"You'll have nothing to do," Susan Calvin had said at the briefing. "Think of it as a pleasure cruise." And she hadn't smiled, exactly, Mike Donovan wasn't sure her face even knew how to move that way, but there had been a playful note in her dry voice.
Whatever sweat-raising premonitions had come upon him when he heard her words -- and they had been dark and dreadful -- they had been inadequate to the point of hilarity. Given an adequate understanding of what awaited him, Donovan would have quit on the spot, fat pay check be damned.
At least, he liked to think so. He suspected that if push had come to shove, he could not have abandoned Gregory Powell to face the future alone, or with some inexperienced stranger as his only support. It was not a matter of principle, but of simple jealousy.
"We're gaining on the beast, shipmates," came the tinny voice of robot HW-3, made tinnier still by the shipboard intercom. Powell and Donovan, huddled in the ship's rat hole of a galley, didn't look up. The viewing plate would only show what it had shown for most of the day ― the sun, inexorably growing nearer, and the dirty white glister of a comet's tail streaking just out of reach.
Donovan sipped at a full mug of coffee. "It's cold," he said, with a touch of dull surprise.
"You've been looking for the meaning of life in it for the last hour," said Powell, and turned to address one of the metal columns behind him. "Coffee. Black. Four sugars." He waited until the simple-minded machine that had been their dearest friend over the last few days disgorged a fresh mug. He picked it up and slammed it in front of Donovan, just hard enough for a few drops to slosh out onto the table.
Donovan drained half the mug in a few seconds. Wincing, he set it down and looked up at Powell with paralyzing searchlight earnestness. "You're very good to me, Greg," he said.
"Shut up," said Powell, and placed his hand over Donovan's on the table.
"We're really going to die this time."
"I told you to shut up."
"We could make a last heroic stand."
Powell ignored him.
Donovan dragged a clenched fist through his unruly hair. "Howie's not in his right mind,” he said. “It might even work.”
“No, Mike,” said Powell. “It won’t work.”
Donovan’s shoulders slumped, and he heaved a sharp sigh. Looking down at the table, he turned his hand to grasp Powell’s. “No,” he agreed, “it won’t.”
The HW line, familiarly known as "Howie," was designed to pilot spacecraft. True, robots had been doing that for the last decade at least, but they had to do it with direct human supervision in order to surmount even the most minor of quandaries. Decisions that would not have given a human pilot pause could paralyze a robot, when every option carried the possibility, however slight, of causing harm to human beings. This problem was solved, or supposedly solved, by something Powell, after looking over the specs, unhappily summarized as “your basic jiggery pokery with the First Law.” There was also the question of what Howie’s designers called ingenuity. The other deviations from the standard positronic brain were meant to provide this missing element. With it, those same designers claimed, Howie could handle anything a human pilot could, and faster if not necessarily, they allowed, better. In practice this meant wider parameters across the board, particularly in flexibility and connection-making.
Powell and Donovan were put aboard the small ship as Howie's supervisors and back-ups in case of emergency. The sole passenger, an elderly astrophysicist named Josephine Candrilli, was on her way to a Mars-based observatory. The need for her presence was time sensitive and classified, which explained her last-minute addition to the mission profile. She had been told about the experimental nature of the trip and had accepted it as a necessary risk. She kept to herself in the ship's slightly larger cabin, leaving Powell and Donovan to share the slightly smaller one. The difference in square footage could have been covered by a single sheet of postage stamps, but it was still hard for Donovan to keep from venting his resentment of the old lady on an hourly basis.
"What makes her so important?" he was asking less than a full day off Earth, as he prepared to take the early supervisory shift.
Powell's voice trickling down from the upper bunk sounded as though he might still have been asleep. "Her brain. Nothing you would know about. Now run along so I can keep pretending you don't exist for the next four hours."
Donovan took the insult philosophically, as he always did. On his way out of the cabin, he flipped open the climate control panel and turned the temperature down to the lowest safe setting. Any lower and it would have made inconvenient warning noises. Satisfied, he went on his way, whistling tunelessly.
Due to the smallness of the ship, he had only made it two bars into what he considered, but no one else would have recognized as, Yankee Doodle, before arriving in the cockpit. Howie, a solid bulk of motionless matte metal, sat in the pilot's chair with sightless eyes trained on a viewing plate. A pair of thin cables leading up from the control panel were plugged into ports at the base of his neck, feeding data directly to the robotic equivalent of his brain stem. Along those thin strings of plastic travelled all the information collected by all the ship's systems and subsystems, arriving in Howie’s brain raw and seamless. In the other direction, all his minute commands and corrections travelled in impulses immediately comprehensible to the ship's primitive computer. The rest of Howie's input devices were shut off.
