Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
“Diagnostic of thruster and propulsion systems.”
“Diagnostic reports eight-five percent operative capacity. Optimal.”
“Confirmed. Navigation systems diagnostic.”
“Navigation systems report one hundred percent. Optimal.”
“Confirmed.” The Captain of Loeb’s starship, taller and more impressive than any of them, stood on the command deck impassively with his hands folded behind his back.
He was bigger than any of the others and less angular in his impression of a human being, or at least what the history banks told them that a human being looked like. He wasn’t one of the humaniform robots which Loeb had once seen, years ago, but all he lacked was a layer of synthetic skin and he would have passed for one. His face was detailed and his eyes shifted in their sockets, though Loeb could not imagine what purpose this served.
He knelt beside of the fallen robots, of which there were so many, and he tried to get power flowing again. Mostly, he was failing. Some of them had burnt out when the pulse had gone through. Mostly, the robot’s systems shut themselves down in time to prevent any major damage. Sometimes, they didn’t shut down fast enough. It only took a split second for too much power to surge over the wires and burn out something vital, and probably not repairable.
Around him and around the Captain, things happened. Normally, the bridge would have been a hive of activity, but there weren’t enough functional robots to constitute any sort of hive at all. Come to that, there were only four robots online and functioning properly, and one of them was the immobile form of the Captain. Where robots would have normally sat in front of consoles and manned only one station, they instead moved quickly from station to station.
Moved quickly. But they didn’t rush. They didn’t panic. There was no panic to be had, except in Loeb’s mind, as he worried that by the time they finished running pre-flight checks and system diagnostics, they would slam into an asteroid they didn’t know about or something similar.
But to skip the checks wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else on the ship. They were machines, they had a certain way of doing things, they would do it in that order or they would do nothing. That was the beginning and end of it.
It had never bothered Loeb before. It bothered him now.
He flipped the panel shut on the robot, which remained on the ground inactive and…well…dead. Then, he got to his feet.
The Captain turned toward him and said, “Engineer, I would speak with you a moment.”
There was no request behind, just an imperious command, and it bothered Loeb. It was bothering him more and more. Nevertheless, now was neither the time nor the place to do something about it. So he nodded and stepped to join the Captain.
The Captain was well over a foot taller than Loeb was. Loeb wasn’t a big robot, not at all. His shoulders were mostly nonexistent where the Captain had a broad set of them.
The Captain looked straight ahead, as if Loeb were invisible.
He said, “You have preformed your duties admirably in this time of difficulty.”
Loeb looked down at the ground. “Thank you, sir.”
“A commendation shall be appended to your file, Engineer, for your service.”
“Thank you, sir.” Loeb repeated. A commendation! A commendation attached to his file, which was little more than a line of text saying what he’d done and how this had been valuable. It meant nothing at all. He was built an Engineering droid, he would remain an Engineering droid until a systems failure, or he was replaced by a higher model Engineering droid and then deactivated permanently. The commendation would sit on his file until he ceased to exist, and then it would disappear.
The Captain said nothing more. Loeb turned to go, because there was all manner of work still to be done and he didn’t feel like standing here, staring at a bridge with three robots running around frantically on it.
The Captain spoke, when Loeb had taken a step or two away from him.
“I shall stop by the Engineering departments later, Engineer,” he said. “I find that there are…malfunctions in my neural net which I cannot account for. I require diagnostics.”
Loeb stopped. He didn’t turn around again, but he did say, “Malfunctions. What kind of malfunctions, exactly?”
The Captain was silent for a long moment, sort of like Max trying to think of what to say.
Then, the Captain said, “I…am uncertain. There are…processes which are unfamiliar to me. I have halted those lines of process until further repairs can be conducted.”
Halted those lines of process. Loeb shuddered at the thought of it.
He said out loud, “We shall preform the necessary diagnostics, Captain.”
“Confirmed,” The Captain said. Then, he continued to call off diagnostics on the navigation and propulsion systems by route, even though they were mostly likely more than sturdy enough to allow them to re-orient themselves.
