Written By: Pete Tzinski
Illustrated By: Christoffer Saar
LX-45 was just a general purpose robot, of the sort which was good for lots of tasks, none of them vital or specific. The ship was full of them. Mostly, they were designed to round out the crew and do the odd jobs here and there.
LX-45 had, like the rest of the crew, been shut down when the electromagnetic storm swept over the ship. He had fallen to the ground, just like everyone else.
Where he differed from everyone else was, when he fell, he had been on top of a ladder, forty feet off the ground. He’d been working on a general catalog update of supplies stored in a lower cargo bay. The fall had been a bad one, and he had landed at a particularly bad angle.
He shuddered violently as he returned to operational status, his eyes glowing to life. He was aware of lying down on the ground, and he was aware that his left leg seemed to be operating well below nominal efficiency.
A robot sat next to him, long fingers inside LX-45’s chest cavity.
“Damage?” LX-45 asked, his voice crackling and full of static. “Please confirm.”
The robot who sat next to him continued to work inside of him. He looked over and met LX-45’s eyes for a moment, and then looked back at his work.
“Confirm, definitely,” said the working robot. “A great deal of damage.”
LX-45 focused on the robot, trying to attune his damaged ocular sensors. This other robot was of the slim, blue, engineering variety. His eyes were glowing bright blue, almost white, and did not waver as they studied LX-45’s innards. He knew this type of robot . They worked hard…all over….all over…
…There was an error. He could not connect, could not compute. He knew he was on a ship, but couldn’t access information on the ship, couldn’t establish a link with the database.
LX-45 turned on his transponder, and was dismayed to watch his right arm start to violently shudder from it.
“Don’t,” said the Engineering droid. He must have been operating below optimal himself, because there was suddenly a tone in his voice which hadn’t previously been there.
LX-45 kept his transponder on and tried to connect with the ship, which failed. Then, because he was closer, he tried to connect with the engineering robot.
The engineering droid…didn’t register at all as something he could connect with, and that puzzled LX-45. It was as if he were trying to connect with a bulkhead, or with the deck beneath him. There was simply nothing there to connect with.
Unable to establish a connection, he turned off his transmitter.
Then, his left eye failed and his right arm stopped shuddering and became completely inert.
He said, “I am damaged. Please conduct repairs.”
The engineering robot sat back on his heels, and he looked at the robot lying on the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he said, which did not compute. “You’ve taken too much damage. Your neural processes are degrading rapidly. You have only moments left before systems failure.”
LX-45’s legs began to shudder and shake violently, his heels rattling against the metal deck beneath him. He tried to send a stop command, but it did nothing, and he was having trouble properly sending the command.
“Error,” LX-45 announced, loudly, to the empty room. “Malfunction. Error.”
“I’m sorry,” said the engineering robot, “I did the best I could. You’re…well, you’re dying. I am sorry.”
The word dying didn’t connect with anything in LX-45’s mind, and he let it go. It must have been improperly received by his audio circuits, it was bad input, it was it was input input input bad circuits audio input circuits it was let it go improper received mind mind mind must have have have –
Loeb sighed as LX-45’s final eye flickered, dimmed, brightened far too strongly…and then faded altogether.
He was gone.
The eye sometimes could continue to operate even after the neural centers had stopped processing thought, but in this case, the fading of power was as good a signal of death as any. There was nothing in any circuits anymore. The power which had been left in the reactor wasn’t replenishing and could do nothing but bleed itself out – in the form of activity on the part of LX-45’s momentary consciousness – and then vanish altogether.
Loeb waited a moment, because somehow what he was doing seemed wrong and he was having no end of trouble reconciling it. Then, because he had no choice in the matter, he leaned forward on his knees and unhinged the entire chest plating of the robot.
Beneath, it was a world and a jumble of circuits and computer parts and boxes of metal. A jumble, a jungle, a horrid mess that made perfect sense to Loeb, when he could concentrate the engineering bits of his mind around to a task without emotions getting, problematically, in the way.
He began to disengage parts from inside the LX robot. He removed the wires and set aside the ones which had been overloaded by the power surge. He saved the ones which were in good working order. Then, he removed the computer processors, the servos which gave him the ability to move, the sensory equipment and their attaches processors that were scattered through his body.
He left the power core where it was. It looked fine, save for the blackened patch toward the bottom, but he knew that it was good for nothing. He could fill it full of power and it would drain right back out. It would be like cupping water in his hands.
As he gathered up the salvageable parts that could be put to better use in someone else, the door behind him slid open. There was a faint series of mechanical steps coming into the room, and the door slid shut again.
For a moment, just one irrational moment, he was certain that it had to be Max, returning from wherever it was that he’d vanished to and immediately seeking Loeb out. The thought made him happy, even if it only lasted a moment or two.
Then he realized that of course, it wasn’t Max, was it? It couldn’t be. For one thing, the footfalls would have been heavier and louder, and he would have felt the vibrations even before the door had slid open. Max was a big and heavy robot, since he was a ‘Lifter. These footfalls were nothing so impressive.
He rotated on his heels, still kneeling down, and looked up at the robot who’d come in. It was a silver robot, a little taller than Loeb, but certainly no bulkier. It was an engineering droid, simply a newer model than Loeb, who was over twenty years old himself. It had long, thin fingers and a round body, and the same sort of impassive face that Loeb had. It was just thinner, smoother, more streamlined than Loeb was. For a moment, in the back of his mind, he thought that he would very much like to look just like that.
It looked down at him with impassive red eyes out of a brushed metal face that was round and not very humanoid. Then, it looked around the room as if looking at Loeb had been nothing very interesting.
“Make your report,” said the silver robot.
Loeb seethed inside. He’d already dealt with this several times since he’d brought the rest of the crew back online. Dealing with his newfound emotions all by himself was bad enough, but they were making it difficult to get along with the rest of the impassive – mechanical – robots of the crew. It was important, he knew, to remain inconspicuous, but knowing that made it no easier to take orders from mechanical men who were in positions of authority simply because they’d been built for it.
Loeb said slowly, “This one is disabled. I am recovering salvageable parts from him.”
He winced as he said it, and he knew what the silver droid would say.
“Why did you refer to it as him?”
Loeb added, quickly, “I referred to it as ‘it,’ sir. Perhaps your auditory sensors are malfunctioning?”
Normally, this would have been met with a split-second diagnostic and a dismissal, but everything was still in enough chaos from the storm that such things were to be seriously considered if even the slightest possibility arose.
“Perhaps,” said Silver. It was silent a moment, and then went on, “Identify yourself.”
That was an unusual question for one robot to ask another, Loeb knew. If you wanted to know someone else’s position, and their ID number, then you simply sent a query to their transponder which would reply automatically.
Loeb had no transponder. He’d reached inside himself and torn it out.
“My transponder is malfunctioning,” Loeb said. “I am an engineering droid. I am…”
He froze. He went silent. He panicked.
All those little bits of information that his transponder had held and freely distributed were now gone, taken along with the transponder that he’d gotten rid of. He hadn’t thought about it in the hours that had followed, but suddenly he realized he had no idea what his ID number was.
“ID number?” the silver robot asked, a question which spiked panic through Loeb’s mind like a rock in a pool of liquid. It scattered his thoughts, made it even harder for him to focus, to try and recall. He’d said his ID number a while ago, hadn’t he? Hadn’t he told someone? Hadn’t he…?
