Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Ray and His Human

 

Ray and His Human

An Adventure of Ray the Robot

Brian was in trouble.

The panel of lights before him that, with depressing regularity, lit up when there was a problem aboard were for the moment dark and silent. Normally that was a cause for celebration given the ramshackle state of his ship.

The concern this time was that in addition to those lights the ones that normally displayed when all was running smooth were likewise dull and lifeless. Not a single instrument or control was displaying anything, and the only light to be had came from the faint shimmer of distant stars through the windows. Not even emergency lighting was showing up.

Something clanked into the cockpit, a battered, but still polished, humanoid robot, most of its silvered panels scratched or dented. It carried with it a torch, the pale light a welcome relief from the darkness.

“The reactor is finished,” it reported in a precise, monotonous voice. “Dead, deceased, at an end,” it continued. “Deactivated.”

“You are enjoying this, aren’t you,” Brian accused grouchily.

“Heaven forbid, sir.” There was no way that an android should be able to display sarcasm, yet Brian was certain he could detect a hint of it in its robotic tones. They were also meant to be incapable of developing personalities, but Brian was certain that this one had picked one up, along with its dents and scratches. It was of the older X-Ray-3 series, many years out of manufacture, serial number X-Ray-374-A60R. Brian simple called it Ray, which is where the problems of personality had probably started. Many people preferred the more modern series, which had favoured the more transparent look through which the gears could be observed, but Brian had stuck with Ray. People liked the humanoid look; as long as it wasn’t too humanoid.

“No, sir, not in the least,” Ray pressed on. “You, at least, will have the advantage of dying quickly. Meanwhile I shall linger on as the ship drifts alone for thousands of years, until my power gives out, my joints long since frozen stiff and sensors having long decayed into darkness. I can only hope that mercifully my software glitches long before that time has arrived and shut down.”

“You may be found and rescued before that happen,” Brian pointed out.

“Out here? As you may recall, sir, you alerted no one as to where you were going, nor is this system exactly high on desirable locales to visit. The odds are rather long that that should happen.”

“I still owe Five Fingers a lot of money. He is bound to have people looking for me, even now. He doesn’t give up eventually. Sooner or later he will find us.”

“Yes sir, and can I just say what a moment of inspirational genius it was to borrow money from the most notorious loan shark this side of the Magellan.”

“No one can reach the Magellan, Ray.”

“Yes sir. Precisely.”

*****

“How long remaining?” For half an hour Brian had toyed with the reactor, trying anything, everything, to get it back online, but it was beyond either of them to get it back to an operational level. It was, as Ray had said, dead.

“Going by the standard rate of consumption, there remains around fifty seven minutes before the air is no longer fit to breath,” Ray replied promptly. “Can I suggest that you enter one of the stasis pods? It will buy you time while I work on a solution.”

“That will simply delay the inevitable.”

“Yes sir. I believe they call that living.”

“What?”

“Living is simply delaying the inevitable, which, in your case, will be occurring within fifty six minutes now,” Ray added with what Brian considered unreasonably malicious glee.

“Have you been into the philosophy downloads again?”

“Never, sir.”

Brian grunted, not entirely convinced. “Let us not dwell on it. We should try and lighten the mood.”

“Very good sir. A man walks into a Bar. The Bar says ‘That never happened’.”

Brian fixed Ray with a withering stare. “Ray, what was that?”

“Humour. I was attempting to lighten the mood. The Bar, sir, are…”

“I know exactly who the Bar are,” Brian cut in, “And their rather peculiar views. It wasn’t funny though.”

“Sorry sir. I shall attempt to do better next time.”

“Forget it,” Brian said with a sigh. “Not much point now really.”

“Shall I fetch a knife then sir?” Ray offered.

“A knife?” Brian asked quizzically. “Why a knife?”

“To hasten your departure, obviously. I would have suggested sticking your head in the reactor, but someone, and I am not naming names here, forgot to have it serviced. Hence our current predicament.”

“The reactor!” The idea came to Brian in a moment of brilliant inspiration, one that could possibly save them.

“Which, as we have just established, is not functioning.”

“No, no. Not the ship’s reactor. Yours. We could use that.”

“It is not compatible,” Ray apologised.

“Are you certain?”

“I would have mentioned it previous were it not the case.”

“Never mind, we can still use it though. Use it to provide us enough juice to the system to get off a distress call.”

“You want me to interface with the ship? That is just…I mean, no. Just no. I have seen you use those interfaces before.”

