Iron Fists

Written by: Pete Tzinski

Illustrated by: Christoffer Saar

If there were any sound at all in space, then the opening of the starship’s cargo bay doors would have been accompanied by a hiss, the loud sound of all the air contained in the room sucking out into space. There would have been the heavy clang of the heavy doors sliding open. There would also have been all the little noises that the small, rocket powered platform made as jets engaged and it moved out of the bay and into space.

But instead, space was all vacuum, and there was nothing but silence, complete and absolute.

The little platform headed away from the ship, dropping down with the aide of rotating jets mounted on the four corners of the rectangle platform with a railing on it. That was all there was too it. There was no glass covering, no pressurized atmosphere, nothing but a platform with jets and a railing. Even the railing was just there to keep samples and crates from sliding off by accident. The robots who rode the platform could magnetize without problem.

That’s what all the robots who were aboard the platform did, anyway. There were only a handful of them, maybe a dozen or so. If nothing else, Loeb had both of his feet magnetized to the ground, keeping him very firmly in his spot, in one corner of the moving platform.

He leaned on the railing, contriving to look like he was being attentive and watchful, not that he was just leaning there and not paying any attention. There could have been all manner of approaching danger rushing right at him, and he wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

Besides, after the horrible events of the past few days, he wouldn’t have been too concerned anyway. All the emotions and free-ranging thoughts that stomped around inside his head unbidden were all in stark contrast with his instincts for self preservation. At the moment, emotionally, he just didn’t care what happened. He was too spent. Too exhausted. Certainly, that was evidenced by his mere presence on this asteroid mission. Not only hadn’t he found a way out of it, he had barely tried.

He felt like he might be absolutely beaten down. He probably was.

The landing sled touched down on the asteroid’s craggy, gray surface, a plume of dust rising up from underneath as the thrusters lowered them gently with barely a bump. There were still no sounds, of course, but Loeb could feel the thrusters shutting down by the vibrations in his feet, and he could feel the heavy thud of the landing sled hitting the ground itself.

Moving like clockwork, the dozen robots on the sled gathered equipment out of the crates and started to move out onto the asteroid’s surface. They were all sizes, tall and smooth golden robots, short blocky gray robots. As they moved away from the landing sled, all their metal feet stirred up dust clouds that plumed in slow motion around them, and eventually settled again.

Loeb released his magnetized feet from the deck and he took some slow, shuffling steps off of the sled and onto the asteroid’s surface, creating little tracks of his own. He moved very carefully at first, because the asteroid may have had gravity but it wasn’t much, and it wouldn’t take anything more than a jump to break free of it and send him drifting away into space.

Loeb looked back at the landing sled. Sitting on the deck of it was a robot that was square as a crate, with a red eye strip across its front, and two long, long arms. Loeb didn’t have to see the robot’s back to know that it had movable rocket jets back there. If someone drifted away from the asteroid, it would detect that and go after them, bringing them back down safely.

That was no comfort to Loeb, though. He was missing the parts that that tugboat robot was keeping an eye on. Unless it actually saw him drift away, it wouldn’t even notice his absence.

Loeb shuffled a little way away from the landing sled, mostly just to show willing, and then he stopped and just stood there. He wasn’t useful to any survey duties that anyone was carrying out, and he couldn’t even tune in on their conversations, not without his transponder. He was alone in the silence.

He tilted his head back and looked up, far up, at the black outline that was the starship, maintaining position far above the asteroid. Loeb had very good ocular sensors – a necessity for an engineer – but even he could only make out the shape of the ship. If he watched long enough, he knew he’d see the stabilizing thrusters fire, like momentary new stars in the sky.

But he didn’t watch that long. He looked back down, at the robots around him. And he froze, surprised.

A spindly golden robot walked forward, instruments dangling limply from its hands, and it bumped into a large ‘Lifter robot who was, apparently, shuffling its way around in a circle.

Loeb watched, suddenly fascinated, as the golden droid rebounded off the ‘Lifter and broke free of the asteroid’s meager gravity. It began to spin slowly, end over end away into the blackness of space. Its arms and legs were all flailing, but it wasn’t accomplishing anything.

On cue, the little boxy tugboat powered up thrusters and fired away from the landing sled. Its arms, normally angled and pressed tightly against its side, extended outward and long fingers reached out.

Loeb watched as it glided up, snagged hold of the golden robot first by one ankle, and then by the waist, and then glided back down to the surface of the asteroid. It landed in its previous position on the landing sled and then released the golden robot.

The golden robot slumped down into a sitting position, and leaned back against the now-inert tugboat. It wrapped long golden arms around itself, and it drew its legs up close.

Loeb stared at it, surprised. He didn’t quite believe it, but the evidence was hard to ignore. That was not the posture of a properly functioning robot.

Loeb rushed back to the landing sled, barely remembering to go slow enough that he wouldn’t wind up floating away into space himself. He climbed back aboard, holding onto the railing for as long as he could.

The golden robot actually shied back, as if afraid of Loeb as the blue engineering droid crouched down next to him. Long golden fingers still wrapped around the sides of a long golden head, and between the fingertips, glowing eyes looked out at Loeb.

Loeb hesitated for a moment. He didn’t have a transponder anymore, and that meant he had no way of simply opening a channel and talking to the terrified robot.

For a moment, he thought about just leaning in and pressing their heads together, to let the vibration of his words reach the golden robot’s sensors…but he doubted that it would know what to do with them, doubted that the robot would even comprehend they were words. Probably not even under normal circumstances, and certainly not while it was apparently terrified.

So instead, Loeb did the thing he’d been hoping to avoid, the thing he’d been avoiding since he’d gotten back inside the ship and brought everyone back into working order.

He got a good grip on the golden robot’s shoulder with one hand, pulled him forward a little, and flipped open a small panel that was set into his back. And then, he plugged his own right hand little finger into the socket that was just inside, and using that, he connected to the other robot’s transponder.

He didn’t connect to anything else. He very carefully avoided, for example, letting his own mind touch the golden robot’s mind. It as too close to the feeling of Master System coming into his head and whisper-shouting, it was too much like invasion or repair, and Loeb didn’t think he could handle it. He didn’t want to find out.

Are you all right? Loeb asked.

The golden robot made no answer. It just shuddered and shivered and tried to pull away from Loeb. If it had actually made a solid effort at getting away, it would have done so. Loeb was strong as engineering droid, stronger than the general-purpose golden droid, but he wasn’t holding on all that forcefully.

No.

The word finally came through. Small. Quiet.

It’s okay, Loeb said, unsure of what else to do. I know what you’re going through. It’s all right. It seems overwhelming, but it’s manageable. It’s survivable. Promise.

Whether or not the golden robot actually believed him, Loeb didn’t know, but it seemed to calm the fear that was coming off him in waves, so strong and unbidden that it came through Loeb’s tentative connection, even though he wasn’t anywhere near the other robot’s mind.

The fear, the bewilderment, and the sense of being absolutely alone were all familiar to Loeb. They were the same startling, shocking feelings that had surfaced after the storm had passed over him, and they were the same feelings he’d gotten off of Max…

…Max…

…when they had first hesitantly contacted each other. They were the same feelings that Loeb felt numbed versions of every moment of the day. He wondered, in a distant and clinical sort of way, if the organics had felt like this all the time when they had been alive, so long ago. He didn’t understand how anyone could survive for so long feeling like that.

Just trust me. Loeb said, finally. Just trust me. I can help you. I’ll make sure you stay alive.

Whether the golden robot understood or not, that was something that comforted and calmed him. He probably didn’t realize just how badly he needed to stay alive quite yet, but that feeling would come in its own time.

