e102 (part 3)

PART THREE

Written By: Pete Tzinski

Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar

#

It was a good thing that the ‘Lift tube that Loeb took was deserted, because someone surely would have commented on his pacing back and forth. Someone would have called it a malfunction, and they would have tried to do something about it. That was all that he needed now. That would be a disaster.

He didn’t even know why he was pacing, except that it settled his mind a little bit. He was still frantic and raging, but it didn’t feel so pent up if he walked in a fast circle around and around the ‘Lift car as it rose quickly through the tube toward the upper decks of the ship.

There was too much going on, all of it happening much too fast for him to cope with. He hadn’t found a solution to one problem before another two popped up. He only had an hour, probably less now, before he had to get suited up and leave for the asteroid.

The ‘Lift slowed to a stop before he was ready for it to, before he’d gotten all of his thoughts into anything resembling order. The doors slid open promptly when he hoped they would jam, and there was nothing for it but to step out of the ‘Lift and onto the command deck. There were other robots around, and if he just stood there frozen and unthinking, someone would notice.

He strode out of the ‘Lift, made a sharp turn, and headed through the open door that cut the command level off from the rest of the ship. He walked quickly and confidently, even if he didn’t feel even a little bit confident. An engineering droid generally needed a reason to be up here, and he didn’t have an official one. So he walked like he owned the place and hoped that would stop anyone from asking questions.

It did. No one spoke to him.

The Captain was visible, standing on the far edge of the bridge’s platforms, just in front of the star-filled viewports. Around him, things happened. Robots were down in the crew pits, busy with all sorts of things and paying Loeb no attention at all.

He hesitated for a moment, and then headed over the thin bridge that went between the two crew pits. He stopped a few feet away from the viewports.

“Captain?” He said, and he tried his best not to sound hesitant.

The Captain turned around and looked down at him, eyes glowing, hands folded behind his back.

“Hello.” The Captain said. “What can I do for you, engineer?”

Loeb really wanted to look down at his feet, or look out the viewports. But then, that wasn’t what a properly functioning robot would do, was it? So instead, he forced himself to stare straight ahead and into the Captain’s eyes. Doing that at the same time as keeping his voice level, that was a real trick.

“Captain, I am informed that our mission to map the asteroid surface is resuming,” Loeb said. He spoke slowly, but he couldn’t help that. “I recommend that this is not in the best interests of the ship.”

“Indeed?” The Captain said, eyes never wavering. “Why is this?”

Loeb had thought about this on the way up to the bridge. He recited the speech he’d built up in his head. “Due to the unpredictable nature of the electromagnetic storm, as well as the extreme visible damage which has been caused, it is inadvisable to commence landing parties to the asteroid, in vehicles which may not be suited to make the journey, using crew members who are in need of diagnostics and repairs. Regulations state that we should return to homeworld shipyard, and I think this is best.”

The Captain looked at him silently for a long, long time.

Loeb looked back at him, more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. He would have rather just sent a message to the Captain, but without his transponder he couldn’t be guaranteed a response. Besides, he had less than an hour before he was supposed to report to the survey team, and that didn’t leave him a lot of leeway.

“You…think…that is best.” The Captain finally said, and now there was something strange in his voice.

Loeb hadn’t realized he’d said that at first, and it took him a moment to realize what the Captain meant. Mentally, he berated himself when it dawned on him. Now he did break eye contact with the Captain and he looked around to see if any of the robots in the crew pit were paying them any attention. This was suddenly not a conversation that he wanted anyone else to hear.

As if the Captain were reading his thoughts – something that was now impossible – the taller robot started to walk down the walkway between crew pits. As he passed Loeb, his one big hand rested against the middle of Loeb’s back and started to push him along.

Panic gripped Loeb, and he desperately tried to think of a way to escape. The Captain was taking him to engineering, was taking him to be repaired and destroyed and killed, and he had to get away, and…

…And the Captain guided him into a small, deserted science lab, the door to which he shut and locked from the inside. Then, the Captain leaned back stood just inside the door, and he folded metal arms across polished chest, and he stared down at Loeb.

“What is your name, engineer?” said the Captain.

More panic, like a cresting wave that swept Loeb along.

“My…transponder is temporarily not working,” Loeb said, calm as he could. “I cannot access my ID numbers.”

