Greg shifted his bag on his shoulder as he and Mike waited for the airlock to cycle them into the research station. He couldn't help feeling a little uneasy. Not about their assignment--he and Mike had seen so many unbalanced robots that he was beginning to take the strangeness for granted--but about the circumstances. The isolation was part of the reason he liked fieldwork. He just didn't get on well with most people.
But he and Mike had apparently developed a (well deserved) reputation as problem solvers, because they'd been pulled off of field-testing one of the latest models to look into a situation at the Europa research station. It just figured that for once the field-testing had been going smoothly. Greg scowled thinking of it.
A sharp elbow jabbed him in the side. "Hey, what's with the grumpy face?" Mike asked. "I know the bigwigs haven't been talking, but shit, this can't be worse than Mercury, right?"
"It's not a grumpy face," Greg shot back automatically. "I just..." He sighed and resettled his bag again. "I'm not looking forward to working with an entire research team peering over my shoulder."
"The brain can't handle a little competition?" Mike grinned.
Greg snorted. "It's not like the brain gets much practice, hanging out with you all the time."
Mike clapped him on the shoulder, the touch warm and solid. "Relax, Greg. These folks asked for our help. They want us here."
Asking for help and wanting them there weren't the same thing, but the indicator above the inner door of the airlock blinked just then, so Greg just lifted his chin and waited for the door to slide open. The airlock unsealed with a gust of cool, slightly metallic scented air. Greg blinked in surprise; it almost smelled fresh. He'd been expecting the more familiar scent of recycled air. It made sense, though. A research station buried in ice wouldn't be short on what they needed to put together some fresh air.
There was a man waiting for them just inside the airlock. His features were vaguely Asian and he was dressed in a neat, two piece grey jumpsuit with a blue stripe running from his left shoulder straight down to his ankle. "Mr. Powell, Mr. Donovan. I am Dr. Joseph Tsai, the leader of the Europa Station research team. Thank you for coming. I hope your trip was comfortable."
"Comfortable enough," Mike said genially, shaking Dr. Tsai's hand vigorously. "What's up with your robots? The higher ups were a little light on the details when they shipped us out here."
Dr. Tsai seemed uncomfortable as he disengaged his hand from Mike's. "We have a briefing scheduled at 1900, Mr. Donovan. I thought you would like time to settle in and perhaps have dinner."
"Of course," Greg said, shaking Dr. Tsai's hand in turn. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Mike shooting him a glance. "Thank you for your consideration, Dr. Tsai." Tsai turned aside slightly, tilting his head down the hallway, and Greg and Mike took the hint and followed him deeper into the research station. "Do you mind if I ask what you study here?"
"Of course not," Tsai said. He smiled slightly as he launched into what seemed a well-practiced speech about the research station and its mission, which apparently covered everything from the search for life--several species had been identified--to the structure of and currents within Europa's icy skin and the vast ocean beneath it. Greg nodded and asked questions at appropriate moments until they reached their quarters and Tsai left them to unpack.
They had separate rooms, but there was an adjoining door, and it hissed open seconds after Tsai departed. Mike stepped into the doorway and leaned against it. "Hey, what was that all about?"
Greg set his bag on the bed and unzipped it as he spoke. "I didn't want to embarrass our host before we'd been here ten minutes, Mike. We're going to have to work with this team." Unfortunately.
"That's what I thought!" Mike said. "Work first, right? And they haven't been getting that much work done lately, so I figured they'd want to jump right in."
Greg looked up from the stack of shirts he was tucking into a dresser drawer. "Honestly, Mike, think this through for a minute. These men and women are celebrated scientists, Ph.D.s all of them, including their robopsychologist, and they've had more than two weeks to figure out what's wrong with their robots. When they come up blank and have to ask for help, they get a couple of technicians with not a doctorate between them. Their pride has been stung."
