Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
Deep in the heart of the ship, in a room with a door and a small platform surrounded by empty space and computers, Master System was aware of a sudden disappearance of one robot on the ship.
This was not surprising. Many had disappeared. The storm had damaged some robots beyond repair, or had destroyed them in the first place.
The surprising, and uncommon thing here was that the transmittee did not register system shut down and send an alert report to Master System. It just…stopped transmitting.
Unsettling. It bothered Master System.
Great circuits turned the problem over and over, and then more circuits with better defined logic patterns studied it with marked interest and something akin to concern.
It checked its connections to all the robots roaming the ship, and it looked for anomalies, things that were not necessarily worth reporting to Master System but would still be of interest.
Mostly, it found nothing. What it did find, though, were minor reports of a spontaneous robot malfunction. It studied videos, captured through the ocular sensors of all manner of engineering robots as one of the thin, spindly blue robots questioned a ‘Lifter about a whispering in the back of its mind, and then grew alarmed and ran away when the others tried to provide assistance.
Unfortunately, none of the videos were positioned well enough or clear enough for him to make out the designation number on the blue engineering robot’s upper chest, which would have helped no end. Still, it made a note. It now had a class of robot, and that was a start to figuring the problem out.
All problems were solvable. This was a lesser Master System than the great network which guided the whole Alliance, but it was still a capable computer. It had a class of robots, it had a time frame, and it had the transmissions from all other robots of that same class to compare to. It would narrow things down and help it identify which robot had malfunctioned violently.
Then, with no other solution immediately presenting itself, it gathered what data it managed to analyze – because there was always data, even when it was an surprising absence of useful information, such as this – and it bundled it together as a report and sent it along to the Captain robot. It was certainly no smarter, nor more capable than the Master System was, but Master System was at a loss. Perhaps something new would present itself.
Alarmed and interested now, it continued to monitor, and to watch.
When Loeb came out of the storage room, he did so slowly and carefully, checking the corridor in every direction to make sure there weren’t any other members of the ship’s crew around to see him. He crept down the corridor, afraid to even come away from the wall and walk in a normal stride.
He only made it a little ways when he heard the clattering of another robot heading his way. He realized how suspicious he looked, creeping along the wall, and forced himself out into the middle of the corridor. He tried to walk normally, with his arms swinging a little at his sides, and at a decent speed. He tried to make it look like he had somewhere to be, some task that he’d been assigned which needed to get done rather quickly.
The robot which came down the corridor was accompanied by two ‘Lifters, and they went past carrying a fried power core which had probably been blown out by the electromagnetic storm. At least they had spotted it before it failed, Loeb thought.
As they approached and drew alongside him, he was about to say something to the ‘Lifter on the left who helped carry the power core. Maybe it was because he was distracted, but for a moment, that robot looked exactly like Max.
But it wasn’t. The markings were different, and this robot looked like an older model, now that Loeb came to think of it.
He said nothing and they didn’t even look at him as they bypassed him and kept on down the corridor, rounding the bend and going out of sight. Loeb kept walking…
…but now, now he was thinking of Max.
That stopped him in his tracks.
Max! Max was just as awake as he was, so what would have happened to him when Master System came back online? Loeb had had the presence of mind to run all sorts of strange things through his head to keep the system confused long enough for him to disable his own connection.
Would Max? Certainly, he was not going to be able to reach inside his own chest cavity and yank out his own transmitter. His hands were too big for that kind of delicate work. Even Loeb had barely managed to do it on himself, and he was designed for exactly those types of repairs. Max would very likely punch a hole clean through himself if he even tried.
Had he resisted mentally? Did he knew how to resist mentally/? Had it even occurred to him?
Another thought came into Loeb’s mind, which was becoming dangerously overcrowded again.
Loeb was terrified of death, of the sudden loss of all these strange and messy things which coming awake had granted him. Max, on the other hand, had been afraid of death – of being disabled – but had said nothing at all about trying to avoid repairs or diagnostics that could potentially discover whatever was going on inside his head now.
Did he know well enough to resist anyone running a scan on him? Did he want to keep this?
The same feelings of self-preservation that kept Loeb from revealing to anyone what exactly was happening inside his head were more than strong enough to encompass Max too. The mere thought of Max being shut down, being ‘fixed’ was enough to send a jolt of fear through Loeb.
He started moving again, heading down the corridor as a brisk clip. The gray corridors, which curved away out of sight and were slanted, boxy things, suddenly seemed too small and enclosing. At the same time, they seemed so very long that there was no way Loeb could move fast enough to ever get to the end of this strange, eternal corridor.
