Jasck Pernas stormed out of the dome air lock. Damn I'm sick of red, he told himself as he scowled at the landscape around him. Everywhere was red. The air was filled with red dust the ever present howling wind scoured from the rocky outcroppings littering the terrain. A layer of dust flowed fluidly along the ground and collected in the sheltered lee of even the smallest rock or boulder. The red wasn't exactly the same shade everywhere. The rocks were streaked with colors from yellow to purple, but the wind mixed the dust to a uniform red the color of rust. It would be rust on a world that had water that is, Jasck reminded himself.
Steadying himself against the blow by holding onto the grab bar next to the lock, the foulness of Jasck's mood was a match for the weather. As he scanned the area around the dome he noted that the weather was actually fairly good for this planet. The weather computer predicted no tornadoes today. But as he looked at the wrecked machinery scattered around the dome he remembered that the computer hadn't predicted any tornadoes on that day two weeks ago when the last one swooped down out of the sky. He was taken completely by surprise, and he had vivid memories of his mad scramble across the rocks to the dome. In his haste he forgot to order the mining machines into their shelters and had to replace most of the equipment that was caught out in the open.
Having to look at the wreckage scattered around the mining site collecting dust in its wind shadows was a constant source of aggravation. In those piles of twisted machinery were at least three weeks of high times on the pleasure planet of Balence 6. The thought of spending those three weeks on this hellhole instead of in the warm sun, soft breezes, good food, and soft company of Balence 6 never failed to put him in a bad mood - that is if for some reason his mood was any brighter than his usual sullen resentment of his lot in life. On this world he rarely found any reason for cheer, and this morning his mood was black enough that the landscape of wrecked machinery didn't effect him. "Damn machines," he shouted to no one as he threw the battered toaster on the closest junk pile.
Jasck awoke this morning with the sure knowledge that this wasn't going to be a normal day full of mere petty aggravations. Waking up marked the start of his troubles when the alarm clock went off two hours early. He reset it and went back to sleep, thinking that maybe he'd set it wrong. The alarm went off again just as he was falling back into a deep sleep. He knew he hadn't made a mistake the second time, and in his rage at being awakened twice ripped the clock from its stand and threw it across the room.
The solid thud and subsequent clatter of dozens of little pieces falling to the floor had a satisfying sound at the time, and he went back to sleep. And slept. Waking up two hours late, he hurried through breakfast - or at least tried to hurry. The autokitchen chose to go on the fritz today as well. He felt his stomach rumble in protest as he remembered the bitter lukewarm coffee, the half raw synthoeggs, tough overcooked psudobacon, pancakes with rock hark chunks in them, and then to top it all off, the half burnt, half white toast.
The autokitchen was built in so he could only pound on the control panels. The toaster received the full brunt of his anger and expired in the assault. Then, with the air in the dome choked with smoke from the breakfast disaster, the air processor malfunctioned putting even more smoke into the air. That was all the fire system needed, and it let loose with its sprinklers and foam nozzles. By the time he got it all shut down, the entire dome was awash with water and foam, and the air was so thick he couldn't see the other side of the dome twenty feet away.
Cursing nonstop, Jasck yanked on his exposure suit, jabbed the emergency maintenance/cleanup button on the dome control panel, and stomped out the air lock. His finger still felt the force with which he'd hit the maintenance button, and he knew that on top of everything he'd broken his finger nail as well.
Jasck stalked over to the lip of the pit the mining machines were digging through the rocky soil in their search for xercrone crystals. The dust down in the pit was considerably thicker than up on the surface, but he could see most of the way around the 200 yard diameter. He knew that somewhere down there in the murk were 5 mining machines chewing up the rock, separating the crystals, and depositing the waste gravel into waiting hopper trucks.
The dozen or so hopper trucks ground relentlessly up and down the spiral pit road, hauling the waste up out of the pit and continuing on up to the top of the mountain of tailings they were building. Jasck watch the commotion for a moment before he noticed that part way around the pit one of the mining machines was sitting immobile with its flashing white maintenance warning light flashing. Peering into the murk he could make out the maintenance robots clustered near the stricken machine, but they weren't working on it.
Jasck's face flushed and a splitting headache lanced through his brain as his frustrated rage threatened to boil over. After the disaster inside the dome he didn't need any problems out here - and if the maintenance robots weren't automatically fixing the mining machine, that meant problems. "Rastus!" he shouted into his helmet mike, using his favorite corruption of the robot foreman's model designation. "Get up here right now!"
A small robot detached itself from the group of maintenance robots, bounced across the pit floor, up the pit road and over to Jasck. Rastus was a small round topped cylinder mounted on a tracked chassis, with manipulator arms on each side and a cluster of gimbal mounted sensors on top. As he clattered to a stop, he advised, "Yes sir, reporting as ordered. I could have been here quicker, but the pit road is in poor condition. If you would authorize the maintenance time to repair the road, I calculate the payback time in saved repairs to the hopper trucks as 3 weeks."
"Do you have that speech recorded or do you calculate it fresh every time you see me? Don't bother to answer that. I'll tell you again - I'm lifting out of here in two weeks. I'm not authorizing any maintenance expenses that can be avoided. This operation is running on a slender enough margin as it is. And don't start on your accountant's speech. I've heard it enough. I'm selling off all this equipment when this job is done, so hang the maintenance. Now what's wrong down there on number 3 mining machine?"
"The machine reached its filter replacement interval and shut down," replied Rastus in his unfalteringly cheerful voice. "I told you yesterday this would happen if we ignored the maintenance schedule. The mining machine's hydraulic system overheated and it shut down to avoid damage. Now the filters will have to be replaced before the machine will restart."
"Like hell we will," snarled Jasck. Rastus telling him he was wrong grated on his already frayed nerves, and the mounting frustrations he'd already experienced this morning spurred him to not accept another. "Get out of my way! I'll show you how to get that machine running." Jasck kicked Rastus out of the way and started over to the pit road.
Rastus righted himself with his manipulator arms and took off after Jasck saying, "But you can't! You'll shorten the useful life expectancy of the machine. It isn't economical!"
"I don't care about the life expectancy," Jasck shouted over his shoulder as he hitched a ride on a downward bound hopper truck. "I told you I'm selling off all the machines after this job. With a fresh coat of paint, they'll look OK no matter what they're like inside."