“We all have to make sacrifices,” Brian told Ray.

“I see only one of us being made to make a sacrifice in this situation.”

“Do you want to be rescued or not?”

“Oh, I am certain that in a few years someone may bother to answer the distress call and turn up simply to scavenge what remains of us.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Brian challenged.

“Certainly. My word, sir, look at that.” Ray pointed back out of the engineering chamber, and Brian instinctively turned. Ray wrapped him sharply across the back of the head, sending Brian slumping to the ground. “I am not interfacing with the ship,” Ray told the unconscious Brian with certain finality.

*****

Brian’s eyes blinked slowly open, slipping back into consciousness. He was lying down, Ray standing above him. Brian tried to rise, only to find that he had been bound down, and even more alarming, in one of the stasis pods.

“Ray!”

“Don’t struggle, sir,” Ray replied patiently, entering commands into a console. “It simply burns oxygen faster. On the positive side, the time you spent out seems to have saved one minute and thirty seven seconds more breathing time.”

“Untie me, you miserable rustbucket!”

“Now, now sir, let us remain polite. We are all under pressure here, but you don’t see me commenting on your looks.”

“I’ll have you reset to factory settings!” Brian yelled, struggling against the bindings that tied him down. “Do you hear me? I’ll have you recycled!”

“I hear you,” Ray replied with malicious calm. “I will simply chalk that down to stress trigged by your oncoming demise. I really do recommend the stasis pod. It is the only viable option.”

“No. You can not do this to me!”

“It is for your own protection. I am, after all, programmed to look after you. I am simply following my programming. Now sir, if you will cease struggling, this will go much easier and the sooner you can awake in safety.” The lid slowly descended over Brian, enclosing him within the pod. “Goodnight sir,” was the last thing that he heard.

*****

The shabby navy corvette slipped into the system with a minimum of fuss, gliding amongst the stars and darkness. Officer of the Watch, Sub-Lieutenant Zach Michaels yawned and lent back in his chair, propping his feet up on the console before him, letting his cap fall over his eyes. All was quiet, which was just how he liked it. They were in an out of the way system, far from the highways and byways plied by regular space traffic, which was all for the good. It would be some hours still until the Commander’s contact was due to arrive, and in the meantime he could rest his eyes until then.

“Um, sir,” came a hesitant voice.

Zach pushed his cap back up, creaking open an eye. “What is it sailor?”

“I’m picking up a signal. It is very weak. Didn’t spot it when we first entered the system.”

Zach’s feet swung down from the console, a frown forming on his face. “What is it? A double-cross?”

“Hold on sir, let me just tweak things a bit, see if I can’t get a better feed.” The sailor, the only other crew member on the bridge during the late night watch, leant forward over his console, fingers dancing over the controls. “There we go sir. Looks to be a short ranged transport. Dead in the water, transmitting a faint distress beacon.”

“Life signs?”

“Looks to be only one. Very weak though.”

Zach gave the sailor a devious smile. “Well, well. We’d better go see to their needs then, wouldn’t you say?”

“That I would, sir.”

*****

Brian woke groggily, eyes unfocused. There were blurred shapes above, strange flashing lights and the hum of unknown voices rustling about him. Everything was numb, while strange tingles danced along his extremities. He tried to speak, but found his tongue refused to move and all that emerged were illegible gurgles.

He tried to rise, but his limbs refused to comply with the orders and he flapped about. Hands fastened onto him, holding him down, hands he struggled against unsuccessfully. Something sharp struck him in the arm and the noises began to dim, blackness sinking upon him again.

Later, much later, his eyes opened again, vision much more clear. There was a sour looking face peering down at him, the face of greying haired man who didn’t appear particularly jovial, and seemed to resent being there. He wore a white coat over some form of dark blue uniform that Brian couldn’t quite make out. He tried concentrating on it, trying to recall what it was, but his brain felt heavy and unresponsive.

“So, you’ve decided to rejoin us finally,” the man grumpily said.

“Who,” Brian began, “What.” He tried to reform sluggish thoughts. “Where am I?”

“You are aboard NavCorp Corvette Halicarnassus,” the man replied. “We came across your ship adrift and you in stasis. Tied up,” he added pointedly.

“How long?”

The man picked up a small console, punching a command into it. “Looks like a bit under a year,” he replied on viewing the result.

Brian’s response was a heartfelt groan.

“It is not that bad, but you will be a little out of it for a day or two, recovering from the freeze. Get some rest. Which is what I was doing before being rudely awakened by your arrival, and to which I will now return.”

