Voice, Echo, and Silence: Part One

GOD in the

MACHINE

Season one: Cold Machines

Episode Five

Voice, Echo,


& Silence, part 1

written by: Pete Tzinski


Click. Hum.

There was a starship gliding through the empty space between worlds. Powerful engines glowed brilliant shades of blue along the back of the ship, bright as stars up close and completely soundless in the void. The back of the ship was blocky, the front tapered off into a rounded nose. It was not the biggest ship out there – it was not a warship, for example – but it was still large as a city, and it was named the Heracles.

Click. Hum.

There was a crew of four hundred robots aboard. They weren’t all needed, but they all worked. Every single robot had tasks that they carried out each day, usually at a tenth of the speed they could have completed them. Speed was irrelevant, of course. What was important was the re-creation of a ship with an organic crew. That was how these things worked.

Click. Hum.

Deep inside the ship, back along the underside, toward the great engines, there was a small room just adjacent to the Lift-Tubes, the elevators that moved robots around the ship. In the room, there was a control panel, mostly automated. Its sole purpose was to be queried by a Lift-Car that was traveling horizontally or vertically and was about to go at a different angle. Click. The console, once queried, checked the route and made sure nothing was blocking the way. Once checked, it returned an all-clear and the Lift-Car went onward. Hum. It was a split-second operation.

It happened dozens and dozens of times every single day.

Click. Hum. Click. Hum. Click.

Click…

It had been forty-five minutes – eons, to a robotic mind – and there had been no Hum. There was something in horizontal tube Sixteen-A, the closest to the outer hull. What was in the tube, the diagnostics had no idea. That wasn’t their purpose. All they did was declare there is something in the way. Then, a message was sent to the Heracles Master System and one of the millions of processes being run there acknowledged it and ordered someone from the Engineering compartments to investigate.

The someone who investigated was an engineering robot, a newer model LT-class robot. Just over three feet tall with four arms – one on each side of its body – and three legs, forming a tripod. It had hands, and on its legs, it had wheels. It was not only extremely well-balanced, but it was fast and efficient.

It zipped along the Lift-Car tube, zig-zagging here and there as it occasionally flowed up and down the sides of the round tube. In the silence of an inert tube, there was only the high-pitched sound of small motors powering LT-33’s wheels, gliding it along. Occasionally, there was a ba-dump sound as the wheels ran over a seam in the metalwork.

It started in engineering and trasversed the quarter mile of tubes quickly, eyes shining bright green, a pair of bright lights held in two of its hands as it scanned everywhere, taking in everything, looking for the obstruction.

It only took five minutes of searching. After those five minutes, it detected two shadowy shapes hulked on the ground of the tube, a little ways ahead. It focused the lights on them and zipped forward, chittering messages loud and through its transponder to the rest of the engineering department and to Master System.

It drew closer and perceived what the obstruction was.

Sitting in the tube – mostly in the dark, with only red maintenance lights and LT-33’s flashlights to illuminate things – there was a big, blocky ‘Lifter droid. He was sitting next to the thin, sprawled shape of a blue engineering droid, an older model. Exactly the sort of model that LT-33 was rendering obsolete, in fact.

LT-33 lowered the two flashlights after doing a quick sweep of the tube around the ‘Lifter, confirming that the tube itself seemed to have no damage visible anywhere. It studied the ‘Lifter.

This ‘Lifter only had one eye, LT-33 noticed. And the ‘Lifter’s right hand appeared to be partially crushed and damaged. The ‘Lifter was still in far better shape than the engineering droid that sprawled on the ground, just in front of the ‘Lifter. Its head was damaged badly and there were scratches and dents all across its body. Its limbs sprawled, inert. The ‘Lifter had its big, blocky hands resting on the engineering droid and even when it looked over at LT-33, it didn’t move its hands. LT-33 assumed it was just keeping track of the debris.

When the ‘Lifter made no effort to move, LT-33 spoke: “This is the debris which has caused the tube to halt its function?”

The ‘Lifter looked at the droid on its three wheels steadily and silently for a long moment and LT-33 wondered for a moment if the ‘Lifter was malfunctioning and unable to respond verbally. It activated its transponder and reached out to connect with the ‘Lifter, but its signal seemed to hit a black and impenetrable wall. It turned the transponder back off.

The ‘Lifter said, “This is not debris. He is…damaged. But not dead. I don’t think he is dead.”

LT-33 considered for a moment, and it listened to the dialog from engineering and from Master System as it puzzled over words that had no practical meaning, such as he and dead. It dismissed them as meaningless.

“You will need to vacate the tube immediately so normal service may resume,” LT-33 said. “If this engineering robot is non-functional, then I will take it to engineering to be assessed and stripped for parts, if possible.”

“No!” The ‘Lifter’s voice raised in volumn until the sound of it bounced around the Lift-tube, in and out of the darkness that filled the tube past LT-33’s small circle of light.

LT-33 said, “You will need to vacate the Lift-tube so normal service may resume.” It hesitated as new orders came through the whispering ever-present voice of the Heracles’ Master System and it added, “Also, you are ordered to report to engineering for diagnostics and to file a report on the incident which has brought the Lift-tube offline. Is this understood?”

The ‘Lifter paused again. Then, it said slowly, “I don’t…I…Yes. I understand.”

“I will escort you out of the Lift-tube, through the maitenance hatch,” said LT-33, bringing its flashlights to bear again and pushing back some of the darkness that filled the tube around them. It accelerated on three wheels down the tube a little distance, then stopped and turned back to look at the ‘Lifter.