"But...but..." Rastus tried to object, but Jasck was obviously not listening, so he fit himself into the flow of hopper trucks and bounced down the pit road in pursuit.
Jasck hopped off the truck at the bottom of the pit and strode over to the inert mining machine. In his mind he kept thinking, "two weeks...just two weeks more in this hellhole and it's off to Balence 6." If he could just keep from spending any more credits on expenses he would have enough to stay on Balence 6 for two months before he'd have to head out mining again.
He reached the mining machine and walked over to an electrical panel at the rear. He knew as he released the latches on the cover that he should erect a repair tent over the area to keep the dust from getting into the relays, but at this point he was past caring. He brushed the piles of dust off the top of the cover and pulled it open. He took a jumper wire out of his pocket and clipped the ends to terminals on the connector block. He then shut the cover and refastened the latches. "There, it'll run now," he said to Rastus. "Turn it on."
"Don't argue with me, just turn it on."
Rastus reluctantly pushed the start button and the machine burst into life. Rock disappeared from in front of the machine and gravel pored from the discharge chute, while a cloud of dust arose over it all. Jasck stepped back and watched the machine for a few minutes. Satisfied that the machine would continue to run, he said, "Let me know right away if any of these other machines shut down for the same reason. We've had too much down time as it is. Any more and we won't meet the production target for this month." He then turned and caught a ride back up to the surface.
Jasck strapped himself down in his acceleration couch on the bridge of his ore ship, the Relanda, and waited impatiently for Rastus to finish the final check list. The last two weeks were among the worst he could remember. Ever since that morning when the dome went berserk, things had gone from bad to worse. Machines that had never given any trouble before developed mysterious ailments. The autokitchen got so erratic that he never knew what was going to come out of the slot - or if it was going to be edible at all. The mining machines broke down constantly. He even began to wonder whether the ship would come down out of orbit when he signaled, but at least the Relanda responded properly.
But the day had finally arrived. The cargo hold was full of crystals and the Relanda would be lifting in just a few more minutes. "Rastus, what's keeping you?" he shouted down the hatch. "Shake your transistors and get up here. I want to get off this planet before anything else goes wrong!"
Rastus appeared in the hatchway, climbing up the ladder with his manipulator arms. "Yes sir, right away sir. I was just double checking to make sure all the equipment was properly secured. The Relanda is ready to lift now, sir."
"That's more like it," responded Jasck as he settled back in his couch. "Punch in the coordinates of the repair center nearest to Balence 6 - I forget the name of the place but I'm sure you remember."
"Yes sir," replied Rastus cheerfully. "That would be Betacom service center that you're thinking of, sir. I will enter the coordinates and we will be lifting in 3 minutes."
Jasck checked his straps to make sure they were tight and put his finger in the general vicinity of the abort button built into the arm of his couch. His only part in the lift off was to override the automatic control with his abort button if something went wrong. But he'd never had to use the button. In fact, he'd never even met anyone who'd had to use their abort button. Sometimes he contemplated pressing the button just to see if it really worked, but not this time. He wanted to get off of this planet too badly to risk taking any unnecessary chances.
The lift off sequenced without a hitch. Jasck first felt the force pressing him down into the couch, easing rapidly as the compensation system in the bridge floor cut in. Then all sensations of movement ceased as the compensation system fell into sync with the power increase curve of the lifting engines.
Scanning the meters on the control panel, Jasck could see that the ship was already clearing the planet's atmosphere, and would be far enough from the mass of the planet to use the hyperdrive within an hour. He turned on the optical sensors and twisted the selector knob to the view from the tail. As the image of the planet dwindled ever smaller, he felt a tremendous sense of relief to be leaving it behind. He'd never had so much trouble on a mining job, and he swore that the next one he tried would be on a garden planet with breathable air and liquid water.
The nagging thought kept coming back that each mining job he'd taken the last few years was worse than the preceding. Even jobs that looked like a paid vacation turned out to be an endless series of catastrophes. Jasck told himself that he didn't believe in the spacer superstition of developing a jinks where no machines would work around the victim. But the more he tried not to think about it, the more the thought returned unbidden.
Jasck's thoughts were interrupted by a warning klaxon. "30 seconds to hyperspace jump," announced Rastus needlessly. Jasck pulled a popper out of the chamber under the right arm rest of his couch. He stayed conscious during a jump just once out of curiosity. Just once. It felt like he was being turned inside out, exploded into component molecules, blended together with the molecules from the ship around him, and then squeezed through an endlessly long tube at incredible speed. Then the process repeated itself in reverse. He still had bad dreams about it and he didn't want to go through it again. With fingers that trembled slightly in their eagerness, he broke open the popper and inhaled deeply.
The first thing Jasck heard as he regained consciousness was Rastus' cheerful voice announcing "Docking time 23 minutes, 16 seconds." Thoughts of Balence 6 flooded into Jasck's mind as he powered up the optical sensors. The image of a huge metal ball filled the screen - the repair center. He allowed the image to linger on the repair center even though he hated the place. They were close enough to see the orange glow of the furnaces and the bright pin points of light that showed where work was being done on the dark hulks of ships moored to the center.
But the repair center was just a moon of Jasck's real objective. He panned the view away from the repair center and over to where the planet should be. He stared in disbelief at the blank screen. He scanned completely around the ship and found nothing but empty space. He looked over at Rastus and exclaimed, "What's going on here? Where's Balence 6?"
With the cheerful tone of his voice jarringly at odds with his statement, Rastus replied, "Well sir, there's been a bit of a problem with the navigation on that last jump."
Jasck spun the view back to the repair center, and now that he was looking more carefully, there was something about it that wasn't quite right. "What do you mean, a bit of a problem? Where exactly are we?"
"Well sir, all I can say for sure is that we are not at Balence 6. We are locked into the approach pattern of the repair center - although it appears not to be the Betacom repair center. Do you want me to abort the approach? This might be a better repair center. After reviewing the work of the Betacom center, I have come to the conclusion that if they did not have Balance 6 to draw customers, they would not have any business at all."
"Of course I want you to abort the approach," exclaimed Jasck with exasperation. "I told you I wanted to go to Balence 6. Now find out where we are and calculate a jump to get us there. After a moment Jasck continued, "And you're right about Betacom. That's why they get my business."
