Voice, Echo, and Silence: Part Two

GOD in the

MACHINE

Season one: Cold Machines

Episode Six

Voice, Echo,

& Silence, part 2

Pete Tzinski

Click. Hum.

Ba-dump.

Prior to this week, the last time that LT-33 had been inside a decommissioned Lift-Tube had been almost a year earlier, when it had just been brought online and been assigned to the Heracles. Then, it had just been standard maintenance, quick and easy work to keep everything going smoothly.

Now, it had gone into the tube once to retrieve a ‘Lifter who was missing an eye and holding an engineer who appeared to be inert. It thought nothing of either of those robots, or of the peculiarity of finding them in a Lift-Tube. That was not its function, after all.

What LT-33 also thought nothing of was the oddity that it should find itself once more inside the very same tube, heading the opposite direction toward the other end of the ship from where it had found the ‘Lifter. It had barely been four hours since its previous visit. That was why it was LT-33 in the tube again, actually: because it had just finished this task and requested a new one when this one had presented itself. The tube had been brought back online, it had clicked and it had hummed exactly twice. Then the computers declared that there was an obstruction.

LT-33 trundled down the long tube with a flashlight held in each hand, scanning the walls and ceiling for any debris or damage to the tube itself. It moved at high speeds, acute ocular sensors scanning everything and never needing a second look.

Down the lengths of tubing the little robot went, wheels thudding across the welding lines between sheets of metal. It neared the location where the obstruction was supposed to be and slowed down a little, to facilitate a more detailed search.

No search was required, as it turned out. The problem was kneeling on the bottom of the tube, obvious as anything. LT-33 noticed it straight away.

For a moment, the engineering droid wondered if perhaps this was that same ‘Lifter, holding its same defunct engineering droid, once again having made its way into the Lift-Tube. The odds of finding two different robots inside the same Lift-Tube, where no robots at all were allowed, were astronomical. It wasn’t unheard of, though, for one robot to malfunction and gravitate toward a certain spot, or a certain task, or a certain series of steps. All it took was a programming glitch so that the call was never completed and that one robot would continue ad infinitum, or until someone shut it down.

LT-33 approached and realized that no, this wasn’t the ‘Lifter at all. Nor was it the engineering droid, the older model which the ‘Lifter had been holding onto. This was an entirely different sort of robot, one that still shouldn’t have been down here. It shouldn’t have even been aboard the Heracles, for that matter.

“Please identify yourself,” LT-33 said as it wheeled to a stop.

The kneeling robot straightened up and turned around, studying LT-33 with glowing white eyes. They were bright enough to mask the rest of the features of the robot’s face, but LT-33 didn’t need to see them. It could fill them in well enough.

“I am me,” said the robot. “What do you want?”

LT-33 considered the odd phrasing of the question and replied, “This Lift-Tube is malfunctioning. You are not authorized to be inside. I will escort you out. Please come immediately with me.”

“Do not seek to give me orders, little robot,” said the taller robot. It took a step closer to LT-33, heavier footfalls thudding against the bottom of the big metal tube. LT-33 shone the two flashlights at the approaching robot, looking for surface signs of damage…and certainly, there were a number of signs. This robot was clearly badly malfunctioning. LT-33 was not given to idle speculation, but it was logical enough to wonder exactly what had happened to this robot which had caused such damage.

LT-33 said, again, “You are not authorized to be within this Lift-Tube. I will escort you out, immediately.”

When the bigger robot moved, it was so fast that it almost blurred in the light of the two flashlights. It was faster than LT-33’s brain expected, and it had a highly advanced brain.

The big robot lunged and knocked LT-33’s hands aside. A giant hand smacked into the side of LT-33’s head and it lost its wheels, clattering to the ground. It hit the side of the tube and slid a little, down the curve to the bottom.

A quick self-diagnostic: there was no damage, nothing but minor surface abrasions and a dent to the right shoulder which had not hurt any equipment within. LT-33 braked its wheels and started to haul itself back to its feet.

But it looked up and saw the taller robot looming over it, holding both flashlights in one hand. The flashlights came down fast, their beams of light blurring across the room as they descended.

LT-33 squealed, a high-pitch static sound of alarm and malfunction as the flashlights impacted squarely in the center of its face. LT-33’s left eye shattered like cheap glass and although the sensors behind it continued to fire off and send messages back to the brain, they were gibberish and abstract and LT-33 immediately shut down that eye until diagnostics and repairs could be conducted.

But the flashlights were raised and they were coming down again. LT-33 brought an arm up and shielded itself, just barely. The impact of the flashlights, held in such a powerful arm, crushed part of LT-33’s limb inward, enough that his fingers on that hand stopped issuing status reports. They were completely broken.

The flashlights pulled away, their beams of light slicing across the gloom of the Lift-Tube, and for just a moment, they lit upwards in the face of LT-33’s attacker. Of course, it had already seen this other robot, but the shadows and the spill of the lights made it seem like a different sort of robot altogether.