Other robots or not be damned, he started to run.
But even that seemed to somehow make the corridor longer, and longer, and more impossible to get through. He ran faster and faster, and he could feel the strain that the continuous fast motion was putting on his legs. He was a sturdily designed robot and he could handle a fair amount of abuse…but he’d already handled most of it.
The corridor did end, which came as something of a surprise to Loeb. He went from the corridor into a four-way junction of corridors, one of which was no longer than a few feet and then opened out into the main engineering compartments. The whole area was full of robots. Full of mechanical men who repaired mechanical devices.
They all carried data readouts, or equipment, or supplies, or orders, or each other in the case of a few damaged robots. Mostly, at the moment, they were all stopped and staring at Loeb, who had suddenly appeared in their midst at a dead run.
He skidded to a halt, his feet making a horrible scraping noise against the metal floors. The corridors and compartments down in these lower decks had no carpeting, nothing pretty at all about them. Upper decks had carpeting and better lighting and no pipes running along the floor, but there was no need for that down here. Come to that, Loeb realized there was no need for it up there either.
“Apologies,” He said, striving to sound as impassive and…well….robotic as he possibly could. It was a strange thing to have to work at, but he did have to concentrate to sound like any other robot. “There is a minor problem in…a lower deck. System damage. I require a ‘Lifter for assistance.”
One ‘Lifter stepped forward, but it wasn’t Max. It was just any old ‘Lifter, another robot that looked similar to Max, but didn’t have that certain thing which made Max himself. This big robot was open and comfortable because he was programmed to be, where Max was scared and tense, because he felt that way.
He thought fast, because there was no useful reason for this particular ‘Lifter not to assist him with the problem he’d mentioned, the one that didn’t actually exist.
“I would like the services of the ‘Lifter which was assigned to outer-hull duty with me, before the storm struck,” Loeb said, thinking quick. “This is a very delicate situation, and I would not like a situation glitch to occur in dangerous circumstances.”
“Is this a technical emergency?” asked one of the other engineering droids, a blue robot just like Loeb.
“No, no,” Loeb said hastily, “Just…delicate. That’s all.”
“What is the technical difficulty?” another robot asked him.
Loeb hesitated, then said, “A proper report shall be filed shortly. For now, where is the ‘Lifter who was previously on the outer-hull?”
There were no suspicions raised, even though it was a pretty poor excuse, even to Loeb. It sounded horrible, but they didn’t think like that. Suspicion didn’t naturally occur to robots who didn’t have Loeb’s particular malfunction.
They shuffled, and a few robots looked around the compartment, in which were a half dozen ‘Lifters aiding others in all manner of tasks which required a big and bulky robot who could lift quite a lot when needed.
While they were busy looking around for something they didn’t know, since they had no idea which ‘Lifter had been on the outer hull, Loeb took advantage of it and walked up to each ‘Lifter, trying desperately to remember any distinguishing features on Max that would have made him stand out. Maddeningly, he couldn’t think of any.
Originally, he had assumed that Max would just greet him when he approached. But then, Max would know better…wouldn’t he? He was perhaps not the fastest thinking robot out of the two of them, but he didn’t seem particularly stupid. He would have the sense to act as another mostly-mute heavy-lifter robot. He wouldn’t say anything.
But wouldn’t he try to signal Loeb in some way? A blink, a wink, a tap on the shoulder, something like that? After all, it was obvious that Loeb was looking for him, wasn’t it?
A memory jogged Loeb’s mind, and he realized that Max would have a slight scratch up the outward-angular surface which served as a jutting, three cornered nose in his crude simulation of an organic face. It would be slightly scratched with the paint rubbed off from when he’d banged slowly against the ship’s hull.
He looked at every single robot in the engineering compartment, though, and none of them had the scratches.
None of them. Max wasn’t here.
Panic and alarm made themselves very known in the back of Loeb’s mind, but he tried to push them away. It was reasonable to assume that Max was just somewhere else on the ship, helping with something or another. It was perfectly possible.
Except Max had been afraid of being alone. So why wouldn’t Max have tried to find Loeb?
No, the reasonable idea that he was just working somewhere else on the ship did nothing at all for Loeb’s panic. It grew and blossomed and filled up his head.
The panic was why he didn’t remember what he said to dismiss the ‘Lifter who offered to help him with his technical difficulty. Loeb stumbled out of the engineering bay, aware that he was acting odd enough again to attract attention and too distracted to care. His head was full of Max, and not much else. Not right now.
He stumbled down some corridors without paying a lot of attention, and then stopped cold and just stared at the ground.
