Written By: Pete Tzinski
Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar
LX-45 was just a general purpose robot, of the sort which was good for lots of tasks, none of them vital or specific. The ship was full of them. Mostly, they were designed to round out the crew and do the odd jobs here and there.
LX-45 had, like the rest of the crew, been shut down when the electromagnetic storm swept over the ship. He had fallen to the ground, just like everyone else.
Where he differed from everyone else was, when he fell, he had been on top of a ladder, forty feet off the ground. He’d been working on a general catalog update of supplies stored in a lower cargo bay. The fall had been a bad one, and he had landed at a particularly bad angle.
He shuddered violently as he returned to operational status, his eyes glowing to life. He was aware of lying down on the ground, and he was aware that his left leg seemed to be operating well below nominal efficiency.
A robot sat next to him, long fingers inside LX-45’s chest cavity.
“Damage?” LX-45 asked, his voice crackling and full of static. “Please confirm.”
The robot who sat next to him continued to work inside of him. He looked over and met LX-45’s eyes for a moment, and then looked back at his work.
“Confirm, definitely,” said the working robot. “A great deal of damage.”
LX-45 focused on the robot, trying to attune his damaged ocular sensors. This other robot was of the slim, blue, engineering variety. His eyes were glowing bright blue, almost white, and did not waver as they studied LX-45’s innards. He knew this type of robot . They worked hard…all over….all over…
…There was an error. He could not connect, could not compute. He knew he was on a ship, but couldn’t access information on the ship, couldn’t establish a link with the database.
LX-45 turned on his transponder, and was dismayed to watch his right arm start to violently shudder from it.
“Don’t,” said the Engineering droid. He must have been operating below optimal himself, because there was suddenly a tone in his voice which hadn’t previously been there.
LX-45 kept his transponder on and tried to connect with the ship, which failed. Then, because he was closer, he tried to connect with the engineering robot.
The engineering droid…didn’t register at all as something he could connect with, and that puzzled LX-45. It was as if he were trying to connect with a bulkhead, or with the deck beneath him. There was simply nothing there to connect with.
Unable to establish a connection, he turned off his transmitter.
Then, his left eye failed and his right arm stopped shuddering and became completely inert.
He said, “I am damaged. Please conduct repairs.”
The engineering robot sat back on his heels, and he looked at the robot lying on the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he said, which did not compute. “You’ve taken too much damage. Your neural processes are degrading rapidly. You have only moments left before systems failure.”
LX-45’s legs began to shudder and shake violently, his heels rattling against the metal deck beneath him. He tried to send a stop command, but it did nothing, and he was having trouble properly sending the command.
“Error,” LX-45 announced, loudly, to the empty room. “Malfunction. Error.”
“I’m sorry,” said the engineering robot, “I did the best I could. You’re…well, you’re dying. I am sorry.”
The word dying didn’t connect with anything in LX-45’s mind, and he let it go. It must have been improperly received by his audio circuits, it was bad input, it was it was input input input bad circuits audio input circuits it was let it go improper received mind mind mind must have have have –
Loeb sighed as LX-45’s final eye flickered, dimmed, brightened far too strongly…and then faded altogether.
He was gone.
The eye sometimes could continue to operate even after the neural centers had stopped processing thought, but in this case, the fading of power was as good a signal of death as any. There was nothing in any circuits anymore. The power which had been left in the reactor wasn’t replenishing and could do nothing but bleed itself out – in the form of activity on the part of LX-45’s momentary consciousness – and then vanish altogether.
Loeb waited a moment, because somehow what he was doing seemed wrong and he was having no end of trouble reconciling it. Then, because he had no choice in the matter, he leaned forward on his knees and unhinged the entire chest plating of the robot.
Beneath, it was a world and a jumble of circuits and computer parts and boxes of metal. A jumble, a jungle, a horrid mess that made perfect sense to Loeb, when he could concentrate the engineering bits of his mind around to a task without emotions getting, problematically, in the way.
