Handy Dandy Gets His Candy
Death in Isolation
Why is his hatch closed?>
Lt. Carlyn Wilmerding pondered this minor mystery briefly as she floated up to the hatch of the Sensor Operator's compartment and smoothly stopped her forward motion by grasping one of the side-mounted handirons. She keyed the compartment's hatchcomm.
"Sonny..." she began sweetly, then paused for the expected "Yeah?!" she was certain would
come. When it did not, she continued, "Caffeine time." She waited patiently, to no avail, then tapped the entry code. Sonny usually kept the hatch open to the corridor. He was that kind of guy, gruff but open and outgoing.
The latching mechanism released and the hatch opened slightly, as it was made to do. Carlyn floated the coffee service and, bracing herself against a handiron, pulled open the heavy door. Doing even simple things like this in zeegee required careful coordination of motor skills. She looked into the compartment. "Sonny?" From behind his large operator's chair, she could see his arms outthrust at odd
angles. The sight of this alarmed her.
She pulled herself rapidly through the hatchway and along the padded guideline toward the operator's console. "Sonny?" she repeated urgently.
She reached the end of the cable and peered around the edge of the high-backed chair at the gray-faced corpse seated there. Its head was canted carelessly to the side, the eyes staring widely into space, the mouth gaped in a rictus-memory of sudden suffering.
"Sonny!" She released the coffee service to shake his harness.
Sonny’s arms flailed wildly and his head flopped grotesquely like a poorly-constructed scarecrow's in the wind. His neck was livid with bruises.
Carlyn fought back her shock and pain at the awful sight before her and carefully checked the body for a pulse. There was none. It was a measure of her fortitude and dedication to duty that she was then able to calmly call for a substitute Sensorman to take the place of her former lover.
"OffCon, this is Lt. Wilmerding." This slight formality was unusual. Most crewmembers used forenames, even for official intercommunications.
"Go ahead, Carlyn" replied a voice from her bone-conduction transducer.
"Please send Handy to the Sensorium." Her voice caught just short of a sob. "We need to relieve Sonny."
Then she wept.
A Good Place for Murder
The Rockrunner was a new-design A-Belt freighter. She had to survive voyages through the littered, hazardous area of space known as the Asteroid Belt to deliver supplies to the colonists on the Jovian moons and to return to Earth with the valuable minerals mined on those worlds. Because of her shifting, bulk-ore cargos, the ship was not spun to create a pseudo-gravitational centrifugal force outward from the core. Her crew, appropriately medicated, floated in "zeegee": zero gravity.
The high-occurrence danger from meteoroid impact in the A-belt had prompted two innovations in the design of the Rockrunner. One of these was just good engineering, hatches and bulkheads that would isolate any holed compartment in seconds, and liquid polymers between the layers of the hull that would temporarily patch small punctures until permanent repairs could be made.
Furthermore, the ship's vital crewstations had been dispersed, their personnel widely separated from each other so that an undetected meteoroid would take out fewer crewmembers in a sudden strikethrough. State-of-the-art intercommunications made it unnecessary for those personnel performing related functions to be gathered together, as were those on the bridge of a naval vessel.
The Helmsman was located on the bridge, the Navigator elsewhere. The Sensorman was placed where the cargo offered him some protection. The OffCon, the Watch Officer of Command and Control, supervised from yet another location. They communicated among themselves and with other crewmembers over redundant channels of voice-actuated intercommunication. Large-screen CCTV supplemented the audio. Sensorman Sonny Hales usually kept his camera in privacy mode.
The Rockrunner was widely regarded as the oddity of the Interplanetary Cargo Fleet, but few questioned the need for crew dispersal. A meteoroid traveling at kilometers/sec. was a very destructive missile. Few crewmen survived after being "holed" by one.
The second design innovation existed in the person of Tally Nostradamus. That wasn't his real name, but he had taken the pretentious pseudonym of Nostradamus Ingenissimus to underscore his wild talent. It meant "more talented than Nostradamus." This was in the tradition of the medieval physician and alchemist, Paracelsus, whose pseudonym meant "better than Celsus," a predecessor in the field of medicine. The crew of the Rockrunner called their Precognitor 1st Class "Tally" because he often referred to "my talent."
