e102 (part 4)

PART FOUR

Written By: Pete Tzinski

Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar

#

Meanwhile, in the darkness of an empty room which contained only two robots, one of them derelict, Silver explored emergency commands. All sorts of commands, things that circuits were designed for or ready to do. There were backup systems never before noticed that were suddenly ready to receive power. They were damaged and the process was slow, but Silver was patient. A machine does not know impatience.

In the empty room, there was a faint beeping noise, a little flicker of current within his battered body, and then another beep.

The left leg shuddered. In the darkness, with only the light of its own eyes to see by, Silver watched as its left leg raised up, and then lowered back down, just like he told it to.

That done, Silver opened other command circuits and looked for the backup systems for the rest of his limbs.

#

Loeb hesitated in the corridor, just outside of the little storage room which had a couple of robots in it that no one was aware of.

He’d been avoiding it, he knew. He should have come back here and checked hours earlier, but things had been going so badly, and so quickly, he didn’t have time or the energy to revisit the grisly scene that stuck in his mind. He couldn’t help but seeing the derelict body of LX-45 on the ground and Silver, next to him, propped limply against the wall.

But no, he had to do something now. He couldn’t just stay away forever. There were very few things happening around him that he could maintain control over, and this was hopefully one of them, even if he didn’t have the faintest idea what to do about Silver.

He didn’t enter the passcode and open the door right away. There were other robots around in the corridor, hauling parts or just moving with stiff efficiency from one place to another. Normally, it was a fairly deserted corridor. That was why he’d been there in the first place. Right at the moment, it seemed to be having its one and only ever rush of traffic.

He didn’t really look at any of the robots who were going by. He opened a small wiring panel on the wall, just a few feet away from the passcoded door and he fiddled with the wires inside of it, trying to look like he was preforming essential maintenance tasks, the sort of things that no one would feel the need to stop and ask him about. He unplugged a wire that didn’t go to anything useful – at least, not on this deck – and then he plugged it back in, over and over again.

It slipped his fingers when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.

Again, his first thought was that it was Max, who had finally found him. It was just wishful thinking and he didn’t feel any hope at all by the time he looked down at the hand.

It was white and polished, and it wasn’t Max’s hand. Loeb looked up into the impassive face of the ship’s Captain, standing too close to him.

“Hello…Loeb.” The Captain said, quietly.

The corridor was still busy. It had been emptying out, but now another group of robots were wandering slowly down and past the Captain and Loeb. The Captain looked at them and nodded, and they returned the gesture and kept going on their way. Fortunately, others were coming down the passage, ensuring that he wasn’t alone with the Captain entirely.

“How do you know my name?” Loeb hissed. In a flash of bravado he didn’t feel, he shook the Captain’s hand off his shoulder. The Captain let his hand fall back to his side and made no move to bring it back up. His other hand was behind his back.

“Robots don’t have names, engineer,” said the Captain, and there was a mocking quality to his voice, “Do they? Of course not. As for how I know what you’ve been calling yourself…well…I have sources. I am the Captain, this is my ship.”

Max… the word ran across Loeb’s mind, but before he had time to dwell or expand on it, the Captain continued.

“You are in the unique position of perhaps being able to convince Master System or the crew that I am malfunctioning and that we should head back to homeworld immediately. I suspect you know that. It’s why you haven’t been dealt with prior to this, and I suspect you know that too.”

Loeb hadn’t known either item, hadn’t thought himself with any power or leverage until the Captain mentioned it. But he didn’t say that out loud.

The Captain went on. “Don’t assume this makes you invincible. You are still expendable. You just aren’t worth the effort. I just thought you should know.”

Loeb nodded. He didn’t know what else to do.

The Captain said, “Resume your duties then, engineer.”

He turned on his heel and started back down the corridor, ambulating away from the little blue engineering droid. He only went a few steps, and then stopped and turned back around.

“I almost forgot to give this to you,” the Captain said, pulling his hand out from behind his back. “Consider it a symbol of what I’m capable of. Consider it an idea of the fate you would bring upon yourself, should you cause any problems for me.”