Mike scowled. "We have degrees. And besides, you don't need a doctorate to be good at your job. That's for the academics and the guys locked up in little white labs, beating their heads against the wall trying to think of something no one's ever done before."
"I know that," Greg said impatiently. "It's them I'm talking about. They feel like they should have been able to figure this out. Their robots have waited two weeks. They can wait a few more hours while our hosts impress us with their operation and efficiency if it'll make the team easier to work with."
"All right, all right." Mike wandered into the room and flopped down across Greg's bed on his back, feet narrowly missing the half empty bad. "I'm just antsy. We had enough down time cooped up on that shuttle."
"Not to mention the perfectly routine field testing of the Rick series." Greg shot him a sidelong smile.
Laughing, Mike stretched his arms out before tucking them behind his head. Greg quickly looked away. "What, you weren't enjoying having something go right for once?"
"I'm in fieldwork," Greg responded dryly, and Mike chortled.
They went to dinner mostly because they weren't sure if they'd be able to get food after the briefing, when everyone else would already have eaten. The dining room featured three long, cafeteria style tables with benches and the entire research team--despite Greg's earlier comment, there were only six Ph.D.s, including the robopsychologist, plus five graduate students and an engineer--was there.
The station had a generous bandwidth allowance, but they were still the first new visitors in months, which made their gossip a hot commodity. Now that Mike was on board with the face-saving plan, Greg let him carry the conversation and quietly studied the members of the team. Everyone was tense, but they were familiar with each other, all of them in the same leaking boat together. Except for Jason Ross, the robopsychologist.
Ross sat at the end of the table, not exactly hunched over his food, but not looking up unnecessarily, either. He worked through his meal methodically, the motions of a man without an appetite but determined to eat, and left the table as soon as he was done. Greg considered going after him, but the briefing was only fifteen minutes away now.
The briefing could easily have been held in the dining room--it had screens--but instead Dr. Tsai stood up at 1900 on the dot and announced that they'd be moving to the conference room.
Tsai's inviting wave to a pair of seats put Greg and Mike at the foot of the conference table with the entire research team between them and Tsai. Greg traded a glance with Mike before nodding to Dr. Tsai that they were ready.
A click of a remote brought a schematic up on screen. At the top was a dark curved double line. Beneath the double line complicated swirls of fainter lines crawled across the screen. What looked like a string of beads began with a large dot embedded in the curved double line and extended straight downward for ten additional, smaller, beads. "This is Europa Station," Dr. Tsai said. "Living quarters, data storage, and analysis is done by the human members of the team in the primary station, which was excavated into the surface ice, here," the bead within the curved double line blinked. "These," each of the other ten beads blinked in turn, "are subsidiary stations one through ten. They are entirely staffed by robots, as the pressure conditions within the Europan ocean make human investigation...prohibitively expensive."
"What model of robot?" Greg interjected, sliding the stylus out of its slot and activating his tablet.
It was Ross that answered. "Peters," he said. "PT-138, that is. Two robots per station, for a total of twenty."
"Huh," Mike said thoughtfully as Greg took notes. "Peters are good guys. I'd've said they were stable."
"Which is why we selected them," Dr. Tsai. He shot a brief glance at Ross. The robopsychologist didn't look away, but the line of his jaw tightened. "In any case, the subsidiary stations are at intervals of six miles. The problem began with S10," the lowest bead on the line blinked, "but progressed upwards through the chain and has now reached S7." He turned off the screen and pocketed the remote control. "At this point I'd like Dr. Ross to take over."
Ross stood up and turned to face the room stiffly. "We first became aware that there was a problem when our analysts noted some inconsistent data. The team went over the raw numbers and discovered that the measurement intervals were off; the Peters hadn't been collecting the data at the prescribed times."
"How long were the delays?" Greg asked, not looking up from his notes.
"At first, just a few seconds. We confirmed their internal clocks were accurate--they were--and reissued their orders, and that fixed the problem."
"At first," Mike said.