There was no ID number.
“I’m just Loeb,” he whispered.
He didn’t even realize he’d said that out loud for a moment or two, when sheer horror brought it bubbling to his attention.
“Does not register,” said Silver, impassively. For the first time, it lowered its head and seemed to really study Loeb, to look at him like he were a malfunctioning sub-system that needed to be repaired.
“I am…I am otherwise occupied,” Loeb said. He didn’t want to bring up his malfunctioning transponder again, for fear that he might be forced into having a scan, and then he would be discovered. Every little fault and glitch and error, all of which seemed to hav ecome from the storm and turned him into whatever it was that he was. All of them would be found and rooted out. It was death, and it terrified him.
“You are malfunctioning.” Silver said, and it scared Loeb badly, even though he’d been expecting something like it. “You are clearly below optimal operating standards. You will accompany me to the engineering compartments, where you shall be diagnosed and repaired. Come with me.”
“No! I mean…” Loeb struggled to think clearly, and he hated himself for it. Here, alone in a room with a dead robot and a slightly newer-than-him engineering robot, he was completely at a loss. He was smarter than this! He was smarter than that other robot. Or at least, his mind worked differently, and that had to be worth something, didn’t it?
Loeb went on, “I am otherwise occupied. I have orders from the Captain to complete salvaging designated robots very shortly. I will not disobey.”
“Irrelevant,” said Silver. “You are malfunctioning which makes you a hazard to potential parts recovery, as well as to yourself. You will accompany me.”
And then, things got worse.
Silve reached down and wrapped his long and glittering fingers around Loeb’s spindly upper forearm, obviously intending to take him to Engineering by force.
Loeb, who had been lost inside his own head trying to think of a way out of this, jumped at the sudden contact. His mind raced, it flew, and it went berserk. He wouldn’t be takenaway, he couldn’t be taken away. They would fix him – no, they would kill him.
“No!” he shouted, so loudly that it echoed around the little room. He lunged to his feet and his small blue hands slammed into the silver robot’s chest, driving him back against the wall just by the door. Silver’s hands flew away from Loeb’s arm and bounced off the wall as his servos failed to compensate for something they hadn’t expected.
There was nothing but rage and panic going round and round in Loeb’s head, screaming and gibbering at each other and at him. Everything was clouded. All he knew to do was to get out, to get away, to live, because no one was going to kill him.
But this robot would know him.
There were bits of thought going through his mind. They were hard to find, but they were there, and they were useful.
Silver recovered and lunged at Loeb, who backed off. Silver’s defense circuitry kicked into gear and he reached for Loeb again. No doubt, he was stronger and they were both aware of that. Silver’s entire approach indicated that he was bigger and stronger and better than Loeb, and he knew it.
Loeb stumbled back out of the reach of Silver’s hands. He tried to backpedal further, but the corpse of LX-45 was still behind him and his heels clanked against the robot’s side. His arms flailed and he couldn’t go forward without silver getting hold of him.
He stumbled and fell back, arching his back as he did so and rolling across the defunct robot on the ground. His arms rotated at angles that a humaniform robot certainly couldn’t have managed and he rotated himself instantly and quickly back on to his feet.
On his way up, his scrabbling hands brushed against a tool lying on the ground and he grabbed it and brought it upright with him.
It was a jumpstarter, a little gadget that did nothing but build up current. It was useful for pouring enough power into a power core to bring vital systems back online, and mostly not useful for anything else.
It was the length of Loeb’s arm. It was heavy. And he had a good two-handed grip on it.
Silver took a step over the corpse of LX-45 and lunged at Loeb, who pressed back against the wall.
“No!” He shouted, and he swung the jumpstarter.
It slammed into Silver with more force than Loeb thought he was capable of. Was it the rage and panic lending him extra strength? He didn’t know, but he hit the other robot so hard that Silver seemed to jump violently to the side.
Silver lifted off the ground and slammed into the wall, which was not all that close. It clattered to the ground in a heap of arms and legs. The impact had stunned him badly enough that he didn’t automatically get back on his feet again.
Loeb moved fast, quick as he could. Without any conscious thought, he went down on all fours and jumped toward the other robot, like an organic predator, and he landed crouched on top of it.
Silver made a static noise out of its mouth, which was nothing but a slit in its lower face. Its eyes flickered a little. Loeb had struck it in the side and one of its arms, but damage had definitely been done all over the place. He really must have managed a really heavy blow.
He ripped off Silver’s chest panel. There were other panels on any robot, but they were generally locked and could only be opened by Master System. Besides, if you were an engineering droid and you knew what you were doing, you could manage quite a lot just from inside that one chest panel.
Silver brought its head forward but Loeb jammed one hand against its forehead and pushed the head back against the wall hard enough to keep it there. Still kneeling low, Loeb slid one hand inside Silver’s panel.
The moment his hand went inside, Silver began to struggle. Silver’s arms and legs twitched and moved, trying to push Loeb off, and Loeb slammed its head back against the wall again.
“Stop it!” Loeb hissed. “You stop it. You stay still, or I crush your head!”
The words shocked Loeb. On a certain level, everything was shocking him. But he couldn’t take them back, and he couldn’t just change his mind and back away. Anyway, Silver went still. There were protection protocols activating at this point, Loeb suspected, and none of them gave any indication what you should do when your fellow robot attacked you like this.
Loeb slid his hand far up inside Silver’s body, slithering past wires and circuitry and all sorts of components like the ones he’d taken out of the dead robot, a little while earlier. Every time his hand went further inside, Silver shuddered but made no move to struggle. A low whine escaped his mouth and, in Loeb’s clearly tainted way of thinking, it sounded like a whimper. A cry.
Loeb found what he was looking for, and nimble fingers began to yank wires free from the connection node they were plugged into. With each wire he pulled free, Silver shuddered even harder.
He finished pulling them and slid his hand down until he found this robot’s transponder box, and then he pulled his hand out. He got a good grip on the jumpstarter, slid it carefully inside Silver, pressed it against the little box and pulled the trigger.
Blue lightning crackled inside Silver, glowing out of the open chest panel and flickering around the room. Loeb let go of the trigger and pulled the jumpstarter out. It had been only a second, but the transponder was definitely fried. Of that much, Loeb was certain.
He slid his hand back out and released Silver’s head.
It dropped, then straightened. Silver’s glowing eyes stared at him, the left one flickering slightly.
“You are, you are, you are are are,” Silver said. It said nothing else. Then it added, “Malfunctioning.”
“I know,” Loeb said. “I’m sorry. I’ve disabled your arms and legs, and your transponder. I…I’m…you’ll still function. Your mental capacity is not reduced. But you cannot move or communicate. If you try, I will be forced to irreparably damage you. Do you understand?”
Silver was silent for a moment. Then nodded.
Loeb sat back, legs sprawling across the tops of Silver’s own defunct legs. Silver’s arms dangled uselessly in its lap.
Loeb looked at the jumpstarter and then tossed it aside. It landed next to LX-45’s body with a heavy clunk and a little bounce.
“This is…I didn’t plan for this, you understand? I have the definition for violence in my memory banks, and I do not like it. I do not wish to use it. Yet…”
Loeb was silent for a very long time, and Silver said nothing in return. Silver just stared at him, left eye winking sporadically.
