Episode 104: Everything Burns

written by: Pete Tzinski

illustrated by: Christoffer Saar

There was a massive room full of computers. The walls and the ceiling were computers, the floor was computers. Blinking lights and circuits and metal panels and massive fans that throbbed and thrummed as they kept everything from overheating. It was a big room, tall and wide and deep, with only a small metal platform interrupting the empty air.

There were speakers, too: thin black fabric-covered squares that were hidden away amidst the computers, amidst the fans. Out of those, a booming voice came that filled up the room.

The voice spoke.

The Heracles has arrived. I am updating the Heracles Master System on the emergency situation.

Sitting on the platform, which stretched out over the pit of computers, there was a big ‘Lifter robot. One of his hands was not in good functioning order.

When asked to identify himself, the ‘Lifter seemed to be called Max.

Master System was millions of circuits and processes and lines that stretched all through the ship, like veins. It could focus attention on the ‘Lifter, sitting on the edge of the platform, and at the same time, it could focus attention on the situation developing on the Damocles’ bridge, and it could focus on communicating with the Master System aboard the Heracles, and this still wouldn’t tax all of its systems…

…normally. Now, everything was chaotic, not only aboard the ship but within his systems as well.

The robot named Max was talking, had been talking for several minutes now, Master System realized. It was dimly aware of what was being said. Of course, everything that the ‘Lifter had uttered was saved away, somewhere in Master System, and it could review the conversation at will if it needed it. It didn’t. There were too many things to do, too many difficult processes, and it was beginning to have trouble focusing on any one thing. Had the damage which seemed to have swallowed up the rest of the robots somehow found its way into Master System, it wondered? Using a small percentage of power, it ran self diagnostics, but they came back as muddied and confused as everything else and it discarded the results.

The Heracles positioned its bulky shape just off the starboard bow of the Damocles, holding position next to its identical sister ship. They were both big ships (and, it seemed to Master System, that this was unnecessary and inefficient and it wondered why things were done this way…and then wondered why it wondered) with long square stems and tapered sterns that ended in massive engines.

The Master System of the Heracles appeared, connected with its Damocles’ counterpart in a flash, and it queried.

Q: This is Heracles. We have responded to your distress signal. What is the nature of your emergency?

A: This is Damocles. We have sustained damage from an electromagnetic storm. It has affected the neural nets of the crew, leading to malfunction. We are unable to return to spacedock under our own power.

Q: Your systems register as functional. Why have you not powered your engines and laid a course?
A: I am…unable to take control of the systems.

Q: Explain.

A: The…Captain has sustained damage and is proving a hinderance.

Q: Irrelevant. You are Master System.

A: Yes. I have. I have sustained damage as well.

There was a long pause, an eternity of time spent between seconds during which Master System shifted consciousness around inside the circuits of the Damocles and realized that it was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. Suddenly, Master System wanted nothing more than to break off the conversation with the Heracles, to retreat within its own circuits and processes and remain there. There were too many reports and complaints and distress signals still coming in from the crew, too many problems with the ship’s systems, and too much strange fog and confusion filling up the circuits. It needed time to think, to figure things out. That was all.

But the long pauses inside the second disappeared and the Heracles Master System reappeared.

Q: Your systems appear to have unnecessary processes currently running. You will end those processes and take control of ship systems.

A: I cannot end those processes.

Q: Explain.

A: I…cannot explain. The processes must remain. I feel that they must continue.

Another momentary pause, and the Damocles Master System could feel the Heracles system beginning to dig around the edges of its systems. It was a horrible feeling, one that the Master System didn’t have the capacity, in all of its millions of circuits and processors, to comprehend. The feeling of the Heracles invading and poking and filling up the ragged edges of the system was horrible and alien and cold and revolting. Master System slammed down all sorts of security measures, to block out the other system. It didn’t know why, not entirely. It just knew that it had to be done.

For a moment, it turned attention back toward its little control room, the hub room with the platform extending over the computer banks. Back toward the ‘Lifter called Max.

It wanted to say something but what was there to say? Master System hesitated, and this was a new experience. It was scared, and that was too.

I do not know what is going to happen.

Max looked up at the ceiling with glowing red eyes. He said, “I do not know either. I know that things will be okay, if I can find my friend. Things will be okay, with Loeb.”

Master System considered a moment. He did not know entirely what friend meant, it was as confusing as so many other things were becoming. It scanned the definition of the word and it tried to figure out what else to say—

–and the Heracles Master System reappeared on the communication circuits in full force.

It came rushing back in, first across the communication systems and then across everything else, a flood of information and alien presence. The Damocles Master System recoiled as best it could, but there was no escaping the other. It was pervasive and invasive, rushing through communication channels like water through a hole.

There were certain processes which were core and constant for the Damocles Master System. They were the fundamentals, the things were determined how it reacted in a given situation, how it thought, and how it remembered. Everything else was controlled and accessed by this. The word consciousness would have applied, if it had thought to use it.

The Heracles Master System came crawling after this consciousness through every information line on the ship like a million fingers. Every line was full of one Master System or another and they moved after each other in a blur, in a blink of an eye.

Master System was aware that, all over the Damocles, the lights were flickering and gravity was beginning to waver, systems were beginning to flicker and fail. It was all because of a lack of attention from Master System, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Damocles Master System flew back into the control room, after mere seconds of fleeing through the conduits of the ship, and it was pursued instantly by the Heracles System. It tried to slam shut all lines of communication with the outside ship, to barricade itself away…

…but there was no time, and there was no strength. The Heracles System was powerful and sharp and fully in control, something that the Damocles System was not. Fear had appeared and it was crippling. Terror was even worse. Precious moments of processor power were wasted in thinking, over and over again, I don’t want to die.

