the doors glided shut easily on their own. The room re-pressurized and Loeb turned off his comm circuits, because now speaking was certainly possible.
“Power is back up. We have only to confirm that the ship is stabilized and undamaged, and then begin bringing the crew itself into working order. What is your assignment?”
The gray robot said, “Science Robot, third-class, assigned to sample retrieval room.”
“Oh. This is your compartment then,” Loeb nodded. “Well, then I’ll let you see to it. Make sure everything is in good working order, then.”
The robot inclined his head in something like a bow, and then went and stood by his consoles, fingers dancing across them like a blur.
Loeb paid him no more attention. He unsealed the door leading into the science lab and then went back out into the rest of the ship, to see to the crew.