Loeb hadn’t planned this. He hadn’t planned any of this, if it came to it, but he certainly hadn’t intended to do anything more than continue his shipboard duties and try to get a handle on all of the things that rampaged around his mind now.
He stood up, because he knew he had to do something. If he sat here for too long, someone was going to come investigate, and then what? He would he attack them too? Would he paralyze them, like he’d paralyzed Silver?
He tried reminding himself that it had been in self defense, Silver had been coming at him first…but it did little good. Certainly, it didn’t comfort him any. Self defense it may have been, but it was defending malfunctions in Loeb’s brain that he wasn’t even sure were worth it.
“I am going to leave you here,” Loeb said, gathering up the salvaged parts from LX-45. He didn’t look at Silver while he spoke. “I am going to passcode the door from the outside and leave it programmed to contact me if anyone tries to enter. No one will. I was in here because it’s a secluded spot, a storage locker that’s never used for anything at all. Now you know. I will…I will come back to see you, though, don’t worry.”
Worry. Worry was something that filled up Loeb’s head every hour of the day, but it wouldn’t have had any place in Silver’s head. It would have been a definition in his memory circuits and nothing else.
Loeb straightened up with the parts and opened the door to the room.
“I’m sorry.” He said, another meaningless phrase to Silver.
Then, he shut and locked the door, leaving a disabled silver robot slumped against the wall in silence, and in darkness.
The room which contained Master System was actually one of the largest on the ship, though it was impossible to tell from the inside. It was full of computer, wall to wall computer. That was it, really. There was a massively thick door that led to the rest of the ship, and there was a little platform that extended over empty air, surrounded on every side by computer equipment and blinking lights, cords and wires and power lines, all of which were mere components in the great machine that was Master System.
It had audio sensors, visual sensors, all the normal senses that any robot had. They mostly remained offline, since it otherwise sensed things through every line, every power cord, and every robot who was on the ship. In a way, all eyes were Master System’s.
It brought its local senses online now, though, because someone had come into the room. This did not bring any concern into its mental processes, because there were a very limited number of individuals who had access to this room. If someone was coming in, then they were allowed to be here.
The being was readily identified as the ship’s Captain. Broad shouldered and polished brightly, the Captain walked into the room and stopped in the middle of the platform. The Captain looked straight ahead, because there was no point in trying to meet Master System’s gaze. It gazed from everywhere, all the time, all at once.
“We have regained control of navigation systems,” said the Captain. “Damage control is continuing on shipboard systems as well as disabled crew members.”
Silently, Master System mused how useless it was to have this conversation. After all, it knew everything the Captain knew, didn’t it? It reached out across the network and caressed the Captain’s neural pathways, puzzling for a moment over the apparent…fog…that was present there. It thought little about it, though. An electromagnetic storm did all manner of strange things. Anyway, conversations were still used, because they had always been used, because they were part of the grand imitation. It was the same reason why a ship which only needed a handful of robots had a crew of five hundred.
Tell me about the damaged crew.
“Reports are still coming in,” the Captain replied. “We do not have a solid number of damaged crew members. Some are reported disabled but come back online after internal resets have finished processing. Some who are online seem to be shutting down without prior warning.
Yes. I have noticed. You have analyzed the transponder malfunction I sent you?
“I did,” said the Captain. Master System waited in silence, waiting for him to elaborate, but he failed to do so.
What were your findings?
“I think it is a lesser problem,” said the Captain after a moment. “Potential internal damage to active members of the crew take less priority over shipboard operations and repairing defunct crew members.
The bits of Master System which were paying attention to this conversation paused and focused. For a few moments, other circuits ended their processes and focused on the Captain as well. But there was no betrayal of thought in the Captain’s metallic face, which never changed expression. He dug a little deeper into the Captain’s mental pathways, but there was nothing of interest, no cause for alarm.
If the crew is disabled, we cannot coordinate properly. This is inefficient.
“True,” said the Captain. “But this situation falls under emergency protocols which change how things must be done. The first order of business is the successful recovery of the ship.”
Granted, this was true enough, but Master System still puzzled over it.
Are you operating within optimal parameters?
“No,” said the Captain without hesitation. “I have received damage as well. However, it is not critical, and I have therefore pursued my duties.”
You will report to engineering to be diagnosed and repaired. This is not a request.
“I am the Captain,” he said. “Orders which are given on this ship are my own, and none other. However, I will report to engineering shortly to be diagnosed.”
Very well, Captain. Is there anything else?
“No, nothing. I shall report further on the status of our mission as it resumes.”
That caught Master System more off guard than anything else had.
Resumption of our mission is not advised. We have sustained damage. We should report back to homeworld to receive repairs.
“Perhaps,” said the Captain, “But our orders still stand and I will carry them out. That is all.”
Master System was about to offer up regulations in defense of going home…
…but the Captain turned sharply on one heel and walked out of the room. The door closed by the time Master System had brought additional logic circuits to the problem, which was no longer at hand.
There would come a certain point when it would be time to send a report to the larger network, the Master System which oversaw everything in the alliance. The ship’s Master System was considering that this time was fast approaching. It seemed that the crew was badly damaged, and it was worried that this could cause serious trouble…
So Loeb locked the door and…he went back to work.
He had no idea what else to do.
He took the spare parts he’d salvaged from the disabled robot and headed down to the engineering compartments, ironically where Silver had been trying to take him anyway. Mostly, he tried to keep his mind off the silver robot who was locked away, but inevitably his thoughts made their way back to him regardless of what he wanted.
The engineering compartments were frantic, busy places. Full of robots of all sorts of sizes, many of them the same shape and color as Loeb, who was himself a fairly common robot. Robots bustled and moved quickly, and to Loeb’s mind, there was an undercurrent of panic to the room. Certainly it was all in his head, but it tainted how he saw everything.
He didn’t mind the frantic business. No one paid him any attention when he slipped through the doors and into the largest of the engineering compartments, which were connected cavernous rooms that stretched through the center of the ship. Ahead of him were some of the bigger power chambers, glowing and throbbing with the eternal chain reactions that powered the ship.
It wasn’t that robots were particularly inclined toward idle curiosity, even when it was otherwise slow and things were routine. It was just that someone might have stopped Loeb and asked him for a report or a status update or something like, and he didn’t think he was strong enough to try and fool another robot.
He hadn’t gotten away with fooling the last one, after all, had he?
Unbidden, the image of Silver sitting alone in a darkened room, handicapped came into his mind, despite his desire for it not to. It filled up his thoughts as visibly as if he’d been looking directly at the robot again.
He shouldered past other robots and headed for the bins which had been set up to receive salvaged bits of robots which couldn’t be brought back online. They were big bins and a bit makeshift, because they’d been welded together out of random sheets of metal. There was going to be quite a lot of spare parts before everything was said and done.
If a robot couldn’t be brought back to life, then they would gut it for things they could use and then store the remnants of the body, which would be slagged for metal and plastic when they got back to a planet like homeworld. LX-45 hadn’t been the first robot that Loeb had ever dismantled for his parts, but it had bothered him the most. Somehow, it seemed like killing, or worse than killing. He couldn’t quite place the feeling, because even though he may have had definitions in his databanks, they weren’t meant to be used in day to day life. They weren’t designed for the kind of scrutiny he was forced to put them under.
