“Mr. Speaker, let me be clear; these are not automatons that simulate intelligence. These are Capeks. As sentient as you or I but unlimited in both form and function. Once we leave, will they miss us? Perhaps. The more important question however is when we return; will they take us back?”
– Excerpt from Dr. Adelaïde Beaufort’s requisition address at the Exodus Exclusion Sub-Committee hearing.
“That’s a lot of asteroids.”
With the soft whirring of servos in his neck, Máni turned his oblong head to look through the cockpit. The ship had exited the wormhole a long way from any star, bringing with it the only source of illumination for several light years. Beyond the transparent pseudo-plastic canopy lay only darkness, occasionally punctuated by the pinprick shimmering of a distant sun.
He leaned in closer, as if the few inches gained would make more of a difference in perceiving objects thousands of miles in the distance than the advanced optical sensors that served as his eyes. Some reflexes are just that deeply ingrained in the programming.
“Where do you see asteroids?” he finally inquired, unsure what his companion had been referring to.
“Well, you can’t simply ‘see’ them. They’re hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers apart. It’s when you look at the entire area that you notice how tight the population is.”
Demeter unfolded her legs to better push herself around the cabin. Her appearance was graceful but unsettling to those who weren’t used to the myriad forms people took these days. At a glance, she looked like two mechanical crabs attached back-to-back. Twelve black legs with shining white pseudo-plastic plating allowed the robot to maneuver herself in microgravity with perfect fluidity of movement. Like a dancer, she would gently push off one wall, tumbling to the next with elegant pirouettes. Carefully, she approached Máni and willed the cockpit’s display to show a much larger area of local space.
“See? Usually you’d have at most three or four celestial bodies in this kind of an area, even in so-called asteroid belts. There has to be hundreds here! Scale is one of those things that takes the longest to get used to when traveling in space.”
Indeed, the display was now populated by a crowd of tags, each pointing at an invisible dot that represented an asteroid in the distance. Each of these tags was marked with a number, identifying its subject along with a short list of valuable information such as size, distance, coordinates and speed.
All that information was displayed in a soothing blue color over the velvet black of the void; all but one piece of it. A single electronic label jumped out of the crowd, glowing a bright lime green and displaying a much longer litany of data. Among the letters and numbers was a transponder code and in that was quoted a name: Spear of Athena.
“Is that it?” Máni asked, pointing his finger to the green label. Unlike his mentor, his was a humanoid design: four limbs and a head with five digits on each hand, imitating the form and function of his biological architects.
“That’s it!” answered Demeter with excitement. She then half floated, half crawled to a nearby control panel, though by the time she had reached it, the ship, sensing her will, had already begun to accelerate towards the intended target. “This should be interesting.”
“You do this sort of thing often?”
“Exploration? More or less. I like to see new things when someone gives me a good lead though.”
“No, I mean, taking people like me along for the ride.”
Demeter raised her many-eyed head from the console. She took a few moments to roll the question around her mind again. Her job wasn’t exactly babysitting newly built individuals but she did tend to be asked to do it a lot. Traditionally, when a Capek, she and Máni’s race of robots, was born, the progenitor installation sent out a call to the nearest volunteer capable of space travel in order to find someone that might help the freshly constructed robot on its way.
In her three centuries of existence, Demeter had never refused such a call.
“Well, just like space is vast, so is time. I’ve fostered twelve other Capeks like you in the past two hundred and seventy eight years. That’s about one such adventure every quarter of a century which might not sound like much, but I believe no one else has done even half as many.”
Máni looked towards his multi-limbed mentor, his head cocked, admiring Demeter’s selfless devotion to others of her kind.
“So I’m in good hands?” He said, a smile in his voice.
“Well…” Demeter snapped the claws at the tip of two of her legs alternatively. “You’re in good something.”
The ship approached their target a few hours later. What was at one point an abstract set of coordinates on a screen had grown to become an immense artificial structure. Amongst the vast field of floating rocks and ice, the single man-made creation stood apart. Smaller than most everything else in the vicinity but still enormous by the standards of ships and space stations, it loomed large in the cockpit screen. Most interestingly, despite its obvious age, an intermittent light still flashed a red pulse above what looked to be a bridge.
The structure itself was almost four kilometers in length. Most of it was a series of complex, gargantuan girders and support beams that formed what looked like a cross between the barrel of very primitive gun and the tracks of a very advanced railway. The only enclosed portion of the structure was a large, box-shaped section at what seemed to be the front. Scans and schematic extrapolation suggested that there were all manner of hangar doors and thin, slit portholes that allowed a view of the rest of the ship from within.