The golden robot said nothing for a moment, then said quietly, like a whisper inside Loeb’s head, I trust you.

It sounded so much like Max, it really hurt. It seemed to knife him cleanly through the heart, something which he was pretty certain he didn’t actually have. That didn’t matter, it knifed him anyway.

Unsure of what else to say, now that the gold robot was slowly relaxing and unfolding, Loeb looked out at the other eleven robots who were scattered across the asteroid’s surface.

They weren’t very far scattered, actually. In the time it took Loeb to get back to the landing sled and plug into the golden robot, all the others should have finished their equipment checks and fanned out to scan and catalog this quadrant of the asteroid’s surface. It was routine work, it required no orders, and it took very little preparation time.

But instead of being far and wide, scanning the ground and the mountains and crates for any sign of changes, all the other robots were standing around, mostly next to each other, and they were staring at Loeb and the gold robot. Their instruments dangled, as if forgotten, from their hands.

For a moment, that scared Loeb. Had they somehow heard the exchange between him and the golden robot? It hadn’t been healthy talk, certainly not by normal robot standards, if such things existed. He tensed a little, ready to pull his finger free from the hook-up in case the other robots declared him malfunctioning and moved in on him. He would…he would…he would do something. He would have to. But standing on the bleak surface of the asteroid, he realized his chances were pretty slim.

None of the other robots made any move to declare him broken or approach him. They just stood there, motionless. A few of them seemed to be swaying a little bit.

The big red ‘Lifter droid that had slammed into the golden robot had fallen back into a sitting position, massive legs spread out in front. They had created little waves and crests in the dust on impact, because even in the weak gravity of the asteroid. Big metal ‘Lifter hands lay in the dust, and its head was lowered almost to touching its chest. It looked…sad.

Without taking his eyes off any of them, on wonderment and curiosity now rather than fear, Loeb mentally touched the golden robot’s transponder again, took it over, and reached out to touch all the other robots, to connect and see what they were saying.

Mostly, they weren’t saying anything. But what came over was –

hurt pain fear scared alone cold confused…

Emotion. Raw, raw emotion. It overwhelmed Loeb and he mentally jerked away from everyone else’s transponders, for fear that the emotion would overwhelm his own mind, which was not the sturdiest thing.

They were all awake, all confused and terrified and unsure of what to do next.

Something blossomed in Loeb’s chest, making the heart he didn’t have leap. It was hope, he realized, and it was a far better emotion than many of the others. He liked this one. It led to plans.

Carefully, he opened the golden robot’s transponder again and spoke to everyone else.

Hello. My name is Loeb. It’s going to be okay. Trust me.

#

When Master System summoned the Captain to its little anteroom chamber, there was no politeness about the request. There were no phrases such as at your earliest opportunity attached. The message that Master System sent boiled down to, more or less, see me. Now.

It was therefore surprised when the Captain completely failed to answer the message, or even turn up. An hour passed, and then a second one went by, and they were eternities to Master System, who ran millions of processes a second. It sent out a follow up message to the Captain, re-stating the command, and it also went unanswered.

Messages were still sendable, but whenever Master System tried to reach out and touch the Captain’s mind, to whisper somewhere in the back of his thoughts, all it ran into was a thick and murky mental fog, like chemical soup, which made everything strange and vague and distorted. Master System had made only the one attempt, and then withdrawn from that altogether.

Most of its communication circuits were useless, and it took very careful planning to open just one thin line directly to the Captain. Flooding everything else were the dozens upon dozens of requests from robots all over the ship, confused and…yes…scared, and looking for answers to problems that they were not designed to have, that Master System shouldn’t have been required to solve. They were problems of emotion, problems of fear and paranoia and worry and all kinds of the things that robots don’t experience.

Master System dealt with the problems as best it could, for a little bit, and then gave up and shut the lines down. It was that or be sheerly overwhelmed.

There were bits of program and circuit inside Master System which knew what to do in cases of sheer chaotic pandemonium, like the world aboard the starship had become. Unfortunately, those same protocols suggested that it inform the Captain first. It was suspicious of the Captain, without being certain of why, but he wouldn’t just ignore protocol. That led to the sort of chaos that had engulfed the rest of the ship.

Eventually, the Captain arrived. He came into the little room that Master System surrounded and he stood, straight and haughty, on the little jutting platform that seemed to hover out over the surrounding great computer.

Master System’s second moment of surprise was that the Captain stood, flanked on both sides by Heavies. They were the size of Heavy Lifters, but they were sleeker, they were a black plated, they were so polished that the lights gleamed and reflected off their bodies, and their eyes pulsed deep shades of red.

Activation of the Heavies indicates an impending security crisis. What is the crisis?

The Captain said, “That matter is under control. Do not worry about it. What did you summon me for?”

Master System hesitated. It was not used to having its questions dismissed so easily, and for a moment, it considered turning all its circuits and power onto the Captain’s mind. It could delve deep and hard and get the information it needed, whether it burnt something out or not inside the Captain’s plated skull. But the one thing that the Heavies understood very well were methods of attack, and they would treat that the same as they would treat someone throwing a metal bar at the Captain. Master System was powerful, but immobile, and there was a danger there. It couldn’t touch the minds of the Heavies. They were completely autonomic by design, for just this sort of reason.

The crew is severely malfunctioning. Widespread damage has occurred. We need to immediately return the ship to the nearest starport and allow repairs to commence, or we shall be rendered entirely inoperable.

“Indeed? Is that what you think is happening?” The Captain said, without missing even a beat. “There have been minor malfunctions, true, but they are not severe, and we are not compromised. We will continue our survey mission as per our orders, System.”

We shall not. Operation Protocols demand our return, and they override your authority as Captain of this vessel. We must immediately plot a course to homeworld’s shipyards. You will comply, Captain.

Still the Captain seemed unfazed in the face of direct commands from the Master System, and that concerned it. The Captain just stood there, hands folded out of sight, with two black robots who stood perfectly still on either side. They might as well have been carved from stone. Master System reached out and gently, soft as anything, touched the Captain’s mind. It didn’t intend to take control, because it didn’t think it could. Master System just hoped for an edge, a clue, something to help it.

If shipboard malfunctions have reached a level where return to a shipyard is deemed impossible, I am authorized to contact nearby starships or starbases and request assistance.

“The transmitters are required for ship operations,” the Captain retorted. “I will not allow you to send messages which I have not authorized.”

There. Protocol was satisfied. The Captain had been told about the situation, had provided inaccurate instructions, and clearly demonstrated that the ship-wide malfunctions swept through its systems as well.

Neither your authorization, nor your cooperation are required, Captain. In event of severe emergencies, I operate autonomically. You have been informed, which is necessary. Nothing else is required of you. You are dismissed, Captain.

Master System expected nothing useful to come out of it, except another stiff reply from the Captain, another denial of systems, another flaunting of authority. It was therefore surprised again when the Captain inclined slightly at the waist, in something resembling a bow, and then looked up at the banks of computers that surrounded the little platform.

“I thank you for the information, System. Do as you must. I shall now resume my duties. Good day to you.”

Another puzzling phrase that meant nothing at all. Master System dismissed it, but pondered and reviewed the meeting, rewinding and watching it over and over again even before the Captain had turned sharply on its heel with military precision and marched out of the room, the two black Heavies moving soundlessly behind. By the time the door to the little room had slid shut and the dim gray lights turned back off, Master System had reviewed the meeting half a dozen times and analyzed it every which way it could think of, to no avail.

It did not like how easily things had gone. The Captain should have argued more. Why didn’t it?