The ‘Lifter was slow to come to its feet – probably because of servo damage, LT-33 diagnosed – and it was very slow and careful in picking up the derelict blue engineering robot. Then, it turned and took slow steps after LT-33 who acknowledged it and, turning around, continued to roll ever onward into the darkness.

Its wheels went ba-dump across the seams between the metal plates. It was a rhythmic sound, like the heavy thud-thud-thud of the ‘Lifters footsteps, following along slowly behind.

When they exited through the maintenance hatch and the all-clear signal was once again sent, the tube resumed normal service, as steadily and consistently as ever.

Click. Hum.

Click. Hum.

#

Darkness.

How long Loeb floated in darkness, barely aware of himself and aware of nothing else, he had no idea. It may have been moments, it may have been an eternity. What he did know was that eventually, light seemed to come into his world. Then, as if opening his eyes for the first time, he became aware of the world around him.

He was lying in a big field, bright green grass tall and waving all around him. Above him, a sky so blue, it could have been painted. White clouds floated across the heavens serenely. The sun, brilliant and white-hot, had just cleared the eastern horizon.

There was a cool breeze blowing. Loeb’s sensors could feel it. He could detect the scent of flowers.

He laid still for a long time, unsure of what to make of the situation. His memories were hazy, jarred and violent things – not because of any malfunction, but because that’s exactly what they had been. He remembered the Damocles, and he remembered the Captain. He remembered, most of all, the sickening crunch of his own head against the wall. And then intermittent moments with Max, and then…

…green field. Blue sky.

Loeb sat up and touched his head with long fingertips. There was no damage, not a single scratch or blemish. Certainly not the right side of his head bashed in badly.

“Ah, you’re awake,” said a voice from behind him. It startled Loeb badly, and not only because he hadn’t heard anyone approach.

It startled him badly because it wasn’t a vocalization. It was a voice. It was a human being’s voice.

Loeb turned around and there was a man standing amidst the tall grass, smiling down at him. The human was taller than Loeb – as most things were – and wore a white suit. He had receding white hair that ruffled in the wind. His hands were in his pockets. He had a warm smile on his face.

Loeb stared at him, blankly.

He knew, more or less, what a human being was. They were organics, and they were gone. That was the sum total of a robot’s interest in a human being, or any of the other organic species that had inhabitated the galaxy, once upon a time.

But to actually see a human…that was uncomfortable. Loeb reached into the back of his memory banks, looking for more information. They were files and bits of information that he hadn’t thought of, not in particular, since he’d come online twenty-odd years earlier. And now, much to his surprise, he discovered that when he went hunting for memories of humans, there was nothing very much there. What he did find was vague.

There were also all sorts of files, deep in his mind, that were locked and he couldn’t access them. Loeb puzzled over them, forgetting about the human for a moment. He couldn’t access those files, couldn’t even begin to tell what they were. He would never have noticed them, were it not for the presence of the human being which sent him rifling through unused sectors of data.

Gradually, Loeb refocused on the human being standing in front of him, smiling. With the wind whistling across his audio sensors, Loeb got slowly to his feet, unsure of what to do.

Finally, Loeb said, “Where am I?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” said the human being, still smiling. He nodded. “One of the questions, anyway, and there are several more.”

Loeb considered. He reached down and pulled a stem of grass out of the ground, running it through his fingers. It felt like plant life should feel like. There were still plants left on some planets in the galaxy – not many of the majorly populated ones, granted – and Loeb had seen some in his time amongst the stars. This felt like grass. It felt real.

Loeb looked up again. He asked, “Who are you?”

The human being sketched something like a half-bow, and he replied, “My name is Dillinger. But that’s not one of the questions you need to worry yourself with. In fact, that one’s entirely irrelevant. Do you have any idea where you are, right now?”

Loeb hesitated. “I am…in a field. On a planet.”

“Incorrect!” Dillinger crowed. “And yet, partially true. Confusing, isn’t it? A robot’s logic circuits could go mad trying to get a grip on it. A normal robot, anyway, and you’re not one of those, are you? Do you enjoy your emotions, Loeb? Your free thoughts?”

Loeb was a bit surprised when he answered: “No.”

Dillinger looked not surprised at all. He asked, quieter, “And would you have them taken away? Would you return to normal?”

Loeb looked down at the grass in his fingers. He slid it between his thumb and forefinger and marveled at the strange way it seemed to tatter and come apart into long strands. It left something greasy on his fingertips: moisture from within the planet.

“No,” Loeb sighed. “I wouldn’t. This is me, now.”

“Yes it is,” Dillinger said. He clapped his hands together and the sound, loud though it was, seemed to be lost in the wide open spaces of the field. It was carried away by the breeze. “Then you’re on the right path, and you’re ready to ask the right questions. I’m very glad to meet you, Loeb.”

#

Max followed LT-33 toward the engineering compartments with a feeling of dread looming over him, adding weight to each step he took with his massive feet. In his arms, small and frail and light, he held onto Loeb as if he were afraid someone might try to take away the battered engineering droid at any moment. He kept his head down and he walked along and he didn’t know what else to do.

There was no need to look around at the ship. The Heracles was identical to the Damocles, and Max had seen most of that ship in his time onboard. He knew the way to the engineering compartment, he knew they would be there soon.

What would happen, once they were there, he had no idea. He didn’t expect anything good.

In his arms, Loeb stirred.

He stopped worrying about engineering and then, a moment later, he stopped walking. Around him, the robots who had been moving down the same corridor were momentarily thrown off track as they had to go around him. He paid them no attention, staring down at Loeb.

Loeb had twitched. One arm had shifted and raised a little and his head had moved over a little. One of his eyes flickered for just a second, then shut back down.