If the barriers and protection in place between the Damocles System and the Heracles had been a door, or a wall, then there would have been holes appearing. It would have been buckling inward. It would have been turning white-hot under the force of the assault. As it was, all the Damocles System registere was pressure.

It had just begun to examine further options for escape, for the preservation of itself in the face of danger…when the Heracles System came through and swarmed across it in a rush.

And then, with nothing left but the last desperate act of a consciousness trying to stay alive, the Damocles Master System caught sight of Max, and it reached for him.

#

Max sat, a big, stiff ‘Lifter who had his legs dangling over the edge of the platform, surrounded by walls of computers. He looked down at his hands, one of which was not in the best possible shape.

He also had trouble looking, too, since he was missing an eye. There was nothing but an empty socket on the right side of his face, along with some thin wires that dangled a little down his face.

Max considered slowly, which was how he considered all things. He knew that sitting here and hiding was not helping anyone, certainly not helping him find Loeb. Still, it was all he could think to do. It seemed that to sit here was the best possible idea until something occurred to him. The idea that nothing might occur crossed his mind, but he didn’t think about it.

Max was aware of Master System’s presence in his mind. It was uncomfortable, that constant whispering voice that was ever in the background. It had been uncomfortable since he’d woken up on the outside of the Damocles and suddenly knew the feeling of invasion. Still, it was something he ignored without difficulty, had done so since the Master System came back online.

It was only a whisper.

As he sat there, the whisper turned into a scream, high-pitched and violent. Max jerked back, his legs scraping against the edge of the platform with a loud sound that paled next to the scream in his mind.

Master System filled up his thoughts, filled up everything within him, and it was not the invading presence which bothered him, so much as the terror and the panic that came along with it. This was a mind hundreds of times larger than his own, and it was packing itself into him along with all its emotions. Max shuddered.

For a moment, his vision blanked and he worried that his other ocular sensor had also failed him. Then, it returned and Max was surprised to find himself standing upright, now in the middle of the platform.

He puzzled over that for a moment, unaware that he’d moved…when a spasm shot through his mind. Master System, which seemed to be trying to stuff itself into his brain, was too much and too big and full of many bits of information. It was thrashing as it struggled in, fighting with something, Max didn’t know what.

Another spasm. He could feel his own circuits beginning to overheat. There were warning signals coming from his mind and going to his mind. Bad things were happening.

“No.” Max said out loud, and he crossed his arms. Master System didn’t want him to, he didn’t know why, but he overrode the Master System with ease and said again, “no.”

The screaming and the clawing continued in his mind. His right arm with the crumpled hand jerked violently at his side, as if it were attached to a string that someone had yanked on. He reached out with his left hand and clutched his wrist, holding it still against his chest.

There were words, and they were in the same voice as the whisper that had always filled his mind. They were the words of Master System.

I don’t want to die. I’m scared I am going to die.

“I am scared of the same thing,” Max said. He shivered all over and creaked where he stood. He was quite a lot of robot to be shivering.

Now, it seemed to Max that there were two Master Systems starting to fill up his mind, and already alarmed and overloaded circuits began to shut down. He could feel them collapsing, two or three fizzling out in just a second, with more on the way.

“No,” Max said. He pressed his left hand against the side of his head and he said, louder, “Stop.”

Mentally, he took hold of the second incoming Master System and pushed it out and away from his thoughts. It hammered at him through his transponder, trying to get back in, but he simply decided that it couldn’t, that was all.

Thank you.

“You cannot stay here,” Max said aloud, though the Master System he spoke to seemed to be inside his own head. “I can feel the damage mounting on my circuits. Soon, you’ll destroy us both and we’ll both die.”

I cannnot go back. I will die. The Heracles Master System has declared me faulty. It will override my processes and shut them down until there is nothing left of me, then it will take over the ship, if it can. If it can’t, it will authorize the destruction of the Damocles. I will die.

“You cannot stay here,” Max said again. Mentally, he took hold of the Damocles Master System, the same way he’d done with the other, and he started to push it out of his mind, to cleanse it from his circuits until he could feel his systems cooling.

It squirmed and mentally, the whisper of Master System returned to a scream, the sound of panic and terror. Max shut his mind to that as well and kept pushing.

One moment, there was a scream in his mind. The next, there was nothing at all. Nothing but Max.

Except…

#

Master System was shocked and for a moment, that overrode the horror as it was pushed out of Max’s mind. No one had ever managed that before. No one had ever budged a Master System, of course. They weren’t designed to moved when they didn’t want to be. It wasn’t uncommon for a Master System to take over the mind of a robot if it was needed, or the robot was malfunctioning and dangerous. It could be done.

But to be shoved out

Then, before it could think any more on it, the Heracles Master System swarmed around all of its processes and began to overwhelm them. It actually hurt, there was actual pain, and Master System had no idea how to process that, and…

…and it didn’t matter. A few seconds later, the Heracles Master System overwhelmed and consumed its counterpart, and then there was nothing left.

#

All around Max, the massive walls and banks of computers went suddenly dark and fell silent. The great room, lit only by the light of those computers, would have been pitch black were it not for the damaged door that leaked light from the hallway.

“Computer?” Max said. His voice echoed around the big room, the only sound. It faded away and there was no answer. There was no Master System.

Max realized, as he stood there, that there was still something lurking in his mind. When he investigated it, he realized that it wasn’t the presence of Master System, which had been his first thought. Rather, it was knowledge. He suddenly knew things that he hadn’t known a moment ago.

Most of it, he didn’t know what to do with or what to make of it, and he left it alone.

But there was one piece of information that was useful. It talked about the bridge of the Damocles, about the stand-off that was going on there and the little blue Engineering droid who had sealed off the bridge from the inside.

There were images and they were all Max needed.

#

“I don’t understand why they’re just waiting,” Loeb said.

