The Bot and the Raptor
The drop-pod decelerated with a scream, the interior heating to what Designee 456-TH77z’s techs would have referred to as ridiculous. Desi, as they called the bot, supposed their onboard sensors could easily detect the precise amount, within a tenth of a degree, but that felt like cheating. They had been to countless exosystems at this point, and while their crystalline neural web had once been pristine, over time the internal pathways had warped and grown with each new data point and catalogued item.
Desi had heard the techs once refer to this as similar to the way humans’ brains gained a wrinkle with each piece of knowledge. As for Desi, that comparison never worked, because a crystalline web can never be wrinkled, just compounded. Regardless, what they once might have found fascinating from a pure data standpoint was now mundane. Life was not lived in terms of numbers scrolling across a HUD, but in discovery and surprise.
At that thought, the floor fell out of the drop-pod, proving their point. Well, fell wasn’t the right word. It was more ripped away by wind shear, but Desi reflected now might not be the best time to split hairs with oneself when one was sucked from their mode of conveyance and plummeting toward the planet below. Was this living? The wind whistling through their ablative plating, the screaming terror of an altimeter spinning out of control? Desi didn’t know why they’d given that particular piece of equipment a voice. Probably Todd’s idea.
Still, their brain worked on the issue. Was it failure to account for the violence of repeated drops? Was it the combination of heat and time? Was it because Todd decided that Tuesday was a three-martini lunch sort of day, and so had missed at least ten percent of the bolts that held the plate on? Desi made a note in their planner app to dismember Todd later. Or at the least, scald him severely. Was that the right term? Scold? Scald?
They found it didn’t matter because at that moment, a tree arrested their fall by refusing to move.
They tumbled from branch to branch, the delicate crystalline web in their tungsten skull taking note of each impact, each sound, velocity, damage sustained, damage dealt. Blessedly, the altimeter stopped screaming. A brief flash of memory sparked on the third branch.
“BUT WHY A SKULL?” Desi had asked.
Cotton, the secondary engineer, looked at Todd. Desi’s ocular engines fired, and they focused on the thin, sweating man with an orange stripe across his bald pate. Likely some sort of snack residue.
“I SEE,” Desi replied.
“He thought it would be funny.”
Desi searched their lexicon. “TODD IS A DICK,” Desi said.
Cotton nodded. “Todd is a dick.”
Todd looked up from behind the Lexan plate in the control room and waved, a smile across his face.
“I CANNOT RETURN HIS SMILE,” Desi noted.
“Do you want to?” Cotton asked, adjusting another sensor on Desi’s chassis.
“I DO NOT.”
“Good. Fuck Todd.”
“I WOULD PREFER NOT TO.”
The sound of Cotton’s laughter ended abruptly as Desi slammed into the ground, it, like the tree, refused to move. Their systems launched into diagnostics, numbers and reports and schematics flying across their internal monitors like insects stirred from a hive. They took note of the more critical damage—namely that of a leak in the central reactor, and a crack in their crystalline web. Which would explain the random flashback.
The reactor warning still flashed red, despite being minimized, so they deactivated their ocular engines. The black was comforting. And also not. A random memory: Dropping onto Istvann III, the planet little more than a sheet of obsidian. Even the sun did not reach the surface, and so they had been required to navigate by improvised echolocation. Unfortunately, it had attracted the planet’s one fauna, a small lizard that survived on minerals and whose mating calls sounded like a series of clicks.
Cotton had spent three weeks re-machining Desi’s legs. After that, exploration protocols had changed, as had Todd’s designation in Desi’s personnel index. They didn’t know if the designers would approve of their tagging another living organism as a ‘dickhead’, but they weren’t around, were they?
Something landed on their chassis. A scrape of organic material on Desi’s composite frame. An impact. Sensors whirred again, taking measurements. Always with the measurements. Desi had once told Cotton they thought nothing in the world could be measured without at least experiencing it. Cotton had looked at them for some time, then went back to rewiring a tactile sensor.
Another impact, tools still measuring. The reactor window maximized, screaming about danger levels. Desi sighed—or rather made a sound like a modem shitting into a speaker—and cut all but necessary sensors. They wondered if a distress beacon would send the reactor critical. Surely not. A little radio signal. A little ping. Ping. Kaboom. They thought Todd would surely be canned for that.
Exploded our robot, did you, Todd? Dropped it from orbit and cratered half a continent, did you, Todd? Obliterated all life on a burgeoning world, did you, Todd? Well, you’re fired. And no retirement, to boot.
The sound came again, the impact rattling a loose array in Desi’s chassis. They sighed once more mentally and restarted their ocular engines. The world snapped into sharp focus. The tapping came again, and they swiveled their head to the side, catching sight of the culprit. A small feathered animal, skinny scaled legs, sharp beak, black plumage. Desi’s catalog fired on its own accord, and they were treated with a name: crow.
Warnings screamed at the catalog’s use.
Great. Killed by an encyclopedia.