“What is that thing?” Máni asked, once more pushing his face to the canopy in a futile attempt to get a better look. Demeter’s ship, detecting the movement, enlarged the image accordingly.
“That’s what we’re here to find out. Remember Janus? Big guy. Lots of arms. He found information on this installation in old survey data. Thought this might be up our alley. At first glance though, I’d say it’s probably a mass driver.”
The ship maneuvered closer to the structure, setting up position right next to one of the hangar doors. Floodlights from the vessel illuminated the colossal creation, revealing a surface pockmarked and damaged by decades, maybe even centuries of impacts from micro-asteroids. Any markings the vessel might have had were now reduced to a moonscape of miniature craters and bumps.
The well-worn surface, hard angles and utilitarian forms of the giant machine contrasted with the sleek and refined design of Demeter’s ship. It might has well have been a crudely carved stone tool next to a finely crafted marble sculpture, and in many ways, that’s exactly what it was.
“Who do you think built it?” Máni asked, fascinated by the sight.
“Humans, I suspect.” Demeter answered while making her way towards the side door of the ship. As she danced, weightless through the vacuum, she instructed her ship to adopt a self-navigating attitude. The lesser artificial intelligence of the craft understood that to mean ‘stay put but adapt to the situation should it evolve’. Something the non-sentient vessel could do very well.
“Really? So why are we here? Are there people who collect old, useless artifacts?”
“We’re here because you wanted to explore. Besides, I wouldn’t call it ‘useless’. If it’s indeed a mass driver, I can think of half a dozen uses we could make of it. Aren’t you the least bit curious what an old, human machine might be like?”
“I am, I just assumed we had that information in some archive somewhere. And can’t we make our own, better mass driver if we need one?”
Demeter considered the question carefully. Máni was new to being a Capek and if she remembered her own awakening to this vast new world, it must have seemed to him like everything Capeks made was better and should replace whatever else the galaxy had to offer. In many instances, that was indeed the case, but that was ignoring the issue of practicality.
“I guess we could, but who’s going to build it? You?”
“I’m not exactly a builder, but aren’t there others who are?”
“Of course. That’s how we got things like the astropolis and this very ship, but someone has to want to do it. That’s the best thing about being a Capek; true freedom. If someone wanted to build a new mass driver, they’d have done it. This is more a find of opportunity. It’s there and, should it still be functional, we might as well use it.”
Máni shrugged. Not so much out of disinterest but rather resignation. What did he know of such things?
“Not to mention, to build one of these things you’d need a lot of raw matter and the best way to get said materials is with another mass driver. Now… do you want to go have a look or would you rather chit-chat?”
The humanoid robot pushed himself from his seat and floated clumsily towards his mentor. The door to the exterior was open. There was no wind. There was no sound. There was no air. The ship had matched the structure’s vector and velocity perfectly like a flawless dancer following a lead. Illuminated by the ships light, a few dozen feet across a bridge of nothing, was an ancient and weathered hangar door. So still, it might has well have been a painting.
Agile and fearless, Demeter launched herself into the void, floating, legs extending and retracting to control her rotation and attitude. Within a few moments, she was grabbing on to the handholds around the door, motioning for her companion to follow.
Máni wasn’t as used to this kind of maneuver. It wouldn’t take much; a miscalculated movement or failing to grab onto his target, and he would bounce off into the black emptiness of space. Obviously, Demeter would come and get him in the ship, but how embarrassing would that be?
Thankfully, as an artificial construct, there were so many failsafes and sub-systems embedded in his ‘brain’ that from the moment his intent to jump became clear, navigation sub-routines had already calculated all the important details of how to accomplish the jump safely. Being built on a very standard, humanoid frame, he couldn’t perform any of the gracefully mesmerizing acrobatics Demeter constantly indulged in, but his transfer from one ship to the other occured without incident.
“Alright. See this thing here?” Demeter tapped on a metal plate roughly four inches wide and six inches tall that protruded from the side of the hangar door. “I don’t know how far into the electromagnetic spectrum you can see, but it’s emitting a close proximity communication field. It’s not very advanced and it’s not meant for security. Humans never really had to worry about unwelcome visitors. So you should be able to trick the receiver into accepting a code and opening the hangar door.”
“So what? I just-”
“Hold your hand close to it and transmit batches of codes until one of them works. Don’t do it yourself, just set up an automation to do it for you so it goes by faster.”
Another joy of being a Capek; being able to customize one’s own ‘brain’ to accomplish automated tasks in the background.
“Why do you do it, though?” Máni waved his hand frantically over the sensor, waiting for a code to match and the door to open.