The Captain threw something up in the air and Loeb, without thinking, caught it in one quick fist. He turned his hand over and opened it, looking at what he had caught.

It was an eye. Specifically, it was the sort of eye which came with a ‘Lifter. It tapered off in the back and ended in a bundle of wires, crudely ripped. And scorched. It was warm to the touch.

“Max…” Loeb said out loud.

The Captain was suddenly right in front of him again. He leaned down low and whispered, right into Loeb’s face.

“Our mission will continue. And you will go to the asteroid. Good day, engineer.”

And then, he walked off and left Loeb staring at the eye.

He stood there, numb with shock and unable to even think about moving. He just stared at the eye in his hand as it slowly heated up his own palm, and then eventually began to cool off itself. He stared at the red surface of it, at the scorched wires in the back, at the way it gently rolled back and forth on his palm because of its triangular shape. He just…stared. And he thought about Max. He didn’t know what else to do.

He might had stood there all day, just staring, but there came the clattering sounds of robots coming down the corridor a little ways off from him. He didn’t intend to still be standing here when they came within sight. They would want to know what he was doing, just standing here, and he didn’t think he had the energy to fake fiddling with wires inside the open panel. He flipped the panel shut, closed his fist around the still-warm robot optical unit, and he entered the passcode for the door.

It slid open—

–and Silver was already running toward the door.

Loeb saw him, but it just didn’t register right away. Too much had happened, too many bad things for his mind to process anything properly or at any decent speed. By the time it dawned on him that a robot which should have been paralyzed was barreling down at him, Silver was only a foot or so away from the door.

Moving on pure instinct, Loeb lunged into the room. He ducked and slammed his shoulder into Silver’s thin midsection. There was a crunch, and Loeb worried that it was him this time from the impact of the other running robot. He pushed harder, and he managed to knock Silver into the room.

He slapped the pad by the door, because more important than anything was making sure that the approaching robots didn’t see Silver, didn’t see Loeb. The door slid shut, but it would open at the touch of a button, whether by him or by Silver, it wouldn’t matter.

Silver pushed against the wall and came at Loeb again, just like he had before, with his hands outstretched. Neither of them were robots designed for combat, but Silver had protection protocols and Loeb had his desperation fueling him.

He swung his hand and punched Silver in the neck, which was thinner and weaker than his head. Something crunched to bits in Loeb’s hand – the ‘Lifter eye, he realized, horrified – and something crunched in Silver’s neck. Silver’s head tilted to one side, suddenly hanging on his right shoulder like it was broken. His left eye flickered more violently than it had before, and didn’t seem to be doing very much.

He still came at Loeb, but Loeb pushed the advantage that his punch had given him. He slammed the same hand into Silver’s neck again, and again, until Silver fell back just to protect himself.

Silver’s hands came up in defense. With one hand, he slapped away Loeb’s next punch. His other hand shot out and slammed, palm first, into Loeb’s chest. The impact of it blasted him backward, bouncing his small blue body off of a wall. He clattered down on top of LX-45, still just lying there and waiting someone to come and take it away to be stored and eventually slagged. The impact of Loeb on top shifted the derelict body, splaying all the limbs and rolling the head to one side.

Loeb scrambled to get up. He grabbed the length of pipe that he’d so casually tossed aside the last time he’d been forced to fight in this room. He struggled to his feet, unsure if Silver would be coming at him or heading for the door.

Silver was heading for the door. His hand was already stretching for the pad.

Out of options and desperate, Loeb threw the pipe as hard as he could. It slammed into Silver just below his chest plating, which would have deflected the blow. The pipe buried itself in the robot and blue lightning coursed around the pipe, and the outside of the robot. It hadn’t punctured the power core, because Silver was still upright and mobile, but it had definitely made some contact.

It must have done something with his preservation protocols too, because Silver dropped his hand away from the door’s keypad and turned on Loeb. Silver lunged at Loeb, who had just barely regained his footing.

