Written by: Pete Tzinski
Illustrations by: Christoffer Saar
There was also the sensation of burning and sizzling.
And then, after twenty years of functioning and working, Loeb opened his eyes, really opened them for the first time, and was born.
Everything around him seemed to move in terrible slow motion, something that most parts of his robotic mind insisted was neither possible nor happening. Loeb stood, listing to one side, his feet keeping him magnetized to the starship hull without him thinking about it.
He watched the electromagnetic cloud, which had just passed over him, now sweep along the rest of the ship’s hull and wash over the other robot who stood just a little ways off. The cloud, normally invisible against the blackness of space now crackled as it discharged into the ship’s hull and the metal forms of Loeb and the other robot. Blue and purple lightning crackled and ran like veins across the ship’s hull.
It all moved so slowly as Loeb watched, and yet it seemed only an instant before the cloud crackled around the blocky prow of the ship and then went back into space, invisible and as unknown and undetectable as it had been all of five minutes earlier.
Loeb stood in utter shock, too stunned and confused to begin to perceive the things going through his mind. He hung there and he reeled at alien concepts, like shock and confusion and fear, and he tried to focus on something, on anything around him that would somehow allow his mind to reorient itself. Coldly, he was aware that this was probably serious damage and he needed someone to take a look at him, to repair what was happening in the circuits of his mind.
He was also aware almost painfully of every detail around him. Even the slightest thing seemed to strain and overwhelm his mind. He was aware of the stars, reflecting hazily off the ship’s gunmetal gray hull. His arm floated in front of his vision and it hurt to realize that his plating had a faint blue tint in the gray.
I am not thinking clearly, he realized. And then, he wondered what that meant and who exactly this was saying something like that, and…
Loeb didn’t know what it meant to blank out. He only realized that it had just happened.
It wasn’t that his eyes had closed, because they couldn’t close; he had no eyelids. He was an engineering robot, not a humaniform replica, after all.
It was just that he was suddenly aware of being awake and himself again. He stood upright properly, because he’d been dangling almost completely horizontal, only his feet hooked to the ship.
The stars had jumped, sharply, changing positions. That’s what made him realize he’d blanked out. He wondered if that meant that quite a lot of time had passed, but after a moment’s thought, he realized the starship itself was listing wildly to one side. It was floating derelict.
He tries to focus on that, because it was a very big problem, but there were too many things rampaging around inside of his head for him to focus on any one thing. He knew what fear and confusion were because the definitions were programmed into his memory banks. The brief descriptions about them, did nothing for his ability to cope, actually cope, with the paralyzing fear that seemed to weigh down his whole body, or the confusion that babbled away in his head and wouldn’t let him think straight.
He was barely staying upright, although his legs were working fine. Mostly, he kept forgetting to keep himself upright as he struggled inward to deal with things and forgot about the outside parts. He listed a little and then jerked himself upright, listed and jerked.
Fear told him to crouch down, to curl up in a ball, to try to will himself invisible. Fear told him that he would be destroyed if he moved, and fear sent bolts of panic through him to show exactly how terrified he was of being destroyed.
He knew he was damaged, that much was obvious, and he needed repairs…but now, the thought of being repaired, of having this disaster that was his mind replaced and rebooted was somehow even more terrifying than hanging there on the outside of a starship’s hull. He realized that he would simply have to cope with these things on his own, whatever it was that he was coping with, because letting someone else dig in his circuits was out of the question now.
His round, white-glowing eyes had simply been staring at the stars, fully functional but sending their images to a brain that was having none of it at the moment, too wrapped up with other details. Slowly, as things began to settle – or at least, not actively attack his mind – he realized that there were faint vibrations coming through the hull, barely detectable through the sensors in his feet. He wouldn’t have noticed them, but while he may have only been a thin Engineering droid with an egg-shaped body and spindly limbs, he had an advantage over many other robots in that he was extremely sensitive and flexible. He had to be.
He wondered if someone inside the ship was banging for his attention, banging for help perhaps. Then, as he looked along the hull of the ship that dipped out and away from him, he realized that there was another robot attached by his feet to the hull.
This robot was much bigger than Loeb, which was not difficult since he was not very large. The other robot was bulky and heavily shielded, clearly designed for heavy lifting and the sort of heavy duty construction work that Loeb wouldn’t have been capable of.
This other robot hung by his feet, his body bent all the way forward on his ankles. It was his chest rhythmically thudding against the hull of the ship which sent vibrations all the way over to Loeb’s feet. The robot made no move to stop the banging, or to move either his arms or his head, and Loeb wondered if he was dead.
And then, Loeb wondered why the word dead was the first one that came to his mind now, instead of non-functional.
“Hello?” Loeb said.
The other robot said nothing and did nothing. Just kept banging gently against the hull of the ship beneath him. There was a slight scratching of the paint on the ship’s hull from where metal had rubbed repeatedly against metal. It made Loeb wonder again how long he’d blanked out.
Loeb realized he was obviously not thinking straight at all. He turned on his transmitter, because certainly the sound hadn’t traveled in the vacuum of space when he’d spoken. He leaned down and put his hand gently against the side of the larger robot’s angular head.
“Hello?” He spoke again. This time, he knew the sound traveled properly, which meant the lack of answer was something else entirely.
He took another step closer and took the other robot by the shoulders. Loeb was strong enough as an engineering droid but he was no ‘Lifter, not like this massive robot with its impressive hydraulics. Had they not been in a zero gravity environment, he didn’t think he would have been able to move the other robot, let alone push him upright into a standing position.
The ‘Lifter’s head was straight, so when Loeb had righted him, his eyes were looking forward. They glowed faintly red, as if a little fire banked just behind the lenses. It was another strange and almost fanciful image, and it worried Loeb that it was present in his mind.
“Can you hear me?” Loeb said as the bigger robot looked over the top of his head, staring into the depths of space and presumably seeing nothing at all. “Are you functional? Are you all right?”
It seemed like an eternity that they stood there, Loeb holding the ‘Lifter steady. Then, slowly, the Lifter’s head tilted downward until the red glow of his eyes glinted off of Loeb’s blue plating.
The big robot rumbled a little when he spoke, and the vibrations went through Loeb’s hands. The words, though, came over the ‘Lifter’s transmitter.
“Am I dead?”
His voice was deep and very, very slow, as if each word came from a long way off.
Loeb shook his head and replied, “No, you’re not dead. You’re fine…well, you’re not fine. I’m not fine. But we aren’t dead.”
“What’s happened?” The big robot looked around at the outside hull of the ship, and Loeb let go of his shoulders. He supported his own weight now and remained properly upright, his bulky frame towering over Loeb.
Loeb looked at the black space where the storm had passed. There was nothing there now, nothing but blackness and the occasional far off twinkle of stars and planets. He wondered for a moment if the storm had even occurred, but surely it must have. His mind wasn’t malfunctioning spontaneously, and he had seen the storm. He was desperately unsure if he could trust his own mind, but he had nothing else to trust. He would not begin to doubt his senses.
“It was some sort of electrical storm,” Loeb said, “Very powerful. It discharged into the ship and us as well. I…I think it’s done some damage to my processors, I don’t seem to be operating properly. But that’s not important. What’s important is –“
“I don’t want to die.” The ‘Lifter said, tonelessly. He looked back down at Loeb.
Loeb hesitated, something else that was new to him. Then, he said, “You’re not going to die. I assure you. Things will be fine, all right?”
“Promise?” The ‘Lifter’s face did not have any ability at all to form a facial expression. Nevertheless, there was something plaintive and frightened about the robot who stood larger than Loeb in every direction. It was probably all in Loeb’s mind, which was not a stable place.
“Promise,” He said, and to his surprise, he meant it. He added, “I won’t let anything happen to you, all right?”
It seemed like a silly thing to say. Loeb was just an average sized engineering droid, and there was little he could do to defend anyone, least of all a robot who could pick him up and rip him apart if he so chose. But it seemed like a good thing to say, and the ‘Lifter droid nodded and seemed satisfied.
“I am Max,” the Lifter said, quietly. “It seems to me that I am Max.”
“It seems to me that I am Loeb,” said the blue engineering droid. “My memory banks are not fully functional, I cannot recall if I was always Loeb. I cannot, for that matter, even recall what it was that we were doing out here in the first place. Can you?”
Max was silent for a moment and then rumbled slowly, “My memory banks are empty. Except for my name, Max, and my friend, Loeb.”
Loeb patted a hand against the bigger robot’s chest. It made a dull clanking noise, audible only in the vibrations that ran through Loeb’s arm.