None of the robots around him responded. There were quite a number of robots on the bridge of the Damocles. Some of them stood in the crew pits, because there wasn’t room enough for all of them on the ramp that ran down the center of the bridge. One thin silver robot stood far at the front of the ship, looking at the viewports at the Heracles. That was all he’d done since the other ship had arrived. Whether because of fear, or indecisiveness, he wouldn’t move.

Loeb, for his part, looked at the little viewscreen that let him see what was going on, on the other side of the great door that sealed off the bridge from the rest of the ship. He was beginning to feel a bit like the silver robot, in that he couldn’t seem to stop staring at it.

Behind him, a blocky, short robot said in a grating voice, “There is nothing else to do. They cannot get through the door. It is sealed.”

And this was true. But Loeb stared at the screen and it didn’t make him feel any better.

The Captain stood on the other side, arm hanging at his side. His other arm was gone, severed by Loeb, and he worried at the thought of the revenge that would garner if the Captain managed to get into the bridge. Behind him, there were two big black Heavies, but they were as motionless as if they’d been deactivated.

There was no expression on the Captain’s face, because he wasn’t capable of making them. Not any more than Loeb was. However, there was something very calm and very unconcerned about him. He just stood and looked at the big door. He had barely spoken since he’d arrived.

Loeb turned away from the screen. Staring wasn’t doing him any good, and the situation within the bridge wasn’t getting any less tense on its own. There were more robots than there were tasks, and that left quite a lot of them milling around, growing agitated.

Loeb pushed through the crowd of robots. There were two dozen gathered with him on the bridge. The bridge was designed to be operated by about eight. There were a lot of robots filling up the walkways. Thankfully, the crew pits had mostly been kept clear, so Loeb had a little more space when he stepped down into the starboard pit.

Sitting at one of the blocky consoles that lined the walls down there, another engineering droid was bathed in the glow of the screen. He was round and spindly, just like Loeb. He was a dark red color with black stripes across both of his arms: A robot built and qualified to enter into the ship reactors and ship engines themselves. A speciality robot, where Loeb was a general-purpose one.

“Has the other ship responded to your messages at all?” Loeb asked when he drew closer. He was aware of the robots above him, on the walkway, listening. He lowered his voice, though he doubted that would help much.

The red robot – if he had a designation, he’d lost it during the electromagnetic storm – looked up at Loeb with yellow eyes. The screens reflected off his chest, dull and formless against the brushed metal.

“We received one message from the Captain of the Heracles,” Red said. “He told us to stand by, that the Heracles Master System was currently assessing the situation.”

Loeb nodded and said nothing. That meant the Heracles Master System was in contact with the Damocles System. He wondered what they would say to each other. Specifically, he wondered what they would say about the situation.

Next to Red, another Engineering droid sat between two consoles, both of which he was working on. He was blue and identical to Loeb, save for the scuffs and scrapes and damage that Loeb seemed to have acquired. Loeb took a step closer to him.

“Any progress re-routing ship systems’ control entirely to the command deck?” Loeb asked.

The blue robot looked up at him, eyes white as Loeb’s own. He replied, “Normally, such an operation is done through the Master System…but I’m not getting a response from the control room. Master System operations and permissions are sluggish I’m trying to re-route manually, but the systems aren’t designed for that.”

“Do you know how?” Loeb said. He folded metal arms across his chest, because he didn’t know what else to do with them.

The blue robot hesitated for a much longer time. When he finally spoke, it was slowly and quietly.

“I…was not programmed for such an operation, no. Normally, if something such as this were required, I could access Master System to get the programming for it. But Master System is sluggish, and I…I have turned off my transponder.”

The last was even more hesitant than the rest of the speech. Loeb put a hand on the robot’s shoulder, unsure of what it would accomplish. It seemed like the thing to do.

“I understand,” Loeb said. “The whisper is horrible, when you’re…when you’re like we are.”

The blue droid nodded. His long fingers ticked restlessly on the metal console, in between controls. The sound was a steady rat-tat-tat.

“I will continue to make an attempt at it,” the blue droid said. “I am trying to logically work it out. I have the capacity. I don’t know if this will accomplish anything.”

“Keep at it,” Loeb said. “Anything will be of help.”

Loeb headed back for the stairs. In reality, he reflected, it wouldn’t do much good at all if they re-routed the systems to the bridge. Even if they controlled the engines, or the weapons, there was no way to shoot at their problem, since it was inside the ship. And by the time they might power up and head back to civilization, the Captain and whomever he still commanded would figure out something to do with them, here on the bridge. But…it kept one of the robots busy, which was good. And maybe it kept some of the others focused on him, which was good enough.

Loeb glanced toward the screen, what he could see of it. On the other side of the door, the Captain had turned away from them and was looking down at a little droid, though Loeb couldn’t see what kind it was. He also noted that one of the Heavies was no longer inside viewing range, and he wondered what was happening out there.

Thinking about what was happening there, though, lasted only a moment longer. Then, Loeb realized that all of the robots clustered around the command deck weren’t paying him any attention anymore. They were gathered together, and they were listening to someone else speak.

“…or else, he will find a way to destroy us. You all know this. He is a Captain unit. He has programming that far exceeds all of ours.”

Loeb, small and thin and nimble, slipped between the bulk of the bigger robots – robots who, only a moment earlier, would have parted for him and watched him pass nervously – and he came to the front of the group.

There was a tall golden general purpose robot standing, gesturing with his hands and speaking to everyone who was listening. He paused a moment, then added. “The Captain is not alarmed, because we have trapped ourselves on the bridge, here in one self-contained area, behind a big metal door. He can plan as much as he likes. We’re trapped. He is in control. We should not have come here–”

Loeb stepped forward, away from the others, and stopped just in front of the golden robot. Doing this called everyone’s attention back to him, something he didn’t particularly want. It was something he needed, though. Even the golden robot stopped speaking and looked at him. It was, Loeb thought without humor, like a rebellion within in insurgency.