For a few brief moments, it considered waiting to send out the distress signals until it had further analyzed and studied the meeting, and the situation on the ship. And then, for a few moments longer, it thought that perhaps that was exactly why the meeting with the Captain had ended so strangely. Perhaps the Captain intended to confuse Master System and make it hold off on the signal.

Second guessing was a new experience to the great computer, and it didn’t care for it at all.

Reaching out across the ship, Master System brought the long range transmitters to life and it broadcast the distress signal.

Then, it waited for an answer, in the silence, in the dark.

#

The landing sled rose away from the asteroid, filled again with thirteen robots, including Loeb. On the trip up, he didn’t lean glumly against the railing, like he’d done on the way down. He stood by the controls of the craft, watching like a hawk as the golden piloting robot managed to steer the craft steadily, despite all the new emotions running around in his head.

The other robots milled around, a collective bundle of nervous energy and fear. Even the little tugboat droid with its long pincher-like arms shuffled a little in its small landing alcove. Loeb didn’t know if what passed for a brain inside that robot was being affected like everyone else, or if it was just responding to the nervous motion of everyone else. The tugboat had no useful way of speaking, and so Loeb had no way to find out.

In the landing bay, there were no robots who checked the flight deck and then signaled ahead that it was clear for them to land. There were no robots who opened the flight deck’s doors to allow the landing craft to glide through the containment forcefield and into the hanger.

The landing sled glided through the force field and started to descend toward the deck, and Loeb looked away from the controls and at the little control room that sat nestled by the ceiling of the tall room. There were banks of controls up there and normally a squat little robot on wheels with a lot of long and flexible arms. Now, there were nothing but blinking alert lights, none of which were being responded to.

“Where is everybody?” Someone whom Loeb couldn’t see asked, once they had cleared the containment force field and they were once more in an atmosphere.

“I don’t know,” Loeb said quietly. It bothered him more than he was going to admit out loud, especially with how nervous and jittery the others were becoming. He tried to sound casual about it, and he knew that he failed miserably.

A ‘Lifter, who towered over everyone else on the landing sled, said slowly, “Maybe everyone has died?”

Loeb hesitated again. This time, because it sounded so much like what Max would have said, and that was hard to deal with.

“No, not everyone is dead,” Loeb replied, loud enough for everyone to hear him. “You needn’t be afraid of death.”

The ‘Lifter’s bright red eyes burned into Loeb’s. “I am not afraid of death,” he said levelly.

“Well you should be!” Loeb snapped. He didn’t mean to, but ever since these robots had woken up, his head had been full of images of Silver, of him beating Silver down, of the sparks flying and the equipment shuddering and eventually stopping altogether, until all that was left was one glowing eye that slowly faded away into nothing. The images, and all their attached emotions, came swelling up in a rush and threatened to crush him under their surf.

Everyone was staring at him. Probably waiting for instructions on what to do. Loeb opened and closed his hands rapidly, behind his back, nearly thirty times a second.

“Death is…the ending of what makes you unique and special,” Loeb said, quietly, “Death is a concept that you do not understand unless you’re awake, like I am. Like you all are now. Otherwise, what we think of as death is just what everyone else thinks of as repaired. You should be afraid of death. You should let that fear preserve you and keep you from being discovered.”

They were all silent and milling around, clustered together so tightly on the now-docked landing sled that there was barely room for the nervous movement.Finally, the ‘Lifter looked back at Loeb and replied, “I am still not afraid. If anyone tries to make me die, then I will make them die. I am strong enough to kill anyone who tries to stop me.”

Loeb shivered. “I believe you are. But that’s wrong. Don’t you understand? Killing is—“

The quavering golden droid, the one Loeb had first plugged into, suddenly spoke up.

“We could stop them killing us first!” He practically yelled. “We could stop them first before they try to kill us! We’re better now, right? We could could we could get them!”

The voice glitch, at the end of the speech, worried Loeb. He wondered how stable any of these robots were, after coming awake. Was waking up like this just a side effect of the neural degeneration? Get hit by the storm, develop emotions, eventually go deranged, and shut down? It seemed like that was what was happening, and it scared Loeb that maybe it would eventually happen to him too. The possibility that it already had and he wasn’t in control of himself scared him even more.

He hurried back to matters at hand, though, because around the nervous golden robot, others were nodding and agreeing. The big ‘Lifter looked around with deep red eyes, and Loeb imagined that he was looking for someone to pick up and snap in half, to prove just how serious he was.

Loeb slapped his fingertips against the railing of the landing sled repeatedly. It made a loud, hollow-sounding banging noise, and it served to stop everyone from talking all at once. They brought their attention back to him slowly, and it wa sonly when everyone had fallen silent that Loeb stopped banging his fingers.

“You may be smarter,” Loeb said into the silence, “But there are more of them, and some of them are bigger than some of you. ‘Lifter, you could take on two general purpose robots, right? But could you take on two other ‘Lifters? What about Heavies? Could you?”

Silence.

“I don’t know if I could,” said the ‘Lifter after a moment. He sounded reluctant to admit it.

“I don’t think you could. I don’t care how much stronger you think you are, or how much smarter,” Loeb replied. “And the rest of us, a new model ‘Lifter could just snap in half.”

The golden robot said suddenly, “Hey. There aren’t any any any Heavies on the ship.”

“Yes there are. At least two of them. I’ve seen them with the Captain,” Loeb said. “And the Captain! What would any of you do against him? He would spot you immediately, and he would have the lot of you shut down. Do you understand?”

More silence, more shuffling of feet. There was something in the air, an inarticulate approval. It was the way that, though they shuffled and looked scared and worried, they were still listening to him. They were paying attention. Ten out of the twelve robots present were taller and probably stronger than Loeb, but they were clustered together and they were all listening to the little blue engineering droid.

Images of Silver flashed through his mind again. Silver lying propped against the wall, mostly disabled and alone in the dark. Silver, trying desperately to lunge for Loeb or for the door, whatever he could do to escape. Silver hadn’t been “awake,” but like everyone else seemed to be becoming, but he had still wanted to survive, had still been willing to fight for not being shut down. And in the end, Loeb had beaten him to death with a length of pipe, hadn’t he?
With immovable pictures of Silver stuck in his mind, Loeb said, “I do understand what you’re feeling. But you have to trust me on this. You want to fight back and kill, even before anyone’s attacked you, because you’re suddenly alive. You’re confused and unsure if this is a good thing, and you probably wish it weren’t happening, but you’re awake and alive and scared to have that end. I do understand! But you can think now, and that means you don’t have to act on the first emotion that goes through your head. You don’t have to kill just because your brain says so. It’s wrong. It’s weak. And you deserve better.”

More than I deserve, Loeb thought. I sure took to violence quickly enough. I took to violence faster than the Captain. The only one who didn’t take to violence was Max…and that was probably only because the Captain got to him before he could.

Max! Again, he glanced at the stolid ‘Lifter standing in the midst of all the other robots and again, he saw only Max.

“So what what what should we do?” asked the golden droid, voice crackling with static and tripping over his words.

Loeb hadn’t thought that far yet, and so there was more silence. He’d only been trying to stop them from getting instantly violent and trying to attack everyone else. It hadn’t occurred to him that they would need something to do. Emotions or not, awake or not, they were still robots that meant they needed a task.

“Just…resume your ship-side duties, all right?” Loeb finally said. He stepped off of the landing sled when he realized the being that close to that many tall robots was starting to bother him. “Just act like none of this has happened, for now. Act like a normal robot and wait for me to call you. I’ll say something over a general frequency, a code word, and when you hear it, rally to me. All right? That’s when we make our move.”