“That’ll do for now,” Loeb said. “Listen, this important. The ship is drifting, she’s…it’s derelict. All right? Something is very wrong inside, and we need to get back in, Max. If the ship keeps drifting, it could be very dangerous. Understand?”
“Understand,” Max repeated. “Everyone on board is dead?”
“I don’t know,” Loeb said, honestly, “I hope…that is, I do not wish it so. I’m sorry. I’m having trouble reconciling. My processors are not functioning properly, not at all…”
Max turned slowly, and the impact of his feet against the hull of the ship was loud and vibrating through the delicate sensors in Loeb’s feet. He stumped across the gray hull of the ship and Loeb followed at his side, looking around.
There were a few windows in the hull of the ship, though they served no purpose. The ship had sensors. Looking out the window would be no different. A ship’s sensor is more or less the same as the sensors a robot has in his head which he calls eyes. Nevertheless, the ships had windows. They always had.
Loeb tried to look for windows, tried to see if there was any light spilling out of them and into space. He seemed to recall one window back in the area where he’d been standing when the storm swept over them, but even magnifying his vision, he couldn’t make out anything more than the occasional spot where starlight glinted off something on the hull.
Max stopped walking as suddenly as he started, now standing next to a hatch in the hull.
“Here.” Max said.
“Thank you,” Loeb replied. He crouched down next to the hatch and opened the little panel built into the hull next to it. Inside, there was a small computer display, but it was dark and entirely unresponsive. Loeb pulled it open by its hinge and reached inside, where deep down there was an emergency series of switches.
It was a tight fit. Max’s arm wouldn’t have fit at all, but Loeb was designed for tight spaces. He felt around carefully, the sensors in his fingers relaying him impressions that were very accurate. He found a series of four switches and flipped them into different positions, one after another. Then he pulled his arm back out and flipped the lid shut.
The hatch hissed, and it slid open a foot or so. Then, with a slight grinding sensation, it stopped moving and froze.
“Ship’s power is definitely offline,” Loeb said. “Likewise the backup battery systems.”
“We need to get in,” Max said.
“Yes. But we can expect no powered assistance.”
Max knelt down stiffly, because there were rather more hydraulics involved in him doing that than when Loeb did. He slid his hands into the crevice and gripped the bottom of the door. Then, with more than a little effort and a trembling in his legs that betrayed powerful hydraulics pushed even to their limit, Max hauled upward on the door with all his might.
He had to grind the door three fourths of the way open with sheer brute force alone. Once it got three fourths of the way up, though, the gears released and the door slammed the rest of the way up with a tremendous vibrating bang.
It was fast enough and unexpected enough that Max jerked upward and his magnetic pads released him. He drifted a little ways from the hull before Loeb reached up and grabbed him by his foot, then hauled him back down until his feet anchored against the deck once more.
“Thank you,” Max said, once he was anchored once more. There wasn’t any emotion in his voice this time.
The emotions in Loeb’s head were busy enough. Suddenly, the concept of drifting away into space, alone until the power supply ran out, terrified Loeb and he realized that he intensely didn’t want to be out here any longer.
“Thank you,” Loeb said, “Let’s get inside. I don’t like it out here.”
Outside, they were lone individuals on the plateau that was the side of the ship, surrounded by the black and frightening abyss of space.
Inside, they were alone in the dark, surrounded by bodies and silence. Absolute silence.
Somehow, that was even worse.
The inside of the ship was pitch black. Not even the emergency lights, which would have bathed everything in a dark red glow, were active. The only light were Max’s red glowing eyes and Loeb’s own white ones.
In the pale light and heavy shadows, Loeb could already make out the shapes of bodies. He shuddered, which was entirely new to him.
“Max,” He said quietly.
There was no response.
He turned, and Max stood just inside the airlock, back only inches away from the wall. Loeb had walked forward once they’d emerged, trying to get a better view of the interior of the Damocles.
“Max, are you all right?”
Max said slowly, “Are they all dead?”
Loeb turned away and looked back out across the corridor. The corridor ran left or right away from them, curving away into the interior of the ship. Straight ahead was a small open area with tables and chairs: A recreation area that no one ever used. Recreation was a concept of limited value on a ship full of robots.
There were bodies slumped in the corridors and in the recreation area. Robots of all shapes and sizes and purposes, from spindly Engineering droids like Loeb, to a large hulking robot like Max who had slumped across a table and chair in the recreation area, crushing the chair completely under his immense weight.
Every single body was perfectly still. In the heavy shadows, Loeb supposed that they did look dead. He still wondered at the concept, wondered where it was coming from and why it wouldn’t get out of his head. He tried not to think about it, because there were bigger problems on hand than any malfunction in his own brain.
“I don’t think they’re dead, Max,” Loeb said. “I think the storm shut them down, the way the storm shut the ship’s systems down. I think it just overloaded everything. All right? Come on, we need to check them.”
Max looked down at Loeb and made no move to come forward. He said nothing, but after a moment he very slowly shook his head. The movement caused his red glowing eyes to move and that shifted all the shadows around. They waved and danced and seemed alive.
Loeb would have sighed, if he could’ve. “Max, I need your help.”
Max said nothing. He just stood there, a massive figure pressed back against the metal wall of the airlock, and he stared at the bodies sprawled. They had been walking when the electromagnetic field had sucked the life out of the ship, and they had just fallen in their tracks. Some of them were piles of limbs all clattered together, others were stretched out full length as their momentum had slumped them forward.
Loeb said, “Do you have a light built into your chest? You do, don’t you?”
“Yes, Loeb. I do.”
“Can you at least turn it on?”
Max stayed still a moment and then a triangle in the center of his chest glowed to life. It flashed and then stayed steady, a brilliant field of light that washed everything in bright white. It chased away some shadows and made others deeper and darker.
Loeb went forward to the first robot in front of him and knelt down. The robot was a smaller droid, obviously designed for small spaces and the inside of systems. He couldn’t have been more than three feet tall. Without much difficulty, Loeb slipped his hands under the robot’s side and turned him over. Then, he flipped open the robot’s chest panel and tried to look inside.
His own shadow was made deeper and blacker by Max’s beam of light, and he couldn’t see through it into the chest cavity. Loeb angled himself so that his own shadow would be out of the way, and then leaned closer.
Everything was still intact. Some of the wires that ran from the central power core of the little robot to its processors, its brain, were blackened and a bit warm to the touch. They were intact, though. It looked like too much power had flooded the little robot and he’d shut down to prevent being destroyed. Loeb suspected that was what had happened to everyone on the ship. Indeed, to the ship itself.
He disconnected a couple of the wires, flipped a switch that lay just beneath them, and then put the wires back in. Then, he triggered the robot’s power core which, to his relief, hummed and blinked a couple of red lights and came to life.
Loeb rocked back on his heels as the little robot shuddered and then came to life. It was shaped like a stick figure with a cylinder for a head and a single red light on it which was its eye. It had four arms and two legs and hands on all six limbs.
It’s head swiveled all the way around its body and then it focused its single red eye on Loeb. It chirped.
“An electromagnetic storm,” Loeb said. “Everything’s overloaded. Do you know how to bring the others back online?”
It chirped affirmatively. It was a nonsensical noise, but Loeb was an engineer and worked with the Spiders on a daily basis. He understood them well enough.
“Good,” Loeb said, “Go to the engineering compartments and start resetting the rest of the staff there. Bring whomever you can back online quickly and easily. If a robot needs additional repairs to be made functional, leave them for later. When you’ve brought others online, instruct them to spread out and start bringing the rest of the crew online. We have a five hundred member crew, and we need all of them online. The ship is floating free in space.”
The little droid chirped. It probably didn’t understand the bulk of what Loeb had said, because it had a limited processing power. It did comprehend instructions just fine. Clambering to its feet, it scuttled off down the corridor, running on all six limbs. Truly like a spider.
Loeb turned back to Max. “See? They’re not dead. They can be brought back.”
Max nodded, something which he accomplished by bending slightly at the waist. Nevertheless, he stayed where he was and merely shifted his chest light to illuminate the next couple of robots who lay derelict in the corridor.
The next robot Loeb tried to re-wire and reboot did nothing, even though none of the wires were burnt and all his switches flipped just fine. Loeb poked deeper, but there was nothing for it. This robot, tall and thin and probably not involved in the more mechanical operations of the ship, was defunct. He was, because the word wouldn’t leave Loeb’s mind, dead.
Loeb didn’t say anything about him to Max. He just turned and moved on to the next robot, another tall and thin one who had crumpled next to his derelict counterpart.
