Written By: Pete Tzinski
Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar
The ship may have been running on only a handful of its former complement, only a small number out of the five hundred robots who normally crewed it, but that didn’t slow anything down. They were fast and they were efficient, and the number had always been overinflated anyway.
The rest of the crew wasn’t designed to do everything, or do it quickly, but they were adaptive and they were all gently connected through the Master System, and that was enough to let them adapt. Many of the ship systems shut down while repairs continued, but the ship maintained its position, and its vital systems did not so much as pause or lag behind once everything was more or less back online.
That was not to say that everything was up and running. There were glitches and bugs, all manner of them all throughout the ship. An electromagnetic storm is a rare and freak phenomenon, perfectly harmless if properly detected and deflector shields are raised and charged. But this was one of the rare storms that just contained its charge and traveled, silent and invisible, until it found something to expend itself into.
Systems failed without any reason. Systems started up, equally without purpose. Two of the ship’s ‘Lift tubes were running constantly and were more or less unfixable until they reached a stardock. The cars just went up and down and left and right, over and over again, never stopping. A robot had been inside one of them, and there was no way to get it out.
There was other glitches. Other problems.
Engineer 1138 started to crawl through one of the small passages that ran adjacent to a ‘Lift car diagnostic station, where it intended to engage a cut-off and force one of the ‘Lift cars to come to a stop. It had not thought that this would be a way to rescue the robot trapped inside the car, because that was an inefficient use of thought. It was just concerned that if two of the ship’s three ‘Lift cars kept running amok, then one of them would break beyond the ability to repair. Besides, it was slowing down productivity on the rest of the ship. It was a problem, and it needed to be dealt with.
1138 finished climbing down the long tube ladder and came to a halt in the little room which didn’t have enough space in it for 1138 to stick both its arms straight out without bending them. There was something about the room making it…uncomfortable.
It opened the little door mounted in the wall, just to one side, which would lead off into a very small, thin tunnel. The circuits were contained inside that. 1138 stared at the tunnel, the little open door, and it…he realized that he couldn’t move, he could not move so long as he was looking at the tunnel with any thought of going inside. Just the notion of it terrified him.
In fact, the thought of being in that tunnel with all the walls pressing closely around him, the mere thought of it alarmed him. It made the room around him seem smaller than before, tighter and closer and inescapable, like it was getting smaller as he stood there.
But he needed to go into the tunnel…but he had to get out of this room…but he…
And so, confused and worried, 1138 opened its transponder frequencies, and he called for the Master System, and he asked, What should I do?
And elsewhere, ‘Lifter 18B crouched down, slid its square fingers into the square grooves built into the bottom of the massive blocky crate, and then it straightened up and brought the crate with it, with ease. Hydraulics whined a little, but that meant nothing, everything was still within optimal standards.
A smaller, silver engineering droid told it where to go, and it went. It shifted the cargo block across the cargo bay. It stacked the crate on top of another one, and then turned back around and walked back the way it had come, to get the next one.
Meanwhile, the silver droid left.
It shifted the second one without difficulty and started another stack for it. These were basic operations for a basic robot, it could do it on automatic, which was fortunate since there seemed to be a fog filling up its head.
It did the third crate too. And a fourth. And then, it started on the fifth and last crate.
18B walked across the cargo bay slowly, and deliberately, its big metal feet making heavy echoing noises in the empty and silent spaces of the cargo bay.
Halfway across the room, its left leg suddenly did a very strange thing. It stopped moving. Confused and surprised, 18B tried to take a step back, to steady itself, but the heavy create latched into its hands made that impossible to do. Fear made itself known and realized in 18B’s mind as he realized that the crate was tilting, shifting, falling.
18B tumbled to the ground, and the clang from that was far louder and echoed longer than any of his footsteps had managed. His cranium smashed into the ground with a heavy thud that jarred everything and caused his optical units to flicker and fail for only a moment. Everything went completely black for a few seconds.
It was during those few split seconds that the crate finished its own trip to the ground. The heavy cargo unit slammed into his legs and there was a massive crunch that vibrated and shifted him to one side. Alarms and alert signals clamored for attention in his brain from the waist down, at least for a minute or two until they started flickering and failing.
But it wasn’t just the alarms. It was the pain, the sudden and startling pain that ripped through him, that made him feel like he was on fire from the waist down in a way that he had never imagined was possible. Even if he’d been exposed to open flame, it wouldn’t have felt this way, it wouldn’t have hurt. He’d never known what that word had meant before, but now he understood that it meant the splitting agony that coursed down his legs and waist.
18B lay there, well aware that his legs were crushed beyond use. He tried bending upright at the waist so he could push the crate off himself and seek assistance, or at least diagnose the damage, but one triangular corner of the crate had pushed deeply into his waist at just the right angle to keep him pinned flat down against the ground.