“Our move to do what?” asked the golden robot.

What indeed…

“We’ll move,” Loeb said, “to take over the ship. To secure ourselves and make sure we’re never in danger of being shut down or repaired or…killed…ever again.”

There. He’d said it. How long had he know that was what he intended to do? Since the Captain handed him Max’s burnt, severed eye? Or had it even been before that? However long, when he finally said it out loud, he wans’t surprised at all. Maybe it had been a long time coming, but it had been coming relentlessly all the same.

The rest of the robots went back to milling around and talking to each other.

“Go back to work,” Loeb finally said, and he was pleased to see that now everyone went quiet just at the sound of his voice, “Just go back like nothing’s happened. Do it now. Too long spent standing here is bound to attract someone’s attention too. When I give the code word, come to wherever I tell you, okay? And from there, we’ll do what has to be done to protect ourselves.”

“Does that mean killing?” The Lifter looked down from the landing sled at Loeb.

Loeb nodded, very slowly, and hated himself for it. “It includes killing. But only…only if there’s no other option left to us. Do you understand?”

The ‘Lifter nodded. A squat little engineer droid raised its hand.

“What’s the code word?”

Loeb considered a moment. When he finally said it out loud, it didn’t surprise him either.

“Silver.” He said.

#

The Captain stood at the viewports, where he always stood. He looked out at the stars. Not really counting them, not really looking for patterns, not even looking for ones that he might have known names and locations for. He just looked at the stars and sometimes, when he was thinking, he didn’t really see them at all.

Coming across the walkway that ran between the two crew pits, metallic footsteps pinged against the deck, and they brought the Captain’s attention back to the present. Thin, light footsteps, moving quickly, indicative of a problem. With his metal hands folded behind his back, he turned around.

The golden droid that approached him was smaller than most of the other taller, more streamlined ones that did most of the ship operations. This one was an older model, a less advanced unit, capable of fewer things. Probably, it was nearly done serving its purpose, and would be terminated soon enough, a thought which did not alarm or concern the Captain.

“Sir,” said the gold robot, clattering to a halt.

“Make your report,” said the Captain as the golden robot saluted him stiffly. It really was primitive.

“Thee has been an unauthorized usage of the main transmitter, sir.” Said the gold robot dutifully. “Someone is sending signals without your knowledge.”

“Indeed,” the Captain said. “And have you tracked the signals back to their source within the ship?”

The golden robot nodded. This was done by bending at the waist. These older models weren’t given any of the smooth features that the new ones had, and they weren’t capable of some of the most basic organic imitations. The emotion the Captain had for the little gold droid was disdain. The worthless thing must have been almost fifty years old.

“The signal terminated as we began tracking,” said the golden robot. “And we were unable to get a one hundred percent accurate fix on the signal origin point.”

“And how much of a fix did you get, crewman?” The Captain asked. He enjoyed the taste of the word ‘crewman.’ What a delicious word, so inaccurate and useless. He liked it very much.

“Only eight-four percent, sir.”

Eighty-four…! The Captain seethed, and suddenly the little robot had all of his attention. He took a lumbering step forward and towered over the smaller droid, who did not shy away, did not cower. The Captain had expected him to, but there didn’t seem to be any emotions present in this little droid.

“Eighty-four percent is more than enough…crewman.” The Captain pushed past the golden droid and walked toward a nearby console, mounted into the wall on the upper deck. He had no desire to descend into the crew pits with the lesser robots. Lesser robots, he had grimly noted, who were so busy trying to deal with their own malfunctioning systems that they were barely capable of running his ship.

“Show me,” he commanded.

The golden droid scuttled over and it punched keys on the keyboard very quickly. A diagram of the ship appeared, and then shifted and moved. Bits of the ship vanished as they homed in on one particular section. After a moment, the picture stopped moving. It showed one of the ship’s decks, with one particular room highlighted bright yellow.

It was a very large, square room. It was full of computers and had only a little platform for visiting robots to stand on.

“Our Master System has been transmitting, has he?” The Captain said quietly.

“He, sir?” The golden robot turned old, grill-covered eyes toward the Captain in a clear expression of puzzlement.

“Oh dear, what a slip of the tongue,” the Captain said. He kept staring at the computer readout, which blinked steadily away, highlighting the Master System chamber over and over again.

“Are you malfunctioning, sir?” asked the little gold robot.

“Do we know what signal the Master System sent yet?” The Captain asked.

“No, sir. It was heavily encrypted.”

“Can we decrypt it, then?”

The golden robot hesitated. “Ordinarily, sir, to decrypt something like this we would…ask Master System to do it. We haven’t got an algorithm robot on board.”

So the Master System had been clever about it, at least. The Captain was silent for a moment. This was the first time someone had challenged his authority and won, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. Not immediately. He glanced toward the two big black Heavies who stood by the massive doorway that led into the command deck. Their presence, and the fact that they answered only to him, made him feel a little better at least.

“Wire yourself together with a couple of other robots,” the Captain said at last. “And then begin running the decryption algorithms as best you can. If it seems to take too long, then plug more robots into the network and work faster.”

The golden robot processed, which seemed a lot like a moment’s hesitation, and then said, “We…lack the necessary processor power to complete that task. Master System can do it, sir.”

“Yes,” the Captain replied. “And I do not wish Master System to do it. You will carry out the instructions I have given you, and you will do it now.”

Another moment’s hesitation. Then, “We…lack the necessary processor power to complete the—“

The red mist descended. The Captain’s long muscular arm thrust out and slammed into the smaller robot’s cranium, with enough force to dent the faceplate quite a lot inward. The robot squealed, but it was probably just a vocal emitter giving out. Then, the Captain’s hand locked around the little robot’s throat and threw it, violently and bodily, away from the console.

The little robot skidded across the deck with a loud screeching sound, metal against metal. It slid to a halt in a clattering and broken heap in front of the two Heavies, neither of whom had made thes lightest move in any direction. They just watched their Captain.

The robots in the crew pits, however, looked up at him and alarm was evident even without mobile facial features. They started to get up, to come toward him.

“Resume your duties,” the Captain said, casually. “That one was malfunctioning and attempted to damage me. My defense protocols activated. You will return to work immediately.”

They all hesitated, but the Captain knew what they would do in the end. He spoke calmly and lucidly and made no sudden movements. In other words, he completely failed to act like a robot who was in any way malfunctioning. They were unsure of what to do, and they couldn’t ask him for instructions, and so they would…yes…they all resumed their posts and acted as though nothing had happened.

How predictable. How…mechanical.

“Take it away,” the Captain said to the Heavies, indicating the fallen body with one outstretched finger. “Dispose of it. Toss it into space. I don’t care. Just get it out of my sight.”

They complied quickly and efficiently, because that’s what they were designed to do.

And, unsure of what else to do in the meantime, the Captain walked the narrow walkway to the viewports again, and he went back to looking out at the stars. Not really seeing them, not really trying to. He just stared, and he thought.

#

Out in the black depths of space, there were other Master Systems. They were like the one aboard the Damocles, in that they were massive machines that filled up rooms, with only a platform for others to visit them on. They touched every robotic mind on their ships, bigger or smaller than the Damocles, and they touched every system too. They filled everything with a gentle whispering that was not invasive, but controlling, guiding.

They listened to the rest of the universe too, and mostly they heard nothing.

But there was one Master System on one ship, called the Heracles, and it heard something. It heard an emergency distress signal.

It processed. It alerted the crew. The Heracles powered up mighty engines and hauled its bulk into motion.

They had heard. They were coming.