“Do what? Babysit new Capeks?” Demeter reached out, immobilizing her ward’s hand near the sensor. “You don’t need to move like that. I do it because I’m jealous.”
An ancient light source embedded in the frame of the door, yellow in color, blossomed back to life for what must have been the first time in over a century, signifying that a code had been accepted. Sixteen smaller lights forming a circle around the first one also flickered on, one at a time in a clockwise order. When the last one finally lit up, the original light in the middle turned green.
Without a sound, the hatch split horizontally across the middle, each half slowly sliding away from the other, revealing the brightly lit interior of the strange structure. The door was large, giving the two robots plenty of room to maneuver inside and lighting Demeter’s ship in vivid contrast. Again, the difference in design and architecture, between the very old human-made ship and the newer, robot-built vessel, was jarring. One might as well have been created by an alien species.
“Whoa…” Máni ignited a pair of small thrusters at the back of his shoulders to push himself through the threshold. “This place is like new.”
Part overstatement, part truth, it remained a somewhat apt descriptor considering the vessel’s exterior appearance. Where the outer hull was rough and damaged, the interior barely had any dust covering the surfaces in the hangar, or the space suits neatly arranged on specialized hooks, or the EVA gear, or anything else. There was some wear and tear but otherwise the ship might have been deserted an hour earlier and it would have been no different.
“Well, that settles it.” Demeter remarked, making her own way into the hangar, swimming through the vacuum, a fish putting on a show. “Definitely a mass driver.”
“Why did you say that?”
“Well, this place is stuffed with survey equipment and you see these tubes there? Those were used to collect samples. This ship probably surveyed the local asteroids, launching the suitable ones through the very same wormhole we used to get here.” She punctuated her explanation by touching down on a crate and carefully picking up one of the sample tubes to inspect it.
“No, I mean; why did you say you’re jealous?”
“Mmh… Do you have any memories from your previous ‘lives’?”
Máni stopped for a moment. ‘Previous lives’. His existence before he was poured into this body he now inhabited. He did recall a few things. No details or images but feelings and impression, an emotional template that echoed through him whenever he tried to think back on the past. In fact, for the few days before Demeter picked him up from the moon where he was manufactured, those psychological anchors had been all that kept him sane while he adjusted to this strange new world. The galaxy had been laid open before him, yet all he could do during that time was latch on to the fleeting remnants of whatever humanity he might have once possessed.
“Not exactly. A stray thought here and there. Sometimes I’ll get déjà vu about my own ideas, but I can never really get a firm grip on any of it.”
“Right, that’s how it is for most people. We get these… thoughts that feel familiar but alien, right? And you try to get a better look at them and understand where they’re from, but they always escape. Well, have you ever wondered what would happen if you’d catch one of these thoughts?”
Of course he had, but it hadn’t been a concern, especially since embarking with Demeter to begin learning about his new life. The majesty of the stars, the miracle of space travel, the impossible shapes and purposes of his fellow Capeks. They had all been sufficient distractions that kept introspection at bay. Not knowing what to say, Máni settled for a shrug.
“It’s not as spectacular as you might expect, but you do learn some… things.”
“And you discovered that you liked imparting your vast wisdom and experience onto the freshly minted robots of the galaxy.”
“Yeah. I guess. Something like that.” Demeter answered after a pause.
The two robots wandered the hangar for a few more minutes, picking up whatever objects lay about to identify and inspect. The sample tubes proved very simple and boring. Whatever was supposed to power the rest of the survey equipment had been depleted a long time ago. The space suits were the most curious. They were held to the wall by hooks that reached under the limp apparel’s arms and gave the impression of a dozen deflated humans hung up as decoration.
“Well, this stopped being exciting pretty fast. What now?” Máni asked, while fiddling with a large cylindrical container, in an attempt to pry it open.
“We should survey the rest of the ship; maybe inventory some of the resources on board. Then we can hand it off to someone better equipped to bring this thing back online.”
“Who would be stupid enough to want to do that?”
“I know a guy. Hey! Do you want to see if the mass driver still works?”
“Is that something we can do?” Máni asked, giving one final twist to strange canister.
“What?” was all he had time to ask.
The resulting explosion annihilated the content of the hangar. The concussive blast alone would have been enough to destroy most of the equipment; shattering the helmets of the space suits and laying waste to the survey gear. The conflagration that accompanied the blast did an even more thorough job, tearing metal to shreds and disintegrating anything made of plastic or fabric.
Capeks don’t lose consciousness. The robots experience cataclysmic events without pause and enhanced senses allow for every detail to come through in perfect clarity. Sub-systems even isolate relevant information in real time.