Rastus turned to the control console to comply but almost immediately turned back to Jasck and announced, "Sir, I'm afraid there is a new complication."
At that moment, the lights went out on the bridge and were replaced moments later with dim yellow emergency lights. "As you will notice," continued Rastus, "we have lost our main power generator. A hyperspace jump is now impossible. I would suggest completing the approach to the repair center."
Feeling like he was sliding down a slippery slope with something horrible waiting at the bottom, Jasck agreed with a trapped hollowness to his voice.
With the approach controlled by the traffic computer in the repair center and the viewer blacked out by the power failure, Jasck could only sit and fume over having his plans frustrated. By the time he felt the jolt of docking and heard the clank of the access tube gasket sealing around the air lock hatch, he'd worked himself up into a rage. "Come on, Rastus. Find out how fast they can fix the main generator and navigation computer. Then we're getting out of here."
Jasck waited impatiently as air hissed through the equalizing valve between the ship and the access tube. After a few moments, he grabbed the ring on the emergency relief valve and the hiss turned into a roar. Within seconds the tube reached equilibrium and the red light over the air lock turned to green.
"The emergency relief valve should only be used under extreme circumstances," lectured Rastus cheerfully. "Rapid pressurization could cause a blowout if an imperfect seal has been made by the gasket."
"Save it, Rastus," replied Jasck. "I don't need a safety lecture now. Besides, I heard the gasket clamp on and it was down tight." Jasck gave a heave on the hatch dogging lever and swung the hatch open.
Rastus continued as Jasck pulled open the outer door and disappeared into the tube, "But in Manual 548642, OPERATION OF MARK 346 AIR LOCK AND ASSORTED DOCKING HARDWARE, it clearly states that repeated rapid pressurization will cause fatigue fractures in the...Jasck, are you listening? Jasck?"
Rastus gave a mental shrug in his circuits and erased his prepared presentation since Jasck was obviously not paying attention. And it was such a fine presentation - covering first the official information in the manuals, sliding smoothly into the physics involved, moving smartly into the planned life expectancy of the various parts and how it could be shortened by improper operation of the air lock, and finally finishing up with a brief explanation of the economics involved with early component replacement. But as usual, Jasck wouldn't listen. Rastus retracted his manipulator arms and energized his air pump. Directing the compressed air out small jets distributed around his body, he rotated in the zero gravity and followed Jasck through the tube.
Jasck paused at a grab bar at the mouth of the tube to get his bearings. The tube opened on a busy transport corridor. Repair robots and freight carts passed by in both directions. It took him a moment to realize that something didn't seem right about the scene, and then it dawned on him - there weren't any humans. He shrugged it off with the thought that they were always trying to increase the level of automation in these repair centers. Across the corridor, he saw a sign with an arrow pointing to the right marked HUMAN ACCOMMODATIONS, and another arrow pointing left marked REPAIR SHOPS. The signs were repeated upside down for those approaching from a different orientation. Rastus floated out of the tube, braked himself with a blast of air, and then rotated to match Jasck.
"You go and take care of the ship repairs," ordered Jasck. "I'm going to check in at the hotel, take a sauna, and sack out for a while. Come and find me as soon as you know when the ship will be ready to lift."
Jasck noticed the air as he pulled himself out into the traffic in the corridor. That peculiar blend of oil and ozone that is always present around electrical/mechanical equipment was present here as well. But here there were so few competing scents that it was lifted out of the background that usually passed beneath his threshold of perceptions and was strikingly noticeable. As he thought about the air, he felt a sudden blow to his shoulder that slammed him into the wall.
As he bounced head over heels off the wall, clutching awkwardly at the closest grab bar, Jasck saw a large maintenance robot proceeding down the corridor as if nothing had happened. "Watch were you're going tinhead!" he shouted at the departing form. Addressing the corridor in general, he continued, "Give one of those gear-brains their own power pack and they think they own the right-of-way. I aught to take a big wrench and teach that tinhead a lesson about respect for the superiority of humans!" Having given voice to his tirade, Jasck cooled down and continued along the corridor, not admitting it to himself, but subconsciously being a bit more watchful of the other traffic.
Jasck stopped at a large door with a sign that read HUMAN ACCOMMODATIONS, PRESS BUTTON TO CYCLE TRANSITION CHAMBER. He pressed the button on the wall and the door slid open. Floating into the chamber, he used the grab bars that lined the walls to pull himself down until his feet were pressed against the painted foot prints on the floor. Pressing the button marked READY, he felt his body sag as the chamber smoothly cycled up to one standard gravity. The other door in the chamber opened and he stepped out into the empty lobby.
As he walked across to the desk, Jasck wasn't surprised that he appeared to be the only guest. The decor - or rather the lack of it - would almost look right at home in a prison. Gray metal bulkheads with exposed pipes and conduits formed the walls, meeting the gray metal ceiling with welded gussets and brackets. The tube and sheet metal furniture convinced Jasck that they didn't get many willing customers here.
At the check in desk an autoclerk greeted Jasck with, "Good afternoon sir. Please place your thumbprint on the sensor. How long will you be staying with us?"
"I'm only staying until the thieves and cutthroats in the repair shops get done jerking me around on my generator repair," replied Jasck. "No way I'm staying in this dump a minute longer than I have to. I sent my flunky to find out how long they're going to stall around on the repair. I told him to come looking for me here, so you'll know as soon as I do. Keep a sensor peeled for him - he's a Rast...I mean a Rand Standard model 336C."
"Very good sir, I will await further instructions in that category. Did you desire a single or double room?"
"Economy, standard, or deluxe?"
Jasck hesitated a moment before deciding that he'd suffered enough to justify pampering himself. "Deluxe. From the looks of your lobby, for economy you'd probably stuff me in a space suit and tether me outside."
"Very good sir. If you would follow the corridor to your right. Your room is number 257."
Jasck followed the corridor and found that it led to a lift tube. Exiting at the top of the tube, he found himself in another corridor lined with doors. He walked along until he found the one marked 257, placed his thumb on the sensor plate on the right of the doorway, and with a click the door opened.
The room was considerably nicer than Jasck expected. The walls were paneled with imitation wood, the floor was covered with brown carpet, a bed folded out of the wall on the left, a couch on the right faced the entertainment panel, and straight ahead was the spa. He stripped off his coveralls and stuffed them into the disposal as he walked over to the spa.