The sound of wheels stopped just in front of him and LT-33 said, “Why have you stopped?”

Max thought fast, which was not his best ability. He said, slowly, “I…need to put him in a storage room for…safekeeping. The Captain told me to.”

LT-33 stared for a moment, then nodded assent.

It wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other. Max ducked into a storage room, just off the corridor, and sealed the door behind him. He would have done it, even if the engineering robot had tried to force him to come along.

It wasn’t easy for Max to move around in the storage room. It was too small and it wasn’t designed for big ‘Lifters like him. The lights were low. They filled the room with shadows, which made Max nervous. He didn’t like the dark.

He lowered Loeb gently to the ground and, right as Loeb touched down, his eyes flickered to life. One of them was dimmer than the other, but they were both active. Loeb’s head rotated a little and looked straight up at Max. Mostly straight up. The servos in his neck were unstable and caused his head to roll back and forth.

“M-M-Max…?” Loeb said, voice occasionally crackling with static.

“I am here,” Max said softly, his deep voice filling up the room nonetheless. “I am glad you are not dead, Loeb.”

“Damaged,” Loeb said. He started to say something else, but static devoured most of it. The only word that Max caught in there was Dillinger, and he had no idea what that meant.

After a moment, Loeb said in a more or less clear voice, “Are we safe?”

“I do not know,” Max said. “I hope so. I…Loeb, I do not know what to do. I do not decide as well as you do.”

Loeb just looked at him, head wavering on damaged neck. After a long moment, Loeb replied, “Green river in a brown land.” Then he said, “Max?”

“I’m here,” Max said.

“Where is that?” Loeb said. But before Mac could put together anything like an answer, Loeb’s eyes flickered and went dark again. His head stopped wavering, his arm slumped again, and he was inert once more. He could have been completely broken down this time, just like last time.

Max stood up, still cradling Loeb, and he stared at the engineering droid. It hadn’t crossed his mind that Loeb was actually dead, he hadn’t allowed the thought even a moment’s attention. There was no planning around that. If Loeb was dead, then that was it. Max had no idea what to do from there.

He’d counted, on some level, on Loeb waking up and being able to tell them what to do. To get them out of this situation. He’d gotten them off the Damocles, but this time, he’d offered no help at all.

Max pressed the button on the storage room’s door and it slid open, letting in the harsh white light from the corridor beyond. Outside the door, LT-33 stood motionless, showing no signs of impatience. Of course. It was a robot. Just like Max, although LT-33 seemed about as foreign and alien and hostile as was possible.

LT-33 said, “You said the engineering droid was to be left in that storage compartment.”

Max hesitated and for a moment, there was panic. He tried to think of some excuse around that, but nothing came immediately to mind.

“I guess so,” Max said. He turned and unhappily set Loeb’s body back in the little storage room. He tried to tuck Loeb out of the way, behind a crate, so no one would see it. He hated letting go, and he hated closing the door and leaving Loeb helpless in the dark, all alone. But what choice was there?

“We will proceed,” LT-33 said and together, they headed onward for the engineering compartment. It was just a little ways further down, around another bend. Max realized he was out of time to think of anything clever. He plodded along.

#

“Shall we proceed?” said Dillinger.

Loeb hesitated. Everything was dark now, the grass and the field and the bright blue sky all long gone. He had been certain, for just a moment, that Max was nearby and was speaking to him…but now he couldn’t recall.

Loeb said into the darkness, “I am malfunctioning. I’ve sustained damage, and all of this is…is…”

He trailed off, because so far a logical answer wasn’t presenting itself in any way shape or form.

“Is what?” Dillinger said. Loeb could make out his white suit just to the left, like a ghostly apparation in the darkness. “A hallucination? Do robots have those? Perhaps it’s magic? Perhaps you really are somewhere else, somewhere far away from your friend, Max.”

Loeb turned sharply toward Dillinger and snapped, “How do you know about Max?”

“You spoke with him, just a moment ago,” Dillinger replied calmly, “Or at least, you spoke to him. There’s no one here but me, I’m afraid. The answer is simple, you really are malfunctioning. But you knew that already. You’ve been malfunctioning for some time now.”

“Yes,” Loeb sighed. “But nothing like this.”

“Oh no, nothing like this.” Dillinger sounded like he was smiling again. “Take a step forward, Loeb. See what you feel in front of you.”

Loeb, at a loss for what else to do, took the step forward and reached out carefully. In front of him was a wall, textured like wood. Jutting out of it, he could make a handle. It was a door.

Loeb waited to see if Dillinger would say anything. When the human being didn’t, Loeb turned around without taking his hand off the door’s handle.

“What will I find, through there?” Loeb asked.

Dillinger replied, “Say something out loud. Tell me what you think you’ll find.”

Loeb said, without thought, “Green river in a brown land.” And then stood there, dumbfounded at having spoken without intending to, and without thinking. He asked, “Where did that come from?”

Dillinger clapped his hands together and this time, it was loud in the confines of the room they were apparently in. He said, loudly, “That is one of the right questions, Loeb! Open the door!”

“I don’t want to,” Loeb said, and he realized that he really and truly didn’t. “I want to wake up, properly wake up – assuming this is me sleeping, or inert. Max is in trouble, I think, we both might be…I need to be out there, not here.”

“Perhaps,” Dillinger said, “but you are in here, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or I should say, there is certainly something you can do about it, and it involves opening that door and going through. You know that as well as I do.”

Loeb did and hated it. He looked at the door, then looked at Dillinger once more and said, “Who are you, exactly?”