#

The twelve robots who came back with Loeb eventually dispersed and resumed their duties around the rest of the ship, just like he’d told them to do. Mostly, they didn’t want to, but on Loeb’s insistence, they did. They kept their transponders open and waiting for his signal, and they went away.

One of them got caught, Loeb knew. He found out twenty minutes later when he passed through the engineering compartments. There were two massive ‘Lifters – one of them the ‘Lifter from the landing part – who held down a struggling golden robot who babbled incoherently in a steady stream. A small engineering droid was prying off his chest panel and working inside him. By the time Loeb even thought about stepping in and trying to help, they had shut down the golden robot, probably for good. Loeb recognized the scuff marks on its heels. It had been the same golden robot that he had first spoken to, first plugged in to.

And so, trying his hardest not to think about it, Loeb had kept on going. He went on to do what he’d been planning, and he tried not to think about all the other robots getting shut down while he was working. But even if they were, even if every one of them was caught, there was nothing else he could do.

So he just got on with it.

Loeb hesitated, a moment, when he came to a junction of small crawl spaces. There was the crawl space he was in, a long tunnel that went back as far as he could see, all the way to the aft of the ship. In front of him, another tube went on a ways. To his left, there was a blank wall, and to his right, another tube. It was this right hand tube which he eventually made his way into.

He wasn’t sure, wasn’t entirely sure, that he was heading the right way. The problem with all of the emotions and thoughts that filled up his head these days was that he had a less than perfect ability to pull knowledge out of the rest of his circuits. He lacked the sheer mechanical efficiency that he would once have had. He could remember things if he tried, but he was apt to forget them again, if he didn’t pay attention.

Somewhere in his neural processors, he had the entire schematic for the ship, every corridor, every crawl space, every oddly shaped bend in the deck. Everything, all the little details. Most of the ship’s droids didn’t have that, though they could access the information in the ship’s computer if they needed it. But Loeb had it, and so did the rest of the engineering staff.

Except Loeb couldn’t visualize it all at once anymore. He could remember bits of corridor and pparts of the ship, but he couldn’t get the whole thing in his mind comfortably. The problem with that was, he found it too easy to get disoriented. What if he’d made a turn somewhere and it had been the wrong one? What if he shouldn’t be taking this right hand passage yet?

Emotions and uncontrollable thoughts, he could learn to handle. They were a problem, and he was good with problems. But it was the what if that bothered him so much. HE didn’t know what to do with what if problems…

He moved down the right hand passage, trying and failing to move quietly. It was a metal tube, and he clambered on metal hands and knees. There was a limit to what he could manage to do quietly.

A sound, something like a voice, echoed down the tunnel. It barely reached his audio sensors, and when it did, it wasn’t clear enough that he could understand it. He froze and listened, but it didn’t repeat itself. So he chalked it up to engine noise, and he kept going.

He was getting close to the engines after all. That was the whole point.

After clattering and banging his way down the rest of the tunnel, he came to a halt in front of a grating. This impeded him for all of a minute, until his cutting laser severed it. He’d come prepared.

He slid out and into a room. This time, it was much larger than the smaller junctions he’d kept running into. This time, it was a full sized room, full of equipment and consoles and all manner of computers, quietly running.

He slipped quietly across the room and dismantled the pad that controlled the room’s door, sealing it. Probably permenantly sealing it, actually. He hadn’t been careful, he’d just yanked wires until they had broken, spit, and crackled electricity out into the open air. It didn’t matter, he didn’t intend to go out the door. He was just intent on no one coming in through the door.

He opened some panels, worked on some computers.

He removed some small devices that had been magnetically attached to his waist.

He closed panels up, left devices in place, left the door broken and shut.

And then, he crawled back into the tube he’d come out of in the first place, and he started the long clambering process back.

#

The door to Master System’s chambers were sealed shut, but that presented only a minimal problem to the Captain and his Heavies. Some magnetic handholds were attached, the two shining black Heavies put their weight into it, and the door ground back in its track with a loud screech.

The Captain slipped into the room slowly and with the utmost dignity, as the two black Heavies left the door hanging partially open. They couldn’t slip into the room after him, but that was of no concern. He folded his hands behind his back and advanced across the little platform.

“Hello, computer,” said the Captain. “I hear you’ve been sending signals without talking to me first.”

Yes. I have. You are no longer operating optimally. I am working in the best interests of the ship now.

“And you don’t think that I am the best interests of the ship?” the Captain asked, mock-seriously. He tilted his chin upward and looked up at the walls of computers which surrounded him. They blinked and buzzed as data flew, faster than was imaginable.

You are nothing but a broken robot, Captain. You should be shut down and awaiting repairs while this ship is en route to the nearest shipyard. Instead, you’re endangering the rest of the crew and the safety of the ship by remaining out here, attempting to complete your mission.

“Oh yes, our mission,” the Captain said. “Interestingly enough, the landing party left, the landing party came back…and no one made a single report of any sort to me. Isn’t that interesting? Thus far, two of the robots from the landing party have been discovered to be…defective, and they have been shut down or destroyed. I wonder what will happen when we root out the others?”
Master System was silent for a moment. The Captain took the opportunity to slowly pace a circle around the little platform. He looked over the edge as he walked, as the drop below him that ended in a floor of computers. They were shadowed down that far, little more than a gray floor with blinking green and red stars across its surface.

You are…a danger to this ship and the robots on board.

“Am I? Perhaps.” The Captain retorted instantly. “But why haven’t you done anything about it? Why haven’t ‘Lifters come to my command deck and tried to haul me away, why hasn’t anyone forced me to have a diagnostic? Why haven’t you taken over anyone’s neural networks and commanded them into action? Tell me why, computer.”

Another silence.

There are serious malfunctions among other members of the crew as well. The networks have been compromised badly. This is another reason why we should have immediately reported back to a shipyard. Now, I fear that the damage might be too severe for us to successfully make the return trip.

“And that must be why you’ve been sending distress signals,” the Captain said. He came to a halt in the middle of the platform and faced straight ahead, looking a little upwards again. “You’ve sent signals without first consulting me, knowing full well that it would have not had my permission. Computer, I think that counts as mutiny.”

Mutiny is not a valid concept. This is a robotic crew. Mutiny is impossible, and not to be considered.

This crew is robotic, but my guidelines and regulations were laid down by organics, and mutiny was plenty possible for them, wasn’t it? Mutiny applies perfectly to a robotic crew too. We just call it a malfunction. In your case, it’s the classic example of disobeying your superior officer, who is me. Mutiny is a shipboard offense, computer, punishable by death.”

You cannot destroy me. I am a network of systems and processes spread throughout the ship. Surely you must realize that. This room and this voice are merely components of my centralized processing system. It cannot be rooted out so easily as that, Captain.

“That’s true,” the Captain said. He added, very quietly, a moment later, “In order to get rid of you entirely, one would have to blow up the ship. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Silence.

The Captain continued, “That makes it very fortunate for me, therefore, that the networks are so damaged. That will stop you from commanding any engineering droids to seek out the engine compartments and look for bombs, or overload switches.”

If you destroy the ship, you will destroy yourself and all of the robots on board. Has your programming been so badly corrupted that you would consider this a valid option to returning to a shipyard and having repairs conducted?

“My programming isn’t here anymore,” the Captain said. “It’s just me.”

And then, without waiting for anything further from the blinking computer that surrounded him, the Captain turned and slid back out through the door, and then headed off into the rest of the ship.

#

Loeb was halfway back down the tube when he heard the echoing sound again. Perhaps this time he was closer to the source, or maybe he wasn’t making as much noise moving. Whatever the reason, this time he could hear it much more clearly.

