Into the Silence – Chapter 48

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, the shadow will rise at five o’clock; tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“What does it mean?” said Cap, peering out of his bubble at Tic-Toc’s boxy frame as the little robot repeated the phrase over, and over, and over again. We had called for the captain as soon as we found the bot — or, rather, as soon as the bot had found us in the morgue. Neither Gator nor I had really moved since Tic-Toc had arrived, and now we stood beside Cap trying to make sense of the annoyingly cryptic message.

“No idea,” I said. “He hasn’t said a word different since he got here.”

“I don’t think he even properly recognizes where he is,” said Gator.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“Clearly,” said Cap, sweeping his gaze over the robot again. “What should we do with him?”

“I could take him to the engineering bay and examine him,” said Gator. “Perhaps there’s a fault in his programming.”

“Or maybe there’s a screw loose,” I added.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

We all three stared at the bot, rocking back and forth on its heels — or the equivalent thereof. It really was a mystery. All day long, nothing. Then, all of a sudden, as soon as we’ve finished prepping Chief for burial, wham. Tic-Toc shows up. And loopier than a corkscrew at that.

“Well, there’s certainly no good in keeping him down here,” said Cap.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“Agreed, sir,” said Gator. “Shall I begin the examination?”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock….”

“Might as well,” said Cap. “He seems to be getting worse.”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“I’ll have hatchling assist me, unless you need him for something else.”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“No, no. That’ll be fine. Though you should have him send some food up in a few hours. Sys and Mearr will need more sustenance to aid their recovery.”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

“Of course,” said Gator. Then he gathered the robot up in his arms and jerked his head at me to follow.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock….”

***

The engineering bay had been Em’s domain, and as such off-limits to most everyone else. If the engines themselves were her children, this was her nest. And everyone knew to stay away from a momma-bear’s nest.

But with Em gone, and more than one item on the ship needing maintenance, the tools were no longer off-limits, and we had all had reason to enter the bay more than once or twice. Over the course of the weeks, a small shrine had built up in the corner, where we had each left some token of remembrance — a busted power coupling, a worn pair of overalls, a tool belt that was too big for anyone but Em.

Again, I felt a slight choking in my chest as I noticed the pile of scrap in the corner, but it didn’t affect me as much as before, having been down here already. I knew what to expect.

Gator set the boxy robot on one of the work benches, a broad table that looked like it had been cobbled together from stepladders and wooden brace-beams, of all things. Tic-Toc hadn’t shut up about the shadow and the clock and the rest of his litany during the time it took us to get down here, but I had managed to tune it out so that it was little more than background noise at this point.

With tools at hand and the robot in place, Gator set to work disassembling its frame. I stood by, waiting for Gator to ask for some tool or another. My experience working with Em — and, on occasion, Gator — gave me enough familiarity with the tools in the toolbox to help out with some of the basic stuff, but there were entire mechanisms lining the walls and shelves and tables down here that I couldn’t recognize or even fathom a guess as to what they’d be for. All the same, I did my best to figure out what Gator needed before he asked. Usually unsuccessfully.

“Well, this is frustrating,” said Gator after he handed me back a set of pliers and a modular screwdriver for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him that I can see. It’s like the little bot really has just snapped. Lost in the silence.”

“Is that possible?” I didn’t know much about robots. To me, they were little more than glorified machines, even though I’d read dozens of books — both fiction and non — about sentient machines in one form or another.

“Well, perhaps,” said Gator. “Or else there’s far more skilled tampering going on here than I can deal with.”

“Which would be bad,” I said tentatively.

“Absolutely. It also means you’re even more likely a candidate for being the killer. Congratulations.”

“The hell for?” I said, flinching away from Gator as though he had tried to lash out at me. “How do you figure that?”

“Well, I figure I’ve been with Guhle and the captain long enough to know that they couldn’t hide anything like this from me. Unless one of them’s been taking high-level, experimental programming courses on a correspondence basis, that is.”

I was speechless. Either Gator was thinking this through far too carefully, or he had a sense of humor. And an overly technical one at that. Either way, I didn’t know how to respond.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…” The little bot’s voice filled the silence.

“Relax,” said Gator at last, reaching for the tools he had just handed me. “It may make you more likely in theory, but I doesn’t mean I expect it to be you in practice. Whatever this is, I’m guessing it has little to do with programming. At least, not the kind you’d pick up wherever you came from.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Like I said, experimental, possibly. Not your standard stuff and therefore not the kind of thing I’d expect them to teach a special forces grunt.”

I snorted derision. Though whether it was at Gator’s disrespect for my former life or my own, I didn’t know.

“So where does that leave us?”

“More perplexed than before,” said Gator, screwing in the final screw to fasten up Tic-Toc’s frame. “We find the bot, but he proves an enigma as well. No close to determining who killed Chief. And now we’re out of solid leads, so we might even have taken a step backwards.”

I sighed and sank down onto a stepladder nearby. “Well, that sucks.”

Gator nodded. “Weren’t you supposed to take some food up to the medical bay?”

“Shit, you’re right. I forgot. What time is it?”

“Time enough for you to get up there if you move fast.”

“Got it, I’ll pop up with the food and be back to help you finish up here.”

“No need,” came a voice nearby. I looked up and found one of the Farseer Sentinels standing at the entrance of the Engineering bay, steel cords ready around his gauntlet. “He’s coming too.”

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