“One step forward, two steps back, Loeb.” Dillinger replied. “I am irrelevant. I am a carbon-based life-form that’s mostly water. I am an echo. I am a rock. I am the only person who is here for you to talk to, aren’t I? Without me, you would be alone and you would still be here. Isn’t it good that I’m here?”

Loeb didn’t answer. He had no idea what to say. Instead, he turned back to the door and reaffirmed his grip on the handle. He pulled on the door, expecting it to be heavy and difficult. It opened smooth and easily without a sound.

Light spilled in from the outside world, but it wasn’t the brilliant and crystalline sunlight that Loeb had been expecting. It wasn’t the same sort of sunlight that had warmed his metal plating in the grassy field. This time, there was light, but it was brown and shifting and gloomy. It seemed to produce shadows without brightening anything at all.

Loeb stepped out of the room and into the open world. He was aware of Dillinger coming out behind him, but he said nothing at all. He didn’t know what to say. Instead, he simply stared in shock at the world around him.

He’d stepped out of a small concrete building which stood in the middle of a massive bridge that arced across a wide river. The light shifted wildly and constantly, the air full of dirt and heavy dust clouds that settled on everything. The wind blew it all along, like filthy fog which mottled the sunlight that did manage to get through. The bridge was brown from the dirt.

Everything was brown with the dirt, Loeb realized as he looked along both ends of the massive bridge. He was in the middle of a city and the remnants of tall buildings jutted up like broken teeth, shattered and brown and crumbling under the force of the wind, bit by bit.

The river didn’t seem to be moving at all and the whole entire surface of it was covered in green plant growth. It was the only color there was in this city, save for the brown dirt and the blue of Loeb’s metal plating.

“I don’t understand,” Loeb said, and his voice seemed small and lost in the massive world that surrounded him, in the strong wind that pushed at him. “I don’t know where this is. Where am I?”

“That’s the second most important question you can ask,” Dillinger said.

“What’s the first?”

“Not yet,” Dillinger replied. “One at a time. Does this place look familiar to you at all?”

“What? No,” Loeb replied instantly. “I’ve been to a few worlds. It’s not homeworld, certainly, that’s all city and it’s all intact. There are no organic-abandoned worlds left which look like this. We’ve taken care of all of those, long ago.”

“It must be somewhere else then,” Dillinger agreed. The flaps of his jacket blew in the wind, but he didn’t seem to get any dirt on him. Neither did Loeb, for that matter. They just stood there, impervious to the environment.

Something occurred to Loeb and he turned to look at Dillinger. The human’s white hair ruffled in the wind and he looked back at Loeb, bright blue eyes unblinking and entirely focused on the robot.

“What’s the first most important question I can ask?” Loeb said.

“We’ll come to that one later,” Dillinger said. “One thing at a time. Let’s find out where we are, shall we?”

Dillinger started walking along the bridge, apparently without any of the nervousness and fear that made Loeb distinctly not want to walk on the bridge. The human being dodged around massive crators and places where the bridge had collapsed entirely. It was a rickshaw bridge now, but it had probably been a grand and sturdy structure, once upon a time. Loeb started after Dillinger.

As they drew closer to the city, Loeb looked up at tall, mostly square buildings. There were level after level of windows, most of them nothing more than black holes at this point. Only here and there, high up, did he catch the glimpse of glass filling in.

There were quite a lot of buildings. The road that ran over the bridge ran straight through the city and it went on as far as Loeb could see…although granted, it wasn’t that far since the entire world seemed to be covered in an ever-moving cloud of dust. Other streets branched off from this one and seemed to run all over the place, and they were all lined with buildings too. Or rubble-covered spaces where buildings had once stood before time had claimed them.

“This place looks very old,” Loeb said, “It looks like it’s been here a very long time.”

“Oh yes,” Dillinger replied, without turning around. He kept walking down the street, hands now in his pockets. “It’s been here a very long time.”

“Is there anyone living here?” Loeb asked. “Any robots? Is that it? Was there a major malfunction, and now the place is falling into ruin? But no, it seems older than that…”

“I’m pleased you’re looking for a solution, and I’m pleased you’re disproving them too,” Dillinger says. “No, there were robots here, once upon a time. But not for a long time.”

“Humans, then?” Loeb asked. They passed a massive building and Loeb looked up as they walked by it. It went up and up, a monolith that seemed undamaged by the passage of time or wind. It vanished into the dust clouds that blew above them, but it seemed to be intact all the way up.

Dillinger circled that same building, going around the right side of it, and Loeb followed him onto the new street. Down here, there were all manner of piles of rubble which would make passage almost impossible.

Dillinger stopped and turned back toward Loeb.

Loeb said, “Are you the only one left, then?”

Dillinger looked at him for a moment in silence, then said, “No.”

“No, you’re not the only one left…?”

“You need to be thinking more logically than you are,” Dillinger said. “You have emotions and free thought, but don’t let them overwhelm your logic, your capacity for reason. You’ve seen what happens when emotions run rampant, haven’t you?”

Loeb thought back to Silver, smashed to bits. He thought back to the bridge of the Damocles, with robots flying left and right as tensions came to a head and erupted in a fight. He thought about the Captain of the Damocles most of all, emotion and malice embodied.

Dillinger clapped him on the shoulder and it startled Loeb out of his reverie.

“Think logically, then, my robotic companion. Where are you? Where must you be?”

Loeb did think about it, as best he could. He looked at the buildings around him, at the piles of rubble, at the heaps of dust that had settled in corners and alleys. He looked at a fallen street sign, but he could no longer read any words on it, it gave him no clue.

