Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"The Commander's Courage" Excerpt: At Your Service

 
"Look out!"
I ducked against him as a column of purple-suited messengers swept past us, right down the middle of the hallway. We continued, pressed against the wall, till the last of the column passed, and then we could enter the doorway.
"Why did they just have to take up the entire pathway like that?" I spluttered.
Marx shoved his hands into the pockets of his uniform and nodded his head toward another messenger heading our way. Only then did I notice the metallic face plates showing through the synthetic skin, like Cher had.
"Androids," Marx confirmed what I had just figured out. "Supervisors like to use them because they're replaceable; they are programmed and sent on their way, and if one of them gets damaged, the message is beamed to the nearest messenger-droid, and the dead droid is cleaned up."

"Oh, Private Denvamir!" A young woman in a lab coat dashed up to us. She looked almost human, except for the gills instead of a nose, and the massive blond beehive of hair on her head.
"I'm so glad you're here! We've been trying to figure out what's wrong, but—"
"Yeah, that's just worthy!" Marx snapped. "Just show me the problem."
She nodded. "Emess is over here."

We followed the woman past racks of droids, each receiving some kind of servicing: I saw a charging station, a polishing station, a repair wing, and even a bank of “offloaders” where the droids plugged in and downloaded the messages they had—at least, the non-private communications. The files they contained flashed briefly on the screen, flickering messages of live communiqués and various photos and videos, some from different locations on—planets, I guess—and some from different sectors of the ship. I saw schematics and blueprints and text files too. One wing held the non-android messengers: straight-up robots that were basically walking or flying screens with antennae, which people could navigate using a bulky wrist remote. I saw a couple of those evil red boxes zipping by my ankles, and I instinctively huddled against Marx, but they scooted right on by me. I admit I did stick my foot out and intentionally “tripped” one of them, but it righted itself almost instantly, and it left me with a sore toe. I quashed my disappointment as we headed toward the sound of a stuttering digital voice.

"At your—At your... At your ser-ser-servi-servi-ser-ser-ser-ser—"
An android lay sprawled on a table. Its body was mostly intact—only a few dents and dings. The only indication there was anything wrong was the way its head flopped to one side, twitching and bouncing as it stammered.

"Sir, sir, service-vice-vice-vice—"

Marx grimaced. "Is there a way to turn it off?" He grumbled over the racket.
"We tried," muttered a human technician. "The kill switch isn't responding."

"Vice-vice-vice—"

Just when I was sure I would start going crazy next, Marx delivered a sharp blow that glanced off the android's metallic head. The stuttering stopped, and Marx winced and flailed his hand to shake away the pain.

"Thank you," said a voice.

"Don't mention—" Marx stopped speaking at the same moment I realized that the droid had thanked him. I saw the young tech stiffen, and he shook it off as he turned to gather the tools.
"Whatever caused the damage must have knocked the speech regulator loose," he murmured.

"I do not recall what caused my fall," stated the android in a perky voice. "I was delivering a message to the command sector, when I discovered that I lay on the floor, nearly incapacitated."

Marx waited until the droid sat silently before commencing work on the wiring in the android's neck.
Another tech asked, "Do you remember anything between the time you delivered your message to the time when your compatriots found you?"

"Warning, message not delivered," declared the android. "Data Transfer fai—" the digital voice stopped as Marx twitched a wire. The component connected to it's head sparked when Marx brought the tool close to it.

"Ouch," said the android.
Marx winced again. "Sorry—" He shifted the wires, bringing two into close proximity and causing another spark.
"Ouch."
"Yeah, hang on, I'm just—"
"Ouch."
"Could you stop? I'm almost—"
"Ouch."
"You're an android; you don't feel pai—"
"Ouch."

Finally, Marx located the source of the problem: one of the processors had fried.
As opposed to the computer in the science lab, which he had treated with respect and moved carefully to fix, here Marx ignored the protests of his patient and hauled the faulty processor out from among the circuitry. Slipping the wires out, he grabbed another board off the work desk next to him and attached the wires to that. A flurry of sparks danced over the android's body as it spasmed, and then the head came upright and it sat up on the table.
"Attention, the problem has been solved," it said. "All systems normal."

Marx stepped back and grabbed my hand. "There, fixed it; let's go."
The girl with the gills made a happy fluttering noise. "Thank you so much!" She called after us as Marx made for the door as fast as he could walk.

I was practically tripping over the seams in the walkway as I tried to keep up with him.
"Hey, hold up!" I called after him, and he slowed, but his face was still sulky.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Nothing, I'm fine," he retorted.

We stood awkwardly facing each other, though Marx wouldn't look at me. I couldn't help feeling somehow culpable, though I couldn't figure out what I had done—or not done.
"Dude," I finally just let the words out, without worrying whether they were appropriate for the context. "What is your problem? Is it me?"

Finally, Marx met my eyes. "No, it's not you, Laura," he huffed. "It's just... Androids, you know—" he muttered.
I tilted an eyebrow. "No, Marx, I don't know; why do you have such a problem with androids?"

His jaw tightened. "It's not just androids, though." He waved his hand, "it's all this automated stuff, the fact that we can design machines to look and function like humans, but... They aren't." He shrugged. "Guess it's just the old-fashioned upbringing I had."

I tried to give him a sympathetic smile. "Want to grab a meal and talk about it?" I offered, nodding back toward the galley.
Marx rubbed the back of his neck. "I dunno," he mumbled, "sure."
We set off together down the walkway that bisected the ship.