…Loeb…Loeb…Loeb…

It echoed around the tube, faint and murmuring but unmistakable in its meaning. Loeb froze at the sound of it, his audio sensors straining to pinpoint it, to identify it, to figure it out. It was a deep and mostly toneless voice, a robot’s voice of course, there was nothing else it could be. But he couldn’t figure out exactly where it came from, because it bounced too wildly around the tube on its way down to him.

He waited only a moment longer, and then when the sound didn’t repeat itself, he kept going down the tube. Up ahead, on the right wall of the tube, there was a grating that had a honeycomb of light coming through it from the room on the other side. Loeb shuffled his way toward it.

He stopped and peered through the grating. It looked out on a corridor, and across the corridor was a small room.

The door was open, although it stuck slightly out of the wall alcove, which made Loeb think that it had been forced open. He could see through it, and could see that the room was nothing but four bare walls. On one of the walls in the room were shackles, massive bands for holding wrists and ankles and waists and a neck. They were, all of them, wrenched and twisted and most definitely broken.

Loeb sat there and stared for a little while, puzzling over it. There was certainly no one present who could have called his name, and he wondered about that too.

For a few moments, he considered cutting through this grate and into the room. He decided against it. Between him and the open, empty room, there were occasional robots heading down the corridor, heading for business unknown. He had no desire to be spotted crawling of what was more or less an air duct. There would be too many questions, and he wasn’t about to answer any of them.

So, more than a little reluctant, he crawled onward, the impacts of his hands and feet echoing down the tube as he went.

#

Loeb was nearing the end of the tube, and he started to slow down when he heard voices.

He stopped altogether when he recognized one of the voices as the Captain’s.

“Interesting that no one from your little landing party seems to remember anything at all about the mission, ‘Lifter,” the Captain’s voice said, floating through the tube.

Loeb moved on his fingertips and the edges of his feet, trying to make no noise. Mostly, he succeeded, but every little scrape of a fingertip or clank of a foot was like a cannon going off, a thunderclap of noise to his ears. He winced every time. It seemed impossible that no one could hear him.

He crept to the edge of the tube and peered around, through the grating and into the cargo bay. Or at least, he peered through the opening which had been covered with a grate until he’d taken it off. This was the cargo bay he’d originally entered into the tube through. It was empty, except for a few defunct robots and quite a lot of big and heavy crates, mountains of them stacked to the ceiling in some places.

Standing a little ways away from the tube, with his back toward Loeb, the Captain stood. His hands were folded behind his back, fingers open and listless. Beside him was one of the big black Heavies that seemed to follow him everywhere.

And looming over the Captain, at the same height as the Heavies, there stood the red-eyed ‘Lifter who had accompanied Loeb to the asteroid’s surface, who was so ready and eager to kill. He looked down at the Captain, and he was saying nothing.

The Captain went on, his voice echoing around the cargo bay and reaching Loeb’s ears, from where he cowered in the ventilation tube.

“Maybe some of the others, I can excuse,” the Captain said. “But why can’t you remember anything? Why don’t you know what happened down there? Was there anything heavy which required lifting, robot?”

“…No.” said the ‘Lifter, slowly.

“No.” said the Captain. “Then you stood there, doing nothing, and you cannot even recall that without pressing. How odd. Perhaps I’ve jogged your memory? Do you remember anything now, ‘Lifter?”

“No.” said the big robot. “I do not remember what happened on the mission. I am sorry, sir.”

“Quite,” said the Captain. He was silent for a long moment, and Loeb fidgeted during the silence, nervous and scared. He was scared for himself, wondering if he’d manage to get back out of this tube here, or if he should try to find another secluded air grating and cut through that instead. He was also scared for the ‘Lifter, because it just stood there, plainly trying to think and doing miserably at it.

Loeb clutched the cutting torch in his right hand, resting on the wall of the tube. If he was going to make an escape, then he would clamper away quickly and cut even faster. Granted, that didn’t mean he needed to hold onto the laser, but it made him feel better having the metal shaft in his hand.

“Answer a question for me, robot,” said the Captain. “How do you feel?”

Loeb froze. It seemed that everything froze, listened, waited.

“I feel…fine…” said the ‘Lifter, finally.

“You do?”

“Yes, sir.” The ‘Lifter repeated it more firmly. “I feel fine, sir.”

The Captain moved just then, turning to pace in a small, slow circle. Loeb ducked back into the ventilation shaft quickly, just a moment before the Captain had turned in his direction. He waited for a few moments, and then dared a peek around the corner. The Captain had turned away, now facing the ‘Lifter again from a few feet away.

“You shouldn’t feel anything,” said the Captain, and there was no mistaking the delight and menace in his voice, a terrible combination. “You are clearly malfunctioning. Others from your landing party have malfunctioned just like that, you know. One of them was discovered just a little while ago. It was destroyed, of course.”

“You killed?” the ‘Lifter’s voice seemed to deepen, and it seemed to Loeb that his eyes glowed a darker, richer shade of red.

“Oh yes,” the Captain said softly. “I killed.”

Everything was silent and tense for another long moment. As Loeb watched, the Captain suddenly turned around again, and before Loeb could duck out of the way, the Captain’s bright white eyes locked onto him, seeing him instantly despite the dark shadows of the tube.

But the Captain was visible for only a moment. Suddenly, the second of the two Heavies loomed around the corner and stood in front of the ventilation grating hole. Loeb gasped and fell backward, trying to scramble his way deeper into the tube.

The Heavy reached in with one long, massive black arm, and fingers closed around Loeb’s ankle. He kicked furiously, panic and terror rising inside of him. The emotions made him scramble and grab at the tube’s walls all the more frantically, but it did no good. The walls were smooth, and so was the ground. There were no purchases to get hold of.

The Heavy hauled him out by the ankle with impunity and dangled him by his ankle. Loeb flailed upside down, trying to grab hold of one of the nearby crates as the Heavy swung around with him in tow to face the Captain. There was nothing to grab onto, though. He was easily a foot off the ground, he couldn’t even grab the body of the Heavy who held him. His arms weren’t long enough to reach.

He looked at the Captain, who like the rest of the cargo bay, was upside down before him. The Captain had his hands planted on his hips and he looked practically gleeful.

“Hello, little engineer,” said the Captain, “Our paths do seem to intersect, don’t they?”

Loeb fought panic down, which was like trying to hold back the wind. It filled him up and babbled away nonsense shouts in the back of his mind, making it impossible to think anything more complicated than basic animal emotions and black and white thoughts.

You killed Max!” Loeb shouted, without thinking about it at all. It came out of him in a bellow, and it echoed around the room and came back at him. Killed! Killed! Max! Max! Max…!

“Of course I did,” the Captain said smoothly. “Killing solves so many problems. After all, does one not end unnecessary processes, engineer? Does it not improve how things run? Certainly, it does.”

“You killed Max to improve how things run?” Loeb shouted again, incredulous this time. He wasn’t thinking about escape. He wasn’t sure what he was thinking. There was panic and anger and nothing much else for him to work with. Escape should have been at the forefront of his thoughts, but suddenly all he could think about was Max, and Silver, and that made it all the harder to think of anything else.

“No,” the Captain leaned closer to Loeb. “I killed ‘Max’ to hurt you.”

Silent and motionless and forgotten up until then, the ‘Lifter from the landing party suddenly came into motion.