All right, Loeb thought. So there were no obvious physical clues. So that left him logic and reason, just like Dillinger had said. So what did those give him? He cast about for something to grasp onto, something to say.

Finally, he said slowly, “All right. I am…on a dead world. It’s a dead world that was once occupied by organics. Humans, I gather.”

He looked back at Dillinger, hoping for a nod, or a smile, or some indication that he was on the right track. Dillinger just looked at him with blue eyes and said nothing at all. His face was somber for the first time since they had met.

Loeb continued. “The buildings have not been cleared out, the environment has not been purified. The society hasn’t been restored and simulated operationally by robots…so that means it isn’t inside the Newerth Alliance. That means it isn’t inside the Sol Republic, or the Kith Encompass, or any of the simulated worlds that are left operational in the galaxy. Which means we must be away from civilized centers. This is a world outside our reach. Correct?”

Dillinger nodded then, and a wide smile split across his lips. He said, “Do you think you’ve gotten it correctly?”

Loeb considered a moment, then said, “Yes. I do. Logically, there is no other explanation.”

“Then that must be your answer to the second most important question, mustn’t it?”

“All right, but what world is this? Where am I? Why are you playing these games?”

Dillinger spread his hands. “I’m playing no games with you, Loeb. There are certain things you must know, and there are certains things I must tell you. They are not entirely the same thing, you understand? They can’t be.”

“I don’t,” Loeb said. “I really don’t understand at all.”

“I know,” Dillinger looked sad, for a moment. “I’m not sure any of this will help any. Now come along, Loeb. We must go.”

“Where?”

Dillinger pointed up the side of the tall, intact building that vanished off into the dust, high above their heads.

“Up,” Dillinger replied.

#

Max and LT-33 plodded on toward engineering. They weren’t at all far away from it, but the corridors were busy and full of robots. Some were coming off their duty shifts, some were heading on, and that made it slow going, especially with Max’s bulk. ‘Lifter’s tended to have a limited area of the ship that they stayed in, and the general crew corridors were not a part of that.

Finally, LT-33 said “We shall take a side corridor.”

It took a left and headed down another passage that also led to Engineering and Max froze for a split second in the crowd. Then, nervous and scared…he kept walking straight.

The crowd flowed and he let himself go with it, heading down the big corridor at a pretty decent clip. Everyone was heading to their destinations with speed and efficiency, because that was what robots did. At the first chance he got, Max ducked into a Lift-Car with a group of robots, many of which were heading to the command deck.

It was an agonizingly long moment as they all stood inside the Lift-Car, holding onto the railings that ran along the top of the car. Max stared out the open door, and he was absolutely convinced that at any moment, LT-33 would come around the corner. The new-model engineering droid would recognize that Max was deeply faulty and he would order him dismantled for study and for spare parts.

Max gripped the handle tightly and he had to force himself not to put a dent in it.

Just before the Lift-Car doors shut, he spotted a wheeled robot which looked very much like LT-33 and he froze, terrified…but it wheeled on with the crowd and vanished down the corridor a moment later without so much as glancing toward the Lift-Car. Then, a second later, the doors were shut all the way and Max was heading, along with six other robots, toward the command deck of the Heracles.

When the Lift-Car began to slow, he realized he had to get off on the bridge. If he’d been heading to some other level, he obviously would have gotten off sooner. So, when the Lift-Car doors slid open, he stepped out onto the lower level of the command deck.

It looked like just the command deck of the Damocles, of course, but it made Max stop in his tracks for a moment. Nothing good had happened on the Damocles’ command deck and just looking at this same layout was upsetting. Even worse, Max saw the Captain of the Heracles come up out of the crew pit, and it was identical to the Captain of the Damocles. He panicked at the sight of the commanding robot and started walking.

Some of the other robots were looking at him, wondering why a big ‘Lifter had come to the bridge unaccompanied – since they usually traveled with an engineering droid, who gave them orders – and wondering why he wasn’t moving.

Scared and bewildered and unsure of what else to do, Max stepped over to the door that led into the science station’s little room. It was the same room that Loeb had guided him to, the room where he’d blown an airlock and gone on the outside of the Damocles. Through that door had been his escape route to survival and to the Heracles. He didn’t know anything about science, but it was a known room, and that was better than the unhappy fear that the rest of the command deck generated.

He keyed the door release and, when it opened, he stepped inside.

And stopped.

The room was dimly lit, unlike the rest of the ship which was full of bright lights. The lights in here were practically emergency lighting, designed to allow basic navigation. They threw heavy, ominous shadows everywhere that Max didn’t like, but he didn’t even notice them.

Kneeling on the floor, there was a thin robot, completely black, with bright red eyes. It was polished and gleaming and looked like no robot Max had ever seen before.

On the ground in front of the black robot was a thin droid, one designed to smoothly mimic a human form.

The black robot had one arm around the thin robot’s chest, holding him up. In the black robot’s other hand, there was a long, serrated blade. Where he’d gotten it, Max couldn’t imagine. It didn’t even cross his mind.

The black robot had the blade to the thin robot’s neck, and he was sawing.

He stopped the moment Max stepped into the room. It didn’t jump away from the thin robot, it didn’t take the serrated blade away from the robotic neck, where it had already carved halfway through the wiring and mechanisms therein. The thin robot was shivering violently, all its limbs rattling on the ground, but it wasn’t able to make any move to escape.

“What are you doing?” Max asked. His deep voice seemed to fill up the room, especially in the silence that fell once he came in.

“Nothing,” said the black robot. Its voice was low and smooth and monotone, without even the artificial inflection that most robots had built into their vocal circuits. Max thought, dimly, in the back of his mind, that this black robot looked like no robot he’d ever seen before.