Before the blast, Máni could see Demeter leaping desperately in his direction. As the canister blew apart in his hand, she knocked him back from the epicenter of destruction he had unleashed, protecting him from the worst of the explosion.
Numbers and data flew in front of the scene with warning signals erupting all around his peripheral vision. The speed of every object flying around him flooded his field of view along with the temperature in the room as it flared to thousands of degrees and immediately died down once again. Despite the chaos, this data was methodically laid out for him to analyze.
Of course, who had time for that? In the presence of enough gravity, an explosion is a rather short affair. The blast propels everything away from it. Objects and victims bounce around but inevitably end up on the ground, stopped by a combination of gravity and friction. In the hangar however, gravity was in short supply.
The robots bounced around from one wall to the other, impacting other items that had been transformed into projectiles and shrapnel. The bulkheads refused to give in, providing only surfaces on which to crash. Fortunately, the oxygen in the hangar was consumed in an instant by the conflagration, suffocating the fire in a short flare.
Minutes passed as Máni tried to latch onto something, anything, and stop himself from more collisions with the walls, floor, and whatever objects ended up in his path. He flailed like a windmill, arms and legs struggling to find purchase onto something. A moment of panic seized him. His right arm, the one that had been holding the canister, was gone. The complex laminated alloy that made up the pseudo-plastic shell of his appendage had been ripped and scorched like vulgar paper, taking the delicate motors, servos and artificial muscle underneath with it. Primitive reflexes bubbled to the surface of his psyche demanding that he pass out or vomit from the shock, but his body no longer offered such luxuries.
What would Demeter do?
Taking a second to center his thoughts, Máni focused and calmed down. His mentor wouldn’t lose her cool and neither would he.
Finally, after too long, the twisted remains of a guardrail came in range of his grip. Grabbing it with his intact hand, his attention switched to looking for Demeter.
Where Máni expected- no, hoped he would find his friend and mentor dancing gracefully amongst the debris, instead he saw her motionless body being tossed around with the rest of the broken cargo. Concentrating, the humanoid robot took all the input from his various senses, parsing out the debris that was too small to be a problem and calculating the trajectory of the rest to plot a course through the maelstrom of free-flying objects and retrieve Demeter.
Much like an athlete trusting to his muscle memory, Máni gave himself to the navigation system and protocols embedded inside his mind, guiding the spring in his legs and the timing of his jump. As he travelled through the burnt out air, smaller pieces of shrapnel bounced off of his carapace harmlessly while he passed well out of the way of larger pieces spinning through the hangar.
As predicted by his calculations, he collided with Demeter’s limp body, using the momentum to spin himself in the air. Grabbing her with his one good arm he kicked off the far wall to float right back to his point of origin. He secured his friend with his damaged arm while holding on to the same piece of broken guardrail he had first caught to stop his own careening about.
“Demeter?” No response. The damage to her body appeared substantial. The pseudo-plastic shell on her back, a protective layer that should have been nearly indestructible, had been ripped apart, exposing and shredding the interior of her body. Tightly packed and efficiently laid out networks of servos, computer arrays and myriad essential systems had been all but destroyed. Even the small fusion reactor that was designed to keep her alive for centuries was fractured. Leaking small plumes of coolant vapor, the power plant was likely performing an autonomic shutdown.
“Demeter?” He asked again, broadcasting on all the channels he had access to, desperate for some kind of reaction.
Taking another long look at the wound on his mentor’s back, he tried to identify all the pieces that were still intact. Onboard databases of information assisted him as he queried them automatically. The inventory didn’t take long. There wasn’t much left. A lot of motors and servos were still fully functional, meaning her limbs could move if they were still connected to a functional brain. The controllers that bridged limb and mind however had not survived the explosion, which had also obliterated the optic sensors on her back. After this catastrophic diagnostic, Máni was pleased to find two things that still seemed functional: The cognitive array and communication systems. Her mind and voice.
“Demeter?” He queried once more, confident this time that there should be someone there to hear him.
“Máni? Are you okay Máni? Are you safe? What’s going on?” her voice sounded panicky. Frantic.
“I’m fine. Lost a hand but… you saved me. I thought we were supposed to be damn near invulnerable?”
“Survey charge.” she answered through static on the common channel. “We are almost invulnerable, but that thing was designed to crack open an asteroid. We’re not indestructible.
“What about you? Are you sure that you’re okay? Did you run a diagnostic?”