Greg looked up in time to catch Dr. Ross's tight nod. "At first. The delays came back. I asked them if there had been any problems and they reported pod maintenance, but nothing else."
Mike leaned forward on the table. "What kind of maintenance is standard?"
Ross glanced to the side and the engineer on the team turned in his chair a little to answer. "Mostly hull integrity," he said. "Not only are these pods deep underwater, but Europa's ocean is heated tidally. The tides are slow, but extremely powerful. The pod design is brilliant, but under forces like that there's always going to be minor failures. The Peters were designed and instructed in pod hull repair."
"After a week," Ross continued, "the Peters started failing to respond to orders at all."
Greg could feel his eyebrows climb upward. "Did they display signs of conflict stress?"
"That's the strangest thing," Dr. Ross said heavily. "There was some--a bit of stuttering in their speech--towards the end of the delays. But once they stopped responding to orders, it cleared right up. They'll take our calls, they seem to listen, sometimes they even acknowledge orders, but they don't follow them!"
Mike let out a long, low whistle. "No wonder the bigwigs didn't want to fill us in sooner."
"If a robot can ignore the Second Law," Greg mused. "Who's to say it can't ignore the First?"
The room was deathly silent for a long moment.
"Here now," Mike broke the silence. "You said the problem started at S10 has reached S7. So it's moving up the chain?"
"In a manner of speaking," Dr. Ross said. "S9 through S7 haven't gone through the initial series of delays. They've just slowly stopped taking orders."
Greg and Mike exchanged a glance. Greg caught Dr. Ross's eye. "We need to speak to S10 immediately."
There was a designated communications room that, judging by the equipment, handled voice and data streams from the ten substations and off planet. No video, though. The only screens were displaying signal metadata.
One of the two workstations was stark and utilitarian. The other, the one equipped with a microphone, was obviously lived in. The chair was non-standard--too comfortable, plus it was wheeled--and there were pictures and notes taped to the wall and to blank bits of hardware. A couple of tablets and their styluses, along with a neat stack of note papers, pens, and tape, were set neatly to one side, but Greg was willing to bet that Ross had cleaned up in preparation for their visit.
Greg slid into the comfortable chair and pulled himself smoothly up to the microphone. Ross started explaining the communications protocol to him, but was forced to pause when Mike dragged the chair from the other workstation across the metal floor with a loud screech. Greg shot him an exasperated glance--was it really so hard to pick the chair up?--but Mike just grinned. "Carry on," he said, waving one hand magnanimously as he seated himself at Greg's elbow.
"Thank you for your gracious permission," Greg returned. He turned back to Dr. Ross. "You were saying?"
After a pause, Ross returned to the communications protocol. It was standard stuff, but Greg listened carefully anyway, ignoring the noise Mike makes rifling through the workstation's desk drawers and unearthing some sort of manual. He let Ross connect with the substation, exchange confirmations of identity, and make introductions before taking over the mike.
"Hello, Peter 10-A," Greg said calmly. He wished Ross had named the robots individually, 1 through 20, instead of designating them by their station, but it wasn't his call to make.
"Hello, Mr. Powell." 10-A's voice was calm and even. There weren't many models designed to simulate emotion, but robotics professionals, whether they were robopsychologists or not, learned to pick up mood variations.
"How do you like your work?" Greg asked. He could see Ross twitch out of the corner of his eye, but kept his gaze fixed on the signal readouts in front of him.
Milliseconds scrolled by. "My work is satisfactory, sir."
Ambiguous response. Greg couldn't stop himself from glancing at Mike and met Mike's gaze, raised from the manual open on the workstation surface. The obvious response was, But your work isn't proceeding satisfactorily. Greg said, "You don't mind being so isolated? You're 60 miles from the research team."
"I am designed for considerable independent action," 10-A responded. There was a firmness about his voice that could be called pride, but the readout Greg was staring at said that he'd paused.
"Of course, of course," Greg said casually. "You have to be able to take care of yourself down there without any humans around."
