Shut Down

Here’s another excerpt from my current project Origins.

The bots swung Wally’s wrapped body between them like they were moving a heavy, rolled rug. They stepped gingerly on the red rocks and sand as they moved toward the grave they had dug. Jane watched as she led the procession of the crew and Ava. She feared that his body would unwind from the canvas and fall out onto the sand.

Finally, they reached the grave. The bots tensed as if they were going to throw the body into the hole.

“Let him down gently,” Jane commanded.

The bots stopped and bent down lowering the body slowly to appease the Captain. Everyone watched them in stunned silence. Tears flooded Ava’s eyes, but she said nothing. The events leading to Wally’s death played over and over in her mind. She felt responsible in some way.

Jane sensed that she was supposed to say something, something wise and thoughtful, but nothing came to mind. She wasn’t a religious person. God had never been part of her life, and she had never learned any of the rituals that some people followed in death. Brad didn’t have a funeral. His body was never recovered and she had simply held a memorial for him so that friends and family could celebrate his life and have a hushed debate about her role in his death. She winced at these thoughts and glanced at those who stood around her. Everyone had bowed their heads in silence, so she joined them.

“Godspeed, Wally,” Frederick muttered.

They remained silent for a bit longer before antsy movement raffled through the small group. Jane ordered the bots to fill in the grave and mark it with a mound of rocks. They turned and walked back to the base in silence. Tears still streamed down Ava’s cheeks reflecting the shimmering light that glanced off her face mask, but no one noticed.

As they walked into their new home, Ava made a beeline for the sleeping quarters, while the crew sat at the terminals in the main room. Sanjay was the first to speak.

“When the bots get back, we need to shut them down.” He looked to Frederick for support.

“Okay, I need to check their software anyway,” Frederick replied as if he had planned to do it anyway.

“We’re not destroying them. We’ll store them in the back,” Jane stated emphatically.

“Who said anything about destroying them?” Frederick asked.

Jane looked at Sanjay and he wilted a little under her stare. Frederick followed her line of sight and rolled his eyes.

“You’re too paranoid,” he said to Sanjay. “We need them to help us build out the settlement.”

The hairs on Sanjay’s neck stood on edge. “We don’t need the god damned bots. You’re just stuck in our old way of living. This is a fresh start for us. Let’s not ruin it with the bots.”

Frederick looked to Jane for support. She replied as if on cue, “We’ll shut them down and store them in the back. That’s it. Nothing else.” She eyed each of the crew members before she sat down in one of the chairs and wheeled around to the screen next to her.

Both Frederick and Sanjay sighed for different reasons. Olivia said nothing. She still thought of Wally and the pitiful funeral they had just held for him. She looked around the room for Ava, but she was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Ava?” she asked.

“She went to the back,” Jane replied without looking at her co-pilot.

Olivia walked away without a word looking for Ava. She needed a kindred spirit with whom to share her feelings about Wally’s death, and she knew she could commiserate with Ava.

Sanjay, still stinging from Jane’s rebuff, asked, “Are the bots not back yet?”

Jane spun and looked at him, seriously considering the time that had passed. The bots should have finished the burial by now.

“Are the exterior cameras up?” she asked Frederick.

“Yes, but I haven’t checked them yet,” he replied.

Jane gestured to the screen next to her and a video feed popped up, but it was from a camera facing the cave. She flicked her finger to the right and another feed facing the ship appeared. Another flick revealed the scene from the stretch leading toward Wally’s grave. Neither of the bots were there. The mound of rocks on his grave were barely visible in the background.

“Did they come back and we just didn’t notice them?” Jane asked.

“We would have heard them,” Frederick said.

“Can you go check?” Jane asked.

Frederick stood up and left the control room. The void he left rendered Sanjay and Jane silent. She felt the “I told you so” stare emanating from her irritable colleague.

Frederick poked his head through the door a few minutes later. “They’re not in here. We should ask them to come back.”

“Hit the kill switch,” Sanjay suggested.

“Let’s call them first. I’d like to put them in the back if we can. If we hit the kill switch, they’ll drop wherever they are and they’re too heavy for us to drag back in here,” Jane stated.

“Suit yourself,” Sanjay retorted. He sounded like a spoiled child, and it aggravated Jane, but she ignored it.

“Bot One and Bot Two, please report to the control room,” Jane ordered. A long moment passed with no response.

“Bot One and Bot Two, can you hear me?” she asked. Frustration strained her words, but she still received no response.

“Son of a bitch…” Sanjay retorted. Jane narrowed her eyes at him as a grim look overtook her face.

“They may have turned off their comm system again,” Frederick suggested.

“No, I clearly told them not to do that,” Jane said defensively.

“They’re not listening to you or any of us. They’re more autonomous than we’ve been told,” Sanjay said. “Hit the kill switch.” A determined look bore down on Jane. She could sense something not quite right about Sanjay that bothered her, but there were more pressing matters at the moment, so she ignored her senses.

Jane looked at Frederick for support. He shrugged meekly but offered no other suggestions. Then, an idea popped in his head. “Tell them you’re hitting the kill switch if they don’t respond.”

Jane seemed to grasp onto his idea like a last-ditch effort to save face and maintain her authority in Sanjay’s eyes. His despondent, constant stare continued to unnerve her. She kept waiting to hear him boast that he was right all along.

“Bot One and Bot Two, if I don’t get a response from you now, I’m hitting the kill switch. Report your positions and return to the control room.”

A hiss whisked across the comm system, but otherwise silence greeted the tense crew in the control room.

“Hit the damn switch,” Sanjay urged after the silence became too obvious.

Jane looked at Frederick for another perspective, but he offered none. She wheeled around to the big screen beside her and made several gestures until the bot control panel filled the screen. She flicked to another screen and the red kill switches shined a bright green. She poked each of the virtual buttons and they turned red. She sighed heavily as the screen confirmed that both bots had been shut down, and then, she turned around to Sanjay and Frederick who watched with great anticipation.

“There, are you happy?” she asked Sanjay pointedly.

Her stern look did nothing to alter his mood. He didn’t smile or shake his head to affirm. He just stared at his Captain and said. “Let’s just hope it worked.”

“Of course, it worked. All worker bots have kill switches. They’re not programmed for autonomy, so you need the switch in case something goes wrong,” Frederick replied. He seemed aggravated by Sanjay’s conspiratorial behavior.

“Uh-huh,” Sanjay mumbled. Then, he stood up and left the room.

Frederick watched him leave before he moved toward the terminals and took his seat. An exasperated look washed across his face. He said nothing to Jane, but she knew how he felt. Both astronauts turned to the screens near them and examined the comm status hoping for messages or some sort of communication from the supply or transport ships that should be well on their way by now. The futility of it all had yet to dawn on them.

As Jane and Frederick worked inside the control room, a faint metallic movement could be seen from one of the cameras that was trained on the space toward Wally’s grave. Neither astronaut noticed it as they weren’t paying attention to the camera feed, but to any observer it was clear that Bot One was scurrying further away from the base taking shelter behind one of the enormous rock formations that emerged at the edge of the sandy plain upon which the base and the ship sat.

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