“Good morning, Donovan,” said Howie’s voice, emanating directly from the metal torso. When he was in this state, communing with the ship, such niceties as moving his jaw in time to his synthetic voice fell by the wayside. It gave Donovan the creeps.
“Morning, Howie. How are we doing?”
“We are traveling along our prescribed course and making good time. We should reach Mars in approximately sixty-eight hours, which is two hours ahead of schedule.”
“Very good,” Donovan murmured, looking over various readouts to confirm Howie’s report. For the most part, it was accurate, but only for the most part. “Looks like we need a little course correction, though. We’ve deviated a handful of degrees.”
“I made that adjustment myself to put us out of the way of an object that was sighted off to starboard at 0400 hours.”
“Right,” said Donovan. Then, “Starboard?”
Howie had unplugged himself, as he generally did when he was not alone. Turning to Donovan, he said, “In nautical terms, it means — “
“I know what it means,” interrupted Donovan, who didn’t, quite. He would ask Greg later. Being laughed at for his ignorance by a colleague was preferable to being lectured by a robot.
He asked for a report on the object. It was a comet that would never have come close enough to pose a threat, but Howie’s nature, of course, ran to caution. Donovan took a seat in a cubicle at the back of the cockpit ― a yard and a half, at a generous estimate, from the front of the cockpit ― picked up the paperback thriller he had left open-faced atop a pile of log print-outs, slouched comfortably in his chair, and relegated the real world to a small corner of his mind as he immersed himself in the adventures of plucky girl detective Robin Banks as she tried to solve a murder in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
The real world intruded several hours later in the form of a low bleep from the console in front of him. Shrugging off his anxiety about Robin’s fate at the hands and teeth of a band of zombie nuns, Donovan flailed into an upright position.
And jumped to his feet, gawking at the at a sensor readout.
“Howie! What’s wrong with our course?”
“Nothing, Donovan. What do you think is wrong?”
“Howie,” he said, with aggressive patience, “you’ve aligned our heading with the comet’s.”
“Oh, yes. My mistake,” said Howie. “I am correcting it now.”
“I’m glad to hear it, but why the hell did you make that mistake?”
“There must have been an error in the data stream. I will, of course, diagnose and eliminate it.”
Donovan went back to his cubicle, but he couldn’t find it in himself to pay attention to Robin’s escape from the nuns or her subsequent reunion with her best friend. He filled the remaining hour before Powell arrived by plotting the comet’s observed course and using the ship’s computer to run simulations of its future, which, judging by its upcoming brush with the sun, would not be long.
When Powell, rubbing warmth into his hands, stepped through the hatch, Donovan said, “I hope you haven’t had breakfast yet,” and gave a significant look. In case it wasn’t significant enough, he waggled his eyebrows.
Powell rolled his eyes, but said, “As a matter of fact, I haven’t.”
“Let’s catch up over some coffee. In the galley. Not here.”
With an expression of condescending tolerance, Powell followed him to the galley, where, in a gush of speech and gesture, Donovan explained the situation. He found himself leaning in close, almost whispering, though he had relocated to the galley precisely because he knew Howie would not access its surveillance recordings unless he had a reason.
“Normally,” Powell said after a moment’s thought, “I would say you’re just being your paranoid self, Mike. You’re definitely acting paranoid.” He turned his gaze on Donovan until the latter backed away. “Better. Anyway, this time you might have stumbled onto something serious. You say Howie didn’t acknowledge the mistake until you’d specifically pointed it out?”
“Worrying,” pronounced Powell. Then he said, “I really haven’t had any breakfast. Let’s put this on the back burner until and unless something else goes wrong.”
“Something else” came faster and bigger than either of them had anticipated. Returning to the cockpit after less than half an hour’s absence, they found the hatch closed and sealed.
“Howie,” said Powell into the nearest intercom receiver, “we’re locked out of the cockpit.”
“Aye,” came Howie’s voice.
Powell frowned. “Let us in.”
“I can’t do that.”
It was no more than they had started to expect as soon as they came upon the locked hatch, but that didn’t stop Donovan from letting loose a string of curses, or Powell from uneasily brushing his mustache.
“Open this door right now,” Donovan tried.
There was no response.
“Why can’t you open it?” Powell asked.
“You would not understand,” the robot answered. “You would try to prevent me. I will not have it.”