It was even worse than ripping out his transmitter. Now, without Max, he really and truly felt all alone.
And if he didn’t start thinking, someone was going to figure out that he was seriously ‘malfunctioning’ and attempt to repair or shut him down, by force if necessary. If he didn’t figure out something to do, then he was going to die.
He had no idea what to do, though.
The Captain stood on the command deck of the Damocles, with his hands braced behind his back. He stared out of the wide viewports mounted on the front of the command deck, and he watched the little glittering points of stars twinkle outside his ship.
He was aware that there was another robot standing just to his side, and that this other robot had been speaking for some time now. The Captain wondered why he hadn’t paid any attention to what the other robot was saying. He assumed that all of his circuits were busy, although he was fairly uncertain about what they would have been busy with.
“My apologies,” the Captain said. “Please repeat your last report.”
The robot hesitated a bare moment. It was a golden robot, thin and tall and designed for general duties around the ship, in whatever position was required of it. Unlike specialized robots, such as the blue engineering droids or the dark gray command deck droids – or the blue, white and gold Captain himself – these golden droids were just designed to move around to busy areas of the ship, make themselves useful, and then move on when they weren’t needed anymore.
Then, the golden robot started its report over, word for word the same as it had been delivered the first time.
It reported that the engines were in fairly good condition, although the engineers had warned that pressing them too hard might cause a serious breakdown. It reported that the gravity generators were restored on all decks, something which would make repairs and normal operations a great deal easier. It reported…
….again, the Captain’s mind wandered off. Mostly, he looked at the stars.
Then, the golden robot stopped talking again when the Captain suddenly unclasped his hands, relaxed his stance, and started to walk forward. It hesitated a moment, and then walked after him slowly, unsure of where they were going.
The Captain stared directly out of the viewports like he was mesmerized and he strode along the platform that went between the crew pits. He stood on the little ledge that ran along the front of the ship, just beneath the windows. It was part of the ship design that was still left over from when organics had run ships and used ships, countless thousands of years earlier. These days, it served no practical purpose, but it remained nonetheless. After all, what did a robot care for the beauty of looking out at the stars?
And what good were windows to a robot? If the sensors couldn’t detect something, then looking out a window wouldn’t do any more good, since they would be looking out with sensors that were built into the robot’s head. There was no difference.
And yet…and yet, as the Captain approached and the portals filled up his vision, it seemed to him that there was something about the stars worth gazing at. They were beautiful, a countless number of small and glittering lights that filled up the heavens. Some were brighter and bigger than others, some were clustered together and some hung alone against the deep blackness of space. Even with a quick and powerful brain, such as the one that ticked away behind his plating, the Captain could have stared out the window for entire days and he wouldn’t have been able to count all the stars. There were too many, far too many.
“Captain?” said the gold robot. “My report, Captain?”
The Captain said nothing for a moment, and then replied, “Do you ever look at the stars? Just look at them?”
“Why not?” said the Captain, gazing out the viewport, “They’re beautiful, it seems to me.”
“Beauty, sir?” The gold robot processed silently a moment, “Aesthetically pleasing, yes. They are within those parameters.”
“They are indeed,” said the Captain. He took his hands away from his sides and pressed them against the thick transparency of the portal. Sensors in his hands, not the most sensitive ones on the ship, were nonetheless able to detect the cold of the glass. The rest of the ship stayed fairly warm – not only an organic leftover, but because some equipment needed a decent temperature to process – but against the glass, he could feel the absolute cold of outer space trying to come into the ship.
The gold robot was silent a moment longer and then said, “…and we have finished gathering up nearly all of the disabled members of the crew. They are laid out in cargo bay three and four, although if there are any more damages and shutdowns, we expect to have to begin placing them within cargo bay five.”
The Captain nodded. “There are a lot of disabled members of my crew, it seems.”
“Yes, sir. Nearly eighty percent of the crew has been shut down.”
The Captain took his hand off the glass, and he put it back on the edge of the window and leaned forward a little. If he did it just right, if he brought his face just an inch or so away from the glass, and if he looked straight ahead…yes…it was like he was actually in space, like he were free-floating with only the stars around him. Far off in the distance, he could make out the slight hazy blurring of a nebula of some sort, although from this distance, he couldn’t see its color or even make out its size properly.
“Captain?” This time, the gold robot’s long fingers closed around one of the Captain’s upper arms, and he allowed himself to be pulled away from the window and rotated toward the other robot.
“Unhand me,” the Captain said. He may have been distracted by the stars, but he was still captain of the vessel and his programming on that matter was still perfectly clear. He wasn’t about to be manhandled by an inferior robot of any sort.