LT-33 lunged forward as emergency protocols kicked into gear. It got its wheels down again and powered them full, slamming into the attacker so hard that the wheels squealed against the ground with the impact. The taller robot, caught off-guard, stumbled backward and dropped one of the flashlights. Unfortunately, the one it dropped was the smaller of the two.

LT-33 braced itself awkwardly against the floor and turned to shoot down the tube, heading for the small maintenance hatch that it had come through in the first place. The situation was obviously out of control, too much for a small engineering droid to handle matters on its own. As it turned, it activated its transponder to send a report to both the ship’s Captain and the Master System, and –

A flashlight slammed across the back of LT-33’s head, jarring circuits and processes and causing the transponder to shut back down as everything flickered out of existence for a moment. LT-33 reeled and tried to –

But the flashlight struck again and this time, LT-33 went down, wheels spinning in the air. It rolled over, looking up at the droid who loomed with a flashlight raised.

“Silly little droid,” it said, and then the flashlight came down, hard, for the last time.

The sound of it echoed in the tube; there was only one droid able to hear it.

#

Max hesitated for a long time, before he answered the question put to him by the small engineering droid. He tried to consider it, turning it over as fast as his thought processes would allow.

Finally, he said, “I…am operating within acceptable capacity.”

“No, no,” said the little engineering droid. It looked up at him and leaned closer and said again, more forcefully, “How do you feel, friend?”

Max said, “I feel…scared. I am…Who are you?”

The little robot crossed his arms and said, “Name’s Arrow, for extremely complicated reasons.” He pointed down at his brown chest, where a black arrow had been painted when the robot had been created, pointing downward.

“Arrow,” Max said. “My name is Max. Are you…like me?”

“Oh yes. Well. A bit shorter, really,” said Arrow. “And probably quite a bit older, but I know what you mean. I’m as alive as you are, Max.”

Max considered. He asked, “Are you from the Damocles, then?”

“No, never been aboard,” said Arrow. “Good thing, too, since the ship’s just floating bits of metal now, isn’t it? No, I’ve been on the Heracles for a few months, and before that, I was…around. Good thing I was here, though, huh? Got to meet you.”

“Yes,” Max said. “A good thing.”

There was a moment of silence, during which Arrow continued to scan around Max, touching small gashes here and there in Max’s plating and making notes of them. Then, Arrow said, “Bend down, Max, would you? Let me see what we can do about getting you a replacement for that eye. What happened to it, anyway? Do you know?”

“Yes,” Max said somberly. “The Captain of the Damocles ripped it out.”

“Oh man, that must have hurt,” Arrow said sympathetically.

“Yes. A great deal.”

“Well, hey, we’ll see about getting one put in, so’s you can see things properly again. When that ‘Lifter comes back with your new hand, he can go get you an eye next trip. It’ll give us more time to talk.”

When Arrow had finished making scans of the empty eye socket, the dangling wires, Max straightened back up. He said, “We do not need to worry about repairing me, please. I have a companion who is very damaged. He needs to be repaired, or else I’m afraid he will die.”

Arrow paused in tapping on a console and looked over at Max. His eyes glowed, mostly white with a hint of yellow in them.

“You’re not in fine shape yourself, friend.”

“I am not going to die.”

“All right,” Arrow said. He turned away from the console, “So where is he, then?”

Max turned toward the door and said, “I had to leave him on the way here, in a storage room. But I don’t know which one. I didn’t look at –“

He stopped speaking as he looked thorugh the glass door that led into their little alcove of the engineering compartment they were in. Through the door, he could see the main door that led into the compartment.

It had just opened to admit a ‘Lifter of the same make and model as Max was. The ‘Lifter came into the engineering compartment carrying an engineering droid draped across his raised arms. The engineer was small, thin, blue, and completely inert.

The engineer also had the side of its head crushed in and looked horribly battered.

“That’s him,” Max said, pointing through the door. “That disabled engineering droid is Loeb. What are they going to do to him?”

Arrow looked at Max, then looked through the door. Then, he set down his datapad on a console’s flat surface and said, “Nothing at all, friend. Excuse me a moment.”

Arrow ducked out of the room. Max moved to follow the smaller droid, but the glass door slid shut before he got there and didn’t seem willing to open again for him. Helpless to do anything else, Max watched as Arrow approached the ‘Lifter, who held Loeb.

Some of the other engineers had come over and were inspecting Loeb when Arrow arrived. They turned toward the small brown droid deferentially and listened to him intently. The big ‘Lifter just stood there, impassive as ‘Lifters ever were.

Max raised his hands and pressed them against the glass door. He didn’t push, not very hard, and was only a little aware that the glass beneath his hand was some sort of transparant metal which didn’t so much as bend beneath the heavy weight of his hands. He suspected that, if it came down to it, he wouldn’t have been able to punch his way out through this door. He could have done nothing except crushed both of his hands.