Loeb barely caught Silver’s hands as they descended toward him. He had no idea what the other robot was intending to do. Would it be within a normal robot’s programming to beat someone like Loeb to death? Would he just try to quickly disable him? Was he going to reach inside of Loeb and disable his arms and legs, a dirty and horrible trick that Loeb was deeply ashamed of having used.

Loeb shoved him aside and Silver’s momentum overbalanced the silver robot and dropped him to the ground. Loeb scrambled up, pushing himself off Silver as it struggled to get back to its feet. As Silver came back it, it clumsily grabbed at the pipe that was jammed inside of it, whether trying to pull it out and use it as a weapon or throw it aside, Loeb didn’t know. He didn’t intend to find out. Without thinking about it, Loeb lunged forward and grabbed the length of pipe, the blue lightning shooting up his own arms and causing all manner of warning messages to travel from his hands and arms to his neural pathways, where he ignored them. There were more important and more dangerous things happening right now than worrying about messages warning of too much current being absorbed through his hands.

As Silver came around, he took a swing with the pipe. It connected with the side of Silver’s face and finally shattered his flickering left eye, throwing glass and plastic all across the room in a shower of sparks.

It didn’t stop Silver, though. Silver stumbled back against the wall, and then came fully to its feet and lunged at Loeb again. He took another swing with the pipe and slammed it full against Silver’s right arm, just below the elbow. Loeb didn’t know if his fury and desperation were lending him extra strength, but it felt like it. Silver’s arm bent a little. It certainly dropped away quickly, and it didn’t come back up. The arm just hung at Silver’s side, bent and broken and useless.

But still Silver kept coming, and Loeb hit him again. In the waist. In the chest. In the leg. In the face. He hit him again and again until finally, finally Silver fell down as his legs or his programming started to give out on him.

Loeb pressed the advantage. It wouldn’t have occurred to him not to. He wasn’t thinking, he was barely in control of what he was doing. Feeling like someone who was running on automatic, he piled atop the white hump of Silver’s chest, and it seemed to Loeb in his boiling and overwhelming fury that Silver became the sum of all his rage and hate.

Silver twitched, and both arms reached toward Loeb, but he slammed the length of pipe down into Silver’s face…

…into Silver’s chest…

…into Silver’s arms…

…into Silver…

And he slammed the pipe down again, and again. Over and over. He smashed the pipe until the chest plate split and the face plate fell off. He slammed the pipe until sparks flew and then more importantly, he slammed the pipe until they stopped flying. He slammed the pipe against Silver until his arms didn’t move anymore, until his intact eye was nothing, until…

…until the red mist which had descended across Loeb suddenly lifted, and he stopped in mid-swing, as if he were suddenly coming back into control of himself.

Silver was not recognizable as a robot anymore. It was just a battered, beaten bunch of metal and circuits. Nothing moved, nothing sparked. Everything was bashed and battered and destroyed. Even the pipe was severely dented and ripped and bent all over.

Loeb dropped the pipe and he stumbled off of Silver and kept stumbling backwards until his back hit the wall. Then, his legs gave out and he slumped down in a sitting position.

Silver was gone. If it had been a robot that Loeb had been salvaging for parts, he would have passed right over the ruined hunk of metal and sent it straight away to be slagged or stored.

There was no anger anymore. Just sadness. He just sat there and stared, because he couldn’t close his eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to look away. Without thinking about it, he brought his hands up and clutched his own head, and he kept staring.

A little in front of Silver, there was a crushed and crumpled piece of metal and cracking plastic. He reached down and picked it up, a moment later when he trusted his arms again.

It was the ‘Lifter eye that the Captain had given him. It was crushed and broken in a lot of places now, and it crumbled apart into bits of plastic and shards of metal. It had been in Loeb’s hand the first time he’d hauled off and punched Silver and it hadn’t survived the impact.

He closed his fist over the crumbled bits again and he held them close, but couldn’t have said why. The sadness wasn’t all that strong in his mind. He felt very clear headed. Probably, that was shock, another emotion that seemed to be dominant.