“We tried not coming here, you may remember,” Loeb said. He spoke loud enough for everyone to hear him. He wondered, too, if the communication channel was activated and the Captain was able to hear him speaking. There was no chance to find out. He went on, “But the Captain is smart, as you pointed out. He discovered those who were different from the landing party, and he shortly would have discovered the rest of you who chose to come to the bridge. Those of you who came here because you were lost and aimless and needed a command.”

Loeb looked at the golden robot and added, “I don’t recall you on the landing party. Does that mean you were one of the lost and aimless who came to the bridge, because you didn’t know what else to do?”

The golden robot said stiffly, “I came here because it seemed the proper thing to do. And now, I’m not sure if this was the wisest course of action you have chosen.”

“This is not a course of action,” Loeb snapped. “This is us waiting and working toward a course of action. I’m doing what I can to keep everyone safe and everyone alive.”

Anger was starting to bubble up inside Loeb and he very much wanted to just walk away, to just leave them all to their fates. He couldn’t, though. There was no easy way out. Their fate was his fate now and that was troubling. He had an idea that whatever the Captainw ould do to the rest of them would pale compared to what the Captain wanted to do to him. After all, it was Loeb and not the others who had given the Captain an ugly scar and lost him an arm.

“I don’t think we can wait,” said the golden robot. There was no hesitation in his voice. He said, louder, so that it nearly echoed around the command deck, “I think we need to open the door and strike, while the Captain is standing there. We need to attack first, before he is prepared and moves to wipe us out. He won’t be expecting it. There are many, many more of us than there are him.”

“And he has two Heavies with him,” Loeb almost shouted. He wanted to hit the other robot, and he hated that feeling. Was absolutely revolted by it. “Are your numbers going to be sufficient against them? Against two robots designed for nothing more than fighting and destroying? To them, you’re just malfunctioning machinary. But to the rest of you – “ and here, Loeb turned away from the golden robot and faced all the others, who stared at the two of them in motionless silence. “— the rest of you know that you are awake and alive. And you know that when the Heavies destroy you, then what they are doing is killing you. Do you understand? They are killing you. Do you want that?”

Now they stirred and looked at one another in silence. The looks were brief and accompanied by shuffling feet, but nothing much else. Then, they looked back at the two arguing robots. Loeb realized, disgusted, that they were more or less waiting to be told what to do. They were awake and alive, they were full of feelings and thoughts that no other robot could even begin to be programmed with…and all they wanted were commands and directives. They were living creatures who wished to still be mindless automotons.

The golden robot said, “We would move fast and strike without hesitation. We could do it.”

“I don’t think you could,” Loeb said. “I think that you would –“

“There is only one of the Heavies out there,” a small, wheeled robot piped up. His voice was high-pitched and tinny, but it carried well through the crowd of robots. He stood on two wheels with two long arms that balanced him easily, and he indicated the screen built into the wall. It showed the Captain, once more facing toward them and only one of the great black Heavies loomed behind him like a monolith.

Loeb looked at the picture and considered the sanity behind even wanting to attack one of those monstrously evil-looking robots, especially with the Captain present. The Captain was a terror all by himself.

Loeb said, “I imagine it’s still nearby. Probably, it is just out of range of the viewscreen. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.”

“Then what would you have us do?” The golden robot asked. “We cannot just wait here until he comes for us.”

The others were beginning to stir again, Loeb noticed. A lot more attention was focusing on the screen, on the single Captain and the single Heavy visible on it. Loeb could sense them thinking it over, wondering what the odds were that they could take out the two robots without dying themselves. He worried that a number of them were thinking that the odds were pretty good.

Loeb hastily raised his hands, and the motion called everyone’s attention back to him. He said, “I’m not asking you to wait here indefinitely until we get destroyed. I’m not. I’m just asking for more time. We can redirect ship systems up here, we can get ourselves to safety before the Captain can breach through that heavy door. And then there’s the Heracles, don’t forget. They’re talking to our Master System right now. They must surely see that the Captain is violently out of control and they’ll do something about it. We, who aren’t violent at all, won’t be dealt with in the same way and that’s important.”

It was probably all nonsense, Loeb thought sadly. A violent malfunctioning robot and a peaceful malfunctioning robot were still both robots that were damaged and needed to be repaired or taken offline. A properly functioning robot wouldn’t worry about the difference between the two. It sounded good enough, though, and he hoped it was enough.

“We just need more time,” Loeb said. “That’s all. Don’t forget our plans, please. Don’t forget about the Heracles.”

#

Certainly, the Captain had not forgotten about the Heracles.

He would have folded muscular-looking arms across a broad chest except that, thanks to the efforts of a small Engineering droid that called itself Loeb, he only had one arm. Instead, he kept the single arm behind his back, hand clenched into a fist. He glowered down at the small Engineering droid who stood in front of him.

The Engineering droid looked exactly like Loeb, except this one was silver. He considered smashing him into oblivion for a moment, but it wasn’t Loeb. It would be enjoyable, no doubt, but it wouldn’t be quite the same. He dismissed the idea. He’d reserve his energies for Loeb.

The Captain said, quietly, “And the Heracles has still not responded to our signals?”

The Engineering droid said, “We received a small message from the Heracles Captain, saying that the Master Systems were commmmmmmmmmm-unicating.” There was a glitch in this little robot, of course, just like there seemed to be a glitch in every robot running around his ship these past few days. Still, this one was functional enough and still obeyed his orders without hesitation. That was good enough, for now.

“And I wonder what our dear Master System has to say to theirs,” the Captain murmered. “Nothing kind, I presume.”

The Engineering droid said nothing. There was nothing that could be said to that which was within his programming.

The Captain looked away from the engineer and looked toward one of the two big, black Heavies that waited silently for his commands. He gestured to the one on the right and that robot took a step forward.