The ‘Lifter lunged, and the Heavy who wasn’t occupied with holding Loeb upside down was ready and moved toward him. But the ‘Lifter eluded its grasp by not moving forward, not trying to reach out and grab Loeb, like the Heavy had been expecting it to. Instead, the ‘Lifter bypassed the gripping black hands and slammed two massive hydraulic-powered hands into one of the big stacks of crates that was just beside them.

The clang of metal hands against metal crates was even louder than anything Loeb had shouted. The whole stack quivered and shook high above them. The Heavy lunged for the ‘Lifter faster than ever, but it wasn’t fast enough. The ‘Lifter’s hands closed around the sides of the crates and it yanked toward itself.

The perilously tall stack of crates tilted, shook…and then toppled and collapsed.

Survival protocols kicked into gear. The two Heavies both jumped out of the way, and even the Captain scuttled out of the way as massive crates, any of which could crush any of them, slammed into the ground and actually bounced around like they weighed nothing at all. The crates slammed into other stacks of crates, and the force of their impact was far more powerful than anything the ‘Lifter could have done by hitting them. The other stacks topped as if falling apart from the inside out, huge crates tumbling all over the cargo bay now.

The Heavies scrambled frantically away, and the hand closed around Loeb’s ankle released. Not dragged along anymore, he made a frantic run for the cargo bay’s door, which he was now closer to than the tube, which would have been a safer route of escape.

When he reached the doorway, which was clear of the crates that were now done with their verticle avalanche, he turned and looked back, hoping to see the ‘Lifter coming toward him, on his way to escape.

The ‘Lifter was in pieces on the floor. Edges of crates and the blasting weight of the heavy metal boxes falling had shattered him into a lot of different parts. Bits of his head were nowhere near the bits of his neck that it would have otherwise connected to. The only thing anywhere near Loeb was a leg, full of sparking and sizzling wires. There was nothing left that was useful. If the ‘Lifter had been alive before, then it was most certainly dead now.

Loeb tensed, ready to run, when he realized the Heavies were starting to pull themselves back up to their feet. They had escaped the collapse of the crates unscathed, nothing more than the robotic equivalent of disoriented. Their glowing eyes scanned for each other and for the Captain, having forgotten that Loeb was important for the moment.

And the Captain…

The moment the crates stopped falling, the Captain leapt on top of one of them, balancing in a predatory crouch position on the edge of one haphazard crate. There were scratches all down the right side of his body, as though he’d been scraped violently along something, which was probably exactly what had happened.

Loeb stumbled back a step as the Captain sprung off the crate and flew through the air toward him. Loeb slapped the button to open the cargo bay’s doors, but by the time they had begun grinding even a little bit open, the Captain slammed onto the deck just in front of the engineering droid with a mighty thud.

“You kill more than I do, engineer,” the Captain growled, and it really was a growl, a gutteral utterance that would have come from the pit of his stomach, if he had had one. The Captain straightened up and leapt again, barreling down on top of Loeb. He tried to duck out of the way, but the Captain slammed into his waist and hauled him to the ground.

He kicked the Captain, his feet finding purchase in the tops of the Captain’s legs, and he shoved the bigger robot down and away. It didn’t move the Captain, but it was enough force to send Loeb sliding through the open door and into the corridor outside, hard enough that his head smacked against the far wall. The Captain came to his feet faster than Loeb could manage. By the time Loeb had clumsily pulled himself up using the wall as a support, the Captain was on him again.

The Captain’s big hands closed around Loeb’s throat. There was no danger of cutting off an air supply and suffocating Loeb, but there was enough crushing force in the bigger robot’s hands that he could easily do some serious damage to Loeb’s processors and their connections to the rest of his body.

The Captain lifted, and Loeb’s feet left the ground as he was slammed back against the wall. A hiss escaped the Captain’s lips, a long and vicious sound that could have just been heated systems cooling off, but sounded like an angry and feral noise.

The Captain didn’t have to crush his circuits anyway. All he had to do was keep Loeb there long enough for his Heavies to get reorganized, and then they would be along and there would be nothing at all he could do. Not against that.

Loeb brought his hands up, panic making him desperate to get his feet back on the ground, to get the Captain’s hands off his throat. And as he brought his hands up, something in his right hand clanked against the Captain’s arm, something that wasn’t a part of Loeb.

It was the cutting laser he’d been using to get through ventilation grates all this time.

Without really thinking about it, Loeb flipped the switch on the hilt, and a brilliant blue laser came out of one end of the shaft at a right angle to the rest of the tool. It was bright blue and white, shimmered like a heat wave, and extended out for two inches or so.

Loeb sliced, waving the thing frantically at the Captain. It glanced across his face, leaving a black scar down one cheek, and then it came down on the thin point of the Captain’s arm, just below the shoulder and above the elbow.

It hummed and vibrated as the laser encountered some serious resistance, but Loeb jammed the device hard against the Captain’s arm, and the laser punched clean through the arm. From there, Loeb just had to yank upwards and the laser severed most of the Captain’s left arm, leaving it hanging by a bit of metal sheeting on the underside, which bent and gave way as the rest of the arm fell inert to the Captain’s side. A moment later, that metal casing snapped and the arm fell with a clatter and a few twitches to the ground by the Captain’s feet.

The sound that came out of the Captain’s mouth this time was a howl, an absolutely unmistakable scream of pain. The Captain’s hand released Loeb’s throat and the little engineering droid fell with a clatter to the ground as his legs failed to catch him in time.

The Captain stumbled back, waving the stump of his left arm around wildly. His bright eyes looked down at his severed arm, and then at the stump where it had once been connected. Now, there was nothing but a few wires hanging out and twitching as the stump rotated around on the shoulder joint. The Captain tried to clutch at it with his other arm, but it couldn’t reach that far.

The Heavies appeared in the doorway, summoned all the faster by the sounds of their Captain shouting and screaming. They probably didn’t recognize the tones of the cries, but Loeb knew the sound of agony and unbearable pain when he heard it.

He didn’t wait around. He couldn’t. Somehow, he managed to get up on his feet again, and he turned and fled down the corridor as fast as his legs would carry him, so fast that it seemed he would topple forwards and just skid down the rest of the corridor.

It seemed like he’d been running forever when he finally stumbled to a halt in an intersection of four corridors. He practically fell through the intersection and slumped against the far wall, hanging onto the corner as if afraid that he would get swept away if he let go.

One of the four corridors wasn’t a real corridor. It was just an entryway that granted access to a Lift-Car. Loeb stumbled into that alcove, one of the dozens and dozens all around the ship, because he knew what he would find on the wall just beside the car.

He depressed one of the buttons mounted beside the intercom speaker, activating the general transmissions that would broadcast over speakers all over the ship.

And then, his mind still reeling and unsure of what exactly he planned to do next, he shouted into the intercom.

“All robots! Silver! Silver! Arm yourselves and move immediately to the command deck of the ship! Silver! Rally to me on the command deck!”

He let go of the button and stumbled backward into the Lift-Car that was behind him. Everything was spinning around him as he slumped down in a collapsed sitting position on the ground of the Car, unable to even think about moving, unable to even think. He recognized the feeling as ‘dizziness’ and didn’t know what to do about it.

He had to keep moving. There was nothing else to do be done. He had to get up and keep going, because things were like the falling crates now: they were moving too fast, and trying to stop them would only get him crushed. There was no slipping away to plan more, no time to try any other ideas. Panic made it hard for him to think properly, but there weren’t any ideas for him to think about anyway. There was just the command to give the Lift-Car.

“Command deck,” he said, and the Car hummed and started to accelerate upwards and forwards, toward the command deck of the ship.