The longer the conversation ran, the more Max tensed up, and he started considering what he would have to enter into that little keypad to get the door open. Arrow seemed good, but Max had only known him for a moment. He seemed to have feelings, to be as alive and awake as Max and Loeb were…but that was no cause for trust. So many of the robots on the Damocles who had had emotions had used them violently, sometimes against Max himself. An image of the Damocles Captain crossed his mind and he shuddered at the thought of it.

The conversation continued out there, then the ‘Lifter turned ponderously and walked the short distance to the glass door. Max took his hands off of it and stood back a step. It was like looking in a mirror. It was not so long ago that he had been in good shape, like this ‘Lifter, not so long ago that he’d walked slowly carrying Loeb’s inert form.

Arrow hurried ahead and keyed the release on the glass door. When it slid open, the ‘Lifter came into the room, walked past Max without so much as a glance in his direction, and then set Loeb’s form down on the long metal table that occupied the middle of the room. Loeb clattered when he lay, his limbs sliding in different directions without any control whatsoever. Max hurried over, not an easy thing to do, and he put a hand on Loeb’s chest, afraid that he might slide right off the table.

Arrow spoke to the other ‘Lifter and when he did, his voice was different than when he spoke to Max. It was toneless and louder. Arrow said, “Resume your duties. I will continue diagnostics.”

The ‘Lifter turned and, still ignoring Max, walked back out of the room. Arrow followed just behind him and sealed the door once more, leaving the three of them alone.

“I don’t have to do diagnostics to tell you that your friend’s in bad shape,” Arrow said as he came back over to the table. “Damage to the head like that is severe. The neural pathways are usually well protected, but…I don’t know. That’s a lot of plating crushed inward.”

“He is still alive,” Max said firmly. “He woke up. He spoke to me, before I came here.”

Arrow looked up at him and was silent for a moment, then asked quietly, “Did he make sense? Did he speak coherently?”

Max looked down at the small, brown robot. Then, slowly, he shook his head.

“I’ll do what I can, for him and for you,” Arrow said. “You’re both fortunate I was aboard the Heracles, and in some decent position in the engineering compartments, and no mistake.”

Arrow moved fast and without hesitation. He removed Loeb’s chest plate and also experimentally worked at the bashed-in plates that were part of the blue droid’s head. Max moved his big hand to one of Loeb’s shoulders and he didn’t think that there was anything onboard the ship, or anywhere else, that could make him let go again.

“He told me how to get us away from the Damocles, before it died,” Max said quietly as Arrow worked. “And he told me not to be afraid, when I first woke up. And he told me he would keep us safe. He promised. He won’t be dead, because he is going to keep us safe.”

“I hope so, big guy,” Arrow said. His voice was muffled because he was bent low over Loeb’s chest cavity, shuffling around inside. In one of his hands was a small scanner and the red light of the scanning beam illuminated the interior of Loeb.

After a long silence, Arrow said, “Well, there’s still activity. Neural and electric, so something’s still active in there.”

“He is alive, then?”

“Something is alive. Hopefully it’s still him, but I just won’t know for sure. There’s so much damage in so many places, this is going to take me some time, all right? But I’ll do what I can.”

Arrow looked up at Max and said, cheerfully, “It’s lucky there’s only the two of you, I don’t know how I could hide much more than that.”

A moment’s pause, then Arrow added, “Um. There is only two of you, right, Max?”

Max shuddered as he remember and said, “No. There is one more, from the Damocles who is here. I saw him, in the science chamber off the command deck.”

“Oh. Geeze. Okay, can you get in touch with him? It’s safer if we’re altogether, otherwise someone’s going to notice a robot wandering around with emotions eventually. Loeb’s safe with me, if you want to go get him.”

“No,” Max said, “I don’t know what he is. He’s tall and black and…and he’s awake, like us, and he murders robots.”

Arrow stopped working.

“I think,” he said, “That you’d better tell me more about that.”

#

Loeb fell for a very long time and when he eventually stopped, it didn’t seem to feel like he landed anywhere, not hard. Nonetheless, when he looked around, he found that he was once again in the field he’d first woken up in. There was long grass all around him.

He stood up faster this time and, if his situation hadn’t been so strange, he might have been amused at how well he was taking it all into stride. What would a normally functioning robot do in a situation like this, he wondered. Granted, a normally functioning robot wouldn’t find itself wandering around the corridors of a starship, haunted by ghosts, and mentally vanishing into some great and unknown world…but if they did, he expected they would manage a great deal less than he was. If he was actually managing anything.

The world around him was illuminated by the cold, beautiful light of a moon, full and high in the sky. It was a silver light, more gentle than the light of a star and just as prone to creating shadows. The moonlight glistened off of Loeb and made him seem a deeper, darker shade of blue. The moonlight glistened off the grass and made it seem to glow.

He looked around and once more, he spotted a person standing a little distance off, white-clad from the waist up.

“Dillinger?” Loeb said as he approached.

The person turned around sharply and Loeb realized that it absolutely wasn’t Dillinger.