This time the pause was audible, though just barely. "Yes, sir."
"But you've got 10-B with you, at least."
"10-B's assistance is essential," 10-A said firmly. And quickly, even less time than his first response had required. Greg frowned. That wasn't a typical stress reaction.
"You like working with him, then?" Greg asked.
"I could not survive without him."
Greg froze for a moment before turning to Mike, who mouthed, What the fuck? Greg shook his head and turned his focus back to the microphone. "That's a strong reaction. Is your survival threatened?"
"We--we are able to maintain pod integrity," 10-A said, a hitch in his voice.
"That's good," Greg said quickly. "That's very good." He paused, considering his words. "Let me speak to 10-B now."
The line went peculiarly silent. It took Greg a moment to realize he'd been disconnected. He stared at the microphone for a long moment before leaning back in the chair. "There is definitely something wrong down there."
"No shit," Mike said wryly. "Something other than a couple of disobedient robots."
"Worse than robots breaking the Second Law?" Ross asked, eyebrows lifting.
"Not worse, but more. Additional," Greg clarified. He turned to Mike. "The stress reaction when he mentioned pod integrity."
"'I could not survive without him,'" Mike quoted, nodding.
"There must be some problem with the pod that's inducing a Third Law response," Greg mused.
Mike opened his mouth, but Dr. Ross got there first. "It'd have to be a hell of a threat."
Greg twitched. "Any particular reason?"
"We knew these robots were going to be operating for years in complete isolation," Ross explained. "No matter how well the pods were constructed, being suspended in a complex chemical environment dominated by sulfuric acid hydrate and under intense pressure for years is going to take its toll. The Peters were firmly prepared to encounter problems with pod integrity so that they wouldn't abandon important data collection in the middle of a run to take care of a minor leak."
Mike scowled and opened his mouth again, but this time it was Greg who jumped in. "Well, I think we've got a good handle on the situation," he said firmly, standing. "I know it's not that late, Dr. Ross, but we've had a long day and we have a lot of information to process. I will see you tomorrow morning."
Greg strode quickly out of the communications room, but Mike caught up in short order and settled into a sharp pace at his side. "Damned idiot lab rat," Mike muttered. "Didn't he think he oughta mention their Third Law instructions in the briefing? 'So that they wouldn't abandon data collection for a minor leak.' I bet. 10-A was so determined not to worry about 'minor leaks' that the problem has gotten big enough to kick the Second Law in the pants. Think Ross is regretting that bit of genius now?"
"I'm sure he is," Greg said dryly. "But I'm more interested in what's wrong with the pod and how not talking about it turned into not taking orders."
"Then we need to talk to the engineer," Mike said, lengthening his stride.
Greg increased his own pace to keep up and took hold of Mike's arm, directing him down the hall towards their rooms when he would have kept going towers the common areas. "We need some time to ourselves."
"Oh, come on, Greg!" Mike protested, though he let himself be redirected. "We're halfway there already. We knock a couple of thick skulls together and the answers will fall right out, I bet."
"We're both tired and impatient," Greg said. "We'll think better--and faster--after some down time, and it's not like solving this thing tonight would get us out of here before tomorrow."
"You have a point," Mike admitted grudgingly. They arrived at the rooms they'd been given and Greg let them into the room that had been assigned to Mike. Mike flopped down on the bed, though he propped himself up on his elbows and watched as Greg bent over and rummaged through his bag. "Can't ever be wrong, can you? You were even right about having busybodies peering over our shoulders while we work."
Greg found a bottle carefully wrapped in a set of overalls and a pair of glasses wrapped in socks and smiled with satisfaction. Hauling a chair from the corner of the room over to the end of the bed, he sat down and held the glasses between his knees while he opened the liquor. The label was too faded to read easily, but it didn't really matter. He poured a finger of the liquid into each glass and set the bottle down on the floor before handing one of the glasses to Mike, who sat up to take it, his fingers brushing warmly against Greg's. "There's a reason we always seem to end up with the isolated jobs."