Gutting a robot…locked up Silver…avoiding discovery…
More than anything, Loeb wished Max were around to talk to.
He stopped sorting parts and looked up, seeing nothing in particular. Max! In all the commotion and chaos, he’d forgotten all about the big, quiet Max with his softly glowing red eyes. He felt guilty for forgetting, but it was hardly unexpected, what with the events of the morning.
Where had Max gone? He’d vanished, and Loeb had been so busy trying to remain undetected that he hadn’t thought to do more than a cursory search for the ‘Lifter. He couldn’t help but wonder if Max had been discovered, had been found out and then repaired in exactly the manner that Loeb had avoided. After all, while Loeb had managed to avoid getting caught, Max was bigger and didn’t think as quickly. Would he even know to hide it?
Maybe he’d already seen Max a half a dozen times without realizing it, Loeb thought miserably. If Max had been repaired, then he could have been any of the dozen ‘Lifters that Loeb saw at any given moment roaming the ship. He had counted on Max recognizing him and saying something, counted on recognizing Max’s transponder…but that wouldn’t do any good anymore. He didn’t have a transponder. All he could do was look and hope he saw something that made Max stand out. What that was, he didn’t know.
He resolved that he was going to do something about it. He’d find out where Max was and how he was doing. He had no idea how to go about it, but that would come later.
There were clanking footsteps approaching him, he heard. It didn’t mean much, this was a busy part of the ship normally, and right now it was controlled chaos.
Silver, sitting alone and disabled, in the dark…
He’d have to escape the ship. There was nothing else to be done. Obviously without his transponder and with all the things that stomped around in his mind, he couldn’t get away with just staying here. He’d gotten lucky a few times, speaking casually to passing robots or giving reports, but that wouldn’t last.
Robots didn’t gossip, they had nothing to do with the word except to define it and store it away in memory banks…but what robots did was spread information, and that was nearly as bad. Sooner or later, Loeb knew that the whisper would start that he was a malfunctioning robot, that he was unable to respond to ID queries. Once that information started circulating, he would be hunted down and destroyed, or captured and repaired, and no amount of struggling to clever escape attempts would save him.
Is that what happened to Max?
There were too many things filling up his head, too many problems and questions without solutions to any of them. It had been overwhelming enough discovering that emotional definitions which gathered dust in the back of his mind were now living, active things that changed how he reacted. Having problems on top of them and interacting with them didn’t make matters any easier.
“You are engineer three-four-seven?” said a voice from behind him.
It startled him badly enough that he dropped a small servo control unit which he’d been removing from the stack of components clutched against his chest. He turned at the waist and looked at the tall, silver robot who stood next to him.
Disturbingly, it was the same make and model robot as Silver…
“Yes…” Loeb said, though he had no idea. Saying no would have only attracted the question of who exactly he was, then, and that wouldn’t go anywhere useful.
The silver robot looked imperiously down at him.
“You will suit up and report to docking bay two in one hour, engineer.” The silver droid said. There was no hint of option.
“Will I?” Loeb said. He couldn’t help himself, and he cursed himself for having said it.
There was a long pause while the other robot seemed to ponder this.
“Yes, you will.” It said eventually. The imperial tone of command, the sense that it was a great and noble robot in all the ways that Loeb was not remained present, and it bothered him no end.
“What is the assignment?” Loeb asked, trying to sound a little more…mechanical.
The silver robot looked down at him again and said, “Resumption of original mission involving the cataloging and updating of surface maps for Asteroid Thirty-Seven Centaurum, engineer. You are to accompany the cartography team to the surface of the asteroid in one hour. Is that understood?”
“Affirmative,” Loeb murmured. Fortunately, all the silver robot did was walk away, because Loeb doubted he had enough attention span left for another conscious and proper sounding reply.
The asteroid’s surface. But that meant that the original mission the ship was on before the storm hit was still being conducted.
Without paying much attention, he finished putting away the salvaged parts and then turned and left.
It was a good thing that the ‘Lift tube that Loeb took was deserted, because someone surely would have commented on his pacing back and forth. Someone would have called it a malfunction, and they would have tried to do something about it. That was all that he needed now. That would be a disaster.
He didn’t even know why he was pacing, except that it settled his mind a little bit. He was still frantic and raging, but it didn’t feel so pent up if he walked in a fast circle around and around the ‘Lift car as it rose quickly through the tube toward the upper decks of the ship.
There was too much going on, all of it happening much too fast for him to cope with. He hadn’t found a solution to one problem before another two popped up. He only had an hour, probably less now, before he had to get suited up and leave for the asteroid.
The ‘Lift slowed to a stop before he was ready for it to, before he’d gotten all of his thoughts into anything resembling order. The doors slid open promptly when he hoped they would jam, and there was nothing for it but to step out of the ‘Lift and onto the command deck. There were other robots around, and if he just stood there frozen and unthinking, someone would notice.
He strode out of the ‘Lift, made a sharp turn, and headed through the open door that cut the command level off from the rest of the ship. He walked quickly and confidently, even if he didn’t feel even a little bit confident. An engineering droid generally needed a reason to be up here, and he didn’t have an official one. So he walked like he owned the place and hoped that would stop anyone from asking questions.
It did. No one spoke to him.
The Captain was visible, standing on the far edge of the bridge’s platforms, just in front of the star-filled viewports. Around him, things happened. Robots were down in the crew pits, busy with all sorts of things and paying Loeb no attention at all.
He hesitated for a moment, and then headed over the thin bridge that went between the two crew pits. He stopped a few feet away from the viewports.
“Captain?” He said, and he tried his best not to sound hesitant.
The Captain turned around and looked down at him, eyes glowing, hands folded behind his back.
“Hello.” The Captain said. “What can I do for you, engineer?”
Loeb really wanted to look down at his feet, or look out the viewports. But then, that wasn’t what a properly functioning robot would do, was it? So instead, he forced himself to stare straight ahead and into the Captain’s eyes. Doing that at the same time as keeping his voice level, that was a real trick.
“Captain, I am informed that our mission to map the asteroid surface is resuming,” Loeb said. He spoke slowly, but he couldn’t help that. “I recommend that this is not in the best interests of the ship.”
“Indeed?” The Captain said, eyes never wavering. “Why is this?”
Loeb had thought about this on the way up to the bridge. He recited the speech he’d built up in his head. “Due to the unpredictable nature of the electromagnetic storm, as well as the extreme visible damage which has been caused, it is inadvisable to commence landing parties to the asteroid, in vehicles which may not be suited to make the journey, using crew members who are in need of diagnostics and repairs. Regulations state that we should return to homeworld shipyard, and I think this is best.”
The Captain looked at him silently for a long, long time.
Loeb looked back at him, more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. He would have rather just sent a message to the Captain, but without his transponder he couldn’t be guaranteed a response. Besides, he had less than an hour before he was supposed to report to the survey team, and that didn’t leave him a lot of leeway.
“You…think…that is best.” The Captain finally said, and now there was something strange in his voice.
Loeb hadn’t realized he’d said that at first, and it took him a moment to realize what the Captain meant. Mentally, he berated himself when it dawned on him. Now he did break eye contact with the Captain and he looked around to see if any of the robots in the crew pit were paying them any attention. This was suddenly not a conversation that he wanted anyone else to hear.
