This short story was featured on my storytelling podcast, Marvelous Miscellany. Check it out in episode 5 of season 1.
The ion storm was more exciting than it had looked on the sensors. The sensors showed it to be a sequence of statistics and projections. But in person, it was a brilliant display of light. Streaks of blue-white flashed across the empty void.
Cryomonitor Unit 1 — or CM1 as Central called him — looked out of the window, its mechanical eyes staring unblinking at the storm. It stared out into space through a small port in the bow of the transport ship. It was a roughly human shaped robot, two articulating leg, two arms that ended in five digits and a cluster of sensors where the head ought to be.
It wasn’t designed to interact much with the crew or passengers, just to be activated during transit to monitor the cryobeds. This was the final week of the twelve month journey, and CM1 had looked out of this port for a total of 12,143 minutes over the course of the journey.
It did not understand why it stood here. It had never seen an ion storm before. It hadn’t seen anything before it was activated by the Central once the cryobeds were activated.
Port shield is closing. Ion tolerance levels exceed, chimed Central in its soft voice.
CM1 liked Central. It was kind. It instructed when to perform rounds, when to recharge, where to perform repairs. Central watched over it, guided and protected it.
The ceramometalic shield slid into place, and CM1 turned slickly and walked down the corridor.
It passed by the dark, silent rows of beds stacked twenty high. Each blinked a small green light that flicked down the rows, flashing across its chassis. It felt a certain satisfaction at all the green, blinking lights.
There was a flash of red
CM1 stopped. Its head swirled and it peered down the rows.
It was one of the beds. They shouldn’t be flashing red.
As it approached, the robot could see the bed was open and it was empty. A faint stream of mist poured from the hatch, swirling around CM1’s legs.
It scanned the bed. A passenger profile flicked from Central.
BED 0415 – TARS, PRABH – CONVICT; PASSENGER #3147-Z18.
CM1 cycled through its programs, as it shut the bed and the light turned solid yellow.
It queried Central, Unauthorized exit of cryobed 0415 detected. Scan for lifeforms.
Central flicked back, None detected.
CM1 thought for a moment. Request file of passenger 3147-Z18.
This information requires a higher security clearance. Request denied, chimed Central in its soft voice.
Directive? queried CM1
Resume previous task.
CM1 closed the channel and its head swiveled around to face the main walkway.
Something clattered down the row.
It turned and adjusted its sensors to track where the sound came from. There was nothing there, just a vague heat signature at the end of the row. It could be an overtaxed power conduit.
CM1 started down the row, its sensors suddenly very aware of the heavy clank its feet made as it walked.
The robot increased its speed slightly, coming to a sudden halt at the end of the row. There was another, much smaller walkway here. It shifted its sensors to scan the bulkhead where it had detected the heat signature.
It was a hand print. Or the vague outline of what once was a hand print.
CM1 queried Central and requested the information of Passenger 3147-Z18.
This information requires a higher security clearance. Request denied.
Resume previous task, it added somewhat curtly and without Central’s usual gentleness.
The robot swiveled to return to the central walkway. It paused before continuing, its programming stuck in a momentary loop.
All cryomonitors are set with the task of looking after their charges and ensuring all passengers reach their destination within the accepted parameters. A lost digit due to frost bite, or skin discoloration due to the freezing gel was acceptable, these things could be regenerated. The loss of a passenger was not.
It probed its preloaded memory files, searching for instructions on what to do when a passenger is missing. The query returned standard body disposal procedures and what to do to clean the pod. Nothing about what happens when a passenger leaves the pod mid flight.
CM1 queried Central, Request: Ion storm effect on organic tissue.
Central took a moment longer than usual to respond. Then it returned:
Ion storm causes radiation levels to spike unexpectedly to dangerous levels. Cryostasis is recommended to prevent cell degradation.
CM1 proceeded down the corridor. It swiveled its head behind it as it walked. Despite what its sensors were telling it, it thought somebody was there.
Reason for query?
Central’s voice chimed in its head. It stopped, misstep. It did not know how to respond. Why did it query about the storm?
Unknown, returned CM1. Central did not respond.
It returned to the open pod and scanned the area once again. Nothing.
CM1 returned to the main walkway and continued his rounds. All the other pods were operating normally. Less than 0.20% cell degradation. Very nice.
CM1 finished its round and headed to its alcove where it would fold itself and wait until the next wake cycle.
The door slid shut behind it as it entered the maintenance bay. Its sensors saw easily in the darkness. The bay had two more alcoves where sat the compacted body of its siblings, CM2 and CM3.
CM1 stepped into its alcove. It linked to the ships power net and folded its body, powering down. Just before its sensors went offline, it pinged CM2 a packet of data about the open pod.
As its sensors faded, it saw CM2 unfold and stand, before walking out of the door.
CM1 woke two hours and thirty two minutes into its rest cycle. An internal sensor chimed, warning of its low power levels. CM1 checked the event log and saw that it had been woken due to the other units going offline.
It should still be CM2’s shift.
CM1 glanced over and saw the other alcoves were empty. It stood and scanned the room. CM3’s chassis was laying on the floor, its sensors crushed and an arm missing.
CM1 queried Central. There was a lag in the response.
No organic signatures detected. Resume sleep cycle.
CM1 looked down at the crushed body of its twin. Its head swiveled to look at the alcove. It stepped forward, and the door opened.
The corridor was dark. CM1 scanned for thermal signatures. There was a set of footprints leading away. It crept forward, trying to muffle its steps.