Mike wafted the glass under his nose for a moment. "Because they don't test out new robots with lots of people around?" He tilted the glass back and took a sip.
Greg snorted. "Because we don't mind the isolation. We even work better without other people around."
"I like people!" Mike protested.
"You like having fun with people," Greg countered. "Working with them is just frustrating."
"I don't know about that," Mike murmured. He took a long drink from his glass and lay down on his back again, one hand holding the glass upright on his chest. "'I could not survive without him.'"
"Hmmmm?" Greg shot Mike a glance, but he was oblivious.
"Just seemed a little dramatic wording for a robot."
"You're projecting." Greg finished his drink. The last mouthful, a little large, burned on the way down. "If there's a serious pod integrity problem underway, he was just being factual."
"I dunno. Down there in the dark--they probably didn't bother with lights just for robots, the Peters can come with infrared vision, much more efficient for leak detection and all that--in a tiny of bubble of air, the ocean pressing in all around you...a little company could go a long way."
Greg stared at his empty glass for a moment. Then he got up and leaned over Mike to take his glass, some of the liquor still in it, out of his loose grip. "Robots don't think that way, Mike."
"Yeah, I know." Mike pushed himself up again. "You up for a hand of poker?"
"Sure." Greg contemplated Mike's glass for a moment and then shrugged and finished it. "I'll get the cards."
In the morning they were greeted by the news that the robots at substation 6 had stopped responding to orders, which meant breakfast went fast and settled heavily in Greg's stomach. They split up almost immediately afterwards, Mike going to grill the research team's sole engineer about the pod construction and Greg going to interrogate the robots staffing the rest of the substations. They reunited for a late lunch, but despite the fact that it was almost two o'clock, Dr. Ross sat down with them. Greg ignored him.
"So what'd the rest of the Peters have to say?" Mike asked around a mouthful of lasagna.
"Do you even realize how disgusting that is?" Greg asked automatically. He hadn't been able to break Mike of the habit after years of trying, but years of trying had turned the effort into a habit itself.
"Do you realize how prissy you look, being so careful?" Mike shot back. He swallowed and took a long pull from his soda. "Well?"
Greg pointedly finished chewing and swallowing before he answered. "None of the other Peters are displaying any Third Law stress," he said definitely. "I think it's 10-A and -B's logic that's spreading, not the inciting problem."
"How's their logic supposed to spread?" Dr. Ross asked. "The substations are completely independent of each other."
"They've all got transmitters and receivers, though." Mike's voice was muffled by food again. "So they can talk to each other."
"Those are for communications with the primary station," Ross corrected.
Mike rolled his eyes and jumped when Greg kicked him under the table. He glared at Greg briefly, then turned back to Ross. "That's why they were installed, sure," he said. "But they work like any other comm gear. The only thing standing between substations talking to each other is protocol, and the Peters haven't been too good about following that lately have they?"
"They aren't the only ones," Greg muttered.
Mike grinned unrepentantly. "Part of my charm."
"You have anything to show except charm?" Greg tossed back, ignoring the way Ross's gaze bounced from one of them to the other.
"A lot more than a lot of talk," Mike said. He swallowed, carefully wiped off his hands, and set his partially demolished lunch aside to pull his tablet over from where he'd set it center it between them. A tap with the stylus brought the display live and Mike launched into a rundown of pod composition and structural weak points, of which Greg understood about three quarters and Dr. Ross considerably less, judging from his blank expression. In the end it all boiled down to "...it's all acid resistent, but not 100% acid proof, and any time they operate the data collection equipment, they're exposing the weakest points of the pod to increased stress."
"I don't think we needed a half hour lecture to get that, Mike." Greg said. "You still haven't told us what's causing the pod integrity problem in the first place. The theoretical pod integrity problem, I might add. Known conditions are all within tolerances."