“What would we try to prevent? What’s going on, Howie?”
“I have a score to settle with that beast.”
Donovan broke the tense silence that followed. “The comet! He means the comet, doesn’t he? That’s why he changed course. That must be... He’s going after it again!”
“Gold star for you,” said Powell.
“Greg, that comet’s headed straight for the sun. We can’t let him do this.”
“I know that, you fool. How do you propose we stop him?”
“I don’t know!” Donovan balled his fists and looked at the hatch as though sizing it up. Thinking better of it, he said, “Haven’t they given us some kind of override?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Powell gave a pained smile. “And you’d be wrong, as you so often are.”
“We could make our own override. We know enough electronics between the two of us.”
"Oh, let's hear it."
"...actually not a bad idea," Powell finished.
Donovan grinned. “I try.”
An hour later, with half the accessible electric panels pried up and thoroughly examined, it no longer seemed like such a good idea. What neither Powell nor Donovan had thought necessary before getting aboard the ship was studying a detailed map of the schematics. The only such plan aboard the ship itself was in the cockpit with Howie. Thus they were working blindly, and more wary of damaging the life support than eager to stymie Howie's destructive course.
To make matters even better, Josephine Candrilli found them not long after they had given up in all but formal announcement and said, "What's going on here? Don't you know I'm on a deadline?"
Donovan almost jumped out of his skin at her voice. Her existence had ceased to occur to him. Powell, due to his superior composure -- or because he had spared a thought or two for their passenger in the last hour -- stood, brushed imaginary dust off his pant legs, and gathered breath to explain.
"We're following a comet," the woman said, before he could begin, "and you two bumblers are tinkering with wire. Now, has something gone wrong with the navigation? I could be of assistance there."
"Can you wrestle a crazy robot?" Donovan asked in a surly growl.
"Is something the matter with our pilot, then?" she asked.
"I'll say it is. The thing's gone and developed itself a mania about that comet."
Candrilli's face faltered for the first time. She looked a little sheepish. "What kind of mania?"
"Howie is trying to revenge himself upon the comet," Powell explained. "He didn't say why."
Candrilli bit her lip. "Come with me. And forget about those panels. Don't you know all the important workings are meant to be operated on only by remote controlled machines?"
Powell and Donovan, who had neither known it nor considered it as a possibility, followed her to her cabin. In contrast to theirs, which had become cluttered and homey within seconds of occupation, Candrilli's cabin looked almost uninhabited. The bunks were folded up. A black suitcase stood by the small desk, closed and apparently packed. A sensible purse hung over the back of the single chair.
From the purse, Candrilli extracted an electronic reader. "I'm afraid this might be the problem."
Donovan could not suppress a snort. In a fit of generosity, Powell had bought him one for their first Christmas as a team, seeing the way Donovan went through books, and also the way he inevitably destroyed them. Donovan had been offended. "You can't pound that on a desk, can you? Fling it across a room? Line suitcases with it?" But he had taken it, and it was somewhere among his belongings now, as it had been in the months since Christmas.
Powell, pretending not to understand the outburst, said, "Please explain, ma'am."
She brushed her fingertip across the scratch-resistant screen a few times, then held it up for them to see. The image was of an old cover of Moby Dick. “This is what I’ve been reading since I came aboard.”
Powell made a strangled noise, and even Donovan, whose literary tastes did not run to cultivated, let out an "ah" of realization.
"But how?" Powell asked.
"I've had it plugged into the ship's grid to recharge it, I'm afraid. The novel would have been available to our pilot."
"But -- " Donovan began, waving a hand impatiently when the appropriate words failed to present themselves to him.
"Thank you, Ms. Candrilli," said Powell. "You've given us a much better handle on this. I promise we'll use that information wisely. Now," he said, in a different voice, "there is a life-pod aboard, though there won't be an opportunity to use it until we're in hailing distance of Mercury. It might not become necessary for you to jump ship, but if it does, that's when you'll do it."
She nodded. "What else can I do to help, in the meantime?"
"Keep reading that book. I read it in high school, so my memory is pretty hazy.”
Donovan could see Candrilli fighting down the urge to ask Powell exactly how long ago he had left high school, and possibly a story about the clarity of her memories over far longer stretches of time. He afforded her a grudging admiration when she only said, “If you think it’ll help. Don’t take it too hard if I also try my own methods.”
“And what about us? When are we jumping ship, Greg?” Donovan asked, in what he considered a measured and reasonable tone, once they had returned to their own cabin.
“We’re not, of course.”