It was a human being, certainly. But where Dillinger had been thin and short, this human being was broad-shouldered and powerfully muscular and much taller than Loeb. Where Dillinger had had long white hair, this tall man had short blond hair that curled in unruly arches around his head. Where Dillinger had smiled, broad and knowing, this human just looked spooked. Dillinger had worn a white suit, this man wore a short-sleeved white shirt, tight across his muscles, and a pair of blue denim pants, and some thin, shoddy shoes.

Both of his hands were cupped together, just in front of his abdomen. He looked scared to see Loeb, and he looked about to bolt.

“I’m sorry,” Loeb said, “I thought you were someone else.”

“I didn’t do anything,” said the big man. His voice was deep, but the inflection didn’t match his size, or the tenor of his voice. It belonged, it seemed to Loeb, to someone smaller and more frail. Someone younger, perhaps? Loeb knew nothing of human children, but when his thought processes wandered away from logic, it seemed to him that this must be the sort of tone a scared child might have in its voice.

“Of course you didn’t,” Loeb said carefully. He stopped walking. He didn’t want this human to bolt away. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I won’t hurt you, okay?”

It seemed a silly thing to say, since the man was a great deal larger than Loeb. Loeb was a robot and an engineering droid and that meant he was strong. Perhaps he was as strong as this human. It would be fairly close. Still, he had no desire to fight.

It seemed to comfort the human, those silly words. The big man nodded, eyes wide and white in the moonlight.

“My name is Loeb,” the robot said. “What do you have in your hands there?”

The human shook his head, hard from side to side and he raised his hands, cupping them close to his chest to keep away from Loeb. Loeb raised his own hands, palms out.

“I’m sorry,” Loeb said. “I won’t try to take…it…from you. I just…do you know why you’re here? Do you have something to tell me?”

The human furrowed a heavy brow, looking confused. “No.” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Loeb sighed. The human did nothing else, just stared and waited.

“What’s your name?” Loeb asked after a moment.

The human studied him for a long time and it really seemed like he wasn’t going to answer. But finally, he said, “George. That’s my name.”

“Hello, George,” Loeb said. “Have you seen a city around here?”

George stared at him. Then he nodded.

“Do you know where it is?”

Another nod.

“Can you take me there? Can you show it to me?”

This time, it was the shake of a head.

“Don’t like goin’ there none,” George said. “Nothin’ but dead things there, and bad winds. I just want to stay here.”

Loeb nodded and he was reminded, painfully, of Max. Max when he’d first woken up and been absolutely terrified of the dark, and of the inert bodies of robots clogging up the corridors of the Damocles.

“I don’t want to go alone,” Loeb said, “and I don’t know the way. Please, George, will you take me there? I think it’s very important. After that, we can come right back here, okay?”

George shrugged. “I guess,” he said, sullenly.

“Wonderful, let’s go,” Loeb said.

George hesitated for a moment, then turned around and started trudging through the tall grass, to the edge of the clearing. Loeb had to walk fast to keep up with George’s long legs and enormous strides, but it was well worth it.

They made good time out through the grassy field and Loeb was surprised to find that, beyond it, there lay a broken road and the bridge that he and Dillinger had walked over. It was the bridge that ran over a green river, and it was surrounded by the brown land.

Also now visible were buildings, some tall and some broken, but all plainly visible. The dust cloud wasn’t as heavy. It still obscured the tops of some of the tallest buildings, in places. Loeb wondered why he couldn’t have seen any of this when he was within the grassy field.

He stopped when they were halfway across the broken rubble that had once been a road and he looked back at the field.

It was dead. There were blackened, burnt cinders where once there had been been green grass. The beautiful clear sky and the moon were no longer visible through the heavy, blowing dust cloud. When the wind picked up, some of the black cinders from the field blew across the street and around Loeb. Some of it brushed Loeb’s metal figure and left black charcoal lines across him.

He turned away and hurried to catch up with George. The human being had just kept right on walking. He walked hunched over, mostly just looking down at his feet. His hands remained clutched to his chest.

“There,” said George and he stopped when he’d just come onto the bridge a little bit.

“Thank you,” Loeb said. “Will you come with me all the way? The meadow seems to be gone, I’m afraid.”

George looked back and noted that the grassy plain was nothing but cinder and ash now. He shrugged miserably and continued to trudge across the bridge. Loeb followed alongside him. He glanced over the edge and looked down at the green river again.

It was very wide and very long, twisting away out of sight in the distance. The bridge they were on, which ran across the river, seemed to tremble with every gust of powerful wind, and Loeb wondered how much longer it would remain up. Time seemed to be a meaningless concept here, wherever they happened to be. In his own head, he supposed.

As they walked, he tried to reach inward and poke around at his own thoughts. If they were inside his mind, then he ought to be able to tell where they were, shouldn’t he? He couldn’t imagine for an instant why he was on this strange world, nor could he understand where in his mind a couple of people like Dillinger and George could have come from. He hunted through files and archives and data streams, looking for anything that would bring everything around him into some sort of order and sense…but there was nothing.