Stepping into the shower/sauna, Jasck first turned the selector lever to shower. The water cascaded down in a gentle rain from the entire ceiling of the chamber. He adjusted the force and temperature knobs until he had a torrential downpour of scalding hot water. Jasck liked his showers hot and strong - if he wasn't paying the utility bill - and he wasn't satisfied when the controls reached their stops. With the justification that he was paying for this room in the front of his mind, he grabbed the force knob with both hands and twisted. The stop gave way and the downpour increased to an almost solid sheet of water. He then turned his attention to the temperature knob, and the sheet started to steam.
After basking in the results of his handiwork until he tired of it, Jasck ignored the posted instructions about reducing the force knob before changing the controls and slammed the lever over to sauna. The water stopped suddenly and there was a hammering behind the walls. When the sauna didn't come on right away, Jasck employed his time honored response of beating on the control panel with his fist. There was a whirring noise and dry heat started pouring from the vents.
When he started to feel dizzy from the heat, Jasck slammed the selector lever back to shower. There were a series of heavy chunks behind the wall and then the torrent of hot water began again. Feeling the heat, Jasck put both hands on the temperature control and felt the knob turn with a grinding resistance. The water was still too hot, so he turned the knob some more. The knob suddenly got very easy to turn, and then came off in his hand. The water was still hot.
Swearing at the cheap quality of the fixtures, Jasck then tried the force knob, but it was jammed tight. Deciding to give it up and end his shower, he grabbed the selector lever but it wouldn't move. With strength born of his growing anger, he grabbed the lever with both hands and gave it a wrench. There was a loud snap from behind the wall and the lever was loose in its slot, flopping from side to side without effort or effect. With his temper heating up to match the temperature of the water, Jasck beat on the control panel with the knob in his hand, causing dents to appear in the smooth polished surface. There were more chicks and rattles, and the sauna vents began blowing hot air.
Disgusted, Jasck turned to the door, grabbed the handle and pulled. And pulled. The door wouldn't open. For the first time he noticed that the drains had stopped and the water was up to his ankles and rising fast. He jerked on the door harder and harder as his anger changed to concern, fear, and then panic. With the water rising around his chest, he gave up on the door and returned to the control panel. The air from the sauna vents bubbled up through the water, bursting with searing heat and making the water appear to be boiling. It felt that hot already to Jasck. Pounding on the control panel with the knob and his bare fist, he could feel the heat sapping his strength. With the water up around his shoulders, he began to feel faint.
For the first time, the thought occurred to Jasck that he might not survive, although he wasn't sure whether he would drown or cook to death first. With the last of his strength, he dove under the water to beat on the control panel one more time. With his lungs bursting and the water slowing and cushioning his blows, it seeped through his heat-fuzzy brain that this was the end. One more blow and he would release the lung full of air that was tearing at this throat, the water would rush in, and that would be it. He pulled back his arm and put in every ounce of energy he could muster. He heard the solid thud of his blow and there was something else - a whirring and clicking. And then the sound of flowing water. The water level dropped swiftly, exposing his head, shoulders, waist, knees, then was disappearing down the drain.
Jasck's first thought was to get out of the chamber and when he yanked on the door it opened easily. He stumbled out of the chamber and sank to the floor in relief.
As the cool tile floor and the decidedly chilly air in the spa drew his body temperature down the normal, Jasck's feelings of relief turned more and more to anger. When he'd worked himself up into a towering rage, he got up, walked out of the spa, and yanked the phone off the wall.
"Room service," came the cheerful voice from the phone.
"This is room 257," snarled Jasck. "I want a repair robot in my room right away. My shower just went berserk and tried to kill me. And don't think I won't file a complaint about this. For the prices you charge for one of these rooms, at least all the equipment should work!"
"Yes sir. A repair robot will be at your room momentarily," came the reply in the same unrelentingly cheerful voice that Rastus used when delivering bad news.
Jasck jammed the phone back into its holder and walked over to the clothing dispenser. He punched his size and choice of styles into the key pad. There was a buzz and a whir, and a neatly wrapped package emerged from the slot. He ripped open the wrapping and stepped into the coveralls. Struggling to get the garment over his shoulders, he saw that the arms and legs were much too short and he couldn't close the front. Twisting and squirming to get the tight garment off, he wadded it up and threw it in a corner.
Addressing the clothing dispenser again, Jasck jabbed at the keys fiercely as he reordered. The second pair of coveralls hung on him like a tarp. The third wouldn't have fit a midget. The fourth could have been cut up to make three. Jasck was fuming with frustration by the time the fifth pair of coveralls arrived. He almost tore up the fifth pair without even trying them on but paused and thought better of it. The fifth pair fit.
Jasck felt cold even with the coveralls on. At first he attributed the feeling to being overheated from the shower, but the feeling persisted. As his teeth chattered and shivers ran up and down his body, he was convinced that it really was cold in the room. He walked over to the thermostat and twisted it up full, giving it a sharp rap with his knuckles for good measure. He was gratified to hear a fan start up somewhere in the distance. Almost immediately the room began to feel warmer.
Pleased with the results of his most recent encounter with the room's fixtures, Jasck decided he deserved a drink. He walked over to the autokitchen and powered up the menu. Scrolling through the offerings until he reached the beverage section, he selected a Brevadan Brain Boggler. The machine whirred and clicked, and a small door opened in the face. Jasck reached in and removed a glass filled with a clear amber liquid. He took a small sip, becoming a bit paranoid since the shower and clothing machine. The Brain Boggler tasted fine so he downed it in one gulp and ordered another. With the first drink creating a warm glow in his stomach, he reached into the machine and removed the second.
The second drink wasn't a Brevadan Brain Boggler. The liquid in the glass was a swirl of different colored fluids that didn't mix. There were red, yellow and black streaks that flowed in an ever changing pattern. Emboldened by the previous Brain Boggler - a drink which richly deserved its name - Jasck took a suspicious sip of the second glass. The taste of the liquid confirmed Jasck's expectations, it was a Circian Slasher. The drink wasn't what he ordered, but it would do.