The door to the infirmary buzzed open and a florid, overweight officer ambled in, Ray trundling along after him.

“Ah doctor,” the officer said, patting at the sweat on his brow. “I see he is awake.” The doctor nodded a morose reply. The officer had a reader in one hand, and in the other an ID card, which Brian suspected was his. The ID card was slotted into the reader and the officer peered at the results. He looked up at Brian, before returning his gaze to the screen of the reader.

“I look different now,” Brian weakly offered.

“What were you, like thirteen?” the officer asked, squinting, jowls wobbling as he shook his head. The size of the man was surprising to Brian somewhat. From all that he had heard, naval crews were notoriously underfed, or at least so the gossip said. This officer did not look like he ever skipped a meal, which would indicate he has his own source of supplies, and not necessarily legal ones either. Then something the doctor had mentioned clicked. NavCorp. Of all the outsourced Naval Corporations, it was the most notoriously corrupt.

The officer grunted. “Well, we shall take your word for it. Doctor, do you have all the paperwork?”

“Paperwork?” Brian asked cautiously.

“You know how it is. There is always paperwork, especially when we rescue someone adrift and bring them aboard. Management and the accountants want everything reported, in triplicate, to justify expenses. And then some. Nothing to worry about though.”

The doctor passed over to Brian a small reader, upon which was a thumbprint scanner. “We just need your print there, for bookkeeping.” Brian squinted at the screen, trying to make out the blurred words upon it. There was a lot of convoluted legalese there, and about all he could make out amongst it were references to derelicts, rescues and coming aboard. After a moments thought, Brian pressed his thumb to it. The reader whirred and flashed.

The officer rubbed his chubby hands together enthusiastically. “Excellent, excellent. Welcome aboard sailor.”

“Wait, what?” said Brian, trying to compose his thoughts. “What was that I just signed?”

“Standard enlistment form for a marooned crewman.”

“I’ve been press ganged,” Brian asked incredulously.

“It is a time honoured tradition. Travel the stars, meet interesting aliens and kill them, blah blah blah and etcetera. We could always put you back on your ship and let you take your chances that someday someone else might happen along,” he offered.

“What of my ship?”

“Ah, yes, your ship,” the officer replied with a broad, amused grin. “You see, records indicate that you are in substantial debt to a Mister Six Fingers, to the sum of fifty two thousands credits.”

“Six Fingers? The next one grew?” Brian asked with a sinking feeling of dread.

“I am afraid so.” He sounded far too cheerful to truly be sorry though.

“Fifty two thousands though? It wasn’t anywhere near that much.”

“Loan sharks are notorious for their interest rates. In any case, your ship will be sold off to start to pay down the debt. Accounting for its current value, you will need to work three years, seven months, fifteen days, six hours and thirty two minutes to pay the remainder. Factor in rescue fees, medical fees, processing fees and the like, and it will be around four years before you get paid.”

Brian shut his eyes. “Four years,” he said in a shocked voice. “Four years with no pay?”

“There is always your ship and taking your chances,” the officer offered again.

“And what of Ray?”

“Who is Ray?”

“Serial number X-Ray-374-A60R,” Ray supplied, speaking for the first time since he had entered the room. “The human master has taken to referring to this one as Ray.” Ray’s head turned so that only Brian could see that the light in his eye socket flared in the manner of a wink. Brian spluttered, unable to speak.

The officer gave a disapproving harrumph. “I don’t rightly approve of personifying the machines. Still the old X-Ray-3 series models are a decent build and we can make use of him.”

“What will my duties be, sir,” Ray enquired in an oddly deadpan tone.

“General maintenance, sanitation, that kind of thing. First though, fetch the recruit’s gear from his ship. We’ll find him a bunk once he is well enough to return to service.”

*****

“This is so unjust,” Brian grumbled. He was moping down an austere grey corridor, Ray working alongside him. “Four years of kicking around on this pile of junk. Four years of no pay and being shot at. Four years.” He threw down the mop. “And I have you to thank for it.”

“You are most welcome,” Ray replied, then returned to his tasks, seemingly humming.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“Look on the bright side at least sir.”

“The bright side? What bright side?”

“Well sir, you have been successful in delaying the inevitable once more, for the time being at least. Who knows what the future may hold.”

There was, on reflection Brian agreed, no arguing with that.

“Here is to delaying the inevitable, Ray.”

“Indeed sir. Indeed.”

The End

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