That talent allowed him to foresee, through precognition, serious meteoroid hazards so that the Navigator could change course. Sensormen were trusted to detect most of the space-bullets with their instruments, but precogs like Tally had proved themselves complementary to electronic devices for detecting intercepting meteoroids in time to evade them.
Tally was ensconced in a stateroom. This luxury compartment was as comfortable for him as it could be, considering that he was a wizened, partially-paralyzed little man. His rare talent seemed poor compensation for his physical handicap.
Thus equipped and manned, the ship made its way through the solar system's most-feared region, saving time and money in ore transportation, and giving the colonists on the Jovian moons a confident expectation of regular relief and resupply. All new Jovian-run ships would be of the proven Rockrunner Class.
Captain Francis X. McCadden scanned the officers seated at, and attached to, his conference table. They were tethered so that Newton's Laws of Motion wouldn't thrust them from the table when they became exercised during staff discussions. The Rockrunner was run on informal discipline. The input of his staff was so valuable in the ship's hazardous environment that the Captain encouraged his officers to
express themselves with less reserve than was customary in the Interplanetary Fleet. This was also a good tension reliever, when utilized with moderation.
The Tethered weren't always the only ones here. Selected personnel often attended conferences by means of the ship's sophisticated intercommunications. A chair at the opposite end of the table from the Captain was rigged for tele-projection of any unpresent person he might summon for an appearance. The projected simulacrum which appeared there shimmered unrealistically, but it achieved a presence more meaningful than a voice from a loudspeaker or a CCTV image. The chair was empty now.
Today's conferees found themselves under a cloud of suspicion and distrust. The death of Sensorman Hales had cast a pall over all ship activities.
Someone among the crew was a killer.
As the conference began, McCadden reluctantly searched each face for something that might identify the conferee as implicated in the cruel death. He hoped the murderer was not among his staff. He found it easier to believe that an enlisted crewman had committed the crime, rather than one of his trusted officers. He broke the silence of anticipation with his soft-spoken question.
"What have you got, Si?"
Ship's Physician Simon Ava was a middle-aged man who parted his graying hair in the middle, and who had authoritative-looking bushy eyebrows. He stared through his archaic half-spectacles at the datascreen sunk into the table in front of him, as if he couldn't recall the particulars of his recent postmortem examination.
"Sonny was manually strangled..." He peered over his lenses at the Captain. "...by a pair of strong, angry hands." The eyebrows arched meaningfully. "His larynx was badly deformed by the compression."
"Fingerprints?" the Captain inquired.
"None found. The killer must have used gloves." He added – too hastily, the other officers thought -- "All my rubber gloves are still in my supply cabinet." He looked around the table. Some were frowning at him. "I'm trace-testing Sonny's neck bruises. The results might tell us the kind of gloves used."
The Captain shifted his stare. "What've you found out so far, Jerry?"
Ship's Security Officer Geraldo Vargas was a young officer newly-detached to the Rockrunner from the Fleet Security Service. His clean-shaven face and crewcut marked him among the male officers, most of whom had chosen the long hair and beards allowed them during long voyages. He was determined to be the one to solve this crime. He felt that his reputation and career were at stake.
"None of the crew saw anything unusual in the corridor, sir -- except for the Sensorium's closed hatch. Nobody was seen entering or leaving the compartment during the victim's watch. But corridor traffic on that watch is fairly low. Almost anybody could have gained
"They probably just floated in, Captain. Sonny usually kept his hatch open," interjected Carlyn Wilmerding, who was the ship's Communications Officer. "Whoever killed Sonny must have closed the door behind him to hide his dirty work." She fought the tears which welled up in her verdant eyes and didn't tell them why Sonny occasionally closed the hatch. But her intimate relationship with the
murdered Sensorman was common knowledge. In the cocoon of the Rockrunner, there were few social secrets.
McCadden sympathetically accepted her explanation. "Does anybody know if Sonny had any enemies who might want to harm him?"
The officers looked at each other. Some shook their heads from side to side. Nobody spoke. After a period of gravid silence, the Captain addressed a listening crewman.
"Why didn't you foresee this incident, Tally?" He keyed his tabletop control panel to tele-summon the ship's Precognitor,
who had been listening.
All glanced at the end chair for the answer to this question. A simulacrum of their latter-day Nostradamus appeared, as if by magic. He was encased in his locomotor exoskeleton.