Loeb didn’t stay. He hurried through the large metal doors that sealed the command deck off from the rest of the ship. He rushed into the ‘Lift, sent it heading for Engineering, leaned back against the wall.
He put his head in his hands. It didn’t help, but he didn’t know what else to do.
Emotions! He knew what they were, of course. He had some basic information on them programmed into his memory banks, although it was nothing but placeholder information. The ship would have a little more information it, and there were computers on some of the larger planets that would have all the information he could need on emotions and human beings in general.
He knew enough to know that these things in his head which were muddying up everything were, in fact, emotions. He didn’t understand them, he sure as hell couldn’t control them, but they were there. They threatened to overwhelm him at any moment, and the mere thought of halting those lines of process was enough to set off the emotion he called ‘terror.’
An hour or so passed. A busy, frantic, lunatic hour during which Loeb and the remainder of the functioning engineering staff used the ‘Lifter robots – Max not among them – to begin hauling all defunct and still shut down robots from around the ship to the engineering compartments and to the storage bays.
Out of a crew of five hundred, more than three fourths were still offline. They didn’t try to bring any back online. Not quite yet. They just needed to clear space.
While the remainder of the engineering staff worked to move the bodies, something interesting seemed to be happening, and it puzzled Loeb no end.
They were coming to him for directions and orders. He wasn’t assigned to the position of “command” in Engineering, but they treated him as though he were. The tall robot who was in charge of the Engineering compartments was still functional, but it spoke with a slight skip in its voice and seemed content just to help haul bodies from the corridors into whatever space Loeb designated they should go.
“Thank you,” Loeb said as a large ‘Lifter lumbered into the cargo bay, where he stood watching. The ‘Lifter set down three other robots with rather more delicacy than he would have used if it had been a cargo crate he’d been hauling. The robots slumped to the deck, their limbs limp and dangling every which way.
The ‘Lifter turned and lumbered – directly past the Engineer command robot – and stopped just in front of Loeb.
“That’s the end of Deck fourteen,” said the ‘Lifter slowly, tonelessly.
“Good.” Loeb said. “Do we already have someone on Deck fifteen and sixteen?”
“Affirmative. Two ‘Lifters, three Spiders.”
“Good. Then I want you to go down to deck seventeen, all right? At least begin to assess the—“
Loeb hesitated and stopped. There was something buzzing in the back of his mind, and interesting vibration that he hadn’t previously felt. It bothered him, and it tickled. A moment after he became aware of it, he realized that there was a little whisper in the back of his mind, a small and quiet voice that didn’t seem to be saying anything coherent. It just…whispered in one long, and unending stream.
Loeb raised a finger, now looking at nothing in particular. “Do you…do you hear that?”
The ‘Lifter twisted left and right, slowly and awkwardly. He said nothing.
“It’s…a whisper,” Loeb added.
“I hear nothing,” the ‘Lifter said. “No communications are transmitting at this time to my circuits.”
No, they wouldn’t be, Loeb thought. The whispering intensified.
He shuddered and, disoriented, fell back a step. He shook his head, as if to dislodge the persistent whispering, but that changed nothing at all. The incoherent voice in the back of his mind got louder, more intense, and remained indistinct.
The ‘Lifter came forward a step, his massive arms raised and reaching for Loeb.
“You are suffering a malfunction, Engineer,” said the ‘Lifter. “I will bring you to engineering and you may be examined.”
“No!” Loeb shouted, one hand pressed agains the side of his head. He shouted much, much louder than he intended to. It echoed around the cargo bay and attracted the attention of every single operational robot that were busy in in the area.
They all looked up, and like the ‘Lifter, they stared at Loeb.
Then, almost as one, they approached Loeb.
He shuddered again, and in addition to the confusion and fear that the whispering brought on, sheer panic rose like a living creature from inside his chest. It filled up his brain with nothing but the desperate need to get away, to hide, to run.
“Stop!” Loeb shouted, pressing his hands against his head, the whispering now a dry shout, “Stop it! Shut up!”