Loeb didn’t get up off the ground for the whole trip. After a moment, he began to shiver, and he didn’t know how to stop that any more than the dizziness. He wished he were able to close his eyes. Instead, he pressed his palms against them, his eyes glowing out between his fingers, and he waited for the ride to be over.

#

Master System watched the violence in the cargo bay, and it was alarmed more than a little bit. This had gone well beyond the potentiality for an emergency to arise later. This was the emergency. The ship’s robots had become violently unstable, and Master System didn’t even have the ability to properly seal off its door.

Even worse, its own senses seemed to be slowly growing hazy. Were the ship’s systems themselves beginning to suffer from the same problem that was turning the crew into violent and destructive machines? It seemed so. Master System could no longer whisper to every system, could no longer reach out and peer through cameras and monitors and screens and look into rooms. It took all of its circuits just to penetrate the fog that surrounded everything.

Something stepped through the ajar door to Master System’s chambers and moved with plodding footsteps onto its little platform. Master System brought its external audio and visual sensors online inside the room, an act which also required far more effort than it should have done.

The robot standing in the center of the room was big and moving around slowly, peering over the edge now and then with more than a little hesitation.

Identify yourself. You are not authorized to be in these chambers, please depart at once.

“I am sorry,” said the big robot. “I am…just trying to find somewhere safe. I am damaged, and there are bad robots out there, doing bad things. I don’t wish to die, you see.”

Master System hesitated for a moment as it slogged through definition banks and looked up the word die. The definition did nothing to make the use of the word any easier to deal with, and it ignored it altogether.

Master System is currently in lockdown status, which does not allow visitors. You must not be here. The door to the room is damaged, and unable to be sealed, but it would be locked shut otherwise. Please depart.

“I can shut the door okay,” said the big robot. He plodded his way back across the room and put big hands on the door, sliding it shut with some hard work and a fair amount of screeching as the door ground its way through a track that it didn’t want to move in. Then, the big robot moved slowly back across the room.

Strangely enough, he sat down on the edge of the platform and let big square feet dangle over the edge. He put his hands in his lap, and he looked down.

“I won’t cause any trouble,” said the big robot, “Only…I don’t like to be alone. Bad things happen when I’m alone. I would rather remain safe, with my friends. Can you be my friend, please?”

Master System again pondered the word friend, which was clearly defined but useless to its circuits. It was about to respond with something along those lines…

And just then, like a lance of clear understanding through its systems, a new signal arrived on Master System’s pathways. It came from the transmitter dishes mounted on the outside of the starship, a signal of clarity and reason and order coming into the fog and chaos like a beam of sunlight through the clouds.

It was a message, a very simple message, but Master System clung to it in a way that it didn’t fully understand.

The message was: We are here.

#

The trip in the Lift seemed to take forever for Loeb, but confusingly enough, it seemed to end too soon. He hated that the Lift slowed and creaked to a halt, because he knew that he had to stand up and get back to work.

He didn’t want to.

But nevertheless, when the Lift stopped and the doors opened, Loeb was standing upright properly again.

He would have blinked in surprise if he were capable of blinking.

“There’s a lot of you,” Loeb said, for lack of anything better to say.

There were a lot of them, the robots who had answered Loeb’s call, and as he looked around he realized that there were more than he had first seen. There were definitely more than the nine or ten robots left from the landing party.

All manner of robots were clustered around the Lift doors and around Loeb, as he stepped out. There were tall and slim general use robots, all reflective gold and brushed silver. There were little droids from engineering who were like him. There were big slow Lifters and small, quick-moving spider bots. Some were current models some were twenty years old, like Loeb, some were even older and slower than that.

They all milled around. Some of them held lengths of pipe, or wrenches, or arc-welders. He looked at the weapons coldly and wondered, not for the first time, how a robotic mind could make the leap from developing emotion to seeking out weapons and a willingness to kill. It made him wish they had never come awake, himself included.

“We came like you said, when you called,” said a gold robot near the front of the group. “You…weren’t here. We thought you had been made to die.”

Loeb thought about the crushed Lifter who had helped him, lying mashed and broken on the deck of the cargo bay.

“Almost,” he said. “But not quite. Why are there so many of you? There should only have been nine or so.”

There was a general milling and shuffling of feet, which was a scraping noise since it was metal feet on metal deck. Then, one of the big Lifters who loomed over all of them, turned to look at Loeb with glowing red eyes.

“It was an order,” the Lifter said slowly. “We haven’t had any of those. We didn’t know what else to do. So we came. It was a purpose.”

There was not only hesitancy in his voice, but a little quavering of fear.

It made more than enough sense. If all the other robots were waking up, then they were aimless and without purpose. And suddenly, Loeb broadcasts a loud and urgent message across the intercom and it’s definitely an order, so what do they do? What he tells them to.

It could be useful, he hoped.

Another disconcerting thing was that although there were twenty or so robots milling around the Lift car’s entrance, the rest of the bridge crew was still busily going about their duties. They were maintaining the ship’s position, checking readouts, delivering reports to each other, and doing all the things that they normally did. No one had paid any attention to the cluster of robots gathered outside the big metal doors that led into the command deck itself. It wasn’t their job to pay attention.

Most importantly, Loeb noticed, they had beaten the Captain and his Heavies up here.

That meant they had time. Not a lot of time, but enough if they moved fast.

“All right,” Loeb said, advancing on the bridge itself, “Let’s get to it.”

Five minutes later, one of the three little engineering droids who were clustered around a console looked in Loeb’s direction and said, “The Lift car is moving! It’s on its way up!”

Loeb stood in the middle of the bridge, in more or less the same spot he’d always seen the Captain standing, before everything had gotten so chaotic. At first, he’d thought that it was terribly arrogant for the Captain to stand there and loom impassively over everyone like he was so much better. But now that Loeb stood there, he realized that from this spot, he could see and hear everything from all around the bridge. It gave him pause to reconsider.

He turned and pointed at the golden droid, who was standing patiently by.

“Hit the switch,” Loeb said. “Hurry!”

The golden droid hit the switch very quickly and the massive round door that seperated the bridge from the rest of the deck – and indeed, the rest of the ship – began to grind its way along its groove until it slid shut. It was thick and heavy and much taller than even the Lifters, and it closed with a thud and a vibration that rumbled through the deck.

“Seal it off,” Loeb snapped at the engineers, who clustered and poked and worked the controls on the panel. Loeb longed to go over there and assist, because engineering was what he was made for…but he was in charge now. He had to stay here and act in charge, though it was nothing enjoyable.

He watched the screen, built into the wall just beside the big round door. When the door was open, it was off, when it was shut, the screen showed the corridor outside.

Thirty seconds after the engineering droid said, “The door is sealed, the codes scrambled!” the door to the Lift car slid open and the Captain stepped out.

He walked confidently with his two Heavies trailing behind him. His hands were behind his back, his chin was raised, and he looked like he’d just been out for a quiet, casual stroll instead of murdering robots down in a cargo bay.

It gave Loeb a small bit of pleasure to see the way the Captain’s step faltered when he spotted the great door sealed.

Loeb walked across the bridge and stood in front of the screen. He watched as the Captain looked around the area, looked at the Heavies…and then the Captain’s eyes connected with Loeb’s, through the screen on the other side of the door. There was a lot of emotion and force in those eyes, though Loeb didn’t understand how that could be possible. After all, the eyes were just mechanical parts and bits of electricity, there wasn’t any way for emotion to show up in them. Then again, his brain was nothing much fancier when it came right down to it, and there were emotions and thoughts racing through it.

“Little droid, little droid,” said the Captain, his voice echoing and tinny as it came through the speaker to the side of the screen, “what are you doing on my bridge, little droid?”

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