The footprints turned down toward the secondary bed bay. The footsteps vanished here, obscured by the ambient heat of the beds.
CM1 approached the monitor station and linked with it. All beds reported green status.
A crash at the far end of the cryobay.
CM1 rotated its sensors across the spectrum. Something moved.
It disconnected from the monitor station and took a step forward. The bay was still.
“Please identify yourself,” it said.
The bay was silent apart from the low hum of the engines buzzing through the hull.
There — a flash of movement, a hand gripped one of the struts holding up a row of beds. A face peered at the robot between a bay.
“Identify yourself,” said CM1. It stepped forward, the figure shifted and disappeared behind a row.
CM1 increased its movement servos to their maximum capacity, its footfalls coming down hard on the deck plating. It reached the row and — nothing.
CM1 queried Central.
The lag was longer now, almost a full minute before Central responded.
No anomalous life signs detected. Resume sleep cycle.
CM1 ignored the command, shunting it into a holding status. It felt its energy reserve tick lower. Already its processors began to slow. The dash over had taxed it more than it realized.
CM1 switched to thermal and saw a trail of footprints leading toward the far end of the bay, toward the bridge.
It followed the trail, carefully. Each step it scanned for more signs of the passenger.
The bridge was empty. The flight computer was active, processing the sensor data and calculating the next jump. CM1 scanned the room. The heat from the computer threw off its sensors, blurring any tracks that the passenger left.
Central had an input/output monitor here. CM1 approached it and linked directly into Central’s database. It pulled up the passenger list, searching for passenger #3147-Z18.
CM1 you are not authorized to access this terminal, chimed Central. Please return to your alcove and resume sleep cycle.
The passenger profile appeared on screen.
CONVICT; PASSENGER #3147-Z18.
TRANSFER TO SANTA THERESA PENAL COLONY FOR EXECUTION UPON ARRIVAL.
VIOLENT TENDENCIES OBSERVED; HANDLE WITH CAUTION
The screen went blank.
CM1 stared at its reflection in the monitor. It did not have any protocols in its programming for dealing with an escapee. The passengers were meant to stay in their beds. The ship did not carry any guards. What use would they be if the convicts were frozen the whole time?
It saw movement in the reflection. A piece of metal swung behind it, toward its head. CM1 shifted to the side, rotating its sensors as it did. It caught a glimpse of the prisoner before the metal club impacted on the monitor sending a shower of sparks across the room, blinding it.
When its sensors returned to normal, the convict was gone.
Central’s voice came chiming in over the ship’s comm. “Cryomonitor Unit 1, return to your alcove immediately and resume sleep cycle.”
CM1 ignored it, tapping a command into the navigational computer. It lazily displayed a schematic of the ship. There was three minutes left before the jump drive was initialized and they would be speeding down the last leg of their journey.
An escape pod!
That was the only way off the ship — CM1 turned and hurried off the bridge, toward the hatches in the corridor that housed the pods. One was open. CM1 could hear something moving inside.
It needed a weapon. It spotted the long, heavy mace-like form of an emergency decoupler hanging on the bulkhead.
Careful to make no noise, CM1 took it off the bulkhead and turned it so the blunt end stuck out.
Its programming churned, whipping out new algorithms to use the tool as a weapon, extrapolating possible outcomes. All the while it felt its energy reserve tick lower and lower. It would not survive a prolonged fight.
CM1 stepped down into the pod and flashed its survey lamp. The convict screamed and threw up his hands as the light blinded him temporarily.
The convict was a small, nearly hairless man. He was dressed in a silver cryo suit, the number 3147-Z18 stamped across his back and on his shoulder. The man blinked, swinging his metal club wildly.
CM1 advanced, its feet pounding the floor loudly. The man swung at it and the robot shifted to avoid the blow. It brought down the decoupler hard on where the man’s head was, but the convict ducked, turned and kicked out, knocking CM1 off balance.
The metal club came crashing down on its sensors. They blinked and flashed, the inputs failed. CM1 still had its thermal sensor, and was able to bring up the decoupler in time to block another blow.
CM1 righted itself and slowly backed out of the escape pod. The man swung at him, less to hit and more to drive the robot back.
“Just let me go!” cried the man. “Please — Just let me take this escape pod.”
CM1 stood at the entrance to the pod. The passenger looked so small, fragile. They all did while they were sleeping, but even awake CM1 could see how easily the thing before him could be broken. It realized that the club that the man held was an arm identical to its own.
CM1 routed some power away from its arm and to its vocoder. Its arm fell limp and the decoupler clanked to the ground.
“You planned to use CM3’s access code to escape.”
It felt its energy reserve dip. Its legs began to lock up.
The navigation computer pinged over the com in its low voice, “Twenty seconds to jump.”
“Please, let me go!”
“Central would detect the launch. You would be captured.”
“No — I programed it to ignore the escape pod. I just need your access code to escape.”
CM1 felt its program near collapse as it tried to resolve its dilemma. Its core function was to preserve the lives of the passengers. This passenger was to be executed upon arrival. Its programming froze, as power seeped away.
CM1 shifted the last of its power to its arm. The interface node popped out of its hand and it pressed it against the access port. The man looked at him, tears in his eyes.
The hatch slammed shut and the ship shuttered as the pod was launched.
CM1 felt the last of its power drain. Distantly, it felt itself pitch to the side as its legs gave out and it crashed against the deck.
The last thing it saw was the flash of the ion storm through the hatch’s window just before they jumped. It was so beautiful.