He reached down as best he could and he could just barely get his fingers against the edges of the crate. He pushed and it started to slide a little bit to one side…but the pain! The agony shot through him, even worse than before, and he stopped pushing as fast as he could.
And he lay there. Confused, and stunned and in agony, he lay there.
Unsure of what else to do, 18B opened his transponder and reached out for the Master System, and he asked, What should I do?
A navigation robot on the bridge realized that it suddenly wasn’t able to compute all of the numbers that it needed to run, not even the simple ones that maintained the ship’s orbit properly.
It sat very still at its station, and it looked at the numbers on the screen which it merely had to compute, analyze and reenter into the system to provide manual approval for the computer’s orbital corrections. It had all the numbers it needed, but every time it looked at them and registered them, they somehow got rearranged and confused in his brain, and he had to look at them just to remember what they actually were.
His hands fell away from his controls and the screens continued to blink numbers and request instructions, and he just looked at them with glowing eyes and did nothing at all but stare. What could he do? Suddenly, none of his thoughts moved in straight lines. They just appeared, gray and formless, and then vanished again without properly forming, lost to the fog.
He knew that he should stand up and be replaced by another navigation robot, for the good of the ship. But there was a strong desire not to stand up, a strong desire to remain where he was so that no one would find out. But if he did that, he knew, then no new calculations would get entered and the ship would begin to destabilize his orbit and someone would find out anyway.
So he opened his circuits and reached out for the one whisper that was always there for him. He touched Master System and he asked, What should I do?
…an engineer, faced with a malfunctioning robot who just walked into a wall over and over again, asked, What should I do?
… a spider droid asked, What should I do?
…What should I do? What should I do? What should…
And Master System, its massive bulk surrounding just a little empty room with a little jutting platform, heard everything and received countless calls. They were coming from all over the ship, dozens of them, one after another. Just a couple at first, spaced apart from each other, and then more and more, like an avalanche that picked up more rocks as it rolled down the side of the mountain.
Circuits that otherwise maintained ship’s systems were pulled away from that as Master System tried to cope with the sudden and complete influx of messages and concerns from every member of the crew. Normally, Master System could be aware of their presence by the gentle whispering that occurred in its mind, just like they were aware of Master System in the same way. But all of a sudden, it wasn’t a lot of whispers, it was a lot of voices and questions, all of them coming all at once, over and over again, and it seemed like someone shouting into Master System’s mind. It had to pull all its resources just to work around the influx of traffic.
The Master System which ran the whole alliance itself, the great and biggest Master System of all, was the most powerful computer system imaginable. The Master System which directed a ship from its core, like this one did, was nowhere near so strong, but it was still a lot of neural pathways and computer equipment all working in perfect tandem. It was a lot of power.
It turned all of that power onto the problem now, onto all of the questions. It tried to sort through all of the little pebbles in the avalanche, to find each problem and analyze them, to look for the heart of each problem and find a solution. That way, it could send instructions to each robot on the ship and tell them what to do.
But what were these problems? An engineer afraid of small spaces? A ‘Lifter afraid of pain? A spider-droid who did not want to go into the lower equipment areas of the ship where it would be all alone? There were many, many problems which could occur and did occur in the day to day lives of a ship of five hundred robots. But right now, the ship didn’t have anywhere near that number functioning, and they weren’t having any problem that Master System had ever been forced to cope with before.
Master System looked at everything and answered nothing. The question, the same exact one, flowed in over and over again and Master System said nothing in return. It just sat, hulking and still and silent with information and processes flowing across circuits faster than they had ever done before.
It said nothing. It didn’t have anything to say. There were a countless number of questions coming in, and it was too puzzled over what to do to say anything at all. So it shut down all circuits, cutting off the calls and severing itself from the rest of the ship. It could still feel, at the last moment, the calls coming in more frantically and desperately than they had before, as it failed to answer, but then it shut everything down and everything lapsed back into mental silence.
Master System sealed the door to its room, to ensure that no one came out onto the little platform and tried to ask what it was doing, and why it had severed itself, something that it had never done before.
Then, with the door thusly sealed, it pulled all of its circuits and operations out of every aspect of the ship, like retracting tendrils of thought and control and command, and it left small automatic programs and packages in place which took over and ran the operations, just like he would have done, but without any independent thought.
And with that done, Master System gathered up everything that had happened, every bit of information it had since the electromagnetic storm had occurred. It took all of the questions and situations that had just come flooding in, and it brought every circuit and neural pathway onto the problem. It was not the great Master System of the Alliance, but it was still a massively powerful computer in its own right…
…and now, in the darkness and silence of the room…it started to think.