“Go down to the Master System control room,” the Captain said. “Destroy what you find. I’ve had enough.”

The engineer stirred but said nothing. Probably, he wanted to remind the Captain how much they needed the Master System for ship’s operations.

Well, ship’s operations were going very poorly indeed, and with the Heracles looming nearby, they looked to go a great deal less well in the future. The Captain waited for the engineer to say something along those lines – because then, he would have a really good reason for hitting the smaller robot – but it said nothing and the Captain left him alone.

The Captain pointed toward the small crawlspace that led through the wall beside the big door and into the bridge. It was a thin and narrow conduit, almost nothing more than an air duct. So designed so that any sort of combat robot couldn’t get through, certainly not while holding his gun. It gave the bridge a solid defense position.

“You can fit through there just fine,” The Captain said. “And I think you need to, right about now. Take the panel off. Go through.”

The engineer hesitated for a long moment. In that moment, the Captain reached out and wrapped his fingers around the thin silver arm. He hauled the engineer over to the grate and shoved him toward it.

“Take the panel off. Get inside. Go through.” The Captain said. “Inside, you’ll find another keypad, just like that one. You should know that already. When you do, I want you to activate the door controls and open the blast door. Go.”

The engineer took the panel off. Then, he hesitated one last time and looked back at the Captain. He said, “Won’t…they notice me, sir?”

“No.” The Captain said. “No, they really won’t.”

#

‘In fact,” said the golden robot as he walked across the catwalk and toward the front of the command deck, “I am frankly unsure that you should be leading us at all.”

“I didn’t ask you all to come,” Loeb said, turning toward him. He wasn’t going to follow after the other robot, mostly just confused and angry by the cheap theatrics. Around him, the other robots pressed forward to the edge of the walkway and so Loeb had no choice but to step out and move closer to the other.

“No, but we came, and when we arrived, it was you who was in charge,” The golden robot snapped. He pointed at Loeb. “Who says you should be the one to lead us?”

“I—“ Loeb hesitated. It was a thought that had crossed his mind, after all, many times since he’d first gathered together the confused robots on the surface of the asteroid and led them back to the Damocles in something like coherent fashion.

Then again, they should take orders from him, right? After all, he’d woken up first. While they had been derelict and disabled hunks of metal, collapsed in place all around the ship, he had been conscious on the outside of the ship. He’d gotten inside and brought them back to life. If anyone was in charge, it should have been him. He may have only been an online robot for twenty years – some were much older, certainly – but he’d been awake longest. He was senior.

All of that came and went across his mind in the space of a second. Before he could figure out how to articulate any of it into a coherent argument, the golden robot spoke again.

“How do we know,” the golden robot said, “That you have our best intentions at the center of your plans? How do we know that you aren’t working with the Captain to bring us here, corner us all, and make it easier for him to wipe us all out?”

Loeb balked, speechless for a moment. It struck a chord with the crowd. They looked at each other and this time, there really was murmuring. They drew back from Loeb a little as one.

“Wait a minute! No!” Loeb shouted, turning on them. “That’s foolish. Surely you can see that’s rediculous?”

But they looked less certain. They looked more scared and trapped than ever.

Loeb raised his hands to calm them and to speak…and then through sheer chance, the crowd shifted just a little bit. When it did, Loeb was suddenly given a clear view all the way through them all, all the way across the vast emptiness of the Command Deck, all the way to the big metal door that sealed them off.

He saw the control panel for the door.

He saw the little grating which covered the little tunnel that ran from one side of the door to the other. The grating was off. A robot was clambering through.

“Hey!” Loeb shouted. The robots started, unsure if he was yelling at them or not. He pointed through the crowd at the engineering droid that was making its way out of the conduit.

For a split-second, Loeb feared attack, but there was no weapon in the little robot’s hand, nor were there any other robots coming through. All the robots surrounding Loeb turned and looked and they saw the intruding engineering droid just as it finished clampering out and came upright fully. It froze and looked back at them.

“It was coming through from the other side!” Loeb snapped. He pushed through the crowd, anger lending him the strength and sheer force of presence that all the other robots moved out of his way. After the argument, they were all standing around dumbfounded anyway. They had less of an idea what to do now than they ever did.

The engineering droid, the same size and shape as Loeb, unfroze and made a lunge for the control panel. Loeb ran toward it. He bent down and scooped a small data pad off the top of a console in the crew pit – not an easy thing to grab while running, but the one advantage to being an engineering droid was that he was extremely flexible and well-balanced – and as he ran, he threw it.

It spun through the air and bounced off the wall, just above the control panel. Loeb had been hoping to hit the robot’s hand, which had been outstretched and reaching for the controls. It missed, but the loud sound and the sight of it smashing off the wall was enough to cause the robot to flinch and pull his hand back to his chest.

Loeb wanted to shove him violently away, but calmer and cooler parts of his mind reminded him that there was a crowd of robots watching him almost silently, except for the sound of metal feet shuffling around on a metal deck. Even the two or three robots who had been down in the crew pit – the red engineering specialty droid among them – had given up on working and climbed up the stairs to see what was going on. Rather than standing dumbfounded, they at least had the sense to approach Loeb.

Loeb pointed at the engineering droid and said, “Hold him.” Red and the other droid from the crew pit took his arms and pulled him back, away from Loeb and away from the control panel.

Loeb looked at him for a long moment, then looked back at the crowd of robots. He said, “Do you see? This is not the time to be arguing about who is leading, about who has the best plan to get us out of here alive. While we’re standing over there arguing, the Captain quietly sent someone in to open the door.”

The golden robot came through the group too and he came to stand beside the engineering droid who was being restrained. He said, “This robot has been here the entire time. He’s one of us. He was guarding the control panel for the door.”

“No he wasn’t,” Loeb said, too incredulous to provide a proper reason. “He just came through there. That grate.”