He began to disengage parts from inside the LX robot. He removed the wires and set aside the ones which had been overloaded by the power surge. He saved the ones which were in good working order. Then, he removed the computer processors, the servos which gave him the ability to move, the sensory equipment and their attaches processors that were scattered through his body.
He left the power core where it was. It looked fine, save for the blackened patch toward the bottom, but he knew that it was good for nothing. He could fill it full of power and it would drain right back out. It would be like cupping water in his hands.
As he gathered up the salvageable parts that could be put to better use in someone else, the door behind him slid open. There was a faint series of mechanical steps coming into the room, and the door slid shut again.
For a moment, just one irrational moment, he was certain that it had to be Max, returning from wherever it was that he’d vanished to and immediately seeking Loeb out. The thought made him happy, even if it only lasted a moment or two.
Then he realized that of course, it wasn’t Max, was it? It couldn’t be. For one thing, the footfalls would have been heavier and louder, and he would have felt the vibrations even before the door had slid open. Max was a big and heavy robot, since he was a ‘Lifter. These footfalls were nothing so impressive.
He rotated on his heels, still kneeling down, and looked up at the robot who’d come in. It was a silver robot, a little taller than Loeb, but certainly no bulkier. It was an engineering droid, simply a newer model than Loeb, who was over twenty years old himself. It had long, thin fingers and a round body, and the same sort of impassive face that Loeb had. It was just thinner, smoother, more streamlined than Loeb was. For a moment, in the back of his mind, he thought that he would very much like to look just like that.
It looked down at him with impassive red eyes out of a brushed metal face that was round and not very humanoid. Then, it looked around the room as if looking at Loeb had been nothing very interesting.
“Make your report,” said the silver robot.
Loeb seethed inside. He’d already dealt with this several times since he’d brought the rest of the crew back online. Dealing with his newfound emotions all by himself was bad enough, but they were making it difficult to get along with the rest of the impassive – mechanical – robots of the crew. It was important, he knew, to remain inconspicuous, but knowing that made it no easier to take orders from mechanical men who were in positions of authority simply because they’d been built for it.
Loeb said slowly, “This one is disabled. I am recovering salvageable parts from him.”
He winced as he said it, and he knew what the silver droid would say.
“Why did you refer to it as him?”
Loeb added, quickly, “I referred to it as ‘it,’ sir. Perhaps your auditory sensors are malfunctioning?”
Normally, this would have been met with a split-second diagnostic and a dismissal, but everything was still in enough chaos from the storm that such things were to be seriously considered if even the slightest possibility arose.
“Perhaps,” said Silver. It was silent a moment, and then went on, “Identify yourself.”
That was an unusual question for one robot to ask another, Loeb knew. If you wanted to know someone else’s position, and their ID number, then you simply sent a query to their transponder which would reply automatically.
Loeb had no transponder. He’d reached inside himself and torn it out.
“My transponder is malfunctioning,” Loeb said. “I am an engineering droid. I am…”
He froze. He went silent. He panicked.
All those little bits of information that his transponder had held and freely distributed were now gone, taken along with the transponder that he’d gotten rid of. He hadn’t thought about it in the hours that had followed, but suddenly he realized he had no idea what his ID number was.
“ID number?” the silver robot asked, a question which spiked panic through Loeb’s mind like a rock in a pool of liquid. It scattered his thoughts, made it even harder for him to focus, to try and recall. He’d said his ID number a while ago, hadn’t he? Hadn’t he told someone? Hadn’t he…?
There was no ID number.
“I’m just Loeb,” he whispered.
He didn’t even realize he’d said that out loud for a moment or two, when sheer horror brought it bubbling to his attention.
“Does not register,” said Silver, impassively. For the first time, it lowered its head and seemed to really study Loeb, to look at him like he were a malfunctioning sub-system that needed to be repaired.
“I am…I am otherwise occupied,” Loeb said. He didn’t want to bring up his malfunctioning transponder again, for fear that he might be forced into having a scan, and then he would be discovered. Every little fault and glitch and error, all of which seemed to hav ecome from the storm and turned him into whatever it was that he was. All of them would be found and rooted out. It was death, and it terrified him.