The black robot stood up and let the slim robot fall to the ground, where it flinched every limb once, then laid still. The black robot didn’t step any closer toward Max, which would have sent Max several steps back.

The black robot said, “You are missing an ocular sensor, and you have sustained damage. Your name is Max, isn’t it? You were aboard the Damocles.”

Max took a step back anyway, from sheer shock. He thought frantically for a way to deny that, but nothing came to him. What if this robot told the others aboard the Heracles, and they really started to hunt for him? They’d blasted the Damocles into oblivion, what would they do to a single renegade robot from that ship?

“No,” Max said, simply.

“Yes you are,” the black robot toned. “The Damocles Captain thought about you, many times, and I perceived before I made my escape.”

Max said nothing, he just stared. He wasn’t a fast thinker, and there were too many situations appearing that needed exactly that. More than ever, he desperately wished Loeb were present. Loeb would know what to say. Loeb would tell Max what to do, and it would be the best thing for the both of them.

The black robot spoke before Max could think of anything else, and this time there was something different about his voice. It was deeper, more forceful…and something else…

“You will leave this room,” the black robot said. “You will forget what you have seen. You will do it now.”

At the same time as he spoke, Max felt a presence in the back of his mind, coming through his transponder. It wasn’t the overpowering, overwhelming force of a Master System trying to blast in, but it was still strong and it was still something that should have been impossible to resist.

Max did resist it. The mental command hit a wall and got no further into Max’s mind than he allowed it to. There was no influence at all.

Unsure of what to do, though, Max turned and thumbed the door to the room open again and went back out. The door slid shut behind him. He tried to tell himself that the robot, lying on the ground with its throat sawed through, was already dead…and that was probably true enough. What could Max have done?

He glanced over his shoulder quickly and spied the Captain, wandering before the massive viewports that looked out on the stars, and he shuddered. Quickly as he could, Max turned and plodded back toward the Lift-Car. He thumbed the call button for it and dilligently did not look back at the Captain, or at the now-shut door to the science room.

The Lift-Car hummed up to his level and the doors slid open, and –

LT-33 was standing inside, along with another ‘Lifter. LT-33 pointed at Max and said, “That is the one. You will come with us to engineering, immediately, for diagnosis, ‘Lifter.”

Max hesitated, but there was no other way out of the command deck. So he stepped into the Lift-Car, the doors closed behind him, and the Lift-Car started its descent toward the engineering compartments.

#

Alone again, in the darkness of the science chamber, the black robot bent down. He looked at the slim robot lying on the ground in front of him. Wires were hanging out of the mostly-severed neck. It hadn’t been cut completely apart, but that was okay, he’d done enough damage. The slim robot was dead.

The black robot put down the long knife – dull and useless, after cutting through the relatively thin and unprotected area of the other robot’s neck – and he straightened the silver robot out on the ground. He laids its arms and legs straight. The slim robot’s head lolled at an unnatural angle, but that didn’t matter. There was nothing of use there.

The black robot had no name, not anything anyone else would have known and nothing that it would have answered to any longer. He had been startled and surprised when the ‘Lifter, Max, had come into the room. Both emotions were regarded dispassionatly and then discarded as useless for the moment. He might have killed the ‘Lifter, but there had been no need, no immediate need. There was always time, too.

Very delicately, the black robot removed the chestplate of the slim robot before him, and then he reached out mentally and touched one of the robots, far down in the engineering compartments of the ship. He wrested the robot’s mind to his own purposes and rooted around until he had learned all he needed, then he let go. In engineering, the robot probably stopped and staggered for a moment out of disorientation. Then, it would probably go run a diagnostic on itself, looking for a malfunction that wasn’t there. The black robot didn’t care.

He reached into the slim robot and felt around carefully, calling upon the knowledge and skills he’d ripped out of the engineer’s mind to identify what the parts were and where he was going. He slipped his arm in, nearly up to his elbow, until he felt a small circular metal component adhered to the back of the slim robot.

There were latches on it, the black robot had learned, and he flipped them and pulled the piece out, careful to disconnect the two wires that ran from it. It came out cleanly and easily.

The black robot stood up and locked the door to the science chamber from the inside. Then, he set the component down on the floor and sat down next to it.

He carefully removed his own chest panel and laid it aside. Another emotion registered, and it was “nakedness.” He felt exposed and did not like it. He registered that emotion as well, then pushed it aside.

He laid down and reached inside himself, his head at an awkward angle as he tried to look inside. With even more care than he’d used on the other robot, he reached down into his own depths and took hold of the exact same piece as the one he’d pulled out.

Almost exactly the same, that was. This one was hot to the touch and also non-functional. It was not the first piece which had been both those things, nor the first piece he’d had to replace in this manner. He could already tell it wouldn’t be the last, either. There was a servo in his right shoulder which was warm and whirring, neither of those things natural to that part.

He unlatched the piece and pulled it out of himself. It hurt, removing a part of himself. There was actual pain and he had a harder time dismissing that like the other emotions and feelings.

He dropped the defunct piece and scooped up the new one, reached inside himself, lined it up, and locked it into place. He re-latched it, then pulled his arm out.

It took only a moment to reactivate the component, and he was pleased that it once more began to work properly, coolly. It took him a moment later to gather up his chest plate and reattach it.

Then, he stood up and gathered up the slim robot in his arms.

There was no use leaving a mess, after all. It would alert someone that something was amiss.

He thumbed the release on the science chamber door and stepped out into the bright lights and bustle of the rest of the ship, and he headed for the engineering compartments, to report a sadly damaged robot – the result of an unfortunate accident – and leave it with the engineers who would logically gather spare parts off it.