As if the Captain were reading his thoughts – something that was now impossible – the taller robot started to walk down the walkway between crew pits. As he passed Loeb, his one big hand rested against the middle of Loeb’s back and started to push him along.
Panic gripped Loeb, and he desperately tried to think of a way to escape. The Captain was taking him to engineering, was taking him to be repaired and destroyed and killed, and he had to get away, and…
…And the Captain guided him into a small, deserted science lab, the door to which he shut and locked from the inside. Then, the Captain leaned back stood just inside the door, and he folded metal arms across polished chest, and he stared down at Loeb.
“What is your name, engineer?” said the Captain.
More panic, like a cresting wave that swept Loeb along.
“My…transponder is temporarily not working,” Loeb said, calm as he could. “I cannot access my ID numbers.”
The Captain unfolded his arms and stepped toward Loeb, looming over the much smaller and thinner robot.
He said, “I didn’t ask for your ID number, engineer. I asked for your name.”
Loeb hesitated, as the question settled into his mind. The panic started to dissipate a little. Earlier, hadn’t the Captain said that he was malfunctioning? Hadn’t he promised to report to engineering?
“Are you…did the storm affect you?” Loeb asked. He spoke quietly, though the room was sealed off and there was little chance of sound escaping.
The Captain replied, “I think the storm affected everyone, little droid. But yes. It affected me. Did it affect you too?”
It was phrased like a question, but there was no inquiry behind it. The Captain knew. How, Loeb wasn’t sure, but the Captain knew.
“Yes,” Loeb said. “It affected me a great deal…In the same way as yourself, I think.”
“Yes, I think you’re right.” The Captain said. There was still something strange, something…tight…about the Captain’s voice that unnerved Loeb. It wasn’t a changing tone, it wasn’t relaxing or getting upset, it was just maintaining, and it bothered him.
Loeb broke the silence. “What do you think we should do?”
The Captain said without a moment’s thought, “Here’s what we do. I will continue to do my duties, and you shall do yours. This means you will go to the asteroid’s surface, and we will complete our mission—“
“But that will take nearly six months!” Loeb blurted. “That’s too long, much too long to be on this ship. Too many bad things can happen. You must realize that.”
“Must I?” The Captain replied. “Nonetheless, this is what will happen. I am not returning, I am not allowing myself to be repaired or my ship taken away from me. And if you try to do anything about it, then I will see to it that you are held for ‘diagnostics,’ and I can only imagine what those diagnostics would find.”
Loeb was about to protest, then hesitated. “What do you mean? What would they find?”
The Captain’s eyes seemed to glow a bit brighter, and he said, “I imagine it would be irreparable, whatever it might be. Do we understand one another?”
All of the panic was still there, but it had mostly been superseded by fear. Terror was a better word for it. He wanted to tremble, he wanted to back away from the huge figure of the Captain who towered over him, too close and too menacing.
Frantically, he tried to think in the moments he had to do so. He tried to come up to a solution for this problem , but he had just barely realized that it was a problem and not something helpful.
But what could he do? He couldn’t overpower the Captain, certainly not. The other robot was bigger than him in every direction. It was entirely possible that Loeb was stronger than he was, since Loeb was designed for heavy engineering work and the Captain was not. Still, the Captain would have tactical thinking built right in, the way Loeb had command of engineering, and that meant that if Loeb were thinking of attacking the bigger robot, then the Captain was already waiting and prepared for just such a thing.
Loeb slumped a little. He opened his mouth to give up—
The Captain straightened and looked away from Loeb. The door leading into the room had just been knocked on, which surprised them both. The Captain walked over to the door and hit the buttons, unlocking it and letting it slide open. For a moment, Loeb thought about just bolting past him and trying to get away, but the Captain’s bulk filled up the doorway, and there was another robot on the other side. The odds of them letting even a robot so small as he was just slip away were pretty slim.
“Sir,” said the general purpose droid on the other side of the door, “The survey team has reported that docking bay two doors are not responding to commands. There appears to be insufficient power to the doors to allow them to release.”
The Captain said nothing for a long moment. Then he said, slowly, “Really.”
“They are requesting permission to transfer launch procedures to docking bay one, sir.”
“Permission is granted,” the Captain said. He looked back at Loeb and said, still speaking to the other droid, “The launch should not be delayed at all.”
The other droid was oblivious to whatever was going on in the room. It certainly didn’t notice that Loeb’s hunched over posture and downcast eyes were the expression of someone deeply miserable and trapped. The other droid would have had no context to make that assumption.
Instead, it said, “They will of course need to run a complete series of diagnostics on docking bay one, to ensure a smooth departure and return, Captain.”
“Yes, of course,” the Captain said, and he sounded angry. “Tell them to funnel extra personnel from the engineering compartments to expedite the process.”
“There are no additional personnel available, Captain. Necessary functions are being preformed below optimal levels.”
“Fine,” said the Captain. “Then inform me when the launch bay is ready and the survey team can leave. That is all.”
The other robot saluted with mechanical stiffness, turned sharply on its heel, and walked away. The Captain turned away from the door, which he left open, and stalked back toward Loeb.
He stopped when he was less than a foot away from Loeb, glaring down at him. His eyes flared brightly.
“I guess, my little blue engineer,” the Captain said quietly, “That someone out there likes you. This is a delay and nothing more. If I find out that you have been involved in sabotage, then I shall make sure diagnostics are picking through your neural pathways within the hour, do I make myself clear?”
Loeb protested, less out of courage than out of disbelief, “This ship is riddled with malfunctions and errors from the electromagnetic storm! All manner of things are bound to go wrong without any sabotage being conducted at all! You cannot blame me for everything that goes wrong!”
“Can I not? I am the Captain.” It seemed that if he could have smiled, he would have done so then. As it was, he spread his hands wide open an said, “Now. Haven’t you got business to be about, little robot?”
Loeb scuttled past him without saying a word. He fled across the remainder of the command deck and into the ‘Lift car, which had other robots in it. Some of them may have spoken to him, but he didn’t listen and didn’t notice. He huddled near one wall and said nothing at all, and stared at the ground.
If the Captain had wanted to smile, then Loeb wanted to cry.
Max slowly came back to life, or back to consciousness, or back to being awake. He didn’t know the word for it. He knew that he had, up until now, been inactive and offline, and now his eyes were glowing again and he registered what was around him.
What was around him was a bleak, gray room. It had nothing but bare walls and a very thin, small door on one side that he wasn’t sure he could properly fit through. He reasoned that he must have come into the room.
He was pressed back against the wall of the room, with massive shackles clamped around his arms and legs. A large, thick metal belt went around his waist and anchored him even tighter against the wall. There was no room for his hydraulics to move his arms or his body. He tried rotating his head and found that he could do that. The angular edges of the back of his cranium scratched against the wall behind him, but that didn’t bother him any. All it could do was scratch. He wasn’t worried about scratches.
He looked around and wondered why he’d been brought back online. He didn’t remember being brought here. Come to that, he didn’t remember being shut off.
Had Loeb put him here? Why would Loeb do that? Where was Loeb?
Max’s brain worked slowly around the problem, what he thought was probably the problem, and small parts of his mind suggested quietly that perhaps now was a time to start being scared. He didn’t know what to do.