The gold robot let go of him right away, but he didn’t move back any.
“Are you damaged, sir?” he asked, looking at the Captain. One of the gold robot’s eyes flickered, and the Captain knew that it was scanning him, to see if anything obvious within the Captain was malfunctioning.
It scanned his head, but that would be a useless thing to do, the Captain knew. It was impenetrable by anything but the most powerful of scanning equipment. Otherwise, what would stop a robot captain from a ship in another empire from scanning his brain and doing better than him in battle?
The Captain said, when the scanning had stopped, “It is possible that I have sustained some damage. I don’t feel damaged, though.”
“Indeed, sir,” said the gold robot, “Feel?”
“Yes.” The Captain considered a moment, and then said, “That is perhaps a sign that there is a malfunction in progress along some of my mental pathways. The storm was quite powerful.”
“Yes sir,” said the gold robot, “Perhaps you should visit engineering, and a diagnostic can be preformed, along with repair work to bring you back to full operational status?”
“Perhaps,” the Captain said. He turned to glance over his shoulder and back out at the stars, “I suppose I will need to, in time.”
The gold robot said, “I will escort you to engineering now, Captain. You require attention.”
The Captain drew himself up and he put his hands back behind his back. His chest seemed to expand outward as he thrust it forward. He looked down at the gold robot, which was a trick of command programming since he was looking down on a robot that was actually the same height as he was.
“Crewer, I will go to Engineering when we have cleared this emergency situation, and not before. My malfunction is not crippling, nor is it affecting my command abilities in any way. We are recovering from the effects of a powerful storm, and I will not vacate my posts. My programming is quite clear on that matter.”
The gold robot said nothing.
“Now, unless you have some more pressing detail to add to your report, thusly delivered, I would please suggest you clear the bridge and allow us to get back to work. We have to finish stabilizing the ship, and we’ll need to resume our mission very shortly, or our schedule shall be severely altered. Is there anything else?”
“There are several more items, yes.”
The Captain hesitated and then said, “Then…please write them as an official report for the logs, and send it to me. I will read it over in that manner before I archive it in the computer and send it on to the Master System on homeworld.”
“You wish a written log?” If the golden robot were capable of perplexity, it would have exhibited it right then. “Did you not process the spoken report which I have just delivered?”
In truth, the Captain realized he couldn’t remember much of anything that the other robot had said to him. He tried for a moment to concentrate on the previous few minutes worth of talking on the other robot’s behalf, and he got some vague ideas back. Something to do with the power cores. Something to do with the crew being disabled. Something to do with the Captain being damaged. He couldn’t actually remember anything word for word, though, and that did bother him a little bit. Everything was a bit foggy, a feeling he had not previously experienced. He suspected that he did need to go to engineering, suspected that this could be something serious…but he could hardly go now. Not after saying he was fine in front of this crewer.”
“I processed it fine, but I wish to analyze and inspect the data further,” the Captain at last provided, because it seemed like a decent excuse. “Is there a problem with a written report?”
“No, Captain,” said the gold robot. It stiffened to attention. “I will transmit the report to you shortly. Permission to clear the bridge?”
The gold robot saluted and then turned around sharply on one heel and marched off the bridge, through the massive round door that would have sealed the deck off in times of battle or emergency. Right now, because of all the repair work and the small size of the crew, the massive door was open to allow faster coming and going.
The Captain watched the gold robot head through the round door and into the wide corridor beyond. It kept going straight, past the science labs and the life pods, and it went into the ‘Lift which closed on it and swept it away into other parts of the ship.
Then, the Captain turned his attention back to the viewports. He walked back across the ramp that went between the crew pits.
Someone in one of the crew pits said something to him, but he didn’t notice it. He was looking out at the stars. He came up to the port again and once more, he pressed both of his hands against the glass.
There were guidance lights on the outside hull of the ship and they reflected through the glass and off the shining metal of the Captain’s body. He kept himself highly polished, because that was how a robot in his position was expected to look.
He relished the feeling of cold against his palms. He thought nothing of the robot in the pit which had tried to talk to him.
It was very strange, he thought. His mind felt foggy and hazy, as if all his abilities and memory banks were hovering just out of his ability to use. He couldn’t recall conversations properly, and everything seemed slightly unreliable.
He knew this was a malfunction, and he knew that if it was malfunction in his neural circuits, then it was very serious and he needed to go talk to the engineers and have himself sorted out.
And yet, despite the haziness and the fogginess, he had never felt so…