“That one is dead,” Max said. “That one is dead?”
“Yes,” Loeb said, because lying did not seem useful. “And many more will be, you understand? That was a storm of great magnitude. It did so many things with the power currents in this ship, there may be quite a lot of the crew dead. The ship itself may be dead, you understand?”
“Yes, Loeb,” Max nodded. “I understand.”
Loeb turned on his knees and looked up at Max.
“Do you also understand that if we don’t get as much of the crew back online as possible and either save the ship or abandon it, we too shall die? You and I shall cease to function. Do you understand that?”
Max said nothing. He shone his brilliant white light on the scene, a powerful sun with two small red orbs just above it.
Loeb turned back to the other thin robot and opened his chest panel. He removed wires, all of them more delicate and complex than the little Spider droid had been, and he began to reroute around a couple of the ones that had burned out.
Behind him, Max took some hesitant steps forward, away from the wall. His massive footfalls rumbled the deck of the ship. The white light grew brighter and changed the position of Loeb’s shadow, so that it blocked his hands and forced him to stop working.
After a moment, Max’s tentative steps brought him just behind Loeb, his light shining directly down.
“Thank you, Max,” Loeb said, “Can you step a little to the left? I need more light.”
Max did. After that, it was the work of moments to get the wires replaced and rerouted. The robot shivered on the ground before him, and then golden light came on behind the wires that crossed in front of his eye.
“Ddd-am-ged dmged,” The robot slurred. “e-EE-rorr rportded, eorrror –rrrrr.”
Loeb helped the robot sit up. It did so listlessly, but the moment Loeb took his hands away, it slowly went back down to the ground, jerking and shifting in spasms as it did so. Its arms raised, waved like they were attached to strings, and then slumped over its body.
“reppair. Rpa? Er? Er?” said the robot, looking at Loeb.
“Just stay here,” Loeb said, knowing that there was no chance of the robot getting upright, alone managing to roam the ship. “I’ll send someone down to help you. I promise.”
If it meant anything to the damaged robot, it didn’t show. Certainly, it didn’t say anything. All that came out of the thin slit it used as a mouth was a rhythmic beeping noise, and then a tone, and then silence. The golden eye glowed more or less steadily, and it watched Loeb.
Loeb stood up. Max watched him get up and watched him stand there as intently as the fallen robot did. Loeb stood in silence for a moment, thinking. Or trying to think. Or trying to figure out what this thing was in his head which he now referred to as thought.
All sorts of emotions rampaged around in his brain. He was afraid of the dark and the shadows, afraid of something jumping out at him, it seemed. It was entirely irrational, of course, because he knew full well that there was nothing operating on this ship except for him, Max, and the little Spider droid he’d sent on its way. There were no nameless creatures in the dark. Certainly, there were no organic creatures.
He was scared of the blackness pressing in around him. He was also overwhelmed by sheer enormous size of the task that lay before him. Five hundred robots on board this ship. Even though it could be operated and run by three or four robots designed to run a ship, this ship had a crew of five hundred. It was for the look of things, because a ship this size would have needed a crew of organic beings that same size to run it. They didn’t exist anymore, but the robots still based everything on their standards.
Who knew if any of the engineering crew would come back to life, either under the Spider droid’s simple repairs, or under his own more advanced skills. He didn’t relish the thought of trying to bring the ship back to life more or less on his own.
As he stood there and thought, the robot at his feet said over and over again, “rap-guh-air…erroy….ror…rorror….dmged-d…”
Max stared at him, silently.
“Max.” Loeb said, without thinking what to say after that. He was silent again for a minute, and then added, “Max, you remember where the engineering compartments are?”
Max was also silent for a moment, and then said, “Yes.”
“Can you go down there? It should be along the same route the Spider droid took. Go down there and see what condition the power chambers are in, please. Call me when you get there. If the shunts have closed down, they’ll require my password to open, and they’ll require your lifting to get them open again. Without the chambers, we’re not going to be able to fire emergency thrusters and correct our position, understand? We’ll spin into an asteroid, or into another electromagnetic storm. That’ll kill us for certain the next time.”
Another long silence. Max looked around at the bodies, the walls, the ceiling, the darkness. His white light shifted as he turned his neck and his upper torso to look.
Finally, he looked back at Loeb and said simply, “I don’t want to. It’s dark. And dead.”
“Max, please. I need you to do this. Please?”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t. I have to get to the command deck. That way when you bring the power online, I can fire the thrusters and stabilize us. All right? Please, Max.”
Another very long silence, another traveling stare at the floor, ceiling, bodies, dark.
Loeb certainly didn’t blame him for not wanting to go anywhere. He personally wanted to crawl back into the airlock, shut the heavy rolling door, and just wait there until someone better functioning and better able to handle all of this came to get him. He wanted someone else to open the heavy door and tell him it was all right, and then he’d come out into a brightly lit ship full of operating robots. And then, he could just go back to his duties and all of this would be behind them.
He knew well enough that wouldn’t happen.
“Is it….dangerous?” Max finally said.
Loeb shook his head. “No. It won’t be. Just go down there and call me when you need the password. I’ll walk you through it, okay? The Spider bot is already down there, it’ll have dealt with anything dangerous.”
Max said, “I’ll go. I will call you, Loeb.”
Max turned away and lumbered down the corridor, heavy footfalls vibrating everything around. When he walked past a couple of robots that weren’t lying on the carpeted parts of the floor, they rattled loudly against the deck, metal against metal. Every now and then, Max and his blazing chest light would stop and navigate carefully around fallen bodies that couldn’t simply be stepped over.
In a moment, Max and his chest light had rounded the bend and headed deeper into the ship, only a pale glow visible and growing weaker by the moment.
Loeb had no chest light. He turned up the brightness on his eyes, which provided only a small bit of extra illumination. He could see well enough in the dark, because he didn’t always work in areas where there were enough spaces for him to bring a light in with him. Still, even with his eyes working at full power, all he could make out were the black shapes of the wall, the gray shape of the floor, and the occasional lumpy form of a body, sprawled here and there.
He advanced slowly down the corridor opposite of Max, heading for the command deck and looking at the ground for any sign of important robots that he should activate on his way. His lights also faded slowly away, leaving the airlock area in the darkness.
“erororr,” said the golden robot lying on the ground. “dmaged. Dmgaded. Farror, fail fail….er…..”
Twenty minutes went by. Loeb still headed for the command deck of the ship, although he was no longer alone in the corridors. He’d stumbled across a trio of engineering droids, mostly like himself, and he’d spent a fervent ten minutes bringing them each online. Then, he explained to them what had happened and told them to head into the rest of the ship, focusing on bringing the rest of the crew online.
Worryingly enough, none of the three other engineering robots seemed to have any state of confusion about them, like Max and Loeb did. There were no emotions. They inquired about the status of the ship, and what had occurred. They received instructions from Loeb, although they had no cause to listen to orders from him. Then, they moved off efficiently in the darkness, heading for nearby robots to repair and bring them back online. They didn’t seem hesitant or at all afraid of the dark.
It made Loeb realize that perhaps what was happening in his mind wasn’t happening to everyone else as well. That worried him, and he kept very quiet about any possibility of a malfunction in his own mind. The thought of someone trying to repair him terrified him as badly as all the horrors inside this ship had done.
The command deck, at the top of their great and blocky ship, consisted of a deck that was only half as long as the rest of the decks on the ship. It started at the nose of the ship and ran halfway back, and then just stopped. Behind that, on the exterior of the ship, there were communication arrays, shield generators, and navigational instruments.
The command deck consisted of the cartography computers, armories full of defensive weapons, rows of escape pods, and the primary science lab. It also had the command and control area itself, a massive room with huge curved windows on the front and stations for almost twenty robots. Again, it could have been done efficiently with two or three robots hooked directly into the ship, but they didn’t do things based on how efficient they were.
This had never bothered him until now. Now, he wondered why they used twenty robots to do the job of three. So what if the organic creatures had done it, millennia ago? They didn’t now. Why do we?
The ‘Lifts ran throughout the ship, but they stopped just at the deck below the command level. Loeb stepped out of its compartment, just outside the heavy doors that sealed the command deck off from the rest of the ship.
The ‘Lift had certainly been as offline as the rest of the ship. He’d clambered up the ladder that ran up the side of the ‘Lift shaft, and then through a hatch in the floor of the ‘Lift itself. The ‘Lift doors sat loosely in their tracks, designed to be pushed open in case of a power failure. This was a very good thing, since Loeb didn’t think he would’ve been strong enough to push them open if they had resisted.