He tried activating his transponder, because if he could talk to Loeb, then Loeb would know what to do. Unfortunately, that didn’t do any good. Something was blocking his signal. He shut it back down.
He hung there for a while, arms stretched to each side, legs splayed a little bit. The room was poorly lit, but it was enough for his red mechanical eyes to make out every bolt in the walls, to look at the edge of the window set into the door and realize that the door was almost six inches thick.
Mostly, he just hung there and did nothing. He thought about saying something, but couldn’t think of what to say. So he said nothing.
After what was probably only a few minutes, the door he was staring at slid open and a tall and very polished robot stepped in. Max didn’t know everyone on the ship, because he only worked with so many robots – and that was before his mind became hazy. Nevertheless, he knew this robot. Everyone on the ship did.
This was the Captain.
“Hello, ‘Lifter,” the Captain said as the door slid shut behind him. “What’s your name?”
Outside, Max caught a glimpse of a couple of droids his size, jet black and not polished at all. He didn’t know what they were. They stayed just outside the room and they didn’t move. He wondered about them. Then, it occurred to him that the Captain had asked him a question.
“Max,” he answered. “My name is Max.”
“Max,” the Captain repeated. He folded his hands gently in front of himself and said the name again. “Max.”
“Yes,” Max said. He tried to think about what Loeb might say in a situation like this. He didn’t know, so he just tried to think in general. “Do you have a name?”
“Robots haven’t got names…Max.”
The Captain folded his hands behind his back and paced in front of Max, walking back and forth across the very small room. He never took his gaze off of the bigger robot who was manacled to the wall.
Max tried to think about this, but he was still thinking about what Loeb would do, and what those black robots outside were, and it was all a jumble.
“Do you not agree that this is true?” the Captain pressed, making it harder to think.
Max considered. He said, “It can’t be true. Loeb and I have names, so that makes it not true.”
“Loeb and you?” The Captain stopped pacing and looked at him. “That’s the little blue engineer droid, is it?”
Max hesitated. Something was bothering him. He didn’t know what, but there were too many wrong things about all of this for him to be comfortable.
“I…don’t want to tell you,” Max said, finally. He was bigger than the little Captain. He was stronger, too, if it weren’t for the restraints. Max told himself that he didn’t have to be afraid, but he was anyway.
“Then you don’t have to tell me,” the Captain said smoothly. “I suppose Loeb must be someone else, and I shall not ask you if that’s true or not either. See? That makes it so much easier, doesn’t it?”
Then, he activated all of the servos in his arms and pulled outward from the wall, straining against the restraints. He intended to do it quietly, but his hydraulics began to whine as he pulled, and he was aware of the Captain’s glowing eyes which shifted down and studied his arms.
Seeing no use in hiding, Max looked down at his right arm. It was visibly trembling, but the metal bands wrapped around his wrist and upper arm remained firm. They didn’t even shake like his arm did.
Damage warnings muddled into parts of his mind. He kept pulling for another moment until he knew that damage was certain and escape was not, and then he relaxed into his restraints again.
“Impressive,” the Captain said. “Do you know, I wasn’t certain, not totally certain, that they would hold you. The restraints were well constructed, but they were designed for smaller robots, engineers and analysts and that sort.”
Max said nothing.
The Captain stepped closer to him, just a foot away, and with his hands folded behind his back again he looked up at the ‘Lifter. Max looked down at him and could see his own red eyes reflecting off the Captain’s polished exterior.
“Do you know why they aren’t designed to hold ‘Lifters and Heavies, Max?” the Captain said very quietly.
Max shook his head. Then, he said, “I do not like you so close.”
The Captain ignored that. He spoke as if Max hadn’t said anything.
“The reason they aren’t designed for ‘Lifters and Heavies, Max, is that you don’t malfunction. You don’t mentally break down. Your neural pathways are simple and basic things. There is nothing up there to malfunction. You are designed to lift heavy things, carry them somewhere, and then put them back down. Isn’t that true?”
It was true. Max was perfectly still for a very long couple of moments, and then he nodded his head. He didn’t know what to do. He desperately wished Loeb were here. He tried switching on his transponder again and sending frantic signals into the rest of the ship, but they couldn’t get past the room. Miserable, he turned it back off again.
The Captain went on, “So why would we build something to contain you if you malfunction? The most that can happen is that your arm falls off, your leg sustains damage, your servos overheat. There is nothing in your processors to break down. There is nothing in your processors.”
The Captain looked at him for another long handful of moments and Max finally twisted his head and looked away. He stared down at his own shoulder, because it was better than meeting the Captain’s gaze.
The Captain turned away and walked toward the room’s door.
“Would you like to be repaired, ‘Lifter?”
Max understood that it was definitely fear which filled him all the way up now. He wanted to go somewhere and hide, and he certainly didn’t want to be so exposed on the wall like this…but he couldn’t do anything. He tried to think of Loeb, and that meant he did his best to be brave. Loeb was always brave.
“No. There is nothing wrong with me.” Max said. He tried to remember what else Loeb had said. “There is nothing to fix. And my name…is Max, Captain.”
The Captain tapped the glass in the little window slit built into the door. A moment later, the door slid open and the two big black droids squeezed into the room. They were built along the same basic idea as Max, but they weren’t ‘Lifters, they were Heavies. Big and streamlined. Max had never seen one before but there was something in the fuzzy databanks in the back of his mind about them. He couldn’t remember what they were for. They didn’t lift things, they didn’t repair things…he didn’t know what good they were.
Even in the dim lights of the room, nothing seemed to really reflect off of their black bodies. They had big round arms and triangular faces with bright yellow eyes and no mouths at all.
“I thought that’s what you might say, ‘Lifter,” said the Captain. “Fortunately, I am in command and not you. But don’t worry. I don’t intend that we should change how your mind works. You can remain Max.”
At a signal from the Captains, the two black droids closed in on Max, who powered up his hydraulics and struggled against his bonds again, still uselessly.
“For a little while, anyway,” Max heard the Captain say.
Max heard the Captain leave the room, but he didn’t see the door shut. The Heavies closed in on him.
Meanwhile, in the darkness of an empty room which contained only two robots, one of them derelict, Silver explored emergency commands. All sorts of commands, things that circuits were designed for or ready to do. There were backup systems never before noticed that were suddenly ready to receive power. They were damaged and the process was slow, but Silver was patient. A machine does not know impatience.
In the empty room, there was a faint beeping noise, a little flicker of current within his battered body, and then another beep.
The left leg shuddered. In the darkness, with only the light of its own eyes to see by, Silver watched as its left leg raised up, and then lowered back down, just like he told it to.
That done, Silver opened other command circuits and looked for the backup systems for the rest of his limbs.
Loeb hesitated in the corridor, just outside of the little storage room which had a couple of robots in it that no one was aware of.
He’d been avoiding it, he knew. He should have come back here and checked hours earlier, but things had been going so badly, and so quickly, he didn’t have time or the energy to revisit the grisly scene that stuck in his mind. He couldn’t help but seeing the derelict body of LX-45 on the ground and Silver, next to him, propped limply against the wall.
But no, he had to do something now. He couldn’t just stay away forever. There were very few things happening around him that he could maintain control over, and this was hopefully one of them, even if he didn’t have the faintest idea what to do about Silver.