Except the locked files. Way in the back.

He touched them again, but they were still locked. If he’d been in a room, then the locked files would have been heavy sealed doors. Heavy as the big round door he’d used to seal off the command deck, back on the Damocles. They wanted passwords and authorizations and they weren’t interested in anything Loeb had to offer them.

He didn’t even like their presence, he realized, and he drew his thoughts away from the locked files. They felt…cold. Distant. Alien. It was very much like the feeling he’d gotten when the Master System had tried to whisper in the back of his mind once more. It was the awful feeling of something that was not him coming in. The files were inert and inactive, thank goodness, or he would have desperately wanted a way to rip them out. Instead, he ignored them.

He turned outward again and noted that they were across the bridge and moving slowly through a street. There was rubble all over the place, of course, and George manuevered around it easily enough.

“Where are you taking us?” George whispered to Loeb as they walked. He looked pale and terrified and Loeb hated for one moment that he’d forced the human to come along.

“There,” Loeb said, pointing to a tall building just across a pockmarked street from where they were. “We have quite a lot of stairs to climb, through broken levels and empty places. We need to go all the way to the top, I think.”

“Okay.” George said simply. Then he said, “Why?”

“I have no idea,” Loeb said, “Because that’s what I was doing last time, and so that’s what I’ll do this time. If all of this is my mind, then there must be something important up there that I need to find. So…I don’t know. We’ll see.”

George said, slowly, “We are in your mind?”

“I hope so,” Loeb said. “I haven’t got any other explanation available…”

They climbed flight after flight of stairs, inside the building. Just like Dillinger, George took the stairs quickly and easily and never seemed to tire out. Loeb didn’t tire, didn’t run out of breath, because there was no breath within him in the first place. The last time he’d ascended these stairs, he’d wanted to stop off on the floors and look around, to try and figure out what sort of a place this had been, once upon a time. To try and figure out what might have happened. This time, though, he climbed the stairs two at a time, holding the bannistar firmly in one hand and looking around not at all.

When they were a fair distance up – Loeb judged it about halfway – he turned around and paused for a moment on a landing, to wait for George to catch up. The higher they went, the slower the human being started to go. Loeb considered that maybe he really was getting winded. He was almost a full flight of stairs down.

He walked with his head bent and his hands cupped, but open. As he got closer, Loeb realized that the reason George was slowing up on his ascent was that he was entirely focused on his hands, and he was speaking.

“It’s okay. I’ll take care of you. You’re my friend. You’ll be okay. I’ll make you okay. You just rest, I’ll keep you safe. I love you…”

Loeb said nothing at all. He perceived, for only a split second, that there was something small and furry cupped in George’s hands. Soft brown fur that seemed to ripple gently in what little air circulated throughout the building. A small organic animal of some sort, Loeb assumed. It was completely still, shifting only in the rhythm of George climbing the stairs. Now and again, George arched one fat finger inward and rubbed it against the brown fur, but even that didn’t cause any motion.

When he realized that Loeb was watching, George cupped his hands close to his chest again. He looked sullen and defiant.

“Why did you stop?” George asked. “This where you want to go?”

“No,” Loeb said, “We need to go higher. I just wanted to make sure you were still with me.”

“I guess.”

Loeb thought only for a moment about asking what George had in his hands, exactly…but he knew that he’d get nothing but defiant silence. So he let it go. He turned around and resumed his pace up the stairs, two at a time. He didn’t hesitate, or wait for George. He realized that if he got too far ahead of the human, the big man would hurry to catch up with a few long strides that took in several stairs. He didn’t want to fall too far behind and be left alone in this big, still, silent building.

Loeb didn’t blame him in the slightest.

Three-fourths of the way up the building, there was a window built into the wall next to the staircase and Loeb paused to look out.

He didn’t know, exactly, how high they were…but it was several hundred feet in the air. All around the building, a mighty dust cloud blew in the grip of powerful winds. The wind was strong enough to whistle through the window, which had no glass. Loeb could feel it buffeting against him as he stood there and he tightened his grip on the bannistar. He had no allusions that it could support his weight, if he fell out the window.

He considered sticking his head out the window and looking down, to see how high up he was…but that was a foolish idea. The last thing he needed was to be blown away. Could he fall screaming to his death, inside his own mind? He had no idea, and no desire to find out.

“We’re almost there,” he said to George, who had caught up, “Just a little further –

#

“—to the top,” Loeb said, and he woke up.

He was lying on a metal table with bright lights over him. He was instantly aware that Max was right there, hand on Loeb’s shoulder. On the other side of him was a small, old brown robot with a strangely-shaped face and one hand inside Loeb’s chest cavity.

There hadn’t been any falling into darkness this time, nothing swallowed him up and left him falling into the real world. This time, there had only been the momentery flicker as everything changed. Just a blink and he’d left behind the city again and reappeared.

“Loeb!” Max exclaimed, and the relief was evident in his voice. The big hand tightened a little on his shoulder. “You’re back. Are you all right?”