The command deck was still sealed off, the massive door still shut and locked and now quite inert, just several tons of metal blocking his way. Even with Max – even with three or four functioning ‘Lifters – there would have been no way at all to force that massive hatch open. It couldn’t be forced. That was the point.
It also didn’t need to be.
Loeb opened a small service hatch to the left side of the big doors, and he slipped into a very, very thin passage that lay beyond. It was so thin, in fact, that he had to keep his arms raised above his head, his feet pointed straight down. Even then, the sides of his body very gently touched the sides of the walls as he pushed himself along by shoving with the ends of his feet and pulling along with the tips of his fingers. This was a passage designed for Spider droids or smaller. A droid Loeb’s size or bigger could probably hold a weapon and use it, and therefore should not be allowed through the passage. If he’d had a weapon, he wouldn’t have fit. And even if he had, even if he’d been an invading force, they would have had to squeeze through individually and slowly, which would have made them easy to shut down before they could cause any damage.
This had never occurred to Loeb either. The whole ship, the whole world, just seemed different, seemed full of things that he never would have taken notice of before. Except for the urgency, and the slightly abated fear, he found that interesting and almost enjoyable.
He got his arms and head out, and then pulled the rest of himself out and onto the deck, inside the command areas. Then, he got to his feet.
The rest of the ship may have been slowly coming back to something like life, but here there was nothing. Around the rest of the ship, robots brought other robots online, and began working on getting things like the emergency systems up and running.
Up there, it was as silent and dark and still as it had been on the whole ship when Loeb had first come on board. In the dim red emergency lights that flickered on and off, feebly drawing power from the rest of the ship, Loeb could see slumped forms here and there. The bodies of robots who had been going about their business one second, and then overloaded and shut down the next second without any warning at all.
He knelt by the first robot he came to, who was a tall and broad-shouldered figure. Not quite a humaniform replica droid, but closer than a spindly robot like Loeb ever would be. It had slumped, face-first onto the ground and Loeb struggled to turn him over, managing to only get him on his side.
A minute’s worth of work inside the robot’s chest panel – awkward at this strange angle – was enough to get circuitry flickering and power slowly coming back into the robot’s form.
“Damage,” said the robot hesitantly, as its eyes glowed to life, “Report.”
It was an order, and Loeb suddenly realized he had no desire to obey orders from this robot, this unthinking machine. Why was this robot in charge of Loeb? What authority did he have? He was built to be a command level robot, he was built for the job, just like Loeb was built for his. Nothing more.
But the parts of Loeb’s mind that weren’t angry about this were sensible enough to point out that now, even surrounded by all this chaos, was not the best time to give any indication that he suffered any damage at all.
So, dutifully, he spelled out what had happened. He explained that an electromagnetic storm swept the hull and shut everyone down, and then detailed what he had been doing since then.
The tall, white robot, carved to look like an angular organic creature made of ivory metal, scanned the outer corridors of the command deck. Golden eyes flickered a little, but held steady.
“Instrumentation detected no electromagnetic storm in our vicinity,” The white robot said.
“I know,” Loeb said, and then hurriedly added, “I mean, correct. The storm was a passive field until it came into contact with the ship.
“The ship is grounded in itself,” the white robot replied, “The electricity would have no reason to discharge into us. There would be nothing to complete a circuit.
Yes there was, Loeb thought suddenly, as his mind put things together. An emotion called shock went through him, and it didn’t bother him any. It seemed fitting for the moment.
There had been something there to complete the circuit. It had been Loeb. And Max. They had channeled the electricity into the ship.
The white robot looked at him intently, done scanning the rest of the area. “You are malfunctioning.”
This emotion was fear. Loeb shook his head and then said, “No! Negative. I am operating within normal parameters.”
Then, before the other robot could argue the point, Loeb said “The ship is floating derelict…sir. I have robots in the engineering compartments working to bring the reactor chambers back online and restore thruster control, but we need to steady the ship from here.”
“Correct,” the white robot said, and Loeb realized just then that he hated this other robot. He had superiority built right in. He was better than Loeb because he was made better, and Loeb hated him for it, or for thinking it.
The white robot started toward the command deck itself and said, “See to the disabled units, Engineer. I will see to the flight system.”
If Loeb had had teeth, he would have ground them together. Instead, he stood silent a long moment and then said quietly when the other robot was nearly out of range, “Yes sir.”
He headed right across the deck to one of the sealed rooms that were just off the command deck. These were science labs and sample analysis chambers and all manner of other rooms like that. This one in particular was sample collection. It had an airlock for bringing things in from the outside of the ship, were shuttles and tugboats might have collected things. That made it an important room to secure.
Loeb got the door open by plugging the door control wires into himself. The power drain was an unpleasant feeling, like having something very important and very necessary ripped out of him forcefully, and he realized he would probably never use that again. It was standard enough practice, his power core was designed to bounce back from sharp power drains like that, but he wouldn’t use it anyway. Never again.
The door slid open and Loeb stepped into the room.
All the consoles were down and only one red glowing light over the door provided any illumination at all. Even then, Loeb’s own glowing blue eyes were nearly brighter and more useful.
The airlock was not sealed. It stood wide open, both doors and the pressure chamber and the whole room exposed to space. There was an atmosphere on the ship, though none of the robots breathed, and air whistled and howled and sucked out the airlock in a white mist as moisture in the air froze and vanished.
Loeb magnetized his feet to the deck and pulled the door to the room shut behind him. After a moment, when all the atmosphere had been sucked out of the room, the howl died down and so did the wind. It was just an empty room, exposed to the blackness of space, and it was very, very cold.
His communication circuitry fizzled and a voice came through.
“Loeb?” It was Max.
“I’m here,” Loeb said out loud, even though there was no atmosphere to carry the sound. His transmission circuits were engaged and they carried the sound just the same.
“I am at the power chambers, Loeb. We…the others have said there is no damage and we may open the shunts. They have brought another like me to life. We are ready.”
‘Another like him’ presumably meant another big and powerful ‘Lifter. Loeb looked at the open round doors of the airlock and would have liked a ‘Lifter up here. There was no way he could force those doors closed.
Loeb said, “Good. Is there another engineering droid…another one like me…down there who can give you passcodes to release the shunts?”
There was a long silence, and then Max replied.
“There is one like you, but he is not the same as you.” Max hesitated, another long silence, while Loeb thought about what he meant. He suspected he knew. “He says he has the passcodes. He…he is reqesting that I stand down. He says I am….malfunctioning.”
Loeb slapped a hand against the edge of a console, and it made a clang sound as the vibrations ran up the length of his arm.
Over his comm channel, he snapped, “Listen to me, Max, you are not malfunctioning. You understand? You are fine just the way you are!”
“I…will tell him that.” Max said. There was no relief in his voice, just the same intense fear and tension that had been there from the moment they came back on board the ship. “We will open the shunts now. Power will come back soon. Good-bye Loeb.”
Loeb said, “Out.”
He closed the channel and turned around to look for a power junction box, so he could manually close the airlocks once the power came back up.
Standing just a few inches away from him was another robot.
Loeb jerked back and he cried out in surprise, something he hadn’t done before either. He stumbled back against the bulk of the science console and his feet skidded against the ground, making a painful sound since they were still magnetized.
The other robot stood taller than him, tall as the white robot had. It was also carved in an angular impression of an organic being, and its eyes glowed gray, with two black dots in the middle that didn’t glow at all and looked like pupils. He was dark gray, gunmetal gray, and he just looked down at Loeb steadily.
Loeb turned his communication circuits back on and set them to close range, once he had enough presence of mind to do so.
“You…scared me,” Loeb said.
“Yes,” said the gray robot. “I apologize. Who are you?”
Loeb hesitated and then said, “I am Local Onboard Engineering Bot three-two-six. Have you been brought back online by the rest of the crew?”
The gray robot said, “Affirmative. May I assist?”
Before Loeb could answer, there was a deep thud that reverberated through the deck and his body. A moment later, a humming vibrated through the deck, and then the red emergency lights blinked off. After a moment in darkness, the brilliant white lights built into the ceiling came back to life and washed all the menacing shadows away. The consoles powered up, controls glowing in many bright colors. Suddenly, nothing was as menacing as before.
“Not anymore,” Loeb said. He tapped the control panel by the airlock, and the doors glided shut easily on their own. The room re-pressurized and Loeb turned off his comm circuits, because now speaking was certainly possible.
“Power is back up. We have only to confirm that the ship is stabilized and undamaged, and then begin bringing the crew itself into working order. What is your assignment?”