The Captain unfolded his arms and stepped toward Loeb, looming over the much smaller and thinner robot.

He said, “I didn’t ask for your ID number, engineer. I asked for your name.

Loeb hesitated, as the question settled into his mind. The panic started to dissipate a little. Earlier, hadn’t the Captain said that he was malfunctioning? Hadn’t he promised to report to engineering?

“Are you…did the storm affect you?” Loeb asked. He spoke quietly, though the room was sealed off and there was little chance of sound escaping.

The Captain replied, “I think the storm affected everyone, little droid. But yes. It affected me. Did it affect you too?”

It was phrased like a question, but there was no inquiry behind it. The Captain knew. How, Loeb wasn’t sure, but the Captain knew.

“Yes,” Loeb said. “It affected me a great deal…In the same way as yourself, I think.”

“Yes, I think you’re right.” The Captain said. There was still something strange, something…tight…about the Captain’s voice that unnerved Loeb. It wasn’t a changing tone, it wasn’t relaxing or getting upset, it was just maintaining, and it bothered him.

Loeb broke the silence. “What do you think we should do?”

The Captain said without a moment’s thought, “Here’s what we do. I will continue to do my duties, and you shall do yours. This means you will go to the asteroid’s surface, and we will complete our mission—“

“But that will take nearly six months!” Loeb blurted. “That’s too long, much too long to be on this ship. Too many bad things can happen. You must realize that.”

“Must I?” The Captain replied. “Nonetheless, this is what will happen. I am not returning, I am not allowing myself to be repaired or my ship taken away from me. And if you try to do anything about it, then I will see to it that you are held for ‘diagnostics,’ and I can only imagine what those diagnostics would find.”

Loeb was about to protest, then hesitated. “What do you mean? What would they find?”

The Captain’s eyes seemed to glow a bit brighter, and he said, “I imagine it would be irreparable, whatever it might be. Do we understand one another?”

All of the panic was still there, but it had mostly been superseded by fear. Terror was a better word for it. He wanted to tremble, he wanted to back away from the huge figure of the Captain who towered over him, too close and too menacing.

Frantically, he tried to think in the moments he had to do so. He tried to come up to a solution for this problem , but he had just barely realized that it was a problem and not something helpful.

But what could he do? He couldn’t overpower the Captain, certainly not. The other robot was bigger than him in every direction. It was entirely possible that Loeb was stronger than he was, since Loeb was designed for heavy engineering work and the Captain was not. Still, the Captain would have tactical thinking built right in, the way Loeb had command of engineering, and that meant that if Loeb were thinking of attacking the bigger robot, then the Captain was already waiting and prepared for just such a thing.

Loeb slumped a little. He opened his mouth to give up—

The Captain straightened and looked away from Loeb. The door leading into the room had just been knocked on, which surprised them both. The Captain walked over to the door and hit the buttons, unlocking it and letting it slide open. For a moment, Loeb thought about just bolting past him and trying to get away, but the Captain’s bulk filled up the doorway, and there was another robot on the other side. The odds of them letting even a robot so small as he was just slip away were pretty slim.

“Sir,” said the general purpose droid on the other side of the door, “The survey team has reported that docking bay two doors are not responding to commands. There appears to be insufficient power to the doors to allow them to release.”

The Captain said nothing for a long moment. Then he said, slowly, “Really.”

“They are requesting permission to transfer launch procedures to docking bay one, sir.”

“Permission is granted,” the Captain said. He looked back at Loeb and said, still speaking to the other droid, “The launch should not be delayed at all.”

The other droid was oblivious to whatever was going on in the room. It certainly didn’t notice that Loeb’s hunched over posture and downcast eyes were the expression of someone deeply miserable and trapped. The other droid would have had no context to make that assumption.

Instead, it said, “They will of course need to run a complete series of diagnostics on docking bay one, to ensure a smooth departure and return, Captain.”

“Yes, of course,” the Captain said, and he sounded angry. “Tell them to funnel extra personnel from the engineering compartments to expedite the process.”

“There are no additional personnel available, Captain. Necessary functions are being preformed below optimal levels.”

“Fine,” said the Captain. “Then inform me when the launch bay is ready and the survey team can leave. That is all.”