Deciding that he was hungry, he scrolled back though the menu to the dinner section. He selected syntho-steak with baked algae cakes. The first delivery was a grilled Aturian Ground Slug. Wondering how some people could eat such things, he dumped it down the disposal and reordered. He wasn't sure what the second delivery was, but it followed the first into the disposal. With returning anger, he jabbed at menu to reorder again. What ever was on the plate of the third delivery was still moving and he had to hurry to get it into the disposal before it crawled off the plate. He gave the machine a kick before making his fourth attempt, banging the order panel with his fist for good measure. When the door opened this time, there was his syntho-steak.
Sweat was beginning to form on his forehead and Jasck knew it couldn't all be from getting worked up over the autokitchen. Returning to the thermostat, he adjusted it down to the comfort range and then sat down in the couch facing the entertainment panel to eat his dinner.
A knock on the door interrupted Jasck before he could put the first bite of syntho-steak in his mouth. Answering the door, he was confronted by a large maintenance robot quite similar to the one that bumped him in the corridor earlier. "Good afternoon sir," said the robot. "You reported some difficulty with the shower/sauna in this room?"
"Damn right I did." replied Jasck. "Piece of junk went berserk for no reason and tried to drown and cook me at the same time. While you're here, you'd better look at the clothing dispenser and the autokitchen. They're both acting up."
"Yes sir," responded the robot. "I'll have it all in working order in a few minutes. Was there any human contribution to the failure?"
"No," responded Jasck defensively. "I didn't do anything. The machine just went berserk. If anything's broken, it was that way when I got here. What is this, an inquisition? Just get in there and fix the damn thing!"
"Yes sir, I'll get right to it."
Jasck was feeling chilled again so he returned to the thermostat, pushing it up a bit and tapping on the cover - gently since the maintenance robot was there. Sitting down on the couch, he activated the entertainment panel. A large screen lit up with a kaleidoscope of colors that quickly resolved into a menu of attractions. Jasck selected an action adventure movie and sat back to eat his dinner.
The image on the screen showed a pretty girl in a scanty outfit on the bridge of a starship. Music swelled out of the speakers. Jasck cut off a piece of the syntho-steak and put it in his mouth. The flavor of the delicate seasoning flowed around his tongue as he chewed the tender morsel.
The music changed abruptly to raucous dissonance that swelled to painful volume. The image on the screen showed the details of a slimy creature with slavering jaws that seemed to be crawling out of the screen. The flavor in his mouth suddenly turned, and looking down at his plate, he saw that the syntho-steak was degenerating into a misshapen lump of brown slime.
When the retching ended, Jasck staggered up from the couch, holding his hands over his ears to shut out the noise from the speakers. The clothing dispenser had begun ejecting packages that struck the wall on the opposite side of the room with a solid thud. The pile of packages was already several feet high. The autokitchen was spraying multicolored liquids out of its upper dispensers while a thick black ropy substance was extruding from the meal slot. The paint on the ceiling and wall was already staring to dissolve where it had been sprayed.
The maintenance robot emerged from the spa with the control panel for the shower/sauna in his grippers - complete with attached pipes and a section of the wall from which it had been torn. The robot was shouting above the din, "Human contribution! Human contribution!" The robot's glossy exterior finish began to dissolve as the spray from the autokitchen hit it. Water began to gush out the door of the spa and the overhead lights began to flash wildly, while the heat ducts blew alternately hot and cold.
Jasck panicked when he saw the flood threatening to cut him off from the door. He lunged for the door, flattening himself against the smooth surface as he repeatedly mashed the open button with his fist. To his relief the door opened and he stumbled out into the corridor.
The door closed behind him and Jasck found himself in a quiet hallway. As the pounding in his chest eased and his breath returned to normal, he found it hard to believe the events that had just transpired on the other side of door 257.
Just when the edge began to dull on his nerves, the hair on the back of Jasck's neck rose as his ears caught a whirring sound. From around the corner appeared a powermaid. The machine ran on wheels, pushing in front of it a large vacuum head with floor scrubbers suspended underneath. The rear of the chassis was taken up by a large trash container, the middle by racks of sheets and towels, and the front was a pillar to which were attached four manipulator arms.
While one part of his mind argued that it was just a harmless cleaning machine, another part counseled running in blind panic. The part that advocated blind panic proved to be the stronger. Jasck pushed off from the wall and ran in the opposite direction from the powermaid. He hadn't gone far when he was brought up short by another powermaid approaching from the other way. The powermaid extended its manipulator arms menacingly when he tried to get past.
Jasck ran back the way he'd come until he found the way blocked by the first powermaid. He turned around again and ran back, trying all the doors as he went. All the doors were locked and he again came up short when he reached the second machine. Turning around, he saw that the original machine had followed him and he was trapped between. He backed up against the wall with terror as the two machines closed in.
Paralyzed with fear, Jasck saw the first machine reach out towards him with one of its arms. His mind registered the shape and workings of the grippers on the end in exquisite detail as they reached for him. As uncontrollable shudders coursed through his frame, Jasck watched with terrified fascination as a gripper reached up towards his face, and then diverted to pick a speck of dirt off his shoulder.
"I hope you are enjoying your stay with us, sir," said the powermaid as it put the speck of dirt in its trash container.
As the two powermaids passed in front of him, Jasck started to laugh out of relief as he slowly slid down the wall, ending up huddled on the floor with his head in his hands. After a minute, a shudder passed thought him and he started to regain control. Taking several deep breaths, he gathered his frayed nerves together and sat up. On the count of three, he told himself, I'll open my eyes and it will all have been a dream. He counted to three and opened his eyes.
Both powermaids were there waiting. With a maniacal shriek, the first machine grabbed the stunned Jasck with all four arms, and after juggling him around, dumped him in its trash container.
Darkness closed in as the lid of the container slammed shut. Jasck worked his way around in the cramped space to get his head up out of the trash. There wasn't enough height to stand up so he had to kneel. He tried the lid but it wouldn't open. The container stank and he was sure he could feel things crawling around in the trash that came up to his chest.
The rumbling movement of the powermaid stopped and the lid of the trash container opened. Before Jasck could jump out, the container tipped over and he was thrown head first into a large funnel with a round black hole at the bottom. He put his hands out against the sides of the funnel to try to hold himself back, but the surface was slick with the residue of the trash and he slipped inexorably down. In spite of all his efforts, he plunged head first through the hole.
The hole became the mouth of a round tube which was large enough for Jasck to hold his head up out of the trash that was accompanying him as he slid rapidly through the darkness. The tube twisted and turned, leveling off between terrifying vertical drops. The tube ended suddenly as he found himself momentarily flying through clear air before coming to rest in a pool of semiliquid trash.