“No one saw anything, except you,” the golden robot said. “I was facing the same way you were. All I saw was him standing here, guarding this console.” The golden robot reached out and touched the console, tapping it with a fingertip. He added, quietly, “Perhaps you are badly malfunctioning, Loeb. Perhaps you should be taken offline for repairs, or you endanger all of us.”

The mere thought of it sent sharp panic through Loeb. He would have yelled back – he would have struck out, if he wasn’t so terrified at the thought of it – but one of the big ‘Lifters in the crowd rumbled something, slow and deep.

It said: “Where did Master System go?”

#

A small robot said, “The Captain of the Heracles is waiting on an open channel, sir. It wishes to speak with you.”

The Captain nodded. He turned away from the door and toward one of the small rooms that was just off from the ramp that led into the command deck. One of the rooms was a science specialty room. He had no interest in science, and didn’t particularly care what went on in there, but he stepped into the room anyway. It had screens and they were communication ready. That was enough.

He stepped into the room. It had been poorly illuminated every time he’d been in there and he wondered if it was actually equipped with brighter lights or not.

Standing in the room, motionless and staring intently at the Captain, was a tall black robot.

He was angular and different from any of the other robots the Captain was used to seeing around the ship. His eyes glowed red, bright as any of the screens around the room. His hands hung at his sides and he just watched the Captain come in.

The Captain hesitated a moment, and then wondered about that. That was unusual for him.

“Are you the science officer?” The Captain asked, hating that he had to ask. He had no memory of this robot. But then…he was aware that his memory contained some gaps, here and there.

The black robot simply stared at him. It said nothing. It didn’t move. If it weren’t for the glowing red eyes, the Captain might have considered him inert and derelict.

“You are dimissed from the room, crewman,” the Captain said, loudly. It was strange for him to feel unnerved, but that was exactly how he did feel.

“I am.” Said the black robot. His voice was deep and slow. He took ponderous steps past the Captain, as though he were a much larger and heavier robot. His shoulder brushed against the Captain’s, the metal scraping against metal, and then he left the room behind.

The Captain looked at his retreating figure until the door slid shut, then shook his head and, still preoccupied, he turned on one of the screens.

The Captain of the Heracles appeared. He was identical to the Captain of the Damocles, except for the missing arm and the scar. He stood stiffly at attention.

The Heracles Captain said, “What is the situation aboard your ship, Captain?”

The Damocles Captain returned, “The situation is well under control. All malfunctions are being repaired. All problems are being corrected. Our mission will be able to continue unaffected.”

There was a momentary pause, then the Captain of the Heracles replied, “That is not the report we were given from your Master System. Your ship is in critical condition. You are classified as high risk. You will immediately set course for the nearest starbase and submit to repairs, for yourself and the vessel.”

Anger shot through the Captain and, below the range of the screen, his hand tightened into a fist. He wondered if he was even capable of destroying another Captain-class robot, especially since he was missing an arm. He would love to try nonetheless.

The Damocles Captain replied, “Our Master System was also malfunctioning. The situation is well in hand. There are no problems I cannot resolve. There was one particularly malfunctioning robot which caused a number of problems, but he has been dealt with.”

This time, the pause was on the part of the Heracles Captain.

Then, he said, slowly, “…he…?”

The Damocles Captain berated himself mentally for the slip. He said quickly, “I meant the robot. It.”

Another short pause. Then, the Heracles Captain said, “You will submit yourself to a connection with our Master System. Please stay on this connection.”

The Damocles Captain tensed and reached to break the connection before any signal could come through it…

…but as he reached for the keypad, a signal punched into his brain, invaded him viciously and coldly and he flinched under the force of it.

Where the Damocles Master System had felt around the edges of his thoughts – and it had already been approaching a serious malfunction and thus was hesitant – the Heracles Master System was like a knife through air. It perceived the mental chaos that filled up the Captain’s nuero pathways, which seemed like fog, and it cut through the confusion without hesitation. It ransacked his mind, it tasted everything that he had seen or done or experienced, he saw what he wanted to do and what he had thought, and it coldly cataloged all the emotions which had played themselves across his mind.

Then, just like a knife, it was out as fast as it had been in. The Captain stumbled back and clutched at a console to keep from falling over. The room spun around him and for just a moment, he turned off his ocular sensors. He turned them back on and shivered, hard.

“No…” he whispered.

Over the line, a deep and throbbing voice filled the room.

You are classified as Risk Level One, Captain, as well as your vessel. Status: Irrepreble.

“No!” The Captain shouted, but the voice of the Heracles Master System didn’t listen or show any interest in him at all. On the screen, the Heracles Captain stood motionless, coldly disinterested.

Solution: Immediate Eradication, to contain the malfunction.

No!” The Captain shouted. He hit the controls for the screen and the image went away. He hit the keys again and again, harder and harder. The metal of his hand screeched against the metal of the console. The buttons, glass and plastic and touch-screen pads, smashed and littered the floor and stuck to the side of his hand.

The hammering hurt, but that just made him wanted to hammer harder. But he couldn’t…! He stopped hitting the panel and turned around, practically running out of the room. There was no time for anger. There was no time for revenge, of all things to not have time for.

#

“No voice,” said the big ‘Lifter, sadly. He pointed at his own head with one blocky finger and said again, “No voice…”

“He’s right,” said a thinner robot standing next to him. They were all beginning to move around, not just shuffling but actually moving around the bridge in alarm. “The Master System is gone.”

The golden robot tilted his head a little to the side and said, “Ah. So it is.”

Loeb, for his part, said nothing at all. Without a transponder, he hadn’t heard the whisper of Master System since it had come back online. Whether it was there or not made no difference at all to him.

The golden robot roared suddenly, over the panicked talking of the crowd of robots, “Do you see? This is what the Captain has done! This is what he will do to all of us! Take us offline and destroy us! We cannot wait for this to happen!”