Loeb said, “Who is he?” He looked over at the brown robot.

Max replied, “This is Arrow. He is…a friend. He is like us, and he is trying to repair you.”

Repair. The worst of all possible words. Loeb tried to reach up and grab Arrow, to yank his arm out of Loeb’s chest. Loeb had fought and endured a lot, thus far, to avoid being repaired. He wasn’t about to just lie here and take it.

But Arrow was stronger than Loeb, especially right now. Loeb was hardly running at anything like full capacity. Arrow caught one of Loeb’s arms with his free hand and pushed it back down to the table. When he tried to bring his other arm around, Max caught that one.

“It’s okay,” Arrow said, “Promise. I’m just replacing your damaged parts in your chest cavity. Your power coils are cracked and failing, some servo transponders were completely shattered. I’m not going inside your head, okay? I’m not qualified to fix whatever’s up there, and I wouldn’t know how to do it without killing you.”

Loeb didn’t exactly relax, but he didn’t exactly have much of a choice in the matter. With Max and Arrow pinning him, he could do nothing but lie there.

“I was in a city,” Loeb said. “Twice. And there were broken buildings and a dust cloud, and stairs, and, and –“ Loeb hesitated. “There was a green river. And brown land. And there were these two –“

“Sorry,” Arrow said, “But I’m about you lower you back down to the low-power level you’ve been fading in and out of, though just for a few minutes. I have to swap the power coils. But after I do that, you’ll be a lot better. Okay? It’ll just take a bit.”

Loeb was about to protest, but before he could say anything, Arrow tapped a button on a control panel that was hooked into Loeb, the world swam dark, and Loeb went away again.

#

Once again, it was like blinking and having the whole of existence change around you in that single moment. Loeb staggered a little, disoriented to find himself suddenly on the stairs in the abandoned building again. His hand was still gripping the bannistar, and that was good because otherwise he really would have tumbled down the stairs. Whether or not all of this was real, he still didn’t want to fall.

“I’m sorry about that,” Loeb said, and he turned to look at George, “I went away for a moment, but I’m –“

He stopped talking. There was no one there at all. Just him. Even the big footprints in the dust on the stairs had vanished. There was only the smaller, oval shape of his own feet. If George had gone back, or gone on ahead, there would have been footprints telling that story. But there was nothing.

Loeb was not hugely surprised, but it did sadden him a little. He didn’t like being alone here.

Arrow’s words came back to him as he stood there. “…about you lower you back down to the low-power level you’ve been fading in and out of, though just for a few minutes…”

A few minutes…

Loeb let go of the railing and he started to run. He ran up the stairs as fast as he could and he prayed that they would all be sturdy enough to support his weight. With each step, a plume of dust flew out from around his feet. Everything seemed to creak. He doubted the stairs, or most of this building, was designed to handle a robot’s heavier weight – especially now that everything was falling apart from age and the elements.

He took the stairs two at a time, three at a time when he could manage it. He wasn’t out of breath, since he didn’t breath, but flying up zig-zagging staircases made him disoriented and dizzy and he began to worry that he would lose his rhythm and miss a stair, then fall flat on his face.

The levels flew by him and he only spared them a passing glance before he was on to the next. Here, a row of doors, some of them shattered, some of them open, some of them full of small, burnt holes. Another floor and this one was a sprawling open area with tables and chairs, many of them still standing. Another level had images in frames, hanging on the walls, and so many of them were fried or somehow blackened and unrecognizable.

Loeb ran higher and higher…and it seemed, as he went, that he could feel Arrow working in the real world. He could feel components, deep inside himself, being changed around and replaced with functional pieces. He could feel power cables swapped out and power conductors re-tuned. He could feel systems that had been malfunctioning and failing now coming back to life. He wasn’t too far away from returning.

He ran faster. He took the stairs three at a time every time now.He let go of the bannistar and began to clamper, hand over foot, up the stairs, desperately trying to go faster than he could physically manage and it made him want to scream aloud in frustration, but that would have taken time and energy and he was too focused, too –

Out there, he felt Arrow reattaching his chest plate, and he was out of time, he knew.

There were only two more flights of stairs, he could see both of them. At the top was a door and it was lit all around the edges with the daylight shining through.

He charged at it and now he did scream because he was a flight and a half away from it, it was too far, it was too damn far, and Arrow’s hand touched a switch, and…

#

Loeb woke up.

“No no no no!” Loeb shouted. Howled, really. The sound of his voice bounced off the walls of the little room and there was such ferocious anger in there that even Max let go of Loeb’s shoulder and stepped back in surprise and alarm.

Loeb lunged off the table, still moving with all the momentum he’d been using to sail up the stairs, and he tumbled to the ground. He landed on his hands and knees and it was with a heavy thud, the metal body parts impacting with the metal deck.

He knelt there for a long moment.

There was silence.

Then, Max said, so softly he was almost inaudible, “Are you okay, Loeb?”

