Written By: Pete Tzinski
Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar
The room which contained Master System was actually one of the largest on the ship, though it was impossible to tell from the inside. It was full of computer, wall to wall computer. That was it, really. There was a massively thick door that led to the rest of the ship, and there was a little platform that extended over empty air, surrounded on every side by computer equipment and blinking lights, cords and wires and power lines, all of which were mere components in the great machine that was Master System.
It had audio sensors, visual sensors, all the normal senses that any robot had. They mostly remained offline, since it otherwise sensed things through every line, every power cord, and every robot who was on the ship. In a way, all eyes were Master System’s.
It brought its local senses online now, though, because someone had come into the room. This did not bring any concern into its mental processes, because there were a very limited number of individuals who had access to this room. If someone was coming in, then they were allowed to be here.
The being was readily identified as the ship’s Captain. Broad shouldered and polished brightly, the Captain walked into the room and stopped in the middle of the platform. The Captain looked straight ahead, because there was no point in trying to meet Master System’s gaze. It gazed from everywhere, all the time, all at once.
“We have regained control of navigation systems,” said the Captain. “Damage control is continuing on shipboard systems as well as disabled crew members.”
Silently, Master System mused how useless it was to have this conversation. After all, it knew everything the Captain knew, didn’t it? It reached out across the network and caressed the Captain’s neural pathways, puzzling for a moment over the apparent…fog…that was present there. It thought little about it, though. An electromagnetic storm did all manner of strange things. Anyway, conversations were still used, because they had always been used, because they were part of the grand imitation. It was the same reason why a ship which only needed a handful of robots had a crew of five hundred.
Tell me about the damaged crew.
“Reports are still coming in,” the Captain replied. “We do not have a solid number of damaged crew members. Some are reported disabled but come back online after internal resets have finished processing. Some who are online seem to be shutting down without prior warning.
Yes. I have noticed. You have analyzed the transponder malfunction I sent you?
“I did,” said the Captain. Master System waited in silence, waiting for him to elaborate, but he failed to do so.
What were your findings?
“I think it is a lesser problem,” said the Captain after a moment. “Potential internal damage to active members of the crew take less priority over shipboard operations and repairing defunct crew members.
The bits of Master System which were paying attention to this conversation paused and focused. For a few moments, other circuits ended their processes and focused on the Captain as well. But there was no betrayal of thought in the Captain’s metallic face, which never changed expression. He dug a little deeper into the Captain’s mental pathways, but there was nothing of interest, no cause for alarm.
If the crew is disabled, we cannot coordinate properly. This is inefficient.
“True,” said the Captain. “But this situation falls under emergency protocols which change how things must be done. The first order of business is the successful recovery of the ship.”
Granted, this was true enough, but Master System still puzzled over it.
Are you operating within optimal parameters?
“No,” said the Captain without hesitation. “I have received damage as well. However, it is not critical, and I have therefore pursued my duties.”
You will report to engineering to be diagnosed and repaired. This is not a request.
“I am the Captain,” he said. “Orders which are given on this ship are my own, and none other. However, I will report to engineering shortly to be diagnosed.”
Very well, Captain. Is there anything else?
“No, nothing. I shall report further on the status of our mission as it resumes.”
That caught Master System more off guard than anything else had.
Resumption of our mission is not advised. We have sustained damage. We should report back to homeworld to receive repairs.
“Perhaps,” said the Captain, “But our orders still stand and I will carry them out. That is all.”
Master System was about to offer up regulations in defense of going home…
…but the Captain turned sharply on one heel and walked out of the room. The door closed by the time Master System had brought additional logic circuits to the problem, which was no longer at hand.
There would come a certain point when it would be time to send a report to the larger network, the Master System which oversaw everything in the alliance. The ship’s Master System was considering that this time was fast approaching. It seemed that the crew was badly damaged, and it was worried that this could cause serious trouble…
So Loeb locked the door and…he went back to work.
He had no idea what else to do.
He took the spare parts he’d salvaged from the disabled robot and headed down to the engineering compartments, ironically where Silver had been trying to take him anyway. Mostly, he tried to keep his mind off the silver robot who was locked away, but inevitably his thoughts made their way back to him regardless of what he wanted.
The engineering compartments were frantic, busy places. Full of robots of all sorts of sizes, many of them the same shape and color as Loeb, who was himself a fairly common robot. Robots bustled and moved quickly, and to Loeb’s mind, there was an undercurrent of panic to the room. Certainly it was all in his head, but it tainted how he saw everything.
He didn’t mind the frantic business. No one paid him any attention when he slipped through the doors and into the largest of the engineering compartments, which were connected cavernous rooms that stretched through the center of the ship. Ahead of him were some of the bigger power chambers, glowing and throbbing with the eternal chain reactions that powered the ship.
It wasn’t that robots were particularly inclined toward idle curiosity, even when it was otherwise slow and things were routine. It was just that someone might have stopped Loeb and asked him for a report or a status update or something like, and he didn’t think he was strong enough to try and fool another robot.