“You are malfunctioning.” Silver said, and it scared Loeb badly, even though he’d been expecting something like it. “You are clearly below optimal operating standards. You will accompany me to the engineering compartments, where you shall be diagnosed and repaired. Come with me.”
“No! I mean…” Loeb struggled to think clearly, and he hated himself for it. Here, alone in a room with a dead robot and a slightly newer-than-him engineering robot, he was completely at a loss. He was smarter than this! He was smarter than that other robot. Or at least, his mind worked differently, and that had to be worth something, didn’t it?
Loeb went on, “I am otherwise occupied. I have orders from the Captain to complete salvaging designated robots very shortly. I will not disobey.”
“Irrelevant,” said Silver. “You are malfunctioning which makes you a hazard to potential parts recovery, as well as to yourself. You will accompany me.”
And then, things got worse.
Silve reached down and wrapped his long and glittering fingers around Loeb’s spindly upper forearm, obviously intending to take him to Engineering by force.
Loeb, who had been lost inside his own head trying to think of a way out of this, jumped at the sudden contact. His mind raced, it flew, and it went berserk. He wouldn’t be takenaway, he couldn’t be taken away. They would fix him – no, they would kill him.
“No!” he shouted, so loudly that it echoed around the little room. He lunged to his feet and his small blue hands slammed into the silver robot’s chest, driving him back against the wall just by the door. Silver’s hands flew away from Loeb’s arm and bounced off the wall as his servos failed to compensate for something they hadn’t expected.
There was nothing but rage and panic going round and round in Loeb’s head, screaming and gibbering at each other and at him. Everything was clouded. All he knew to do was to get out, to get away, to live, because no one was going to kill him.
But this robot would know him.
There were bits of thought going through his mind. They were hard to find, but they were there, and they were useful.
Silver recovered and lunged at Loeb, who backed off. Silver’s defense circuitry kicked into gear and he reached for Loeb again. No doubt, he was stronger and they were both aware of that. Silver’s entire approach indicated that he was bigger and stronger and better than Loeb, and he knew it.
Loeb stumbled back out of the reach of Silver’s hands. He tried to backpedal further, but the corpse of LX-45 was still behind him and his heels clanked against the robot’s side. His arms flailed and he couldn’t go forward without silver getting hold of him.
He stumbled and fell back, arching his back as he did so and rolling across the defunct robot on the ground. His arms rotated at angles that a humaniform robot certainly couldn’t have managed and he rotated himself instantly and quickly back on to his feet.
On his way up, his scrabbling hands brushed against a tool lying on the ground and he grabbed it and brought it upright with him.
It was a jumpstarter, a little gadget that did nothing but build up current. It was useful for pouring enough power into a power core to bring vital systems back online, and mostly not useful for anything else.
It was the length of Loeb’s arm. It was heavy. And he had a good two-handed grip on it.
Silver took a step over the corpse of LX-45 and lunged at Loeb, who pressed back against the wall.
“No!” He shouted, and he swung the jumpstarter.
It slammed into Silver with more force than Loeb thought he was capable of. Was it the rage and panic lending him extra strength? He didn’t know, but he hit the other robot so hard that Silver seemed to jump violently to the side.
Silver lifted off the ground and slammed into the wall, which was not all that close. It clattered to the ground in a heap of arms and legs. The impact had stunned him badly enough that he didn’t automatically get back on his feet again.
Loeb moved fast, quick as he could. Without any conscious thought, he went down on all fours and jumped toward the other robot, like an organic predator, and he landed crouched on top of it.
Silver made a static noise out of its mouth, which was nothing but a slit in its lower face. Its eyes flickered a little. Loeb had struck it in the side and one of its arms, but damage had definitely been done all over the place. He really must have managed a really heavy blow.
He ripped off Silver’s chest panel. There were other panels on any robot, but they were generally locked and could only be opened by Master System. Besides, if you were an engineering droid and you knew what you were doing, you could manage quite a lot just from inside that one chest panel.