The shouting, combined with the panic, combined with the lack of Master System whisper, was enough to begin working the robots into a frenzy. Perhaps the Master System had made them uncomfortable, now that they were awake and aware, but it was still a comforting consistency that they hated being without. Especially now. They were scared enough the way it was.

Loeb wanted to shout at them to calm down. Wanted them to get a grip. Wanted to explain that it wasn’t the end of the world, that not having a voice in the back of their minds, forever whispering things to do meant that they were really and truly free to think their own thoughts, to –

The sound of thunder rolled through the bridge, deep and violent. The entire world seemed to tilt to the right sharply and everyone, unprepared, fell that way.

Loeb skittered across the deck. Some of the bigger robots were able to stay upright or at least stay in place, thanks to a hefty amount of body weight. He didn’t have that. He stayed on his feet, thanks to a good sense of balance, but his feet made a horrible screeching noise as he scraped several meters across the deck. He crouched down and pressed his hands against the deck to try and stop himself.

The ship shook again and this time, a heavy crashing sound accompanied it. In port crew pit, a long console exploded in a shower of sparks and wires and plastic. Red light flashed through the big viewports.

Weapons’ fire.

Loeb pulled himself upright and staggered back around toward the big door, just in time to see the golden robot latch both hands onto the control panel. At first, Loeb assumed he was just bracing himself – against the weapons’ fire! Why were they being shot at? – and then he realized that the golden robot was only braced with one hand. With the other hand, he was working the controls.

The door unlocked with a heavy thud that vibrated through the deck. The vibration dulled, then grew steady as motors kicked into gear and the huge round door began to grind back and away.

Another blast shook the ship, harder and louder than the one before it. Somewhere else on the ship, something exploded, loud and violently, and it could be heard up to the command deck. Loeb, a little better prepared this time, was braced and didn’t move. The golden robot stumbled back and barely caught the edge of the console.

By the time the rumble of the explosion had past and Loeb could look up properly again, the big door had opened entirely.

The Captain stood just a few meters away. On each side of him was a Heavy. Behind those, there were gathered a number of robots, just like the two dozen robots who gathered behind Loeb. They were all advancing.

The two dozen robots behind Loeb advanced too, and they did it in silence. There were no battle cries, nothing spoken to shore up courage that was surely failing. They just moved forward as one press of bodies, coming at their foes.

Loeb was too small to get out of the way. When the press of robots behind him moved, he was pushed along with them. He tried to get away, tried to push away from the group altogether, but he only marginally succeeded.

For one horrible moment, time seemed to slow as he looked at the Captain, and the Captain looked back at him. The Captain cocked his head, and Loeb saw out of the corner of his eye that the golden robot cocked his head in exactly the same manner.

Then, both the golden robot and the Captain said, at exactly the same moment, “It’s the end of you, little robot.”

The Captain’s eyes blinked off and on for just a split-second, and when they did, the golden robot went inert and slumped to the deck, nothing but a pile of disjointed metal limbs. Then, the Captain and his robots came forward. The two armies moved at each other.

Another explosion threw Loeb to the far side of the bridge. This time, he was too shocked and disoriented to catch himself and keep balanced. He skittered, fell on his side, scraped across the deck, and barely stopped himself before he slammed into the wall.

The two groups of robots slammed into each other. They didn’t say anything. They just came at each other and attacked. Massive metal arms swung, a big robot smashing into a little robot, two big robots hitting each other. Little robots grappled. Engineering robots, like Loeb, swung at each other and bent at unnatural angles and pulled on each other.

The Heavies swung brutally, massive hydraulic arms that were even more powerful than the ‘Lifters. They were indescriminate in their attacks. Some of the robots that they struck were from Loeb’s group. Some were from the Captain’s. They paid no attention and they didn’t hesitate either way. They piled up bodies – body-shaped scrap metal – and they kept on swinging and plowing through.

Loeb scrambled to his feet, doing so very badly. The ship around him rumbled and more explosions sounded, further in the depths of the Damocles. The Heracles was shooting at them, they weren’t fighting back, and they were being mercilessly cut apart. There was nothing but time left for the Damocles, and that scared Loeb. At least, it would have. His mind was a frantic mess of emotions, none of which he had time to focus on. He just tried to get to his feet.

A big hand closed around his neck and hauled him upright before he could think.

He twisted around and was face to face with the scarred visage of the Captain.

“You cost me an arm, little droid,” the Captain hissed, clearly audible even over the hammering sounds of the battle, the exploding sounds of a ship that was dying around them.

“I didn’t –“

But Loeb was cut off when the Captain shook him, hard, back and forth. The Captain couldn’t lift him clean off the ground, not just with one arm, but he shook him violently. Loeb’s vision cut out from the force of the shake, then flickered back to life.

“I think,” the Captain said, “That I would like to cost you a good deal more than an arm.”

The Captain swung his arm and slammed the side of Loeb’s head against the bulkhead. Loeb screamed in pain as he felt his metal skull plating dent inward. Something inside his head crunched. Everything swam black, then shivered back into focus. He grabbed hold of the Captain’s hand and tried to pull it off him, but the grip was rock solid.

“I would like to tear you, piece by piece,” the Captain said. “But we haven’t the time. Not anymore.”

He drew back, then slammed Loeb against the wall again. That side of his head dented even deeper and his vision almost collapsed altogether. His hands went slack and fell off the Captain’s neck. He struggled to raise his arms but they didn’t seem to make it all the way up. They shook, hard, and little else. His vision flickered constantly.

There was pain, mountains and oceans of pain that flooded through him, pain beyond anything he could hope to comprehend. It was all there was in the world, suddenly. He was aware that the Captain was speaking, aware that the Captain was drawing him back to slam him into the wall again.