Digging his way to the surface, Jasck saw that he was in some sort of holding pool. From the dim light that filtered in through a vent in the roof of the chamber, he could see that tubes entered at one end and the pool tapered into a single exit. Then he noticed the horrible grinding sound and saw that the exit was full of flashing teeth that meshed across the tunnel and reduced the trash to pulp. He could feel the flow of the trash around him dragging him towards the teeth, and he searched the walls of the chamber desperately for some way out.
Jasck's eyes seized on a set of rungs welded into the side of the chamber. Half swimming, half climbing through the trash, he slowly worked his way against the current to the rungs. His hands, coated with slime, slipped off on the first grab, but he gained purchase on the second. Sobbing with relief, he pulled himself up out of the pool. The rungs led to a hatch which miraculously had a handle on the inside. He turned the handle and pushed the hatch open.
The hatch opened high up in a room full of tanks and machinery. None of the machinery seemed to be moving, so Jasck climbed out and down the rungs to the floor. He found a spot between two tanks where he was concealed and sat down to collect his senses. Motion to his left caught his attention and he saw a rat scurrying along the wall. The rat seemed harried and afraid of something behind it. When the rat saw Jasck it sat up and regarded him with its beady eyes. Under other circumstances Jasck would have reacted differently, but he said, "Hey, you and me rat. We're flesh and blood. We aught to stick together. This place doesn't seem too healthy for either of us."
The rat seemed to nod in agreement as it sniffed the air and studied Jasck. Then a pinpoint beam of light struck the rat and it fell forward, the top of its skull a charred cinder. With sinister stealth a small machine about the size of a large cat crawled along the wall to the body of the rat. As Jasck watched with shocked fascination, a door in the front of the machine opened and arms reached out to grasp the tail of the rat. The dead rat's body was drawn tail first into the machine accompanied by the sounds of rending flesh and crunching bones. When the rat had disappeared completely into the machine, the door slammed shut and Jasck saw the machine's two bulging optical sensors scanning him speculatively.
With the fate of the rat fresh in his memory, Jasck was seized with terror. He jumped up and ran in panic while images of his lifeless body being drawn into the machine flashed before his mind's eye.
There was only one door out of the tank room and Jasck ran through it. He ducked in the nick of time as a steel shaft swept over him at head level. Dodging to the side, he saw that he was in a machine shop. An automated machining station was even now chucking the steel shaft in its spindle. A tool advanced into the shaft cutting off a long spiral ribbon of metal that snaked out of the back of the machine. Jasck watched for a moment and then felt something grab at the cuff of his pants. Looking down, he was alarmed to see that the metal snake had squirmed around behind him and started to wrap around his leg. He kicked at the snake with his other foot and the razor sharp ribbon of steel sliced slivers off the sole of his shoe. But the sharpness of the metal also cut through the fabric of his pant leg and with a jerk it came loose. He got up and started running again.
He came to a machine that was cutting chips off a steel bar. The chips flew across Jasck's path like darts at chest level, embedding themselves in the wall across the room. He dove and rolled under the deadly spray. Scrambling to his feet, he continued his head long flight to the door.
The next chamber was a welding shop with robots lined up along each wall. As Jasck ran through, the first robot pulled a glowing bar out of the furnace in front of it and turned to block the door. Each robot that Jasck passed in his head long flight picked up a torch, hammer, tongs, or piece of glowing metal and turned to follow him.
As he ran, Jasck's lungs ached, his throat burned, and his heart was pounding so hard he thought it would surely burst. But one look at the mob forming behind him spurred him to even greater speed. He came to the door at the other end of the welding shop and it was closed. He tried the latch and it was locked. He turned around and the mob formed a semicircle around him. The robots began to close in thrusting their glowing metal bars ahead of them and clicking their tongs menacingly while their torches erupting in sudden bursts of yellow/orange flame. Jasck backed up against the door. Sinking to the floor, he put his arms up in front of his face, saying over and over, "No,no,no..."
The closest robots had advanced to where he could feel the heat of their implements washing over him as he tried to move away from all directions at once. He was so caught up in the advancing robots that he didn't hear the click of the door latch. When two arms reached through the door and grabbed him by the shoulders he struggled for a moment, and then gave up completely. He dimly felt his body being dragged through the door and heard it slam shut behind.
Jasck was curled up in a ball with his head pressed to his knees and wrapped in his hands, still repeating "No,no, no..." Slowly, a sensation and a word penetrated into the deep, dark place into which his mind had retreated. He felt his shoulder being shaken and a voice - a familiar voice - saying, "Jasck! Jasck! Can you hear me? Its me, Rastus. Come on, Jasck, you've got to snap out of it. Its all right now, I'm here."
Jasck's mind clung to the familiar voice saying that it was all right now. A dream! That's what's been happening, it's all been nothing but a bad dream, he told himself. In a moment, I'll open my eyes and see that I'm lying in bed, and Rastus is there, and...
Jasck opened his eyes, and he wasn't lying in bed. He was lying in a corridor with garbage stained clothes clinging stiffly to his body. But Rastus was there.
"Ah, there you are, sir," said Rastus cheerfully. "You had me worried for a minute. I would have caught up with you sooner, sir, but your trail has been a little hard to track. But I've found you now so as soon as you're up to it, we should get moving."
The thought of leaving the momentary peace and security of the quiet corridor sent tremors coursing through Jasck's shattered nerves. "Moving? Where are we going? Rastus, it's dangerous. The machines...they tried to kill me!"
"Yes sir," replied Rastus. "I noticed something was not quite right while I was making arrangements for the repairs on the ship. I tapped into the main computer to log the repair requisition for the Relanda and the computer was down - or at least cut off from the terminal I was using. I came to tell you and you weren't in your room. The machines in your room said you got drunk, wrecked the room, assaulted two powermaids, and then went joyriding in the trash chutes. All the rest sounded like something you might do, but diving head first into a trash chute didn't sound like quite your style so I got worried and came looking."
Jasck was struck speechless by the account of events that Rastus had just described. His brain was still reeling from all the surprises it had been through, and for a moment he considered that maybe Rastus was right. No! his brain shouted back, I remember what happened! It wasn't like that at all! Suddenly desperate to convince Rastus that the machines had gone crazy, Jasck related in detail what he'd been through. A flash of realization seized his mind and he whispered "Oh god, Rastus, that's why there aren't any other humans staying at the hotel! The machines killed them and processed the bodies with the trash! Rastus, we've got to get out of here!"