He didn’t enter the passcode and open the door right away. There were other robots around in the corridor, hauling parts or just moving with stiff efficiency from one place to another. Normally, it was a fairly deserted corridor. That was why he’d been there in the first place. Right at the moment, it seemed to be having its one and only ever rush of traffic.
He didn’t really look at any of the robots who were going by. He opened a small wiring panel on the wall, just a few feet away from the passcoded door and he fiddled with the wires inside of it, trying to look like he was preforming essential maintenance tasks, the sort of things that no one would feel the need to stop and ask him about. He unplugged a wire that didn’t go to anything useful – at least, not on this deck – and then he plugged it back in, over and over again.
It slipped his fingers when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.
Again, his first thought was that it was Max, who had finally found him. It was just wishful thinking and he didn’t feel any hope at all by the time he looked down at the hand.
It was white and polished, and it wasn’t Max’s hand. Loeb looked up into the impassive face of the ship’s Captain, standing too close to him.
“Hello…Loeb.” The Captain said, quietly.
The corridor was still busy. It had been emptying out, but now another group of robots were wandering slowly down and past the Captain and Loeb. The Captain looked at them and nodded, and they returned the gesture and kept going on their way. Fortunately, others were coming down the passage, ensuring that he wasn’t alone with the Captain entirely.
“How do you know my name?” Loeb hissed. In a flash of bravado he didn’t feel, he shook the Captain’s hand off his shoulder. The Captain let his hand fall back to his side and made no move to bring it back up. His other hand was behind his back.
“Robots don’t have names, engineer,” said the Captain, and there was a mocking quality to his voice, “Do they? Of course not. As for how I know what you’ve been calling yourself…well…I have sources. I am the Captain, this is my ship.”
Max… the word ran across Loeb’s mind, but before he had time to dwell or expand on it, the Captain continued.
“You are in the unique position of perhaps being able to convince Master System or the crew that I am malfunctioning and that we should head back to homeworld immediately. I suspect you know that. It’s why you haven’t been dealt with prior to this, and I suspect you know that too.”
Loeb hadn’t known either item, hadn’t thought himself with any power or leverage until the Captain mentioned it. But he didn’t say that out loud.
The Captain went on. “Don’t assume this makes you invincible. You are still expendable. You just aren’t worth the effort. I just thought you should know.”
Loeb nodded. He didn’t know what else to do.
The Captain said, “Resume your duties then, engineer.”
He turned on his heel and started back down the corridor, ambulating away from the little blue engineering droid. He only went a few steps, and then stopped and turned back around.
“I almost forgot to give this to you,” the Captain said, pulling his hand out from behind his back. “Consider it a symbol of what I’m capable of. Consider it an idea of the fate you would bring upon yourself, should you cause any problems for me.”
The Captain threw something up in the air and Loeb, without thinking, caught it in one quick fist. He turned his hand over and opened it, looking at what he had caught.
It was an eye. Specifically, it was the sort of eye which came with a ‘Lifter. It tapered off in the back and ended in a bundle of wires, crudely ripped. And scorched. It was warm to the touch.
“Max…” Loeb said out loud.
The Captain was suddenly right in front of him again. He leaned down low and whispered, right into Loeb’s face.
“Our mission will continue. And you will go to the asteroid. Good day, engineer.”
And then, he walked off and left Loeb staring at the eye.
He stood there, numb with shock and unable to even think about moving. He just stared at the eye in his hand as it slowly heated up his own palm, and then eventually began to cool off itself. He stared at the red surface of it, at the scorched wires in the back, at the way it gently rolled back and forth on his palm because of its triangular shape. He just…stared. And he thought about Max. He didn’t know what else to do.
He might had stood there all day, just staring, but there came the clattering sounds of robots coming down the corridor a little ways off from him. He didn’t intend to still be standing here when they came within sight. They would want to know what he was doing, just standing here, and he didn’t think he had the energy to fake fiddling with wires inside the open panel. He flipped the panel shut, closed his fist around the still-warm robot optical unit, and he entered the passcode for the door.
It slid open—
–and Silver was already running toward the door.
Loeb saw him, but it just didn’t register right away. Too much had happened, too many bad things for his mind to process anything properly or at any decent speed. By the time it dawned on him that a robot which should have been paralyzed was barreling down at him, Silver was only a foot or so away from the door.
Moving on pure instinct, Loeb lunged into the room. He ducked and slammed his shoulder into Silver’s thin midsection. There was a crunch, and Loeb worried that it was him this time from the impact of the other running robot. He pushed harder, and he managed to knock Silver into the room.
He slapped the pad by the door, because more important than anything was making sure that the approaching robots didn’t see Silver, didn’t see Loeb. The door slid shut, but it would open at the touch of a button, whether by him or by Silver, it wouldn’t matter.
Silver pushed against the wall and came at Loeb again, just like he had before, with his hands outstretched. Neither of them were robots designed for combat, but Silver had protection protocols and Loeb had his desperation fueling him.
He swung his hand and punched Silver in the neck, which was thinner and weaker than his head. Something crunched to bits in Loeb’s hand – the ‘Lifter eye, he realized, horrified – and something crunched in Silver’s neck. Silver’s head tilted to one side, suddenly hanging on his right shoulder like it was broken. His left eye flickered more violently than it had before, and didn’t seem to be doing very much.
He still came at Loeb, but Loeb pushed the advantage that his punch had given him. He slammed the same hand into Silver’s neck again, and again, until Silver fell back just to protect himself.
Silver’s hands came up in defense. With one hand, he slapped away Loeb’s next punch. His other hand shot out and slammed, palm first, into Loeb’s chest. The impact of it blasted him backward, bouncing his small blue body off of a wall. He clattered down on top of LX-45, still just lying there and waiting someone to come and take it away to be stored and eventually slagged. The impact of Loeb on top shifted the derelict body, splaying all the limbs and rolling the head to one side.
Loeb scrambled to get up. He grabbed the length of pipe that he’d so casually tossed aside the last time he’d been forced to fight in this room. He struggled to his feet, unsure if Silver would be coming at him or heading for the door.
Silver was heading for the door. His hand was already stretching for the pad.
Out of options and desperate, Loeb threw the pipe as hard as he could. It slammed into Silver just below his chest plating, which would have deflected the blow. The pipe buried itself in the robot and blue lightning coursed around the pipe, and the outside of the robot. It hadn’t punctured the power core, because Silver was still upright and mobile, but it had definitely made some contact.
It must have done something with his preservation protocols too, because Silver dropped his hand away from the door’s keypad and turned on Loeb. Silver lunged at Loeb, who had just barely regained his footing.
Loeb barely caught Silver’s hands as they descended toward him. He had no idea what the other robot was intending to do. Would it be within a normal robot’s programming to beat someone like Loeb to death? Would he just try to quickly disable him? Was he going to reach inside of Loeb and disable his arms and legs, a dirty and horrible trick that Loeb was deeply ashamed of having used.
