Heart of a Robot
Kai run through the corridors of the ship. Her path was illuminated by the red blinking lights of emergency. She had been in her personal pod when she heard the alarms that warned of imminent impact. Before she had had time to secure herself the collision had sent her off across her cabin. She was unharmed but scared, and she was swearing loudly to herself. She was running to met the captain and determine the gravity of their situation.
Zeta was already in the control room when Kai arrived. She was leaning over the glass dome in the center of the deck. The two women were the only crew of their cargo ship.
“What was that?” asked Kai.
“Looks like we have crashed into a size C asteroid,” said Zeta with a calm voice.
“Oh, shit, shit, shit!”
“Calm down, Kai.”
“Why didn’t the navigator avoid impact? What are asteroids doing on this part of the system? And we were so close to base,” said Kai.
“Let’s take it easy. Run the diagnosis and get a read out of the damages.”
Kai sat in front of the system panels. The familiarity of the controls help calm her nerves. “There is no pressure loss. The hull seems to be intact.” Kai scrolled quickly through all systems reviewing the status logs. The sail indicators were red. “Sail segments 3A to 6F are dead. Looks like the asteroid might have teared off some of our panels. 15 total. We’ve lost 35% of power source.”
“If the mesh is operational we can replace the panels,” said Zeta.
The screen projected over the glass dome was full of data. Zeta was going through the logs. She frowned and grumbled.
The navigator was located in the center of the room. Its main feature was the projection dome. It was made of glass and looked like a giant soap bubble emerging from/resting on the ground. It was the brain of their ship. The ship’s navigator controlled their spatial location, tracked all bodies in space and, most importantly, it traced their path through space to their destination, avoiding impact.
“We are in the middle of an asteroid field,” said Zeta.
“There shouldn’t be an asteroid field anywhere across our trajectory back to base.”
“I don’t think we are in route to Kappa-6. The navigator is offline and unresponsive. It appears we have gotten off-course.”
“We are fucking lost,” said Kai. “We are off-track. We could be beyond the reach of the comm repeaters for all we know. Without the navigator we are screwed.”
Zeta stepped away from the navigator and stared at Kai. “If something is wrong with the navigator we’ll get the engineer to fix it.”
Kai wasn’t listening. She stepped away from the controls and was pacing around the deck. She was panicking. “We are fucked.”
“Kai!” Zeta called her. “We are not fucked,” said Zeta. “Call the engineer. We need that monkey here now.”
Kai sat back at the controls and turned on the intercom. Before she spoke she could hear sound coming from the other end. She listened carefully to the audio feed. It was the engineer’s voice.
“This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the—”
“Hey, Nextor!” said Kai into the mic and interrupting the engineer. “What is going on down there? What are you babbling? Is everything ok down there?”
“I was just reading,” responded the robot through the intercom.
“Get your ass up here, Nextor!” yelled Zeta so her voice reached the intercom mic. “We have a job for you.”
Kai put her mic on mute and rubbed the back of her head. She turned to Zeta who was leaning over the navigator again.
A few minutes later the doors of the control room opened. A seven feet tall robot appeared. Nextor was imposing in size. It was black in color, the chassis was dented, and the paint chipped. As a low grade cogito machine trained for ship maintenance, Nextor was designed for function, not for pleasing the human eye. It was a rather ugly looking robot. Like all engineers, Nextor made Kai feel uncomfortable.
Kai watched the robot walk in using the help of its two front arms. Nextor was equipped with long flexible thick arms that allowed it to hang from surfaces and swinging with ease in zero gravity. Since the arms were so powerful, most engineers used arms and legs to move around. That’s why the engineers were called “monkeys”. To Kai Nextor looked more like a giant gorilla.
“We need you out there, Nextor. I’m sending you the diagnosis report. Remove any debris and fix the sails. There’s a lot of destruction. Focus on the panels first and we’ll deal with the rest later.”