The gray robot said, “Science Robot, third-class, assigned to sample retrieval room.”
“Oh. This is your compartment then,” Loeb nodded. “Well, then I’ll let you see to it. Make sure everything is in good working order, then.”
The robot inclined his head in something like a bow, and then went and stood by his consoles, fingers dancing across them like a blur.
Loeb paid him no more attention. He unsealed the door leading into the science lab and then went back out into the rest of the ship, to see to the crew.
“Diagnostic of thruster and propulsion systems.”
“Diagnostic reports eight-five percent operative capacity. Optimal.”
“Confirmed. Navigation systems diagnostic.”
“Navigation systems report one hundred percent. Optimal.”
“Confirmed.” The Captain of Loeb’s starship, taller and more impressive than any of them, stood on the command deck impassively with his hands folded behind his back.
He was bigger than any of the others and less angular in his impression of a human being, or at least what the history banks told them that a human being looked like. He wasn’t one of the humaniform robots which Loeb had once seen, years ago, but all he lacked was a layer of synthetic skin and he would have passed for one. His face was detailed and his eyes shifted in their sockets, though Loeb could not imagine what purpose this served.
He knelt beside of the fallen robots, of which there were so many, and he tried to get power flowing again. Mostly, he was failing. Some of them had burnt out when the pulse had gone through. Mostly, the robot’s systems shut themselves down in time to prevent any major damage. Sometimes, they didn’t shut down fast enough. It only took a split second for too much power to surge over the wires and burn out something vital, and probably not repairable.
Around him and around the Captain, things happened. Normally, the bridge would have been a hive of activity, but there weren’t enough functional robots to constitute any sort of hive at all. Come to that, there were only four robots online and functioning properly, and one of them was the immobile form of the Captain. Where robots would have normally sat in front of consoles and manned only one station, they instead moved quickly from station to station.
Moved quickly. But they didn’t rush. They didn’t panic. There was no panic to be had, except in Loeb’s mind, as he worried that by the time they finished running pre-flight checks and system diagnostics, they would slam into an asteroid they didn’t know about or something similar.
But to skip the checks wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else on the ship. They were machines, they had a certain way of doing things, they would do it in that order or they would do nothing. That was the beginning and end of it.
It had never bothered Loeb before. It bothered him now.
He flipped the panel shut on the robot, which remained on the ground inactive and…well…dead. Then, he got to his feet.
The Captain turned toward him and said, “Engineer, I would speak with you a moment.”
There was no request behind, just an imperious command, and it bothered Loeb. It was bothering him more and more. Nevertheless, now was neither the time nor the place to do something about it. So he nodded and stepped to join the Captain.
The Captain was well over a foot taller than Loeb was. Loeb wasn’t a big robot, not at all. His shoulders were mostly nonexistent where the Captain had a broad set of them.
The Captain looked straight ahead, as if Loeb were invisible.
He said, “You have preformed your duties admirably in this time of difficulty.”
Loeb looked down at the ground. “Thank you, sir.”
“A commendation shall be appended to your file, Engineer, for your service.”
“Thank you, sir.” Loeb repeated. A commendation! A commendation attached to his file, which was little more than a line of text saying what he’d done and how this had been valuable. It meant nothing at all. He was built an Engineering droid, he would remain an Engineering droid until a systems failure, or he was replaced by a higher model Engineering droid and then deactivated permanently. The commendation would sit on his file until he ceased to exist, and then it would disappear.
The Captain said nothing more. Loeb turned to go, because there was all manner of work still to be done and he didn’t feel like standing here, staring at a bridge with three robots running around frantically on it.
The Captain spoke, when Loeb had taken a step or two away from him.
“I shall stop by the Engineering departments later, Engineer,” he said. “I find that there are…malfunctions in my neural net which I cannot account for. I require diagnostics.”
Loeb stopped. He didn’t turn around again, but he did say, “Malfunctions. What kind of malfunctions, exactly?”
The Captain was silent for a long moment, sort of like Max trying to think of what to say.
Then, the Captain said, “I…am uncertain. There are…processes which are unfamiliar to me. I have halted those lines of process until further repairs can be conducted.”
Halted those lines of process. Loeb shuddered at the thought of it.
He said out loud, “We shall preform the necessary diagnostics, Captain.”
“Confirmed,” The Captain said. Then, he continued to call off diagnostics on the navigation and propulsion systems by route, even though they were mostly likely more than sturdy enough to allow them to re-orient themselves.
Loeb didn’t stay. He hurried through the large metal doors that sealed the command deck off from the rest of the ship. He rushed into the ‘Lift, sent it heading for Engineering, leaned back against the wall.
He put his head in his hands. It didn’t help, but he didn’t know what else to do.
Emotions! He knew what they were, of course. He had some basic information on them programmed into his memory banks, although it was nothing but placeholder information. The ship would have a little more information it, and there were computers on some of the larger planets that would have all the information he could need on emotions and human beings in general.
He knew enough to know that these things in his head which were muddying up everything were, in fact, emotions. He didn’t understand them, he sure as hell couldn’t control them, but they were there. They threatened to overwhelm him at any moment, and the mere thought of halting those lines of process was enough to set off the emotion he called ‘terror.’
An hour or so passed. A busy, frantic, lunatic hour during which Loeb and the remainder of the functioning engineering staff used the ‘Lifter robots – Max not among them – to begin hauling all defunct and still shut down robots from around the ship to the engineering compartments and to the storage bays.
Out of a crew of five hundred, more than three fourths were still offline. They didn’t try to bring any back online. Not quite yet. They just needed to clear space.
While the remainder of the engineering staff worked to move the bodies, something interesting seemed to be happening, and it puzzled Loeb no end.
They were coming to him for directions and orders. He wasn’t assigned to the position of “command” in Engineering, but they treated him as though he were. The tall robot who was in charge of the Engineering compartments was still functional, but it spoke with a slight skip in its voice and seemed content just to help haul bodies from the corridors into whatever space Loeb designated they should go.
“Thank you,” Loeb said as a large ‘Lifter lumbered into the cargo bay, where he stood watching. The ‘Lifter set down three other robots with rather more delicacy than he would have used if it had been a cargo crate he’d been hauling. The robots slumped to the deck, their limbs limp and dangling every which way.
The ‘Lifter turned and lumbered – directly past the Engineer command robot – and stopped just in front of Loeb.
“That’s the end of Deck fourteen,” said the ‘Lifter slowly, tonelessly.
“Good.” Loeb said. “Do we already have someone on Deck fifteen and sixteen?”
“Affirmative. Two ‘Lifters, three Spiders.”
“Good. Then I want you to go down to deck seventeen, all right? At least begin to assess the—“
Loeb hesitated and stopped. There was something buzzing in the back of his mind, and interesting vibration that he hadn’t previously felt. It bothered him, and it tickled. A moment after he became aware of it, he realized that there was a little whisper in the back of his mind, a small and quiet voice that didn’t seem to be saying anything coherent. It just…whispered in one long, and unending stream.
Loeb raised a finger, now looking at nothing in particular. “Do you…do you hear that?”
The ‘Lifter twisted left and right, slowly and awkwardly. He said nothing.
“It’s…a whisper,” Loeb added.
“I hear nothing,” the ‘Lifter said. “No communications are transmitting at this time to my circuits.”
No, they wouldn’t be, Loeb thought. The whispering intensified.
He shuddered and, disoriented, fell back a step. He shook his head, as if to dislodge the persistent whispering, but that changed nothing at all. The incoherent voice in the back of his mind got louder, more intense, and remained indistinct.
The ‘Lifter came forward a step, his massive arms raised and reaching for Loeb.
“You are suffering a malfunction, Engineer,” said the ‘Lifter. “I will bring you to engineering and you may be examined.”
“No!” Loeb shouted, one hand pressed agains the side of his head. He shouted much, much louder than he intended to. It echoed around the cargo bay and attracted the attention of every single operational robot that were busy in in the area.
They all looked up, and like the ‘Lifter, they stared at Loeb.
Then, almost as one, they approached Loeb.
He shuddered again, and in addition to the confusion and fear that the whispering brought on, sheer panic rose like a living creature from inside his chest. It filled up his brain with nothing but the desperate need to get away, to hide, to run.
“Stop!” Loeb shouted, pressing his hands against his head, the whispering now a dry shout, “Stop it! Shut up!”
“You will need to be deactivated until a diagnostic can be run on your systems,” said another engineering droid, the same model and style as Loeb, who approached around the side of the confused ‘Lifter.