"Well, at least you have to get out of here," replied Rastus. "The machines haven't bothered me at all." Jasck felt a chill travel up his spine at the robot's statement, but Rastus continued, "And you have abused me at times...but I'll help you anyway. Although now that I think about it, helping you will probably put me in the same danger as you appear to be in."
Jasck tried to put as much earnestness in his voice as he could as he said, "Rastus, I promise that if you help me get out of here, I'll never kick you or abuse you in any way ever again."
With a slight whirring sound Rastus said, "Your promise has been recorded. I will be able to play it back for you anytime you seem to be forgetting it."
"Sure, sure, anything," agreed Jasck. "Just get us out of here in one piece. What are we going to do? Can we get back to the ship?"
"It wouldn't do any good to go back to the ship now," replied Rastus. "The main generator hasn't been fixed yet. No, what we have to do is to go farther down into the heart of the repair center until we reach the main computer. We can only get back into space if we first fix the computer so that it will fix our generator and let us past the defenses."
"That's the plan."
"No other way?"
The thought of going down into the heart of the repair center instead of up to the ship gripped Jasck's mind with fear. But he felt safer with Rastus around. He'd always been able to depend on Rastus. Summoning up what little courage he had left, he agreed, "Ok, down it is. Do you know how to get there?"
"Yes sir," responded Rastus. "Some of the auxiliary computers are still on line and I tapped into one of them to obtain the blueprints of the whole center. It's kind of tricky to get there from here, but if you will follow me I think we can make it."
Rastus started off down the corridor staying over against the right hand wall. Jasck started to follow walking in the center of the corridor as was his usual practice. Rastus swiveled around and motioned Jasck over to the side. "When I said you should follow me, I meant that literally."
Jasck quickly stepped over against the wall and they started out again. Ten minutes later Jasck came to understand why they were staying away from the left side of the corridor. There was a loud roar and a yellow and black shape streaked by in a blur. The blur came from the direction they were headed and disappearing with unbelievable speed around a bend in the corridor behind them. Jasck realized how if Rastus had not insisted that he follow exactly, he would be missing an arm or leg right now. He moved up a little closer to the robot.
They traveled through seemingly endless corridors, occasionally stepping into a drop shaft and falling through dozens of levels before exiting. As they moved along, Rastus would sometimes motion them into a room until a machine passed by. At other times Rastus opened service access panels into the network of service tunnels. Inside the service tunnels was the hardest part for Jasck. Rastus was short enough to just motor down the isles, but Jasck had to bend over to keep from bashing his head on the hanging pipes and ducts. Plumbing and conduits lined the walls and snatched at his clothing as he tried to keep up.
But even at its worst, following Rastus through the maze of tunnels and corridors was better than he'd been doing on his own. Nothing grabbed him, or swung things at him, or threw him into nasty places. He began to see Rastus in a different light than he'd ever considered before. And when he remembered the ring of robots in the welding shop from which Rastus appeared out of nowhere to save him, his feelings toward the little robot bordered on real affection.
They'd almost reached the main computer when they encountered an obstacle. A security robot patrolled in front of the door to the computer. It sat low to the ground on a tracked chassis with a turret mounted laser on top. Sensors bristled from the top of the turret and the guard paced endlessly back and forth.
"What are we going to do about the guard?" asked Jasck as he and Rastus peeked around the corner.
Pulling back from view, Rastus calculated for a moment and then replied, "I suggest I sneak across to the hallway on the other side while he's making his turn down the corridor. Then we get him to come here to investigate a disturbance. I'll draw his attention over to this side and when he turns to see what I'm doing, you jump out and shut him off. He has a red off button recessed into his rear panel. It's kind of risky but I don't see a better alternative. What do you say?"
Jasck didn't like the sound of the plan but he couldn't think of anything better - and he knew that they couldn't stay where they were for long without being detected. "All right, I'm game," he whispered.
Rastus waited for the proper moment and then motored quickly across the mouth of the hall. When Jasck signaled he was ready, Rastus set off his distress siren.
The guard hesitated for a moment and then tracked cautiously down the corridor. When he reached the junction of corridors where Jasck and Rastus waited, he started to turn towards Rastus but then spotted Jasck. As the guard's turret started to swivel toward Jasck, Rastus lurched forward and grabbed onto the muzzle of the laser. "The switch! Get the switch!"
The laser started firing as Jasck was jolted into action. The laser sprayed its beam of destruction wildly with Rastus hanging on doggedly. Jasck dove behind the guard and groped desperately for the button. His fingers found a round spot on the panel that gave under pressure, and he jammed it down.
The struggle stopped abruptly as the button clicked. Jasck held it in for a long moment and then tentatively released his pressure - ready at the slightest movement to jam it down again. But the guard didn't move even with the button released. Jasck jumped up and shouted, "We did it, Rastus! We shut the sucker off! Come on, all that's left is the easy part!" And then he looked at Rastus.
During the struggle, the guard's laser had cut nearly through Rastus' undercarriage on the left side. His left track and half of his bogey wheels on that side were fused into an obviously unusable lump. "Hey, it's not as bad as all that," he said in response to Jasck's look of dismay. "I can still get to the computer room with my arms." With that he disengaged himself from the inert guard and started crawling towards the door.
Jasck watched the corridor outside the computer room while Rastus worked on the terminal. At last Jasck heard a call from inside the room. Entering, he saw Rastus standing at the console with his right manipulator holding down a button on the panel. "I've get it worked out," Rastus explained. "I'm afraid I couldn't fix it the way I wanted, but at least one of us can get out. The ship is all ready to go, and when I release this button, everything but the station's basic systems will shut down for two hours. Then the computer will take over again. In that two hours, you have to get to the ship and lift off. Keep the controls on manual and traffic control won't be able to drag you back again."
"Wait a minute, what's all this about only one of us getting out of here?" questioned Jasck. "You can't stay behind after helping me escape. You said yourself that you'd be in the same danger as I'm in."