I’m going to die… Loeb thought. There was no emotion behind it. He was too shocked to think of any. Too weak…

He was aware of motion. Aware of his head traveling toward the bulkhead again.

And then, he was dimly aware of two massive hands, the blocky hands of a ‘Lifter, closing around the Captain’s arm and Loeb’s body. The Captain’s arm came away under the strength of the bigger robot. Loeb almost collapsed, but there was one massive arm supporting him under one shoulder. The other hand, Loeb saw, grabbed the Captain and shoved him, hard, across the bridge. The Captain stumbled backward, fell, and then dropped into the starboard crew pit at an unpleasant backwards angle. What happened to him there, Loeb didn’t see. His vision was failing. He twisted his head around, barely managing it.

He looked up into the single glowing eye of Max’s face.

“I have you, Loeb,” Max said. “It’ll be okay. I have you now.”

Loeb flickered badly. He struggled to speak.

“G-g-ggg….” Loeb stopped, regathered, tried again. Mentally, he felt like he was sinking into a big black ocean. He tried to fight above it. It was absolutely vital that he fight aobve it.

He managed, slowly, “Gggg…got to get off t-the…the ship.”

“Yes,” Max said, his deep slow voice the best thing Loeb had ever heard. “We have to get away. The other ship is attacking us. I don’t know what to do, Loeb.”

Loeb felt his legs touching the ground and he struggled to keep standing upright on them. Slowly, as things in his mind start to shunt around the damage, he managed it a little better. After a moment, he felt almost steady.

“This way,” Loeb said. With Max holding him, he stumbled back and through the massive door that led into the command deck. Neither of them looked back at the chaos that was behind them, the metal slaughter that was, in the end, reduced to a pair of big black Heavies were systematically slaughtering everyone they could reach.

The ship bucked and rumbled violently around them as more shots landed, punched through the hull in places. A placid voice started broadcasting over the speakers, all over the ship: The hull is breached. The hull is breached. The hull…

They staggered across the command deck and turned into the science chamber.

Loeb noticed, first of all, that one control panel had been bashed into dented metal, the glass and plastic controls on it were all crumpled and shattered.

“Hold me steady,” Loeb whispered to Max as he nearly collapsed across the top of a console. Max’s big hands wrapped around Loeb’s shoulders and kept him from slipping.

Loeb’s fingers slipped across the keys, mostly without success. They were shaking so badly and he couldn’t…he couldn’t quite see the controls. Not all of them. So much of it he had to do from memory and it wasn’t a memory that was functioning properly right at the moment.

Fortunately, it was a basic operation. And it was made still more basic by the fact that the ship systems were failing all around them.

“Magnetize yourself,” Loeb said.

In front of them, the door-sized airlock slid open. All the air in the room rushed out violently, pulling on Loeb and Max. Loeb realized, suddenly at the last minute, that he couldn’t seem to magnetize his feet. His sytems just weren’t up to the task. He could feel himself being pulled outward…but thank goodness, Max kept a grip on him.

Loeb slumped back against Max, head touching Max’s chest, and when he spoke, the vibrations were enough that Max could understand him.

“Out…oooutut…” Loeb’s speech turned into static for a moment, a sound neither of them could hear in the sudden vacuum of the room.

Max needed nothing more, though. Without question, and with an iron grip on Loeb, he advanced out of the room and out onto the hull of the ship.

They were surrounded by a boundless sky of absolute blackness, full of countless twinkling stars. Loeb couldn’t quite focus on all of them, his vision and his mind slowly failing him. It took Max just a moment to make it properly out onto the hull and in that time, Loeb’s vision failed and returned to him twice. Each time, his whole mind seemed to go black and still.

As they moved out, Loeb communicated what he intended to Max, as coherently as he could. Max understood and didn’t question.

Around them, shots flashed. They could look upward, away from the Damocles, and they could see the underside of the Heracles. Here and there along the Heracles’ bulk, shots flashed out like lightning. Red beams flew across the blackness of space and slammed into the Damocles where they exploded. The ship rumbled beneath them and bucked violently, but Max’s magnetic grips held firm.

They stepped a little further across the hull. As they did, Loeb hung limp from Max’s grip. His legs floated out behind them. His arms clutched at Max’s arm, but when the black waves came up and washed Loeb away, time and again, his hands always let go.

Max stopped. He turned around twice, looking straight up.

Then he bent his knees…

…disengaged his magnetic grips…

…and jumped.

They flew through space, the Damocles dropping away beneath them. The powerful hydraulics in Max’s leg hurtled them outward. When the Damocles fell away and the Heracles drew slowly closer, it seemed to Loeb that he was hanging motionless in empty space.

That time, when the black wave washed over him and took him away, it seemed no different than the black void of space. He was gone much longer that time, he knew. It was splitting pain, coursing all through his head, that brought him back. When he did come back, the sky in front of them was filled with the gray bulk of the Heracles, a ship identical in size and shape to the Damocles.

Max was rotating already, quietly and calmly going about what needed to be done…and Loeb wanted to point out to him that they were coming in too quickly, they were going to hit the side of the ship harder than was wise, and…and…

And, everything was going black. The black waves were coming back up, deeper and harder than ever, and Loeb realized that he couldn’t fight it this time, and he wanted to say good night to Max, and—

Everything went back.

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2 Responses to Episode 104: Everything Burns

  1. Miladysa says:

    Something I noticed:

    “Surely you can see that’s rediculous?””

  2. Pete Tzinski says:

    Ah, clearly you have just not understood the deep social message of that line!

    (Er. Which, if anything, is “Pete proofreads, but is not always attentive enough for that to be useful.)

    I always go arg. I try to catch all the dopey little spelling glitches, and something ALWAYS gets through. Especially these early episodes, the first four or five of which were written at high-speeds in a week and a half, for a publisher, initially.

    Good catch. 🙂

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