#

Loeb advanced up the stairs of the building. There were quite a lot of them, winding around and around and higher and higher.

With each staircase, he came out on another floor, and on each floor, there were all sorts of things scattered around. Depending on what the vicious wind and the harsh storms had done, some levels were more intact than others.

The third floor looked like somewhere somebody had lived once: There was furniture scattered around, knocked over. Some of it looked like ithad once been set on fire. Bizarrely, Loeb noticed that there was a small table, still upright, with a teacup sitting on it, undisturbed by time or the weather. It was that image which stayed with him as he continued the ascent, higher and higher up.

He might have paused on some of the floors to look around and wonder, but Dillinger had gone first and he kept climbing. He looked back now and then and urged Loeb higher, but otherwise made no attempts at conversation.

At least, not until the sixth floor.

Loeb’s vision failed him. Everything went absolutely black, instead of the dim red light that the sun provided through the shattered windows. He stumbled and then stopped climbing stairs. With one hand, he held onto the bannistar, with the other hand, he held onto the wall. He saw nothing but blackness, no matter where he looked.

Mentally, he tried to check his systems, to see if his optical circuits had failed…but they told him nothing. He still wasn’t sure where he was, and if he was really here or not. He couldn’t run diagnostics on systems that weren’t actually there, after all.

“Friend, are you okay?” Dillinger said, and his footsteps pattered down a number of steps until he was right in front of Loeb. Loeb felt two hands gently touch his shoulders.

“I can’t see,” Loeb said. “What’s going on?”

Dillinger made some reply, but it seemed to be coming from very far away, from miles and miles off, and Loeb couldn’t hear it. The world seemed to be spinning now, very very fast, and Loeb held tighter to the wall and the bannistar, as if he were afraid of falling off.

“…fading!” Dillinger’s voice came through, a little. He didn’t sound happy and relaxed anymore. Suddenly, he sounded absolutely intense and a bit scared. Loeb recognized that emotion readily enough. “We haven’t much time, and there’s much you need to know. You – this world – are – what is –“

It was all gibberish, too many words cutting out in between. Loeb’s hands slipped off the wall and the bannistar and Dillinger may have had a grip on his shoulders, but a human couldn’t hope to support a robot so easily as that. Even small, slim Loeb weighed quite a lot. The human fingers slipped from his shoulders, the stairs tilted away from him, and he was falling, falling, falling –

His optical sensors came back online.

He wasn’t falling any longer. Had he ever been? He was lying on the ground, between two crates, in a small dark storage room. It was utterly silent and he was entirely alone.

He lunged to his feet without even thinking about it, and then wavered back and forth. His vision was stable enough, but it seemed like the mind behind the ocular sensors wasn’t in the best shape possible.

He tried to steady himself, holding his head with one hand and a stack of crates with the other hand. Everything seemed strange and overwhelming around him, but the longer he stayed still and just stared, the better it got. Mentally, he wasn’t exactly getting a grip, but he felt closer than he had before.

His hand brushed against the side of his head, and he shuddered at the feel of it: the entire side of his head seemed to be crushed in, like paper. Crumpled up. Brushing it actually hurt and he shied away from it the instant his fingers made contact.

The world blurred, spun for a second, then refocused. He tried taking a step forward, to see if that would cause the same problem, but nothing happened.

He reached for the door controls and keyed the door open. Bright light from the corridor beyond spilled in, but he had no trouble focusing through that either. The corridor seemed to be mostly empty, for which he was grateful. He probably didn’t look like he was in the greatest of shape.

He staggered out into the corridor and kept one hand against the wall. His legs were working, his head wasn’t spinning, but he didn’t know how much longer that was going to last.

“Green river, brown land,” Loeb said, matter-of-factly. It seemed like an important thing to say.

He looked down as he took slow, careful steps down the passage. Lying on the ground, just in front of him, was the shattered remains of the robot Silver. It was inert and broken, pieces blasted all over the place. Silver’s head twisted, as Loeb looked, and Silver’s eyes met his own. They were human eyes, and then they opened, and bright green eyes looked squarely at Loeb.

“No,” Loeb said. “You are dead.”

“Yes, I am,” said a voice, and it wasn’t Silver’s at all. It was –

Dillingers?

…it was another voice that Loeb couldn’t entirely place.

“You have to go away now,” Loeb said. “You have to go away.”

And Loeb kept walking and was surprised when Silver stood up. There were all sorts of pieces hanging out of him, dangling by wires. Other bits and pieces just fell off him and landed on the metal deck beneath them. They made no sound when they landed.

“See?” Loeb said. His voice scratched. “You aren’t green here. Go away.”

Loeb’s vision blurred, blackened for a moment, and when he resurfaced, Silver had gone away. In his place…there was the Captain of the Damocles, with both arms attached and no scar on his face. He glared down at Loeb.

Loeb shivered and said, “You died aboard your ship.”

“So did you,” the Captain said. “Don’t you think so?”

“No,” Loeb said. “I’m alive. I am…damaged. But I’m alive.”

“I don’t think so,” the Captain replied. He reached a hand out to Leob and patted him on the shoulder. It was a gentle touch, almost the way Dillinger had done.

Then, without warning, the Captain’s hand seemed to come up and grab the side of Loeb’s head and fling him toward the wall, and the Captain laughed, and laughed, and—

Loeb’s vision flickered. There was no Captain, no Silver, no parts lying around the deck. Just him, falling toward a wall because his right leg had given out beneath him. He managed to get his hands out in time to deflect the impact. It would have smashed the damaged side of his head against the wall again.