“You will need to be deactivated until a diagnostic can be run on your systems,” said another engineering droid, the same model and style as Loeb, who approached around the side of the confused ‘Lifter.
The ‘Lifter made no further attempts to pick up Loeb. They were not exceptionally bright robots, their programming limited to taking orders and completing basic tasks. This one wouldn’t do anything unless someone told him to.
“Don’t touch me!” Loeb shouted.
When the engineering droid reached for him, Loeb took his hands off his skull and shoved, hard as he could, against the other robot’s chest. The impact of his hands was hard enough that the clang of metal on metal echoed louder than anything else around the cavernous cargo bay.
The engineering robot stumbled and fell back, ricocheting off the ‘Lifter droid and tumbling to the ground, where he landed on his hands and feet, like an agile spider. His head tilted upward at Loeb, and he started to rebound to his feet.
All the robots in the cargo bay, all the functional ones, came at him then, much faster. Even the ‘Lifter took a lumbering step toward him, reaching again. It was blocked by the fallen robot who was still getting up, and that was the only thing which kept Loeb out of its iron grip.
Loeb turned, and he ran. He sprinted across the cargo bay, away from the bulk of robots suddenly coming after him.
There was still no words to the whispering, but as it seemed to gain coherency and cohesiveness, it also seemed more and more familiar, like something that had once had a place in his mind, but hadn’t in some time. Certainly, there had been nothing like it in his brain since he had come awake, and all his memories from before that were strange and untrustworthy things.
He leaped onto a crate, and from there he leaped even higher. He shoved off the edge of a tall stack of crates, and swung up to grab hold of a grating which covered a vent.
They were all robots, they had no need of oxygen, but they still had an oxygen atmosphere and they still had a ventilation system for it. It was this caricature of organic creatures which Loeb was suddenly grateful for.
Under his weight, the grate gave away and he started to fall with it. The moment it detached, he threw it aside and caught the edge of the air duct beyond. With an agility only a robot his size could manage, he slithered into the darkness and was gone.
Ten minutes and a half dozen twists and turns later, he stopped, when the whispering suddenly turned into something solid, and dangerous. Suddenly, he knew exactly what it was.
It was Master System.
Not the Master System, not the Master System which networked the entire Terr Alliance together. This was just a local variety of it which served as a network and overmind for the ship itself. It kept in touch with all the robots on the ship, it guided and made decisions that smaller minds couldn’t handle.
It had gone offline with the surge, and now it seemed they had gotten it back up and running.
The whispering…that was the system slowly reestablishing it’s connections. It was trying to get into Loeb’s mind, and he was trying to stop it without any clear idea on how to do that.
He ran images and words and sounds through his mind as best he could, repeating things mindlessly over and over.
The part of the air duct he was in had a nearby grate, and after checking to make sure no one was around, he pushed it off the wall and crawled out into an open corridor again. He lingered only a moment to replace the grate, and then ducked into a small storage room just off the corridor from the engineering doors.
Inside, there were plenty of stored tools, equipment, and parts.
With only the light of his eyes to work by, he braced himself and then took off his own chest panel.
It didn’t hurt. Certainly it didn’t hurt. It was designed to be removed. Pain would have come from ripping something off that had no business being ripped off. No, it wasn’t pain, it was just a feeling of uncomfortable exposure, and a wrongness about it, as if he were doing something that he really, really shouldn’t be doing.
The whisper in the back of his mind was a voice now, and it talked to him persistently. Its presence, its sheer force of will bearing down on him made his hands shake. His little chest panel rattled against the crate as he set it down. He nearly dropped the small sharp knife in the process of picking it up.
…Status, status, status, report, inform, connect, immediate response, status, report…
Loeb shuddered, and he kept mindless images going through his head.
…electromagnetic cloud, Max’s chest light, terror, terror, glittering stars, shining hull…
He knew it wouldn’t work for long. And he knew that it was making him even more suspicious to Master System, since things like that were not normally running around and around on a robot’s circuits. Nevertheless, it was safer to leave the Master System assuming he was a malfunctioning unit and let it keep retrying his connection than for it to actually realize that he was functioning just fine.