The other robot saluted with mechanical stiffness, turned sharply on its heel, and walked away. The Captain turned away from the door, which he left open, and stalked back toward Loeb.

He stopped when he was less than a foot away from Loeb, glaring down at him. His eyes flared brightly.

“I guess, my little blue engineer,” the Captain said quietly, “That someone out there likes you. This is a delay and nothing more. If I find out that you have been involved in sabotage, then I shall make sure diagnostics are picking through your neural pathways within the hour, do I make myself clear?”

Loeb protested, less out of courage than out of disbelief, “This ship is riddled with malfunctions and errors from the electromagnetic storm! All manner of things are bound to go wrong without any sabotage being conducted at all! You cannot blame me for everything that goes wrong!”

“Can I not? I am the Captain.” It seemed that if he could have smiled, he would have done so then. As it was, he spread his hands wide open an said, “Now. Haven’t you got business to be about, little robot?”

Loeb scuttled past him without saying a word. He fled across the remainder of the command deck and into the ‘Lift car, which had other robots in it. Some of them may have spoken to him, but he didn’t listen and didn’t notice. He huddled near one wall and said nothing at all, and stared at the ground.

If the Captain had wanted to smile, then Loeb wanted to cry.

#

Max slowly came back to life, or back to consciousness, or back to being awake. He didn’t know the word for it. He knew that he had, up until now, been inactive and offline, and now his eyes were glowing again and he registered what was around him.

What was around him was a bleak, gray room. It had nothing but bare walls and a very thin, small door on one side that he wasn’t sure he could properly fit through. He reasoned that he must have come into the room.

He was pressed back against the wall of the room, with massive shackles clamped around his arms and legs. A large, thick metal belt went around his waist and anchored him even tighter against the wall. There was no room for his hydraulics to move his arms or his body. He tried rotating his head and found that he could do that. The angular edges of the back of his cranium scratched against the wall behind him, but that didn’t bother him any. All it could do was scratch. He wasn’t worried about scratches.

He looked around and wondered why he’d been brought back online. He didn’t remember being brought here. Come to that, he didn’t remember being shut off.

Had Loeb put him here? Why would Loeb do that? Where was Loeb?

Max’s brain worked slowly around the problem, what he thought was probably the problem, and small parts of his mind suggested quietly that perhaps now was a time to start being scared. He didn’t know what to do.

He tried activating his transponder, because if he could talk to Loeb, then Loeb would know what to do. Unfortunately, that didn’t do any good. Something was blocking his signal. He shut it back down.

He hung there for a while, arms stretched to each side, legs splayed a little bit. The room was poorly lit, but it was enough for his red mechanical eyes to make out every bolt in the walls, to look at the edge of the window set into the door and realize that the door was almost six inches thick.

Mostly, he just hung there and did nothing. He thought about saying something, but couldn’t think of what to say. So he said nothing.

After what was probably only a few minutes, the door he was staring at slid open and a tall and very polished robot stepped in. Max didn’t know everyone on the ship, because he only worked with so many robots – and that was before his mind became hazy. Nevertheless, he knew this robot. Everyone on the ship did.

This was the Captain.

“Hello, ‘Lifter,” the Captain said as the door slid shut behind him. “What’s your name?”

Outside, Max caught a glimpse of a couple of droids his size, jet black and not polished at all. He didn’t know what they were. They stayed just outside the room and they didn’t move. He wondered about them. Then, it occurred to him that the Captain had asked him a question.

“Max,” he answered. “My name is Max.”

“Max,” the Captain repeated. He folded his hands gently in front of himself and said the name again. “Max.”

“Yes,” Max said. He tried to think about what Loeb might say in a situation like this. He didn’t know, so he just tried to think in general. “Do you have a name?”

“Robots haven’t got names…Max.”

The Captain folded his hands behind his back and paced in front of Max, walking back and forth across the very small room. He never took his gaze off of the bigger robot who was manacled to the wall.

Max tried to think about this, but he was still thinking about what Loeb would do, and what those black robots outside were, and it was all a jumble.

“Do you not agree that this is true?” the Captain pressed, making it harder to think.

Max considered. He said, “It can’t be true. Loeb and I have names, so that makes it not true.”