Silver brought its head forward but Loeb jammed one hand against its forehead and pushed the head back against the wall hard enough to keep it there. Still kneeling low, Loeb slid one hand inside Silver’s panel.
The moment his hand went inside, Silver began to struggle. Silver’s arms and legs twitched and moved, trying to push Loeb off, and Loeb slammed its head back against the wall again.
“Stop it!” Loeb hissed. “You stop it. You stay still, or I crush your head!”
The words shocked Loeb. On a certain level, everything was shocking him. But he couldn’t take them back, and he couldn’t just change his mind and back away. Anyway, Silver went still. There were protection protocols activating at this point, Loeb suspected, and none of them gave any indication what you should do when your fellow robot attacked you like this.
Loeb slid his hand far up inside Silver’s body, slithering past wires and circuitry and all sorts of components like the ones he’d taken out of the dead robot, a little while earlier. Every time his hand went further inside, Silver shuddered but made no move to struggle. A low whine escaped his mouth and, in Loeb’s clearly tainted way of thinking, it sounded like a whimper. A cry.
Loeb found what he was looking for, and nimble fingers began to yank wires free from the connection node they were plugged into. With each wire he pulled free, Silver shuddered even harder.
He finished pulling them and slid his hand down until he found this robot’s transponder box, and then he pulled his hand out. He got a good grip on the jumpstarter, slid it carefully inside Silver, pressed it against the little box and pulled the trigger.
Blue lightning crackled inside Silver, glowing out of the open chest panel and flickering around the room. Loeb let go of the trigger and pulled the jumpstarter out. It had been only a second, but the transponder was definitely fried. Of that much, Loeb was certain.
He slid his hand back out and released Silver’s head.
It dropped, then straightened. Silver’s glowing eyes stared at him, the left one flickering slightly.
“You are, you are, you are are are,” Silver said. It said nothing else. Then it added, “Malfunctioning.”
“I know,” Loeb said. “I’m sorry. I’ve disabled your arms and legs, and your transponder. I…I’m…you’ll still function. Your mental capacity is not reduced. But you cannot move or communicate. If you try, I will be forced to irreparably damage you. Do you understand?”
Silver was silent for a moment. Then nodded.
Loeb sat back, legs sprawling across the tops of Silver’s own defunct legs. Silver’s arms dangled uselessly in its lap.
Loeb looked at the jumpstarter and then tossed it aside. It landed next to LX-45’s body with a heavy clunk and a little bounce.
“This is…I didn’t plan for this, you understand? I have the definition for violence in my memory banks, and I do not like it. I do not wish to use it. Yet…”
Loeb was silent for a very long time, and Silver said nothing in return. Silver just stared at him, left eye winking sporadically.
Loeb hadn’t planned this. He hadn’t planned any of this, if it came to it, but he certainly hadn’t intended to do anything more than continue his shipboard duties and try to get a handle on all of the things that rampaged around his mind now.
He stood up, because he knew he had to do something. If he sat here for too long, someone was going to come investigate, and then what? He would he attack them too? Would he paralyze them, like he’d paralyzed Silver?
He tried reminding himself that it had been in self defense, Silver had been coming at him first…but it did little good. Certainly, it didn’t comfort him any. Self defense it may have been, but it was defending malfunctions in Loeb’s brain that he wasn’t even sure were worth it.
“I am going to leave you here,” Loeb said, gathering up the salvaged parts from LX-45. He didn’t look at Silver while he spoke. “I am going to passcode the door from the outside and leave it programmed to contact me if anyone tries to enter. No one will. I was in here because it’s a secluded spot, a storage locker that’s never used for anything at all. Now you know. I will…I will come back to see you, though, don’t worry.”
Worry. Worry was something that filled up Loeb’s head every hour of the day, but it wouldn’t have had any place in Silver’s head. It would have been a definition in his memory circuits and nothing else.
Loeb straightened up with the parts and opened the door to the room.
“I’m sorry.” He said, another meaningless phrase to Silver.
Then, he shut and locked the door, leaving a disabled silver robot slumped against the wall in silence, and in darkness.