He didn’t want emotions, he decided. He didn’t want to be able to think, to be able to feel like he could. What good did it do? Thus far, what he mostly felt were pain and fear and panic, and now shock.

The thought crossed his mind that he could just shut himself off and lay there until someone happened into the room, found all three of them, and took them all away for spare parts or melting down.

It wasn’t a thought that lingered terribly long. Somehow, it just didn’t seem like any sort of an option. It just wasn’t something that he could do.

It paled behind the images that kept filling up Loeb’s head, images of him slamming the pipe down again and again and again into Silver, even after the other robot had stopped responding, had ceased issuing commands, and had been…well…dead.

So no, he wouldn’t switch himself off. That wasn’t an option. Too much had happened, and Loeb decided that he wasn’t going to just give up and back down, and let everything else win. He didn’t know why not, but he didn’t need to. He didn’t care.

“Oh Max…” he said to an empty room, and to a ruined optical unit held delicately in his hand. “I’m so glad you weren’t here for this. But I do wish that you were here now.”

He didn’t know what good it did, talking out loud like that to a room full of nothing that could hear him, to a room that certainly didn’t contain Max. But it did do some good, in that it at least made him feel a little better.

He’d keep going. Even without Max.

He found the strength somewhere to pull himself to his feet. He took the optical unit and the bits that were left of it and he tucked it behind a storage crate, leaving it delicately in the corner where no harm or disturbance could come to it.

Then, he gathered up the body of LX-45 and slung it across his shoulders with some difficulty. It strained servos, but they would manage. It wasn’t that bad. He wasn’t a ‘Lifter, but he was capable of lifting things all by himself nonetheless.

With one hand, he balanced the salvaged droid on his shoulders. With his other hand, he grabbed hold of Silver’s ankle and started to pull. After a moment’s awkwardness involved in opening the door, he brought both bodies out of the small dim room and into the bright and revealing light of the corridor beyond.

There was no one around now.

Loeb hauled the bodies. He was slow about it, because they were heavy and he was neither large nor strong. He made his way down a number of corridors and then into a ‘Lift tube. The tube took him several decks up and a couple of decks over and deposited him in much busier areas of the ship.

“Lifter!” He called out loudly, and was surprised at how normal his voice sounded, how utterly devoid of fear or quavering it was.

A ‘Lifter who looked just like Max (but Loeb did not think about that) lumbered over and, at Loeb’s behest, took the body off of his shoulders. Then, the ‘Lifter carrying LX-45 trailed after Loeb, who continued to drag the remains of Silver into the engineering comparments themselves.

A tall golden robot, the glittering counterpart to Silver’s battered remains, approached and saluted, though there was no need for it since Loeb was almost certainly not a higher position.

“What has transpired?” said the golden robot.

Loeb had thought about this. He had all his thoughts in order. Everything in his head was clear and free and fully functional, and he knew that he had to move fast before all of that came crashing down and gave way to nothing but tidal waves of emotion.

“There was an accident in a lower cargo bay,” Loeb said. He pointed at LX-45, “This one went inert, because of damage caused by the storm. It struck this one –“ and he pointed at Silver “—who fell and was crushed by the falling equipment and body of the first robot. I have salvaged LX-45, but there is nothing redeemable within this other one.”

“Understood,” said the golden robot. “Will you be taking them down to the cargo bay for storage?”

“No,” Loeb said, “You and the ‘Lifter will do that, please.”

He was surprised at the ease that the command came out, and equally surprised that the golden robot offered no protest. It gathered up Silver from Loeb’s hand, picking it up far more easily than Loeb could have managed.

“Mark them as already inspected,” Loeb added. “Attach your own ID number to the inspection receipt. And then, resume your duties, both of you.”

“Understood. May I inquire about your duties?” said the golden droid.

That one was easy.

Loeb looked him squarely in the eye, glow for glow, and replied, “I must finish preparations. I am part of the survey team. I leave for the asteroid surface very shortly.”

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