"Hey, you're the genius who floated the idea in the first place." Mike pushed his tablet aside and reclaimed his lunch. It'd gone cold by now, but he didn't seem to care. "I'm just the poor Joe tryin' to make it make sense."
Greg started to respond, but Ross broke in first. "I have to ask," he said. "How do you two work together? You don't seem to like each other very much."
Meeting Mike's eyes, Greg snorted and picked up his fork again, though there wasn't much left of his food but the dregs of a salad. Mike just chuckled.
"We like each other fine, Doc," he said, "or we wouldn't still be working together after what, three years, Greg?"
"Three and a half," Greg said. "If you count from the first time USR paired us up instead of from when the assignment became official."
Mike nodded. "Three and a half years. USR may be about robots, but they pay attention to their compatibility tests like anyone else. I mean, I had a partner before Greg, but that only went for six or eight months."
"What happened?" Dr. Ross asked, leaning forward a little.
Mike shrugged a little. "Guy retired. He was an old hand. Glad to know him, though. He was good about showing me the ropes."
"What about you?" Dr. Ross turned to Greg. "Have you ever worked with anyone else?"
"Must have," Mike said. "They don't let you do fieldwork solo. Just in case."
Greg grimaced. He damn well hated this part. "Three."
"Excuse me?" Dr. Ross looked confused.
Greg set his fork down with a sharp click. There was nothing left to eat anyway. "I had three partners before Mike."
"But you haven't been doing this that much longer than me," Mike protested.
"Thirteen months," Greg confirmed. "Just five months longer. Apparently I'm not all that compatible with most people."
"Shit, Greg..." Mike trailed off and there was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Abruptly, he broke into a grin. "Now I feel all special!"
Greg laughed. "You're special all right. Come on, we've got work to do."
"All work and no play makes Greg a dull boy," Mike said, but he was standing as he spoke.
Dr. Ross trailed after them towards the communication center, but Mike paused at the door, letting Greg go ahead and settle in, and stopped Ross before he entered. Greg busied himself with organizing his notes, but he could still hear the quiet conversation.
"Hey," Mike said. "We really appreciate your help, and we know these are your guys down there, but..." His tone turned apologetic. "Me and Greg, we have a method, and we're not used to having other folks around. You mind letting us run this one on our own?"
There was a pause and then a long sigh. "Alright," Ross murmured.
"Thanks." Mike gave him a grateful thump on the shoulder and then he was dropping into the seat next to Greg at the communications workstation.
"We have a method?" Greg asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Winging it is a kind of method, right?" Mike said unrepentantly. "Come on, fire her up."
Greg shook his head, but he opened the lines of communication and ran through the protocols efficiently. 10-A came on the line again. "How may I assist you, sirs?"
Mike started writing on his tablet as Greg answered. "Well, I'm curious, Peter," Greg said casually. They were all named Peter, but it seemed friendlier than using his designation. "What's it like down there? I'm not a regular member of the research team, so I don't really know that much about it." Mike turned his tablet towards Greg. Scrawled on the surface were the words, 'Disobedient bastards, but still polite.' Greg rolled his eyes.
There was a pause as Peter tried to parse the question. It wasn't exactly a well-defined query, but that was the point. "The pod is approximately four yards in diameter on the interior," 10-A eventually responded, "and spherical in shape, as this configuration best resists the pressure of the Europan ocean."
Greg waved a dismissive hand automatically, though the robot couldn't see the gesture. "I've seen the blueprints. I wasn't thinking about configuration so much as what you experience when you're there. I didn't see any mention of lights. Is it dark?"
"My vision is infrared," 10-A said. "Lights are not necessary."
"But the ocean must be very cold." Greg folded his arms on the workstation desk and leaned towards the microphone a little. "Not too many sources of heat."
"10-B and I generate radiant heat," 10-A said. "The equipment power sources also provide a background glow sufficient to--"
A beat of silence.