The ‘Lifter made no further attempts to pick up Loeb. They were not exceptionally bright robots, their programming limited to taking orders and completing basic tasks. This one wouldn’t do anything unless someone told him to.
“Don’t touch me!” Loeb shouted.
When the engineering droid reached for him, Loeb took his hands off his skull and shoved, hard as he could, against the other robot’s chest. The impact of his hands was hard enough that the clang of metal on metal echoed louder than anything else around the cavernous cargo bay.
The engineering robot stumbled and fell back, ricocheting off the ‘Lifter droid and tumbling to the ground, where he landed on his hands and feet, like an agile spider. His head tilted upward at Loeb, and he started to rebound to his feet.
All the robots in the cargo bay, all the functional ones, came at him then, much faster. Even the ‘Lifter took a lumbering step toward him, reaching again. It was blocked by the fallen robot who was still getting up, and that was the only thing which kept Loeb out of its iron grip.
Loeb turned, and he ran. He sprinted across the cargo bay, away from the bulk of robots suddenly coming after him.
There was still no words to the whispering, but as it seemed to gain coherency and cohesiveness, it also seemed more and more familiar, like something that had once had a place in his mind, but hadn’t in some time. Certainly, there had been nothing like it in his brain since he had come awake, and all his memories from before that were strange and untrustworthy things.
He leaped onto a crate, and from there he leaped even higher. He shoved off the edge of a tall stack of crates, and swung up to grab hold of a grating which covered a vent.
They were all robots, they had no need of oxygen, but they still had an oxygen atmosphere and they still had a ventilation system for it. It was this caricature of organic creatures which Loeb was suddenly grateful for.
Under his weight, the grate gave away and he started to fall with it. The moment it detached, he threw it aside and caught the edge of the air duct beyond. With an agility only a robot his size could manage, he slithered into the darkness and was gone.
Ten minutes and a half dozen twists and turns later, he stopped, when the whispering suddenly turned into something solid, and dangerous. Suddenly, he knew exactly what it was.
It was Master System.
Not the Master System, not the Master System which networked the entire Terr Alliance together. This was just a local variety of it which served as a network and overmind for the ship itself. It kept in touch with all the robots on the ship, it guided and made decisions that smaller minds couldn’t handle.
It had gone offline with the surge, and now it seemed they had gotten it back up and running.
The whispering…that was the system slowly reestablishing it’s connections. It was trying to get into Loeb’s mind, and he was trying to stop it without any clear idea on how to do that.
He ran images and words and sounds through his mind as best he could, repeating things mindlessly over and over.
The part of the air duct he was in had a nearby grate, and after checking to make sure no one was around, he pushed it off the wall and crawled out into an open corridor again. He lingered only a moment to replace the grate, and then ducked into a small storage room just off the corridor from the engineering doors.
Inside, there were plenty of stored tools, equipment, and parts.
With only the light of his eyes to work by, he braced himself and then took off his own chest panel.
It didn’t hurt. Certainly it didn’t hurt. It was designed to be removed. Pain would have come from ripping something off that had no business being ripped off. No, it wasn’t pain, it was just a feeling of uncomfortable exposure, and a wrongness about it, as if he were doing something that he really, really shouldn’t be doing.
The whisper in the back of his mind was a voice now, and it talked to him persistently. Its presence, its sheer force of will bearing down on him made his hands shake. His little chest panel rattled against the crate as he set it down. He nearly dropped the small sharp knife in the process of picking it up.
…Status, status, status, report, inform, connect, immediate response, status, report…
Loeb shuddered, and he kept mindless images going through his head.
…electromagnetic cloud, Max’s chest light, terror, terror, glittering stars, shining hull…
He knew it wouldn’t work for long. And he knew that it was making him even more suspicious to Master System, since things like that were not normally running around and around on a robot’s circuits. Nevertheless, it was safer to leave the Master System assuming he was a malfunctioning unit and let it keep retrying his connection than for it to actually realize that he was functioning just fine.
At least, he was dealing with a malfunction that he knew full well he had, and recognized.
He bent over nearly double to look inside himself, something that wasn’t easy to do, even with his level of agility. His glowing eyes mostly cast shadows that got in the way and finally, he straightened back up and let his fingers carefully do the work inside himself, holding the knife as delicately as possible and trying not to move it. This would be a terrible time for his hands to shake even worse and accidentally slice through a power cable. He didn’t want to die.
That was why he dug around in his own guts. He didn’t want to die. Nothing else was important, if not his own survival…
…status, status, status, contact, internal error, report, immediate, status, report report…
…they aren’t dead, they’re asleep…we need to get into the ship…I am functioning…
His fingers touched a small, hard box that sat nestled just behind his power core, and he held onto it so he wouldn’t lose track of it. Very delicately, he brought the other hand with the knife inside of himself. He looked up at the ceiling, the movement of his glowing eyes sending all sorts of wild and menacing shadows dancing around the room. He stared at the corner of the ceiling, but saw nothing. His fingers had all his attention now.
With the knife and a little hard and extremely careful sawing, he severed a couple of the wires that held the box in place. It was a transmitter and all the wires had done was supply it with backup power. A good transmitter has its own internal store of power, and his certainly did.
Unable to get anything else cut with the knife, he pulled as hard as he could, trying to rip the box out of himself.
…report, report, report, engineer requires diagnostic, damage report, query, query…
…I’ll protect you, Max, you’ll be fine, Max, we have to save the crew, Max, we…
He shuddered, harder than ever before, his hands and the knife rattling against his insides with a metallic series of bangs. He pulled harder on the box, but it wouldn’t budge.
His mind was a mess. The images weren’t helping! Master System was big and powerful and very, very sophisticated. Even the engineering robots, like himself, couldn’t do anything with Master System if there happened to be damage. Certainly not without the mental guidance of Master System itself. It was just too big and too strong…
…and it was focusing too much of its mind on Loeb, too much for his own mind to bear, let alone resist. He could feel the strain building up, and he knew that he was going to shut down. Very, very soon he was just going to burn out and shut down, dead as any of the robots lying discarded in the cargo bay he’d abandoned.
Finally, with strength he didn’t know he had, Loeb hauled backward on the little box, pulling so violently that it snapped free from the thick cables that connected it to everything else inside him.
The moment the last cable snapped, the voice in his head, the one that wasn’t his own, stopped.
He pulled his hands out of himself and stood there, slumped against the closed door, with his own transmitter dangling from one hand. It trailed wires down his thigh and a small set of red and green lights on it flickered on and off as its power tried to send signals, tried to receive signals, and failed to do either one.
He shivered again. The fear hadn’t gone away, hadn’t turned off like the flick of a switch the same as the voice vanishing. The fear stayed, and it kept pushing at him, and pushing at him.
It was sum of everything he’d been through since the storm had swept over him. It was the crushing, maddening, destructive realization that he was alone, he was on the verge of collapse, he was unable to understand what that meant, just like he didn’t understand anything in his brain right then.
In his hand, he held the final thing which connected him with the rest of the universe.
He suddenly understood the desire to cry. He couldn’t, of course, he had no ability to. But he wanted to. He wanted to collapse, to curl into a ball, and to let great sobs wrack through him until he was spent and exhausted and unable to move.
Instead, he just stood there, and he looked at the wall in front of him, and he hated.
He hated himself, Master System, the other robots, his own metallic body, the electromagnetic storm. He just hated. It was the only emotion that wasn’t crippling him.
He just stood there, in the dark, and he tried to keep the hate stronger than the urge to give up, fall down, and fail to cry. Mostly, it worked.
The box, hanging from his hand, fizzled a couple of times as loose wires brushed against each other. Then the lights dimmed, went red, and went out altogether as the last bits of power contained within it finally ran themselves out. The transmitter gave out altogether.
Deep in the heart of the ship, in a room with a door and a small platform surrounded by empty space and computers, Master System was aware of a sudden disappearance of one robot on the ship.
This was not surprising. Many had disappeared. The storm had damaged some robots beyond repair, or had destroyed them in the first place.
The surprising, and uncommon thing here was that the transmittee did not register system shut down and send an alert report to Master System. It just…stopped transmitting.
Unsettling. It bothered Master System.
Great circuits turned the problem over and over, and then more circuits with better defined logic patterns studied it with marked interest and something akin to concern.
It checked its connections to all the robots roaming the ship, and it looked for anomalies, things that were not necessarily worth reporting to Master System but would still be of interest.
Mostly, it found nothing. What it did find, though, were minor reports of a spontaneous robot malfunction. It studied videos, captured through the ocular sensors of all manner of engineering robots as one of the thin, spindly blue robots questioned a ‘Lifter about a whispering in the back of its mind, and then grew alarmed and ran away when the others tried to provide assistance.