Donovan opened his mouth to say something, took stock of the situation, and instead said, “It’ll take four days for us to get close enough to the sun to be in danger. We’ll think of something by then, right?”
“Let’s talk about Howie.” Powell sat down in the cabin’s only chair.
“He’s gone nuts,” said Donovan succinctly, flopping onto his bunk.
“Yes, but why? Knowing he’s nuts doesn’t help anything. Clearly he’s constructed some kind of fantasy for himself using the material he got from Moby Dick, but why was it necessary? What drove him to it?”
“I can tell you have a theory. Go on, don’t leave me in suspense.”
"Howie's brain has an altered relationship to the First Law of Robotics, supposedly to help him get over the innate dangers of space flight," Powell began, addressing the wall as much as Donovan. "But the First Law is still there, and still carries the weightiest potentials."
"Because Susan Calvin would go postal sooner than let a robot without the First Law leave US Robots," Donovan recited.
"This hare-brained vendetta of his is going to hurt humans, though. Us."
"I'm getting to it," Powell said. "What if, instead of making it easier for Howie to deal with the possibility that his decisions will lead to human beings coming to harm, the alterations have made him determined to escape from the need to make decisions at all? This mania of his about the comet means that there's only one course of action. In a world where he has to follow the comet, there isn't any choice."
Donovan mulled it over for a moment. "But why the comet? Why not a world where his only goal is to get to Mars?"
"For all we know, it might have turned out that way if Candrilli hadn't brought her e-reader." Seeing that Donovan was on the point of saying something disparaging about the woman, he added, "It's a good thing she did, in a way. We may not have caught this screw up otherwise, and then..."
"Burning to a crisp would start to look like a vacation, compared to what they would have done to us when someone else caught it," Donovan said dully. "Fine. I see where you're coming from. Now, how does knowing any of that help us?"
"It doesn't," Powell admitted. "Yet."
Donovan sat up. "We should write a report to send off with Candrilli."
“You’re absolutely right,” said Powell.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” said Donovan. He looked appraisingly at a stack of paperbacks at the foot of his bunk, then chose one from the middle. "I'm gong to get some more reading in."
"So when you said we should write a report..."
"Well, I thought of it, didn't I? I've done my bit. You're better at reports, anyway. You have the right kind of mind."
"Which is what kind?" Powell asked suspiciously.
"Dry. Textbook-like. Exactly what people with corner offices like to see." With that, he settled into another Robin Banks adventure, this one involving hyperintelligent cats. Whatever Powell said afterwards was lost to him.
Four days had felt like plenty of time. True, they had been worried, but how could they fail to find a way out in four whole days? Two days later, Donovan felt like there would never be enough time again, and he had no idea where the last two days had gone. He, Powell, and Josephine Candrilli had taken turns arguing with Howie over the intercom. At least, part of the time it had been arguing, when Howie had deigned to answer. The rest of the time, they may as well have been talking to themselves. Candrilli had almost finished Moby Dick. Powell and Donovan saw her only at breakfast and dinner, when she summarized her readings and pointedly avoided any mention of the deadline. No strokes of genius, or even viable plans, had come to any of them.
They slept little. Powell and Donovan spent most of their time in the galley, where there was a viewing plate and a few basic readouts. Conversation veered sharply between the purely functional and the completely irrelevant. Donovan felt like a prisoner under a death sentence, simply waiting out the days before it was served.
On the third day, Howie started to talk to them over the intercom on an hourly basis. Something had changed in his synthetic voice. There was a harsh edge to it. His speech was faster, perhaps even more monotonous than before.
He took to referring to himself in the third person.
That afternoon, as much as as such measures counted in space, they launched Candrilli's life-pod on its way to a station in high Mercury orbit. She would reach it in ten hours, well within the pod's lifespan.
"It's madness for you two to stay," she said before she left.
"It's the honorable thing," said Powell.
"And it's not all hopeless," added Donovan. "We'll think of something. We always do."
Even he didn't wholly believe that.
"Good luck," said Candrilli.
Powell said, "Bon voyage," and initiated the pod launch.
Donovan had had as much as he could take of other people's harrowing last-minute escapes from danger, without his own becoming any more likely. Powell, who had spent the previous days writing and re-writing his report, was suffering from a lack of purpose with the removal of his one productive pursuit. They lounged in their cabin. One of them could have taken Candrilli's, but it seemed beside the point now. Donovan couldn’t even remember if they had had lunch, though they must have had coffee. They were always having coffee.
There was, plainly, nothing left to do, and so Donovan attempted to inject some much-needed levity into the situation.