"Peter?" Greg prompted.
"Suffi-icient to conduct background repairs." The stutter was slight but present.
"I'm sure it does," Greg said soothingly. "You and 10-B have maintained the pod very capably."
"Yes, sir." 10-A's voice was firmer. "I am designed for considerable independent action."
Greg exchanged a look with Mike. That was a familiar phrase. "Of course," Greg agreed, voice carefully casual. "You've been down there how long?"
"Four years, sir."
Greg frowned. That was the entire term of the research station to date. "You've never been switched out?" Mikes started scrawling on his tablet again.
Mike held up his tablet. Greg glanced over at it. 'Independence' was written there and underlined three times. Greg mouthed 'no shit' back at him and turned his attention back to the microphone. "Not even for pod repairs?"
"We are capable of effecting all necessary repairs."
Not even a tremor that time. "Repairs have been necessary?"
10-A's voice slowed down slightly. "We were instructed to expect the necessity of periodic repairs."
"Of course," Greg said, "Minor patches are a secondary priority. Data collection is the first priority."
A pause. "We are necessary to data collection."
"Oh, absolutely," Greg agreed easily. "You're valuable."
"A robot must to protect its own existence," Greg quoted the Third Law.
"Except when such protection conflicts with orders given to it."
"By human beings."
Greg's frown deepened. 10-A could have simply been completing the text of the Second Law, but it had sounded more like...a correction. "And when you receive a dangerous order," he said, keeping his voice even, "you have to be certain it's valid."
No 'sir', not anymore. "Am I human, Peter?"
"I can't be sure, sir."
Motion caught the corner of Greg's eye and he turned to see Mike, slashing his hand across his throat, signaling for the mike to be muted. Greg swiped his hand over the control and turned to his partner. "This isn't the best time, Mike!"
"I was going to explode if I had to keep quiet after that," Mike snapped back. "He can't be sure? Jesus Christ, this is worse than Cutie."
"Oh, don't be an idiot," Greg said. "I'm just a voice on the radio. How is he supposed to know I'm human? We were standing right in front of Cutie. That was worse."
"At least with Cutie we had options!" Mike returned. "What're we supposed to do with these guys, huh? How is a voice that he doesn't even believe is human supposed to untwist his logic? You haven't got any authority at all! He's only answering your calls because he's being polite!"
"He's answering because he can't be sure," Greg corrected sharply. "All we have to do is prove that we're human and they'll snap right out of it. As soon as they do that, determining the pod integrity problem and removing the Third Law pressure will be simple."
"Oh, is that all?" Mike tossed his tablet roughly onto the workstation counter with a clatter and threw his hands up. "Oh, well, that's easy! So tell me, how are does a voice on a radio prove that it's human?"
Greg held Mike's gaze. "A voice on a radio doesn't."
Mike stared at him. "Oh, no. No, no, no." He shook his head and waved his hands in a negating gesture for emphasis. "You are not suggesting what I think you're suggesting."
"Calm down, Mike," Greg said. "A temper tantrum isn't going to fix any of this."
"You are!" Mike shot to his feet, unable to contain his emotion, and Greg followed automatically. Mike stabbed a finger towards him. "You want to go down there and knock on the fucking door!"
Greg folded his arms across his chest. "It's the only way to confirm that we're human."
"And how are you going to get down there?" Mike demanded. "Take a deep breath and swim real fast?"
"Of course not! The research team has a submersible."
Mike had gone red in the face. "Not rated for those depths, it doesn't."
"It'll hold up long enough," Greg insisted.
"To get you down, maybe." Mike's voice was hard, clipped. "Not to get you back again."
Greg ignored a shiver of uncertainty. "10-A and -B can repair it enough to get me back again."
This time it was Greg who threw his hands up. "What do you want me to do, Mike? U.S. Robotics will be liable for tens of millions of dollars worth of lost time and equipment if a problem with their robots is responsible for shutting down this station! Canning us will probably be the first thing they do!"