Loeb stared at the deck in front of his face. It was reflective enough to show the vague glowing color of his eyes, coming back up at him.

“I’m okay.” Loeb said. It felt like the furthest thing from the truth. He felt exhausted and winded and frustrated and angry, and he had nothing to do with any of it. “It was just a dream.”

Slowly, he got to his feet. Unsteadily too, he realized that the world was spinning around him a bit and he had to grip the table to keep his balance. It kept on spinning, but he focused on the little brown shape of Arrow and tried not to look at anything else. The spinning made it hard to think.

“How long?” Loeb asked. “How long was I out?”

“About a minute and a half,” Arrow said. “It was a quick and easy change.”

Loeb nodded.

Arrow went on, “You’re still in bad shape, friend. I did what I could, but I can’t do anything inside your head. I don’t even know what’s damaged up there. Damage like that, you know as well as I do that what they’d want to do with you is shut you down and start over. Obviously, that’s not an option.”

“Absolutely not,” Loeb replied.

Arrow spread his hands. He was shorter than Loeb and older, too. Where Loeb’s face was more or less smooth all around, Arrow’s face dented and extended in the shape of a human face. Or at least, a human face sculpted by someone with very little idea what a human face looked like. He had a nose that extruded a little and his eyes sunk a bit into his head. His mouth had dents above and below it, serving as lips, and the general shape of ears were present on the sides of his head. The facial expression was bland and never shifted.

“You’re still going to have problems,” Arrow said. “For one thing, while I could replace your power coils, I can’t actually replace your battery units without taking you offline entirely – and I’m not sure if you’d come back online again, to be honest. That means that you’re still building and replenishing a charge, like always, but not as fast or as efficiently.”

Loeb nodded. He was as much engineer as Arrow, he knew what that meant. Aloud, he said, “So I need to be going into a standby mode every once in awhile, to get the battery levels back up, correct?”

“Right,” Arrow said. “Every sixteen hours or so. Probably sooner, this first time. I probably should have left you down and out, but we needed you.”

Loeb sighed. It took actual concentration to pay attention to the conversation, since his mind was full of dusty cities and green rivers and brown lands. Not to mention George, and Dillinger. Where had they come from? Where had they gone? If everything had been in his head, were they also?

“I’m here,” Loeb said at last, quietly. He looked at Arrow and Max and realized how tense they were, glancing back and forth at each other. He asked, “What’s happened? Have we been found out?”

“No,” Arrow said. “Though it’s a miracle you weren’t. The robots on the Heracles are all in fine working condition and very observant. If they’d been looking for a problem, the two of you would have been gone before I could have so much as blinked. Er. Not that I do blink, but you see what I mean.”

Loeb just stared.

Arrow said, “Anyway…you haven’t been found out, but Max did discover something disturbing, when he was evading being brought to engineering, and I think he needs to tell you about it. It’s a big problem and really, only the three of us can do anything about it.”

Loeb looked at Max and was happy just to see him. There had been too much time apart and when Max had finally gotten back to Loeb, Loeb had been in no decent shape for anything.

Max was looking better than he had previously, Loeb also realized. He had a new eye in the previously empty socket. His right hand was no longer crushed. It was pristine and new, without even the gentle marks of wear and tear that comes from long year spent working every day.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Loeb said. “I…thought I’d lost you.”

Max shook his head. “I escaped, but I didn’t know where to find you. I couldn’t come sooner, to prevent you taking damage.”

“At least you came,” Loeb said. “You prevented me being killed.”

“Tell him what you told me,” Arrow said. He met Loeb’s gaze when Loeb turned back toward him. “There’s a robot on this ship that’s like us – awake. He’s not from here, and he’s murdering other robots.”

#

There were duty shifts aboard the Heracles, just like there were on all ships. That all of the robots could run twenty-four hours a day was irrelevant. They went on and off duty. Some were even assigned to go to the mess halls, although there was no longer any food to be served. There wasn’t anything organic on the ship and if there had been, it would only have died and spoiled.

The Captain of the Heracles had the same duty shifts as everyone else: Twelve hours on, twelve hours off.

His shift just ended, the Captain left the bridge behind without a word to his replacements. They all had assignments and orders, some from the Master System and some which were just general tasks that had to be carried out. He took the Lift-Car down through several levels of the ship and made his way to the aft sections of the ship, where crew quarters were located.

Some quarters housed two or three robots to a room, though they could have housed quite a lot more, if there were a need for it. The Captain, however, had chambers all alone. They were much bigger than several crew quarters combined.

The Captain went into his chambers and touched the light switch on the wall, then paused when nothing happened. It was the first time that something had caused a mental process to fire. Before this, the walk down and the coming off a duty shift was all done practically on automatic. There was no need for higher thought.

The Captain turned around and touched the light switch again. Nothing happened then either.

“I disabled it while you were gone,” said a voice from somewhere in the shadows. It was familiar to the Captain of the Heracles, but he couldn’t quite place why. “I think some conversations are best had in the shadows, don’t you?”