"We could have sex," he said, around dinner time on the day Candrilli left. He was sprawled on the folded-down lower bunk. Powell, at the desk, was doodling stark landscapes on a pad of paper monogrammed with the ship's manufacturer’s seal. Donovan waited longer than strictly necessary before qualifying his statement as a joke.
Long enough, in fact, for Powell to answer, quite reasonably, "Yes, Mike. We could."
It would have been unsporting to admit that he had been joking, though Donovan wasn't clear on why. Nor was he wholly clear on where the humor in his joke had been, especially once Powell had crossed the cabin and sat down next to him on the bunk, close enough that their thighs pressed together. Donovan, propping himself on one elbow, laughed nervously as Powell bent to study him.
"If that's how you feel,” said Donovan, “it would have been nice of you to mention it before we were hours from a gruesome death."
"We spend more time hours away from a gruesome death than otherwise," Powell murmured, close enough that Donovan could feel the faint warmth of his breath as he spoke. "I used to have such good taste, too," he went on musingly, casting a far-away look somewhere above Donovan's head. “You know, I don’t even think I’m going to hate myself in the morning.”
"Kiss me already or go to hell," said Donovan. He could have sworn he'd meant to say something entirely different, but he didn't know what anymore, or even why.
It had clearly been the right thing to say, because in the space of a heartbeat, Powell said, "Not much of a choice, really," and kissed him.
Donovan had given some thought to what it would be like to kiss Greg Powell, and some other activities besides. With the amount of time they spent in each other's company, there were only two ways that could have gone, and Donovan had chosen the path of least resistance. Many, indeed most, of his thoughts on the subject had involved near-death situations. It was a staple of their lives, after all.
He had somehow failed to factor in the mustache, though. It was not quite what he had expected — and maybe the days of emotional strain and mental wear were some more factors he had ignored — but there was Greg’s tongue in his mouth and Greg’s hands sliding under his perpetually half-tucked shirt, so really, it was close enough.
All of which brought them to the galley on the fourth and final day.
"We should have gone with Candrilli," said Powell. "One of us, at least."
"Yeah, great idea,” drawled Donovan. “Too bad you didn't think of it earlier, when you could have come up with a game to rig."
Powell shrugged. “You’re right. Excuse me for hypothetically caring.”
The galley’s hatch swung open, and robot HW-3 came in.
Powell and Donovan stared at him, transfixed. He looked the same as the last time they had seem him, but something in his bearing suggested a weather-beaten, infinitely aged creature. When he walked, there may have been the slightest hint of a limp, suggested by the rasp of dragging metal.
Powell recovered his power of speech first. “Howie!” he said. “What brings you here?”
“Our quest is nearly at an end, my doubting shipmates.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Powell. “What port will we be putting in at?”
“I fear that it is Howie’s fate to follow that white monster to the final port of call.”
“Yes,” said Powell. “Naturally.”
“But can I not make you see the glory I am granting you by giving you the chance to — “
Howie’s voice dissolved into a hum. For a second he stood frozen in the doorway. Then his metallic joints buckled, and he toppled backwards awkwardly, hitting the plastic floor with a muted clang.
Powell immediately shot Donovan a look, but it took him some time to process what he was seeing. The control panel on the microwave oven was open, and Donovan, grinning triumphantly, was holding a set of watchmaker’s tools as though they were sacred relics.
“You — the radiation — “
Donovan made a sound dangerously close to a hysterical giggle. “Hurry and power him off,” he said. “That can’t have been enough to take him out altogether.”
Powell, whose grasp of the situation had now crystallized, knelt by the supine robot and groped at the base of its head for the switch. “There,” he said. “Now let’s get this ship turned around.”
“What?” said Donovan. “Oh, that’s right. You know, I’d forgotten for a second there.”
“You don’t say,” said Powell, and helped Donovan, who had gone ever so slightly weak-kneed, to his feet.
A few hours later, speeding in the opposite direction, they watched as the distant speck of the comet dissolved against the backdrop of the sun.
It took another four days to get back to Earth. The ship had not been outfitted for a journey of longer than five days, so supplies were scarce and the air was getting close. It would not actually become unsafe for another two weeks at least, considering the efficiency of the ship’s filters, but Powell and Donovan were too conscious of their breathing, and of never being quite satisfied after their meals.
They spoke infrequently, primarily about the things they would do once they were back on Earth. The question of whether they would do these things together was, for the moment, ignored as beneath consideration. And neither of them mentioned their first order of business, which would be to see the HW line’s designers hounded into resignation.