He hadn’t and he was tempted to lie and pretend he had, but he assumed she’d somehow know. The diagnostic took a handful of seconds. The damage report was thorough. It tested everything from the software that governed his movement and senses to the motors and controllers that turned his will into action. The only thing that couldn’t be verified, by its very nature, was the cognitive core housing his personality. Either it worked, or it didn’t. Everything apart from his arm and a few other motor functions came back green. As far as the important things were concerned, he might as well have been intact.
“Just did. I’m fine. I’ll have Yggdrasil repair my arm. I’ll be good as new, but you…” He paused as his optic sensors scanned his damaged mentor once more.”You don’t look so good.”
Máni had wanted her to twitch or give some sign of life, but her body remained motionless. Only her voice coming through the channel gave any hint that there was still someone in there. Unless of course he was talking to himself, a possibility he had taken into consideration.
“I can’t get a full diagnostic. It says everything is damaged.” the voice confirmed, as a tremor of fear shook it.
“It kind of is. Power plant is shutting down and there’s a hole the size of my head in your back. What happens if the fusion reaction dies out?”
“I’ll have a few hours or days but after that the cycles that make up my personality are going to start deteriorating in a chain reaction.”
“We’re not supposed to die.” His words were flat, cold with fear and broken certainty.
“We’re named after gods, but we’re not immortal.”
Upon hearing those words, Máni didn’t waste another moment. Keeping his grip on the damaged Capek, he began making his way towards the hatch from which they’d come. The electronic controls to open and close the hangar door were destroyed, damaged either by the concussive blast of the explosion or debris hitting it shortly after. It took Máni a few moments to figure out how to manually override all the safety protocols and get the door open. Every wave of panic he would push back by reminding himself: What would Demeter do?
The scorched air was quickly pumped out and the opening sequence engaged. The mechanism struggled like an ailing beast, the blast having deformed the surface of the door slightly.
As soon as the opening was large enough, Máni pushed through the gap. Forgetting any previous hesitation, he bridged the gap between the hangar he desperately wanted to escape and the ship that could be Demeter’s salvation. The hatch to her vessel had remained open. With no atmosphere to keep pressurized and surely no one to steal her craft, there was little point in securing access to it.
Pulling the motionless carcass of his friend in tow, the robot scrambled to the cockpit and controls, frantically scanning his databanks for the best place to take Demeter.
Demeter’s voice had come over the channel. Weak. Almost a whisper.
“Keep your energy. Shut down if you have to. I’m going to take you to… huh… where do we go?”
“It’s what I wanted in most of my previous lives. Children. But I don’t think I ever had any. When I was put in this body, I was told that I had the whole galaxy as my playground. I could do anything I wanted.”
“I need to know where to go…”
In an attempt to stave off the fear, Máni bent over his friend’s remains, trying to assess the status of the fusion reactor. The small but powerful device was hard to read but judging by the level of activity along with its signature on infrared, it didn’t look good.
“That was a lie though,” she continued. “or maybe an omission. I don’t think anyone meant to mislead me. Anyways. I can’t do everything I want.”
“Shh… You’re the one who wanted to know. This is why I enjoy this. That’s why I’m always first in line to guide you kids along when you’re first hatched. I enjoy the responsibility, the duty, the sacrifice. I think, in a way, many of us do. The gene splicers birth whole species. The planet wardens nurture their ecosystems…”
She fell quiet after that. Máni hadn’t realized how quiet space was until that moment. From the day he’d been brought online up until this very point in time, there had always been someone in his ear. Yggdrasil, his maker, then Demeter, the dozens of Capeks they’d met on their short journey together. Always a voice keeping him company.
“WHERE DO WE GO?!” he screamed back at her.
It takes a lot to kill a Capek, he thought. His body could be fixed. It was doubtful that Demeter’s could, but if he could save the mind…
What would Demeter do?
The driving question was no longer relevant. The mentor was gone along with whatever resources of knowledge and experience she might have imparted.
“What can I do?” He asked aloud, expecting no reply.
His voice echoed back to him with a strange intonation. The sound of confidence, born of necessity, mingled with his question.
“There’s a Capek you introduced me to.” Máni looked down at his fallen mentor. “He can help or he’ll know someone who can. You just conserve your energy.”
Máni stared at the husk. It had no further comment for him. No opinion to share or guidance to offer. The fusion reactor was now completely inert. What had, less than an hour ago, been his friend, mentor and guide to the galaxy was now nothing more than a vestige. An object. She wouldn’t decompose, or bloat or rot. She’d remain in this condition forever if untouched. He wanted to crouch over the ship’s controls but there was no point; it already knew where to go. Nothing would distract him from his thoughts until he reached his destination. He and the empty cadaver were alone, and until then he wouldn’t know whether she was conserving energy to survive or simply well passed that point.