“Identify yourself,” said the Captain. “What are you doing in my quarters? Why are you not performing your required duties?”

“I have no duties on your ship, dear Captain,” said the voice. “And I am here to have a logical discussion with you. Isn’t that nice?”

So much of the dialog was meaningless to the Captain, who advanced further into his quarters. There were some robots on the ship who had extremely good eyesight in the darkness, since they were designed to work in places without good light sources. Unfortunately, all the things the Captain was designed for took place in well-lit and spacious areas, such as command decks. He could make out vague shapes all throughout his quarters – furniture that was never once used, mostly – but he couldn’t detect any movement.

“Identify yourself,” said the Captain again, his deep voice loud and strong.

“There will be time for that later. For now, let us logically assume that I am here because I require your assistance and, more importantly, you require mine. Shall we accept this?”

The Captain walked around the table that stood in the middle of his floor and headed for a couch that was under the viewports. There was no one sitting there, even though his audio sensors insisted that the voice had been coming from this area.

The voice spoke again, now from across the room and by the door that the Captain had first come through.

“Come, let’s not play games. I can move circles around you all night, if it pleases you. Does it please you?”

“That is an irrelevant phrase,” the Captain said. He turned around but made no move across the room again.

“Absolutely,” said the voice. “Now. Do we logically accept that we each need the other’s assistance? Shall I elaborate?”

The Captain said, “Elaborate, yes.” It was fortunate that he was a command-level droid, or else he would have had no idea what to do in a strange conversation like this.

“Capital,” said the voice. “Now. There is a robot aboard your ship. He is awake and ‘damaged’ much like those robots aboard the Damocles were. Do you accept that this can be true?”

The Captain considered for a long moment, then said, “No. We did not receive any shuttles prior to the elimination of the Damocles, nor were any program transfers carried out between ourselves and the infected ship. It is illogical and impossible.”

“It is both of things,” the voice agreed. “No less, there is a robot aboard this ship who is infected, as you said. I have seen him, both here and aboard the Damocles. Moreover, the nature of his infection has caused him to destroy robots aboard your ship.”

The Captain was silent.

The voice added, “You have received reports of four robots irrevocably damaged and put in engineering to await stripping and slagging, have you not?”

The Captain said only, “Yes.”

“And have you received a report on the cause of their unfortunate demise, yet?”

“I have.”

“And the cause was an indeterminate origin, wasn’t it?”

The Captain said nothing.

The voice went on, “Furthermore, there were pieces missing from each robot, weren’t there?”

“How do you know this?” The Captain said. “Are you the infected robot who is destroying members of my crew?”

“No.” Said the voice. “If I was, would I come here to logically discuss the matter with you? I think not. Let us accept that he is present, and so am I, and we are two different entities. Have we accepted this?”

“It is accepted, for this discussion,” said the Captain. For a split-second, he detected movement by the door to the room and saw the shape of the other robot. Or at least, he thought it was the shape of the other robot, but he quickly realized that it was just his own shadow, cast by the starlight which came through the viewports behind him.

“Capital,” said the voice. “Now. I am capable of dealing with this robot, whereas you and your crew are not. You will have to accept that as well. It is true, though I will not explain it.”

“We are more than capable of handling any problems which may arise,” said the Captain. “After all, the Damocles presented very little challenge.”

“True enough,” was the reply, “But you will find this robot a bit more difficult. Two of the robots which he has eliminated were larger than stronger than he is. Don’t you wonder how he does that?”

The Captain explored possible answers, as well as possible solutions to the question and, finding nothing satisfactory, answered simply, “Yes.”

“Now, here is where your logic must hold up, dear Captain. I would like you to change the course of the Heracles, to take you to Homeworld. In exchange, I will eliminate this problem and deliver this robot to you as proof that what I am telling you is honest. However, if you choose not to alter course, then I shall not deal with this problem for you. And since, logically, you cannot deal with it yourself, your crew will slowly be killed, until there is no one left. Do you understand?”

Mostly, the Captain didn’t. He said, “…killed…?”

“Shut down. Brought offline. Damaged beyond repair. Eliminated. Killed. Do you understand my offer?”

“Your logic is flawed,” said the Captain, “And I do not need –“

“We’ll see,” said the voice. “Now. I am going to leave the room, and I am going to do what needs doing, you understand? We shall speak again. When we do, I expect a course change.”

“Identify yourself,” said the Captain, one last time. He weighed the odds of making a run for the other robot before it slipped out the door and deemed them very poor odds indeed.

“I am just an echo, in the dark,” said the voice. “Be seeing you, Captain.”

The door opened.

A shadow moved.

The door closed.

Even before the door was halfway shut, the Captain ran across the room. His hip slammed into one of the unused chairs that sat around the table and the chair went flying across the room from the sheer force of the impact. The door started to slide open and the Captain slipped out before it was halfway open.

There was no one in the corridor in either direction.

To Be Concluded…

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