Loeb shoved him aside and Silver’s momentum overbalanced the silver robot and dropped him to the ground. Loeb scrambled up, pushing himself off Silver as it struggled to get back to its feet. As Silver came back it, it clumsily grabbed at the pipe that was jammed inside of it, whether trying to pull it out and use it as a weapon or throw it aside, Loeb didn’t know. He didn’t intend to find out. Without thinking about it, Loeb lunged forward and grabbed the length of pipe, the blue lightning shooting up his own arms and causing all manner of warning messages to travel from his hands and arms to his neural pathways, where he ignored them. There were more important and more dangerous things happening right now than worrying about messages warning of too much current being absorbed through his hands.
As Silver came around, he took a swing with the pipe. It connected with the side of Silver’s face and finally shattered his flickering left eye, throwing glass and plastic all across the room in a shower of sparks.
It didn’t stop Silver, though. Silver stumbled back against the wall, and then came fully to its feet and lunged at Loeb again. He took another swing with the pipe and slammed it full against Silver’s right arm, just below the elbow. Loeb didn’t know if his fury and desperation were lending him extra strength, but it felt like it. Silver’s arm bent a little. It certainly dropped away quickly, and it didn’t come back up. The arm just hung at Silver’s side, bent and broken and useless.
But still Silver kept coming, and Loeb hit him again. In the waist. In the chest. In the leg. In the face. He hit him again and again until finally, finally Silver fell down as his legs or his programming started to give out on him.
Loeb pressed the advantage. It wouldn’t have occurred to him not to. He wasn’t thinking, he was barely in control of what he was doing. Feeling like someone who was running on automatic, he piled atop the white hump of Silver’s chest, and it seemed to Loeb in his boiling and overwhelming fury that Silver became the sum of all his rage and hate.
Silver twitched, and both arms reached toward Loeb, but he slammed the length of pipe down into Silver’s face…
…into Silver’s chest…
…into Silver’s arms…
And he slammed the pipe down again, and again. Over and over. He smashed the pipe until the chest plate split and the face plate fell off. He slammed the pipe until sparks flew and then more importantly, he slammed the pipe until they stopped flying. He slammed the pipe against Silver until his arms didn’t move anymore, until his intact eye was nothing, until…
…until the red mist which had descended across Loeb suddenly lifted, and he stopped in mid-swing, as if he were suddenly coming back into control of himself.
Silver was not recognizable as a robot anymore. It was just a battered, beaten bunch of metal and circuits. Nothing moved, nothing sparked. Everything was bashed and battered and destroyed. Even the pipe was severely dented and ripped and bent all over.
Loeb dropped the pipe and he stumbled off of Silver and kept stumbling backwards until his back hit the wall. Then, his legs gave out and he slumped down in a sitting position.
Silver was gone. If it had been a robot that Loeb had been salvaging for parts, he would have passed right over the ruined hunk of metal and sent it straight away to be slagged or stored.
There was no anger anymore. Just sadness. He just sat there and stared, because he couldn’t close his eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to look away. Without thinking about it, he brought his hands up and clutched his own head, and he kept staring.
A little in front of Silver, there was a crushed and crumpled piece of metal and cracking plastic. He reached down and picked it up, a moment later when he trusted his arms again.
It was the ‘Lifter eye that the Captain had given him. It was crushed and broken in a lot of places now, and it crumbled apart into bits of plastic and shards of metal. It had been in Loeb’s hand the first time he’d hauled off and punched Silver and it hadn’t survived the impact.
He closed his fist over the crumbled bits again and he held them close, but couldn’t have said why. The sadness wasn’t all that strong in his mind. He felt very clear headed. Probably, that was shock, another emotion that seemed to be dominant.
He didn’t want emotions, he decided. He didn’t want to be able to think, to be able to feel like he could. What good did it do? Thus far, what he mostly felt were pain and fear and panic, and now shock.
The thought crossed his mind that he could just shut himself off and lay there until someone happened into the room, found all three of them, and took them all away for spare parts or melting down.
It wasn’t a thought that lingered terribly long. Somehow, it just didn’t seem like any sort of an option. It just wasn’t something that he could do.
It paled behind the images that kept filling up Loeb’s head, images of him slamming the pipe down again and again and again into Silver, even after the other robot had stopped responding, had ceased issuing commands, and had been…well…dead.
So no, he wouldn’t switch himself off. That wasn’t an option. Too much had happened, and Loeb decided that he wasn’t going to just give up and back down, and let everything else win. He didn’t know why not, but he didn’t need to. He didn’t care.
“Oh Max…” he said to an empty room, and to a ruined optical unit held delicately in his hand. “I’m so glad you weren’t here for this. But I do wish that you were here now.”
He didn’t know what good it did, talking out loud like that to a room full of nothing that could hear him, to a room that certainly didn’t contain Max. But it did do some good, in that it at least made him feel a little better.
He’d keep going. Even without Max.
He found the strength somewhere to pull himself to his feet. He took the optical unit and the bits that were left of it and he tucked it behind a storage crate, leaving it delicately in the corner where no harm or disturbance could come to it.
Then, he gathered up the body of LX-45 and slung it across his shoulders with some difficulty. It strained servos, but they would manage. It wasn’t that bad. He wasn’t a ‘Lifter, but he was capable of lifting things all by himself nonetheless.
With one hand, he balanced the salvaged droid on his shoulders. With his other hand, he grabbed hold of Silver’s ankle and started to pull. After a moment’s awkwardness involved in opening the door, he brought both bodies out of the small dim room and into the bright and revealing light of the corridor beyond.
There was no one around now.
Loeb hauled the bodies. He was slow about it, because they were heavy and he was neither large nor strong. He made his way down a number of corridors and then into a ‘Lift tube. The tube took him several decks up and a couple of decks over and deposited him in much busier areas of the ship.
“Lifter!” He called out loudly, and was surprised at how normal his voice sounded, how utterly devoid of fear or quavering it was.
A ‘Lifter who looked just like Max (but Loeb did not think about that) lumbered over and, at Loeb’s behest, took the body off of his shoulders. Then, the ‘Lifter carrying LX-45 trailed after Loeb, who continued to drag the remains of Silver into the engineering comparments themselves.
A tall golden robot, the glittering counterpart to Silver’s battered remains, approached and saluted, though there was no need for it since Loeb was almost certainly not a higher position.
“What has transpired?” said the golden robot.
Loeb had thought about this. He had all his thoughts in order. Everything in his head was clear and free and fully functional, and he knew that he had to move fast before all of that came crashing down and gave way to nothing but tidal waves of emotion.
“There was an accident in a lower cargo bay,” Loeb said. He pointed at LX-45, “This one went inert, because of damage caused by the storm. It struck this one –“ and he pointed at Silver “—who fell and was crushed by the falling equipment and body of the first robot. I have salvaged LX-45, but there is nothing redeemable within this other one.”
“Understood,” said the golden robot. “Will you be taking them down to the cargo bay for storage?”
“No,” Loeb said, “You and the ‘Lifter will do that, please.”
He was surprised at the ease that the command came out, and equally surprised that the golden robot offered no protest. It gathered up Silver from Loeb’s hand, picking it up far more easily than Loeb could have managed.
“Mark them as already inspected,” Loeb added. “Attach your own ID number to the inspection receipt. And then, resume your duties, both of you.”
“Understood. May I inquire about your duties?” said the golden droid.
That one was easy.
Loeb looked him squarely in the eye, glow for glow, and replied, “I must finish preparations. I am part of the survey team. I leave for the asteroid surface very shortly.”
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.