They disabled the process and shut down another cluster of sensors, leaving only sight open. The… crow/bird/raptor… still strutted up and down their chassis. Desi took stock of the remaining damage, for something to do, if nothing else. A quick visual inspection indicated that they were well and truly fucked without that beacon. For a moment, they wondered when the term ‘fucked’ had entered their lexicon. Unfortunately, without access to deeper database resources, the question would remain a mystery, like how three peanuts fit in two peanut a shell, or why USB connectors needed to be flipped twice in order to correctly work.
The crow hopped along Desi’s tungsten and adamantite exocoat, the delicate talons leaving fine scratches in the sections that hadn’t been already smashed to rumpled foil by the impact. Desi suppressed yet another sigh and scanned the bird. A scavenger, they were said to be intelligent, if mischievous. Considering Desi’s encounters with Todd in the past, one out of two wasn’t bad. Again, the reactor screen maximized, flashing yellow this time. Had they lungs, Desi would have blown a long breath of relief.
Instead, they accessed their beacon controls, forcing quick calculations through a subsection of their crystalline mental structure. The reactor readout began to climb upward again. Desi configured the distress signal into a tight beam, aiming at the nearest relay. They figured with a quick burst every fifteen minutes, someone would be sure to hear and come find them. And if not, with careful conservation of resources, they might be able to wait out the next millennia.
Another flash of memory. Desi on a workbench, legs disconnected, head nearby. Cotton’s head was inside their chassis, his voice echoing from the metal chamber.
“No, no, you’re got it all wrong. You take off their hats. Because they’re too tall.”
“Why is that funny?” Desi asked.
“Because Popes never take off their hats. Or ride in taxis.” His answer was punctuated by the whirr of a sonic screwdriver.
“I fail to make the necessary connections.”
“You will, eventually. Humor is a learned response. Not even infants understand humor from the womb.”
“True. But I was designed with an Axillion Crystalline Neural Web. At one millisecond of consciousness, I could easily calculate the trajectory of every object in orbit within several solar miles.”
Cotton poked his head out, giving Desi a grin. “Yeah, but can you calculate why kids love toasted cinnamon squares?”
“I do not understand. Even if I have a thousand year—”
The memory cut off at the shriek of metal being torn from its moorings. Desi focused their ocular engines on the source of the noise—the crow ripping off a battered access panel. The bird was surprisingly strong.
“DO NOT,” Desi broadcast.
Panic echoed in their voice, which was surprising to the bot. They hadn’t been programmed with emotion, and yet… the reactor warning flashed critical red again, and Desi adjusted the volume meter, bringing the tone below stentorian god.
“Please don’t,” Desi pleaded.
The bird ignored them and tossed the plate to the side. It landed with a clatter nearby, and a new set of warnings fired from within the depths of Desi’s crystalline web. The crow dipped its head into the workings of the panel.
“That isn’t the best idea. Very delicate equipment, you understand—“ Desi’s sentence ended with a ZZZZRP, and their web fired into a new memory.
“What is this?” Desi asked.
Cotton finished chewing his sandwich and inspected the item Desi held.
“That is a turd,” he said.
“What is its purpose?”
“To amuse Todd, I suspect.”
Todd snickered from behind them.
“What should I do with it?”
“Catalogue, then return it.”
The memory cut off with another ZZRRPP as the bird’s head reappeared from within the panel. It held a bright cluster of wires in its beak.
“Oh good. I believe that’s my reasoning cluster,” Desi said. “Or it’s a tomato. I am unsure.”
The bird’s head dropped again.
“FART SHITKNUCKLE DOG DOG DOG REAP THE CHEESE DANISH.”
Well, that had been their speech buffer. Warnings screamed on internal monitors. With a finality they didn’t quite understand, Desi initiated shutdown protocol. Internal systems clicked off, lights dying, darkening a once bright room. Desi reserved sight for the last, watching as the bird’s head emerged one more time, a small knot of crystals in its beak.
“FUCK FUCK CODE FUCK I THINK THAT WAS MY PRIMARY REACTOR BUFFUCK.”
The bird flapped off. Warnings blared and screamed and flashed, a cacophony of nerves dying. Desi terminated their ocular engines. Internally, a white light, a feeling of lightness, of being transported. Is this what death is like, they wondered. They never felt the detonation that incinerated the planet.
Todd sat with his feet on the primary monitoring console. It blipped once, a red dot on a starfield.
“Hey, Cotton. We got anything in the Sirius system?”
Cotton came to stand at his side. Stared at the monitor for a minute.
“Yeah.” Weight filled his voice. “Desi.”
“Ah, that hunk of shit?”
Cotton glared at him, opened his mouth to reply. A ding from the primary console interrupted him, and he leaned over Todd, fingers flying over the inputs.
“What is it?” Todd asked, trying to see over his shoulder.
“Desi. Managed to upload their primary processing consciousness to the panel.”
“You mean that thing is infesting our systems?”
“Sure. Oh, they say they have something for you. Check the transfer box.”
Todd spun his chair to a large cabinet beside the console. It held a variety of items, from unprocessed exoplanetary artifacts to broken and spare parts. A drawer at chest height chimed and popped open.
“God damn it!” Todd shouted, and stomped off, red as a beet.
Cotton stepped over, peering into the drawer. Inside was a perfectly preserved piece of feces. He snorted, then guffawed, then fell into great stomach-shaking gales of laughter. He’d always known Desi was a quick study.