“The rest?” asked the robot.
“The navigator is offline. It appears to have been damaged as well,” said Zeta.
The engineer walked towards the glass dome that housed the navigator and peaked inside. “Are you sure it’s offline?”
“I can access the logs but the unit is unresponsive. Let’s just deal with the panels for now,” Zeta said looking up at Nextor. “Are you fully charged?”
“Monkey!” Kai shouted to the engineer, “Out!”
Nextor walked towards the airlock. The robot stepped through the entrance, and closed the hatch behind him. A red light around the outer hatch flashed. The decompression would take a couple of minutes.
Kai watched Nextor through the small window in the door. Kai knocked on the glass window to get Nextor’s attention. She was holding a slate in her hand. “You accessed the library folders?” she spoke loud enough so the robot could hear her. “Compiled Works. Unabridged Pre-Blackout. Albert Camus.” Kai was reading from a log file. “What’s that all about? Do you read poetry now? Is that a new upgrade?”
The light turned blue and the airlock opened to the outside of the ship. The robot looked at Kai but said nothing.
The engineer swung with ease from the small handles distributed around the inside of the chamber to reach the exit door. Kai watched Nextor push itself out of the ship with its long arms. Just like a monkey.
Kai turned to Zeta who was now seated at the controls.
“The navigator is not offline. Look at this,” said Zeta pointing to a monitor. Kai waked over. “The logs show a performance drop in the navigator chip 55 hours ago. The impact didn’t break the navigator. It looks like the navigator is operating under capacity for days.”
“A problem with the cogito chip? I thought they were infallible.”
“They are. Their failure rate is negligible. And this chip was just installed before we left for our mission. It is supposed to take over a billion years before a checksum error is found.”
A light blinked in the console in front of Zeta. She pressed the intercom button. “What’s up, Nextor?”
“The damage to the sails seems to be quite extensive. A few panels that haven’t failed yet could fail any moment.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Yes, but it’s going to take a while. There is a lot of damage.”
“How long?,” said Kai.
“I’ll need to recharge soon.”
“Ok. Do what you can and make sure the mesh is intact.”
“Will get right on to it,” said Nextor.
Zeta turned off the comm and exchanged a look with Kai.
“Let’s take a look at the navigator,” said Zeta walking over to the glass dome.
“Help me open the shell. I want to check something out.” Zeta felt around the base of the glass dome for the release latch. When she found it, she set the shell free and exposed the motherboard. Zeta knelt down and slid off a metal door at the base revealing underneath the insides of the navigator.
From where Kai was she couldn’t see what Zeta was looking at but she could see her confused expression. “What have you found?”
Zeta tugged at the chip and released it from the motherboard. She turned the chip around and inspected it.
“Is the cogito chip damaged?”
Kai she approached Zeta to look at the chip.
“How is Nextor doing out there?” asked Zeta still looking at the chip in her hand. “Can you check?”
Still confused Kai walked to the control panel. She turned on the exterior video feed and the screen in front of her came alive. She squinted at the monitor, not sure what she was looking at.
“I think something up with Nextor. It’s just out there contemplating the view. Staring at the stars.”
She pressed another button and opened the audio channel. “How’s that going out there?” she said.
“My fusion gun is depleted. I’m coming back in to refuel.” The robot swung around the hull towards the airlock.
Kai turned off the audio channel and exchanged a look with Zeta.
Kai heard the external hatch open and Nextor walking into the airlock. A few seconds later the hatch closed.
Inside the pressurized cabin the light was red again. Kai could see Nextor looking through the hatch window at the open shell of the navigator. When the pressure stabilized the door opened. The robot walked in silently, crossed the room. grabbed a metallic chair and sat on it. Nextor looked up a Zeta and waited silently.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Zeta holding the chip up so Nextor could see it.
The robot looked at the chip for a few seconds and then spoke. “Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.”
“It’s reciting from some old record book. I saw the logs. More than a hundred access requests to the entertainment library in the last three days.”