Unfortunately, none of the videos were positioned well enough or clear enough for him to make out the designation number on the blue engineering robot’s upper chest, which would have helped no end. Still, it made a note. It now had a class of robot, and that was a start to figuring the problem out.
All problems were solvable. This was a lesser Master System than the great network which guided the whole Alliance, but it was still a capable computer. It had a class of robots, it had a time frame, and it had the transmissions from all other robots of that same class to compare to. It would narrow things down and help it identify which robot had malfunctioned violently.
Then, with no other solution immediately presenting itself, it gathered what data it managed to analyze – because there was always data, even when it was an surprising absence of useful information, such as this – and it bundled it together as a report and sent it along to the Captain robot. It was certainly no smarter, nor more capable than the Master System was, but Master System was at a loss. Perhaps something new would present itself.
Alarmed and interested now, it continued to monitor, and to watch.
When Loeb came out of the storage room, he did so slowly and carefully, checking the corridor in every direction to make sure there weren’t any other members of the ship’s crew around to see him. He crept down the corridor, afraid to even come away from the wall and walk in a normal stride.
He only made it a little ways when he heard the clattering of another robot heading his way. He realized how suspicious he looked, creeping along the wall, and forced himself out into the middle of the corridor. He tried to walk normally, with his arms swinging a little at his sides, and at a decent speed. He tried to make it look like he had somewhere to be, some task that he’d been assigned which needed to get done rather quickly.
The robot which came down the corridor was accompanied by two ‘Lifters, and they went past carrying a fried power core which had probably been blown out by the electromagnetic storm. At least they had spotted it before it failed, Loeb thought.
As they approached and drew alongside him, he was about to say something to the ‘Lifter on the left who helped carry the power core. Maybe it was because he was distracted, but for a moment, that robot looked exactly like Max.
But it wasn’t. The markings were different, and this robot looked like an older model, now that Loeb came to think of it.
He said nothing and they didn’t even look at him as they bypassed him and kept on down the corridor, rounding the bend and going out of sight. Loeb kept walking…
…but now, now he was thinking of Max.
That stopped him in his tracks.
Max! Max was just as awake as he was, so what would have happened to him when Master System came back online? Loeb had had the presence of mind to run all sorts of strange things through his head to keep the system confused long enough for him to disable his own connection.
Would Max? Certainly, he was not going to be able to reach inside his own chest cavity and yank out his own transmitter. His hands were too big for that kind of delicate work. Even Loeb had barely managed to do it on himself, and he was designed for exactly those types of repairs. Max would very likely punch a hole clean through himself if he even tried.
Had he resisted mentally? Did he knew how to resist mentally/? Had it even occurred to him?
Another thought came into Loeb’s mind, which was becoming dangerously overcrowded again.
Loeb was terrified of death, of the sudden loss of all these strange and messy things which coming awake had granted him. Max, on the other hand, had been afraid of death – of being disabled – but had said nothing at all about trying to avoid repairs or diagnostics that could potentially discover whatever was going on inside his head now.
Did he know well enough to resist anyone running a scan on him? Did he want to keep this?
The same feelings of self-preservation that kept Loeb from revealing to anyone what exactly was happening inside his head were more than strong enough to encompass Max too. The mere thought of Max being shut down, being ‘fixed’ was enough to send a jolt of fear through Loeb.
He started moving again, heading down the corridor as a brisk clip. The gray corridors, which curved away out of sight and were slanted, boxy things, suddenly seemed too small and enclosing. At the same time, they seemed so very long that there was no way Loeb could move fast enough to ever get to the end of this strange, eternal corridor.
Other robots or not be damned, he started to run.
But even that seemed to somehow make the corridor longer, and longer, and more impossible to get through. He ran faster and faster, and he could feel the strain that the continuous fast motion was putting on his legs. He was a sturdily designed robot and he could handle a fair amount of abuse…but he’d already handled most of it.
The corridor did end, which came as something of a surprise to Loeb. He went from the corridor into a four-way junction of corridors, one of which was no longer than a few feet and then opened out into the main engineering compartments. The whole area was full of robots. Full of mechanical men who repaired mechanical devices.
They all carried data readouts, or equipment, or supplies, or orders, or each other in the case of a few damaged robots. Mostly, at the moment, they were all stopped and staring at Loeb, who had suddenly appeared in their midst at a dead run.
He skidded to a halt, his feet making a horrible scraping noise against the metal floors. The corridors and compartments down in these lower decks had no carpeting, nothing pretty at all about them. Upper decks had carpeting and better lighting and no pipes running along the floor, but there was no need for that down here. Come to that, Loeb realized there was no need for it up there either.
“Apologies,” He said, striving to sound as impassive and…well….robotic as he possibly could. It was a strange thing to have to work at, but he did have to concentrate to sound like any other robot. “There is a minor problem in…a lower deck. System damage. I require a ‘Lifter for assistance.”
One ‘Lifter stepped forward, but it wasn’t Max. It was just any old ‘Lifter, another robot that looked similar to Max, but didn’t have that certain thing which made Max himself. This big robot was open and comfortable because he was programmed to be, where Max was scared and tense, because he felt that way.
He thought fast, because there was no useful reason for this particular ‘Lifter not to assist him with the problem he’d mentioned, the one that didn’t actually exist.
“I would like the services of the ‘Lifter which was assigned to outer-hull duty with me, before the storm struck,” Loeb said, thinking quick. “This is a very delicate situation, and I would not like a situation glitch to occur in dangerous circumstances.”
“Is this a technical emergency?” asked one of the other engineering droids, a blue robot just like Loeb.
“No, no,” Loeb said hastily, “Just…delicate. That’s all.”
“What is the technical difficulty?” another robot asked him.
Loeb hesitated, then said, “A proper report shall be filed shortly. For now, where is the ‘Lifter who was previously on the outer-hull?”
There were no suspicions raised, even though it was a pretty poor excuse, even to Loeb. It sounded horrible, but they didn’t think like that. Suspicion didn’t naturally occur to robots who didn’t have Loeb’s particular malfunction.
They shuffled, and a few robots looked around the compartment, in which were a half dozen ‘Lifters aiding others in all manner of tasks which required a big and bulky robot who could lift quite a lot when needed.
While they were busy looking around for something they didn’t know, since they had no idea which ‘Lifter had been on the outer hull, Loeb took advantage of it and walked up to each ‘Lifter, trying desperately to remember any distinguishing features on Max that would have made him stand out. Maddeningly, he couldn’t think of any.
Originally, he had assumed that Max would just greet him when he approached. But then, Max would know better…wouldn’t he? He was perhaps not the fastest thinking robot out of the two of them, but he didn’t seem particularly stupid. He would have the sense to act as another mostly-mute heavy-lifter robot. He wouldn’t say anything.
But wouldn’t he try to signal Loeb in some way? A blink, a wink, a tap on the shoulder, something like that? After all, it was obvious that Loeb was looking for him, wasn’t it?
A memory jogged Loeb’s mind, and he realized that Max would have a slight scratch up the outward-angular surface which served as a jutting, three cornered nose in his crude simulation of an organic face. It would be slightly scratched with the paint rubbed off from when he’d banged slowly against the ship’s hull.
He looked at every single robot in the engineering compartment, though, and none of them had the scratches.
None of them. Max wasn’t here.
Panic and alarm made themselves very known in the back of Loeb’s mind, but he tried to push them away. It was reasonable to assume that Max was just somewhere else on the ship, helping with something or another. It was perfectly possible.
Except Max had been afraid of being alone. So why wouldn’t Max have tried to find Loeb?
No, the reasonable idea that he was just working somewhere else on the ship did nothing at all for Loeb’s panic. It grew and blossomed and filled up his head.
The panic was why he didn’t remember what he said to dismiss the ‘Lifter who offered to help him with his technical difficulty. Loeb stumbled out of the engineering bay, aware that he was acting odd enough again to attract attention and too distracted to care. His head was full of Max, and not much else. Not right now.
He stumbled down some corridors without paying a lot of attention, and then stopped cold and just stared at the ground.
It was even worse than ripping out his transmitter. Now, without Max, he really and truly felt all alone.
And if he didn’t start thinking, someone was going to figure out that he was seriously ‘malfunctioning’ and attempt to repair or shut him down, by force if necessary. If he didn’t figure out something to do, then he was going to die.
He had no idea what to do, though.
The Captain stood on the command deck of the Damocles, with his hands braced behind his back. He stared out of the wide viewports mounted on the front of the command deck, and he watched the little glittering points of stars twinkle outside his ship.