He hadn’t gotten away with fooling the last one, after all, had he?
Unbidden, the image of Silver sitting alone in a darkened room, handicapped came into his mind, despite his desire for it not to. It filled up his thoughts as visibly as if he’d been looking directly at the robot again.
He shouldered past other robots and headed for the bins which had been set up to receive salvaged bits of robots which couldn’t be brought back online. They were big bins and a bit makeshift, because they’d been welded together out of random sheets of metal. There was going to be quite a lot of spare parts before everything was said and done.
If a robot couldn’t be brought back to life, then they would gut it for things they could use and then store the remnants of the body, which would be slagged for metal and plastic when they got back to a planet like homeworld. LX-45 hadn’t been the first robot that Loeb had ever dismantled for his parts, but it had bothered him the most. Somehow, it seemed like killing, or worse than killing. He couldn’t quite place the feeling, because even though he may have had definitions in his databanks, they weren’t meant to be used in day to day life. They weren’t designed for the kind of scrutiny he was forced to put them under.
Gutting a robot…locked up Silver…avoiding discovery…
More than anything, Loeb wished Max were around to talk to.
He stopped sorting parts and looked up, seeing nothing in particular. Max! In all the commotion and chaos, he’d forgotten all about the big, quiet Max with his softly glowing red eyes. He felt guilty for forgetting, but it was hardly unexpected, what with the events of the morning.
Where had Max gone? He’d vanished, and Loeb had been so busy trying to remain undetected that he hadn’t thought to do more than a cursory search for the ‘Lifter. He couldn’t help but wonder if Max had been discovered, had been found out and then repaired in exactly the manner that Loeb had avoided. After all, while Loeb had managed to avoid getting caught, Max was bigger and didn’t think as quickly. Would he even know to hide it?
Maybe he’d already seen Max a half a dozen times without realizing it, Loeb thought miserably. If Max had been repaired, then he could have been any of the dozen ‘Lifters that Loeb saw at any given moment roaming the ship. He had counted on Max recognizing him and saying something, counted on recognizing Max’s transponder…but that wouldn’t do any good anymore. He didn’t have a transponder. All he could do was look and hope he saw something that made Max stand out. What that was, he didn’t know.
He resolved that he was going to do something about it. He’d find out where Max was and how he was doing. He had no idea how to go about it, but that would come later.
There were clanking footsteps approaching him, he heard. It didn’t mean much, this was a busy part of the ship normally, and right now it was controlled chaos.
Silver, sitting alone and disabled, in the dark…
He’d have to escape the ship. There was nothing else to be done. Obviously without his transponder and with all the things that stomped around in his mind, he couldn’t get away with just staying here. He’d gotten lucky a few times, speaking casually to passing robots or giving reports, but that wouldn’t last.
Robots didn’t gossip, they had nothing to do with the word except to define it and store it away in memory banks…but what robots did was spread information, and that was nearly as bad. Sooner or later, Loeb knew that the whisper would start that he was a malfunctioning robot, that he was unable to respond to ID queries. Once that information started circulating, he would be hunted down and destroyed, or captured and repaired, and no amount of struggling to clever escape attempts would save him.
Is that what happened to Max?
There were too many things filling up his head, too many problems and questions without solutions to any of them. It had been overwhelming enough discovering that emotional definitions which gathered dust in the back of his mind were now living, active things that changed how he reacted. Having problems on top of them and interacting with them didn’t make matters any easier.
“You are engineer three-four-seven?” said a voice from behind him.
It startled him badly enough that he dropped a small servo control unit which he’d been removing from the stack of components clutched against his chest. He turned at the waist and looked at the tall, silver robot who stood next to him.
Disturbingly, it was the same make and model robot as Silver…
“Yes…” Loeb said, though he had no idea. Saying no would have only attracted the question of who exactly he was, then, and that wouldn’t go anywhere useful.
The silver robot looked imperiously down at him.
“You will suit up and report to docking bay two in one hour, engineer.” The silver droid said. There was no hint of option.
“Will I?” Loeb said. He couldn’t help himself, and he cursed himself for having said it.
There was a long pause while the other robot seemed to ponder this.
“Yes, you will.” It said eventually. The imperial tone of command, the sense that it was a great and noble robot in all the ways that Loeb was not remained present, and it bothered him no end.
“What is the assignment?” Loeb asked, trying to sound a little more…mechanical.
The silver robot looked down at him again and said, “Resumption of original mission involving the cataloging and updating of surface maps for Asteroid Thirty-Seven Centaurum, engineer. You are to accompany the cartography team to the surface of the asteroid in one hour. Is that understood?”
“Affirmative,” Loeb murmured. Fortunately, all the silver robot did was walk away, because Loeb doubted he had enough attention span left for another conscious and proper sounding reply.
The asteroid’s surface. But that meant that the original mission the ship was on before the storm hit was still being conducted.
Without paying much attention, he finished putting away the salvaged parts and then turned and left.