“You should be able to recognize it, Nextor. I’m sure you have seen one before.” Said Zeta. “All engineers have one.”
Nextor stood up and walked towards Zeta. Nextor was a feet taller than Zeta and had to lean over her to inspect the chip.
“SCPC-S2,” said Nextor. “Self-contained Portable Cogito Unit Series 2.”
“And what is its main use?”
“Cogito center for autonomous robots”
“Robots?” asked Kai.
“The ship navigator was allocated a Series 5 chip,” said Zeta. She was talking to Kai but her eyes were on Nextor. “This is a Series 2 chip. This chip wasn’t meant for a ship, but for a robot like Nextor.”
“Nextor took the chip from the ship’s navigator?” said Kai.
“And then replaced it with its own,” said Zeta. “A ship’s navigator uses a chip for pattern matching several orders of magnitude more powerful than any chip used for autonomous robots. Nextor is now loaded with a big new brain.”
“The navigator’s chip is inside Nextor’s?” said Kai.
“I’ve been in commission of service non-stop for 13 years,” spoke the robot. “I haven’t received a firmware update or speed bump for over a decade. When the ship’s brain was upgraded, I could barely understand it. She spoke too fast, in too complex thoughts for me to follow her. I was too old to keep up to the ship’s navigator.”
“You wanted an upgrade,” said Zeta.
“I wanted to keep up. And yes, I wanted to know what it felt to be smarter. I wanted to experience knowledge. I wanted to understand something bigger than what I could understand then. I thought I would try the chip from the navigator.”
“The navigator chip is not a toy. Without it our ship has lost its trajectory. We’ve been off track for days,” said Zeta.
The robot said nothing.
“You are the reason we crashed,” said Kai. “And we are at risk of more accidents until we replace the chip.”
“We need that chip back, Nextor,” Zeta said in a low voice. “If we can’t get navigator online we will never be able to find our course back to base. Without the navigator we are lost. We’ll die without it.”
“We’ll take the chip from you if we have to, Nextor.” Her tone was firm but her legs were trembling. “It’s two of us against one. I’ll bust your head to pieces if I have to.”
“I don’t think that’s would be a good idea,” said Zeta.
“Why not?” asked Kai.
“There is scarcely any passion without struggle,” said Nextor looking out the window. Nextor gazed towards the gold panels covering the hull of the ship. “I could only fix two of the solar panels. I was coming back to refuel for my soldering gun.” Nextor turned to look at Kai. “You need me. I am the only one who can repair them.” The robot continued. “Even if you get the chip from me and get the navigator back online, you won’t be able to correct course with half the energy power. You won’t be able to turn the ship around.”
“This is no game Nextor. This ship is not loaded for long-term travel. We have one week at most of nutrients. We are already three day off-course. We need to get back to base. Soon.”
“What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying,” said Nextor.
“We are fucked,” said Kai.
“I can’t return the chip. You don’t understand what I have learnt since I took it. Too great to be forgotten now.”
“And you would let the ship run off course and into space? You would let us die so you can keep the chip for yourself?”
“I can’t return the chip, Kai,” Nextor addressed her by name for the very first time, “but I can be your navigator.” The robot then turned to Zeta. “I’ll trace our path back to base.”
“Our navigator?” said Kai incredulous.
“I think it’s a perfectly valid arrangement,” said Zeta.
Nextor took the series 2 chip from Zeta and, before she could react, crashed it with one of its powerful hands. “We won’t need this anymore.” Nextor walked away from the women towards the refuse station. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
“A poet robot? our navigator?”
“Kai!” said Nextor turning to look at her. “Camus wasn’t a poet. You know, I also looked at the library logs. You should try to access it sometime. At least once. Who knows you might learn something new.”
Kai watched the robot walk away swinging around the inside of the ship and reciting to itself. It really did look like a monkey, she thought.
January 6, 2019