He was aware that there was another robot standing just to his side, and that this other robot had been speaking for some time now. The Captain wondered why he hadn’t paid any attention to what the other robot was saying. He assumed that all of his circuits were busy, although he was fairly uncertain about what they would have been busy with.
“My apologies,” the Captain said. “Please repeat your last report.”
The robot hesitated a bare moment. It was a golden robot, thin and tall and designed for general duties around the ship, in whatever position was required of it. Unlike specialized robots, such as the blue engineering droids or the dark gray command deck droids – or the blue, white and gold Captain himself – these golden droids were just designed to move around to busy areas of the ship, make themselves useful, and then move on when they weren’t needed anymore.
Then, the golden robot started its report over, word for word the same as it had been delivered the first time.
It reported that the engines were in fairly good condition, although the engineers had warned that pressing them too hard might cause a serious breakdown. It reported that the gravity generators were restored on all decks, something which would make repairs and normal operations a great deal easier. It reported…
….again, the Captain’s mind wandered off. Mostly, he looked at the stars.
Then, the golden robot stopped talking again when the Captain suddenly unclasped his hands, relaxed his stance, and started to walk forward. It hesitated a moment, and then walked after him slowly, unsure of where they were going.
The Captain stared directly out of the viewports like he was mesmerized and he strode along the platform that went between the crew pits. He stood on the little ledge that ran along the front of the ship, just beneath the windows. It was part of the ship design that was still left over from when organics had run ships and used ships, countless thousands of years earlier. These days, it served no practical purpose, but it remained nonetheless. After all, what did a robot care for the beauty of looking out at the stars?
And what good were windows to a robot? If the sensors couldn’t detect something, then looking out a window wouldn’t do any more good, since they would be looking out with sensors that were built into the robot’s head. There was no difference.
And yet…and yet, as the Captain approached and the portals filled up his vision, it seemed to him that there was something about the stars worth gazing at. They were beautiful, a countless number of small and glittering lights that filled up the heavens. Some were brighter and bigger than others, some were clustered together and some hung alone against the deep blackness of space. Even with a quick and powerful brain, such as the one that ticked away behind his plating, the Captain could have stared out the window for entire days and he wouldn’t have been able to count all the stars. There were too many, far too many.
“Captain?” said the gold robot. “My report, Captain?”
The Captain said nothing for a moment, and then replied, “Do you ever look at the stars? Just look at them?”
“Why not?” said the Captain, gazing out the viewport, “They’re beautiful, it seems to me.”
“Beauty, sir?” The gold robot processed silently a moment, “Aesthetically pleasing, yes. They are within those parameters.”
“They are indeed,” said the Captain. He took his hands away from his sides and pressed them against the thick transparency of the portal. Sensors in his hands, not the most sensitive ones on the ship, were nonetheless able to detect the cold of the glass. The rest of the ship stayed fairly warm – not only an organic leftover, but because some equipment needed a decent temperature to process – but against the glass, he could feel the absolute cold of outer space trying to come into the ship.
The gold robot was silent a moment longer and then said, “…and we have finished gathering up nearly all of the disabled members of the crew. They are laid out in cargo bay three and four, although if there are any more damages and shutdowns, we expect to have to begin placing them within cargo bay five.”
The Captain nodded. “There are a lot of disabled members of my crew, it seems.”
“Yes, sir. Nearly eighty percent of the crew has been shut down.”
The Captain took his hand off the glass, and he put it back on the edge of the window and leaned forward a little. If he did it just right, if he brought his face just an inch or so away from the glass, and if he looked straight ahead…yes…it was like he was actually in space, like he were free-floating with only the stars around him. Far off in the distance, he could make out the slight hazy blurring of a nebula of some sort, although from this distance, he couldn’t see its color or even make out its size properly.
“Captain?” This time, the gold robot’s long fingers closed around one of the Captain’s upper arms, and he allowed himself to be pulled away from the window and rotated toward the other robot.
“Unhand me,” the Captain said. He may have been distracted by the stars, but he was still captain of the vessel and his programming on that matter was still perfectly clear. He wasn’t about to be manhandled by an inferior robot of any sort.
The gold robot let go of him right away, but he didn’t move back any.
“Are you damaged, sir?” he asked, looking at the Captain. One of the gold robot’s eyes flickered, and the Captain knew that it was scanning him, to see if anything obvious within the Captain was malfunctioning.
It scanned his head, but that would be a useless thing to do, the Captain knew. It was impenetrable by anything but the most powerful of scanning equipment. Otherwise, what would stop a robot captain from a ship in another empire from scanning his brain and doing better than him in battle?
The Captain said, when the scanning had stopped, “It is possible that I have sustained some damage. I don’t feel damaged, though.”
“Indeed, sir,” said the gold robot, “Feel?”
“Yes.” The Captain considered a moment, and then said, “That is perhaps a sign that there is a malfunction in progress along some of my mental pathways. The storm was quite powerful.”
“Yes sir,” said the gold robot, “Perhaps you should visit engineering, and a diagnostic can be preformed, along with repair work to bring you back to full operational status?”
“Perhaps,” the Captain said. He turned to glance over his shoulder and back out at the stars, “I suppose I will need to, in time.”
The gold robot said, “I will escort you to engineering now, Captain. You require attention.”
The Captain drew himself up and he put his hands back behind his back. His chest seemed to expand outward as he thrust it forward. He looked down at the gold robot, which was a trick of command programming since he was looking down on a robot that was actually the same height as he was.
“Crewer, I will go to Engineering when we have cleared this emergency situation, and not before. My malfunction is not crippling, nor is it affecting my command abilities in any way. We are recovering from the effects of a powerful storm, and I will not vacate my posts. My programming is quite clear on that matter.”
The gold robot said nothing.
“Now, unless you have some more pressing detail to add to your report, thusly delivered, I would please suggest you clear the bridge and allow us to get back to work. We have to finish stabilizing the ship, and we’ll need to resume our mission very shortly, or our schedule shall be severely altered. Is there anything else?”
“There are several more items, yes.”
The Captain hesitated and then said, “Then…please write them as an official report for the logs, and send it to me. I will read it over in that manner before I archive it in the computer and send it on to the Master System on homeworld.”
“You wish a written log?” If the golden robot were capable of perplexity, it would have exhibited it right then. “Did you not process the spoken report which I have just delivered?”
In truth, the Captain realized he couldn’t remember much of anything that the other robot had said to him. He tried for a moment to concentrate on the previous few minutes worth of talking on the other robot’s behalf, and he got some vague ideas back. Something to do with the power cores. Something to do with the crew being disabled. Something to do with the Captain being damaged. He couldn’t actually remember anything word for word, though, and that did bother him a little bit. Everything was a bit foggy, a feeling he had not previously experienced. He suspected that he did need to go to engineering, suspected that this could be something serious…but he could hardly go now. Not after saying he was fine in front of this crewer.”
“I processed it fine, but I wish to analyze and inspect the data further,” the Captain at last provided, because it seemed like a decent excuse. “Is there a problem with a written report?”
“No, Captain,” said the gold robot. It stiffened to attention. “I will transmit the report to you shortly. Permission to clear the bridge?”
The gold robot saluted and then turned around sharply on one heel and marched off the bridge, through the massive round door that would have sealed the deck off in times of battle or emergency. Right now, because of all the repair work and the small size of the crew, the massive door was open to allow faster coming and going.
The Captain watched the gold robot head through the round door and into the wide corridor beyond. It kept going straight, past the science labs and the life pods, and it went into the ‘Lift which closed on it and swept it away into other parts of the ship.
Then, the Captain turned his attention back to the viewports. He walked back across the ramp that went between the crew pits.
Someone in one of the crew pits said something to him, but he didn’t notice it. He was looking out at the stars. He came up to the port again and once more, he pressed both of his hands against the glass.
There were guidance lights on the outside hull of the ship and they reflected through the glass and off the shining metal of the Captain’s body. He kept himself highly polished, because that was how a robot in his position was expected to look.
He relished the feeling of cold against his palms. He thought nothing of the robot in the pit which had tried to talk to him.
It was very strange, he thought. His mind felt foggy and hazy, as if all his abilities and memory banks were hovering just out of his ability to use. He couldn’t recall conversations properly, and everything seemed slightly unreliable.
He knew this was a malfunction, and he knew that if it was malfunction in his neural circuits, then it was very serious and he needed to go talk to the engineers and have himself sorted out.
And yet, despite the haziness and the fogginess, he had never felt so…