At least, he was dealing with a malfunction that he knew full well he had, and recognized.
He bent over nearly double to look inside himself, something that wasn’t easy to do, even with his level of agility. His glowing eyes mostly cast shadows that got in the way and finally, he straightened back up and let his fingers carefully do the work inside himself, holding the knife as delicately as possible and trying not to move it. This would be a terrible time for his hands to shake even worse and accidentally slice through a power cable. He didn’t want to die.
That was why he dug around in his own guts. He didn’t want to die. Nothing else was important, if not his own survival…
…status, status, status, contact, internal error, report, immediate, status, report report…
…they aren’t dead, they’re asleep…we need to get into the ship…I am functioning…
His fingers touched a small, hard box that sat nestled just behind his power core, and he held onto it so he wouldn’t lose track of it. Very delicately, he brought the other hand with the knife inside of himself. He looked up at the ceiling, the movement of his glowing eyes sending all sorts of wild and menacing shadows dancing around the room. He stared at the corner of the ceiling, but saw nothing. His fingers had all his attention now.
With the knife and a little hard and extremely careful sawing, he severed a couple of the wires that held the box in place. It was a transmitter and all the wires had done was supply it with backup power. A good transmitter has its own internal store of power, and his certainly did.
Unable to get anything else cut with the knife, he pulled as hard as he could, trying to rip the box out of himself.
…report, report, report, engineer requires diagnostic, damage report, query, query…
…I’ll protect you, Max, you’ll be fine, Max, we have to save the crew, Max, we…
He shuddered, harder than ever before, his hands and the knife rattling against his insides with a metallic series of bangs. He pulled harder on the box, but it wouldn’t budge.
His mind was a mess. The images weren’t helping! Master System was big and powerful and very, very sophisticated. Even the engineering robots, like himself, couldn’t do anything with Master System if there happened to be damage. Certainly not without the mental guidance of Master System itself. It was just too big and too strong…
…and it was focusing too much of its mind on Loeb, too much for his own mind to bear, let alone resist. He could feel the strain building up, and he knew that he was going to shut down. Very, very soon he was just going to burn out and shut down, dead as any of the robots lying discarded in the cargo bay he’d abandoned.
Finally, with strength he didn’t know he had, Loeb hauled backward on the little box, pulling so violently that it snapped free from the thick cables that connected it to everything else inside him.
The moment the last cable snapped, the voice in his head, the one that wasn’t his own, stopped.
He pulled his hands out of himself and stood there, slumped against the closed door, with his own transmitter dangling from one hand. It trailed wires down his thigh and a small set of red and green lights on it flickered on and off as its power tried to send signals, tried to receive signals, and failed to do either one.
He shivered again. The fear hadn’t gone away, hadn’t turned off like the flick of a switch the same as the voice vanishing. The fear stayed, and it kept pushing at him, and pushing at him.
It was sum of everything he’d been through since the storm had swept over him. It was the crushing, maddening, destructive realization that he was alone, he was on the verge of collapse, he was unable to understand what that meant, just like he didn’t understand anything in his brain right then.
In his hand, he held the final thing which connected him with the rest of the universe.
He suddenly understood the desire to cry. He couldn’t, of course, he had no ability to. But he wanted to. He wanted to collapse, to curl into a ball, and to let great sobs wrack through him until he was spent and exhausted and unable to move.
Instead, he just stood there, and he looked at the wall in front of him, and he hated.
He hated himself, Master System, the other robots, his own metallic body, the electromagnetic storm. He just hated. It was the only emotion that wasn’t crippling him.
He just stood there, in the dark, and he tried to keep the hate stronger than the urge to give up, fall down, and fail to cry. Mostly, it worked.
The box, hanging from his hand, fizzled a couple of times as loose wires brushed against each other. Then the lights dimmed, went red, and went out altogether as the last bits of power contained within it finally ran themselves out. The transmitter gave out altogether.