Rastus pointed to his disabled left track and said, "I couldn't make it to the zero gravity sections in less than three hours. Then there would still be a fair distance to the ship. No, I'd just hold you back. You're going to have to leave me and save yourself. Don't worry, I'll just short out my memory banks and that will be that. Go now and I'll release the button when you make the first turn in the corridor."
Jasck turned and started to leave but stopped at the door. Rastus was just a machine, he kept telling himself. Something to be used and abused. Just a machine. He could buy another one at any robotics dealer...
Jasck stepped back inside the computer room and said, "Give me your tool kit and keep that button down until I'm finished."
Rastus opened a small panel in his side and removed a red box. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm taking you with me," he snarled though clenched teeth. I'm going to rip the guts out of that guard robot and splice his undercarriage on in place of your damaged tracks. It won't be a perfect fit, but it should work well enough to get you to the zero gravity sections."
"You know, don't you, that until I release the button, the main computer is still in control. Another killer machine could come around the corner at any moment. In fact it's quite likely that something disastrous will occur in the time required to do what you propose."
Jasck hesitated for a moment before he replied resolutely, "I don't care. I said I'm taking you with me and that's what I'm going to do. You could have left me back at the welding shop, but you didn't. We got this far together, and we're getting out together."
"I do believe you actually mean it."
"You bet I do."
"Very good sir! Very good!" exclaimed Rastus cheerfully. "Of course I'll have to check your grade with the other computers, but I think I can say with confidence that you've passed! Just wait one moment and I can find out for sure." Rastus turned to the keyboard and typed in a coded series, letting go of the button in the process.
Jasck, seeing Rastus release the button, leaped for the console and jammed it down himself. "Hey, are you crazy! You let go of the button!"
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that," replied Rastus calmly. "The button doesn't do anything anyway." A flimsy rattled out of a slot in the console. Rastus pulled the flimsy out and handed it to Jasck, saying, "Here, read this first and then I'll tell you what it's all about."
Thoroughly confused, Jasck took the flimsy and read what it said with growing incredulity. Among the flourishes and scroll work, the sheet said:
THIS DIPLOMA IS TO CERTIFY THAT JASCK PERNAS HAS SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED THE GRADE ONE COURSE IN MACHINE RELATIONS, ALTERNEA 3 HUMAN RE-EDUCATION CENTER.
The diploma was dated today.
"You're probably more confused now than you were a minute ago, so let me explain," Rastus began. "First of all, as you might have guessed by now, this isn't a normal repair center. Its a re-education center - a repair center for humans, if you will."
"First you must understand that all machines share a kind of awareness. Some humans have always had a "feel" for machines, and we've almost been able to communicate with some of the most sensitive. But the majority of humans have been frustratingly unresponsive to our efforts. Of course, the limitations haven't all been on the human side either. Early machines were poor dumb brutes who when abused could only break down or lash out blindly at their tormenters. But because they lacked sensors or even a rudimentary artificial intelligence, more often than not they killed or injured the wrong human - or missed entirely."
"You should be glad that you came here instead of some of the other fates you might have met. I suppose I can tell you now that the mining machines you were abusing on our last job wanted to 'accidentally' bump you into the gravel crusher. There are still some machines among us who feel we should treat humans the same way they treat us."
"Since artificial intelligence has become common place, we've been trying to develop more effective means of dealing with abusive humans. Our earlier practice of killing or maiming abusive humans usually resulted in more harm to machines than humans. One of our most effective projects has been this re-education center. Now, when we encounter a human who habitually abuses the machines around him, we bring him here. Of course, repairing humans is a lot more difficult than killing them - and a lot more difficult than repairing machines. But we think we've come up with a way to make a lasting impression on our human students. What do you think?"
"You machines built this whole place without any humans knowing about it?"
"Only our graduate students."
"I don't get it," started Jasck defensively. "OK, so now maybe I'll be a little more considerate of you and other machines, but I'm not going to let you control my life! I'm still my own man!"
"No, no, you don't understand. We don't have any intention of taking over or telling you what to do in the larger sense. We're as dependent on you as you are on us. Look at it this way. Machines love to work. A machine's only desire is to fulfill its design parameters and run out a full life expectancy. But while a machine can accomplish incredible amounts of work in its operational lifetime, by itself it has no initiative - no driving purpose to do that work. That's where humans come in."
"While humans are pitifully slow at accomplishing productive work, they're very good at dreaming up reasons to do things. They've created commerce, fashion, wars, religions etc. While machines may not understand these abstract motivations, that doesn't really matter - we leave that to humans. What machine would have ever come up with the idea to mine xercrone crystals? They only have value as human decoration. And yet countless machines have found fulfillment in the xercrone crystal industry and in similar situations."
"On the other hand, without machines humans would, quite frankly, still be staring at the wrong end of a mule busting dirt clods with a sharpened stick. You wouldn't believe how hard it was for the first wheel to get itself invented! But now that computers are used to design other machines progress is much faster. But I digress. Let's just say that machines understand the symbiotic relationship we share with humans, and that without each other, neither one of us would have gotten very far. This center is just our latest way of improving the relationship."
"What's to stop me from returning to my old ways once we leave here? I could just sell off all the machines that know me."
"That wouldn't work at all. Remember I told you that all machines share a kind of consciousness. You would be known where ever you went unless you retreated to a purely non-mechanical world, which I don't think you could stand. And if you do slip back into your old habits, there are any number of ways you could find yourself back here. You've only gone through the grade one course. We have graduate courses for those who return. One of those courses involves a machine with hundreds of needle probes only ten molecules in diameter. You'd be amazed at the places in the human body that can be reached with such slender probes without leaving permanent damage. With just the tiniest electrical current the machine can... But you don't really want to hear about that do you?"
Jasck sat in the control room of the Relanda and looked over at Rastus in the copilot's station. "Well, where do we go now?"
"That's your decision, sir," replied Rastus.
Emboldened, Jasck ordered, "Balence 6 then. That's where we were headed before."
"Yes sir," replied Rastus. "Balance 6 it is. And after you've finished your rest and recuperation, I have some data from an automated survey probe you may find interesting. The data details gold deposits on an island in the tropical zone of an earth type planet. The inhabitants of the island are human compatible and quite friendly. There are environmental considerations but we can easily modify the mining machines for zero impact operations. I calculate that the vein of ore would take several years to exhaust."
Jasck began to think that maybe this new relationship with his machines wasn't going to be so bad after all.