Loeb and you?” The Captain stopped pacing and looked at him. “That’s the little blue engineer droid, is it?”

Max hesitated. Something was bothering him. He didn’t know what, but there were too many wrong things about all of this for him to be comfortable.

“I…don’t want to tell you,” Max said, finally. He was bigger than the little Captain. He was stronger, too, if it weren’t for the restraints. Max told himself that he didn’t have to be afraid, but he was anyway.

“Then you don’t have to tell me,” the Captain said smoothly. “I suppose Loeb must be someone else, and I shall not ask you if that’s true or not either. See? That makes it so much easier, doesn’t it?”

Max nodded.

Then, he activated all of the servos in his arms and pulled outward from the wall, straining against the restraints. He intended to do it quietly, but his hydraulics began to whine as he pulled, and he was aware of the Captain’s glowing eyes which shifted down and studied his arms.

Seeing no use in hiding, Max looked down at his right arm. It was visibly trembling, but the metal bands wrapped around his wrist and upper arm remained firm. They didn’t even shake like his arm did.

Damage warnings muddled into parts of his mind. He kept pulling for another moment until he knew that damage was certain and escape was not, and then he relaxed into his restraints again.

“Impressive,” the Captain said. “Do you know, I wasn’t certain, not totally certain, that they would hold you. The restraints were well constructed, but they were designed for smaller robots, engineers and analysts and that sort.”

Max said nothing.

The Captain stepped closer to him, just a foot away, and with his hands folded behind his back again he looked up at the ‘Lifter. Max looked down at him and could see his own red eyes reflecting off the Captain’s polished exterior.

“Do you know why they aren’t designed to hold ‘Lifters and Heavies, Max?” the Captain said very quietly.

Max shook his head. Then, he said, “I do not like you so close.”

The Captain ignored that. He spoke as if Max hadn’t said anything.

“The reason they aren’t designed for ‘Lifters and Heavies, Max, is that you don’t malfunction. You don’t mentally break down. Your neural pathways are simple and basic things. There is nothing up there to malfunction. You are designed to lift heavy things, carry them somewhere, and then put them back down. Isn’t that true?”

It was true. Max was perfectly still for a very long couple of moments, and then he nodded his head. He didn’t know what to do. He desperately wished Loeb were here. He tried switching on his transponder again and sending frantic signals into the rest of the ship, but they couldn’t get past the room. Miserable, he turned it back off again.

The Captain went on, “So why would we build something to contain you if you malfunction? The most that can happen is that your arm falls off, your leg sustains damage, your servos overheat. There is nothing in your processors to break down. There is nothing in your processors.”

The Captain looked at him for another long handful of moments and Max finally twisted his head and looked away. He stared down at his own shoulder, because it was better than meeting the Captain’s gaze.

The Captain turned away and walked toward the room’s door.

“Would you like to be repaired, ‘Lifter?”

Max understood that it was definitely fear which filled him all the way up now. He wanted to go somewhere and hide, and he certainly didn’t want to be so exposed on the wall like this…but he couldn’t do anything. He tried to think of Loeb, and that meant he did his best to be brave. Loeb was always brave.

“No. There is nothing wrong with me.” Max said. He tried to remember what else Loeb had said. “There is nothing to fix. And my name…is Max, Captain.”

The Captain tapped the glass in the little window slit built into the door. A moment later, the door slid open and the two big black droids squeezed into the room. They were built along the same basic idea as Max, but they weren’t ‘Lifters, they were Heavies. Big and streamlined. Max had never seen one before but there was something in the fuzzy databanks in the back of his mind about them. He couldn’t remember what they were for. They didn’t lift things, they didn’t repair things…he didn’t know what good they were.

Even in the dim lights of the room, nothing seemed to really reflect off of their black bodies. They had big round arms and triangular faces with bright yellow eyes and no mouths at all.

“I thought that’s what you might say, ‘Lifter,” said the Captain. “Fortunately, I am in command and not you. But don’t worry. I don’t intend that we should change how your mind works. You can remain Max.”

At a signal from the Captains, the two black droids closed in on Max, who powered up his hydraulics and struggled against his bonds again, still uselessly.

“For a little while, anyway,” Max heard the Captain say.

Max heard the Captain leave the room, but he didn’t see the door shut. The Heavies closed in on him.

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