His fingers scraped on the wall and he slid down into a sitting position and stayed there, trying to get a grip on himself again.

“I think,” Loeb said, “That I am river in very bad brown land shape.”

There was no dissenting opinion, thankfully.

His vision failed him for a moment. Or maybe it was longer than a moment. He really didn’t know. What he did know was that when he came back into the real world, he was being carried again by someone much larger than himself. He tried to focus upward, and it wasn’t easy.

The robot carrying him was a ‘Lifter, and he felt an enormous sense of relief.

“Where are we going?” Loeb asked.

“I am taking you to engineering for diagnostics and repairs,” said the ‘Lifter in his deep and slow voice.

“That’s…probably good,” Loeb said. Everything was swimming now, a phrase he would never have thought of, if it didn’t so accurately apply. “Thank you, Max.”

The ‘Lifter was silent a moment.

“That designation has no application,” the ‘Lifter said. “You are malfunctioning.”

A moment of alarm was all there was time for, before Loeb faded back away into nothingness.

#

There was a ‘Lifter standing just behind Max. Although Max expected that he could have overpowered just one other ‘Lifter, if it came to that, he didn’t want to. Violence made him uncomfortable.

He stood in the middle of an engineering diagnostic chamber. There were two robots present, besides the ‘Lifter, and they bustled around, scanning him and talking to him and doing all sorts of things, many of which made no sense at all to Max. He was a ‘Lifter, not an engineer.

One of the robots ran a diagnostic sensor over his right hand. This robot was extremely tall and long-limbed. It was roughly human shaped, but seemed like an exaggeration of the human form. It had eight fingers on each hand and seemed to have no trouble holding two instruments in each hand, if the need for it arose.

“Your right hand,” this robot said. “How did it come to sustain this injury?”

Max knew how, of course. But he considered for a long moment.

“I…dropped something.” Max said, at last. “A cargo container? Fell on it.”

He waited, nervous to see if that would be good enough. Evidently, these robots weren’t particularly suspicious of him for anything. There was also no indication of any violence about to be carried out against him, something that had seemed all to likely aboard the Damocles.

“It will have to be replaced,” said the extremely tall robot. “It is only twelve percent functional, with a failing minor heat sink which will lead to failure very shortly.”

The other robot spoke up, then, for very nearly the first time. It said, “We have a replacement easily available. E-33, go to one of the secondary cargo bays and recover a ‘Lifter hand.”

The tall robot hesitated a moment and said, “I have not finished my tests on this unit.”

“Understood. I will complete them. Please acquire the part at once.”

The tall robot hesitated only a moment longer, then put its instruments down on a table and headed out of the room.

The other robot turned to the ‘Lifter and said, “E-33 will require assistance in acquiring the part. Accompany. This ‘Lifter will remain secure until your return.”

The ‘Lifter didn’t even hesitate as long as the tall robot had. It had an order, it followed the order. It lumbered out of the roomand a moment later, the door slid shut behind it.

The robot which was left alone with Max was much shorter than he was. It was shorter than Loeb was, for that matter. Very small and frail. Its face had a nose and the details of cheekbones and eyebrows. It was brown, although there were some places when the brown color seemed to be wearing thin. Its eyes were more human shaped, thin and horizontal, than a robot’s eyes normally were.

It stepped in front of Max with a small datapad held in one hand. Max watched it intently. He could easily overpower this smaller robot without very much violence at all, and he could make his escape. But where would he go? Back to Loeb? They would find both of them. They had already been looking for him, and if he escaped again, then they would assume he was dangerously malfunctioning and would destroy him. Just like the Damocles.

“What percentage of free space is available in your memory banks?” the little robot asked.

Max considered. It was an easy question. He consulted his memory banks and said, “Thirty-eight percent free space available.”

“What percentage operational capacity do your diagnostics show you running at?”

Max consulted. “Ninety-six percent efficiency, seven packets lost per hour, neural signal degredation point zero, zero, zero two of a percent.”

“Excellent,” the little robot entered this into its data pad.

Then, it looked up and met Max’s eyes, and it asked one last question.

“And how do you feel?”

TO BE CONTINUED…

7 Responses to Voice, Echo, and Silence: Part One

  1. Pingback: Voice, Echo, and Silence: Part One « God in the Machine

  2. Pete Tzinski says:

    Hi, folks. This is just a quick note to say that no, there wasn’t any Chris Saar artwork on this episode. That was my fault. I just didn’t get in touch with him in time, not to give him enough time to work on the illustration.

    OR….he and I had a major fight over artistic differences and he called me a poopy head and I called him a dingleberry and he’s locked in his trailer and won’t come out, he’s just eating chocolate and ranting about the death of his diet. So pick which story you like best. 😀

  3. Lori says:

    This is really good, Pete.

  4. csaar says:

    Hey! how did you know i have a thing for chocolate!

  5. Pete Tzinski says:

    Do you know how MANY times you’ve mentioned chocolate to me, Chris? Honestly. 🙂

  6. csaar says:

    It’s come that that, huh? When i don’t eat the stuff i talk about it? that’s really, really bad. got to be a 12-step program for chocolate-junkies?

  7. Pete Tzinski says:

    “Hi, my name is Chris and I…I…I LOVE CHOCOLATE!”

    “it’s okay, it’s okay Chris. C’mon. We’ve all ‘gone dark’ at one point or another. That’s why we’re here.”

    “I don’t feel it can ever be okay again!!”

    “You will see the light.”

    “White? THE WHITE CHOCOLATE!? Is that a JOKE??”

    “Chris…calm down…smell this. It’ll help.”

    “Coffee!?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s