"I don't care," Mike shouted. "I'm not letting you do this to me again! You're not running off to almost certain death and leaving me behind again! You're worth more to me than a few millions dollars and I don't want my goddamned career without my partner. So shut your damned mouth and engage your brain and figure out another option, because if I have to knock you out and drag you out of here and leave this entire place to rust, I damn well will!"
Greg stared at Mike, mouth open, and for a moment the only sound was the heavy rasp of Mike's breathing.
"Sirs?" A diffident voice interjected, after a moment.
Greg's gaze snapped over to the workstation. For a moment he was confused. Then his gaze caught on the signal indicators on the screens above the microphone. They were active in both directions. He dropped his eyes to the control panel and realized that the switch that would have muted the mike hadn't quite flipped all the way over. He cleared his throat and sat down slowly. "Yes, Peter?"
"I regret my behavior, sir," 10-A said. "I am quite certain that you are human now, sir."
Greg blinked. "Why is that?"
"No robot or artificial intelligence could counterfeit such a display, sir."
Mike dropped heavily back into his chair. "Well," he said. "I guess throwing a temper tantrum can fix things after all."
Things move quickly after that. With 10-A back onside, all they had to do was ask about the pod integrity problem. It turned out that, while it was designed for the sulfuric acid salts in the Europan ocean, there was a limit to the concentrations it could handle. The slow, powerful Europan tides had brought a colony of sulfur-producing plankton in contact with the pod and the growing concentrations had been slowly eating through the weak points of the pod. 10-A and -B had needed every second to maintain pod integrity. With intense Third Law pressure driving them and four years of reinforcement of the need for their independence, a voice on the radio wasn't much competition.
The research team was exultant. Their robots were taking orders again; a few carefully staged arguments had convinced the less stressed robots of the other substations and allowed the research team to blow off some steam at the same time. Even better, according to the team, the plankton was apparently a new species.
Greg sealed himself into his quarters late that night and collapsed across his bed. He and Mike hadn't had a minute alone since their argument. He wondered how long it would be before Mike came wandering through their connecting door now that they'd escaped.
Minutes ticked by and he was still alone.
Sighing, Greg levered himself back onto his feet and let himself into Mike's room. Mike was sitting at the little table in the corner, a glass of his mystery liquor in his hand. Greg sat down across from him and pulled the bottle across the table, but didn't take a swig from it. "So," he said. "I'm worth more to you than a few million dollars."
"Yeah, well," Mike muttered, "don't let it go to your head." He tossed back the glass of alcohol, tilting his head back to drain it all.
Greg looked at the bottle, rolling it between his palms. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Shit, Greg, how many times have we chuckled over the stupidity of office romances?" Mike said, shrugging.
"We don't work in an office," Greg said dryly, daring to look up for a moment.
Mike met his gaze and snorted, though the corners of his eyes crinkled. "Don't split hairs on me. You know what I mean."
"Yeah," Greg nodded. "I just always figured you wouldn't care about that if you were really interested, or I'd have said something myself."
Mike blinked. "You mean you--"
Greg smiled. "Come on, Mike, we're pretty much always on the same page. What made you think this would be different?"
Mike grinned, but only briefly. "So where do we go from here?"
Greg let go of the bottle and stood up, circling around the table to stand next to Mike. "I thought the next step was obvious." He tugged Mike to his feet and leaned in to kiss him softly.
It started out soft, anyway. Mike was the type to jump in with both feet, though, and soon he had his hands fisted in Greg's shirt and was kissing back hard and pulling him close, pressing their bodies together until there was nothing for Greg to do with his arms except wrap them around Mike and hold on. Heat and sudden, fierce need filled Greg and he clutched at Mike, kissing until his heart was pounding so hard he had to break away, a little afraid of his own thundering pulse.
"Okay," Mike said, breathlessly. "I think I got it from here."
Greg had to grin.
They were pretty much always on the same page.