"I don't know, Captain." Then he added, in a flippant reference to his usual area of concern, "Perhaps, the perpetrator didn't move fast enough for me to foresee." He offered this jest with a sneering smile.
His gratuitous comment was not well-received by the Captain, but amazingly, some of his officers accepted the remark as a truth about their Precognitor's talent. They preferred to believe that Tally was so erratic that he couldn't foresee their individual behavior aboard the Rockrunner. In their view, he was almost as unwanted as a telepath would have been.
Carlyn uttered a grunt of pain and displeasure. She knew something most of the others didn't: Tally was a rejected suitor.
The Captain continued, "I'd appreciate it if you'd give this matter some consideration, Tally -- not to the exclusion of your rock watch, of course. Just foresee what you can. If you can envision someone doing something to cover up this crime, we can concentrate on him."
"Of course, Captain. I'm at your service," the seer replied in an oily manner, which only served to further irritate the woman he had courted. The simulacrum faded.
The Captain looked at his Security Officer. "Jerry, did you check with Handy? He might have seen something."
The officer was too embarrassed to admit that he hadn't. He indirectly replied, "I'll get on it right away, sir."
"Okay. Unless someone has anything else..." He paused for input. "This meeting is over."
Ship's Psych Officer Anna Olafssen had almost said, "I knew this would happen eventually, Captain." But she had held her tongue. To have said it would have indicted the ship's administration. She knew better than to do that, especially at a staff conference, where the other officers would certainly take a collective offense at the remark.
The hatch to the Sensorium was open. The Security Officer pulled himself inside and toward the Sensorman's chair. Although the operator must have heard his approach, he did not greet the visitor or even check the rearview mirror mounted above the console to see who had entered.
Vargas floated up behind the seat and put his hands loosely around the dark neck of the Sensorman.
The operator's head rotated around on his neck coupling, and his disturbing artificial eyes stared at the officer whose hands were grasping him. But he said nothing. As usual, he waited patiently for the human to explain himself.
"This is how it was done, Handy... by whom I don't know, yet."
"The death of Sensorman Hales was an unfortunate occurrence, sir."
Handy's pseudo-sincerity sounded to the Security Officer like a preprogrammed response. He knew that the robot's designers had studied human habits extensively before coding Handy's basic social-interaction algorithms.
The robot returned his eyes to the console, even though he was plugged into it for direct monitoring of the instruments. Duty was his official function. Socializing was incidental.
"'An unfortunate occurrence'? It was bloody murder."
"Just so, sir."
Robot, Ship's, General Utility, Mark-17A2 wore a black bowtie.
A crewman had put it on him, and in his usual accommodating manner, the electromechanical being had continued to wear it, to the amusement of the ship's personnel. One of the officers had remarked that Handy, as the robot was generally known, was now "Handy Dandy." This appellation had stuck to him like the microscopic airborne dust which got through the ship's electrostatic filters.
Handy had been created to perform a variety of shipboard tasks. His extensive library of knowledge and skills made him capable of filling in for sick, missing -- or dead -- crewmen. He did what he was told to do by enlisted men or officers. At first, he was programmed to accept commands only from officers, but that directive proved to be too restrictive. There were times when it was necessary for him to obey
ordinary crewmen in expedient tasks. His programming had been modified accordingly.
He was short, a meter-and-a-half, because he sometimes had to squeeze into tight places, and constructed of a satin-finish, blue-black durillium alloy. Early robots with reflective surfaces had been found to be distracting to human personnel, so darker colors were now preferred. Despite his many electromechanical interfaces and interconnections, Handy moved with surprising fluidity. Aboard the Rockrunner, his zeegee agility was legendary.
Now, he was filling in for the deceased Sonny Hales at the Sensorman's console until a human crewman could be trained by one of the other two watch operators. Then, Handy would move on to other tasks.
The robot was the Captain's favorite crewman because he followed orders unquestioningly, so long as these didn't conflict with his Asimovian programming. He was versatile, never developed "attitude," and didn't seek promotion.
"Did you notice anything unusual near the Sensorium on the day of the 'occurrence,' Handy?" asked Vargas.
"No, sir." The robot's eyes remained fixed on the instruments.
Just then, the ship made a sudden slight change of course. An intercepting-meteoroid contact appeared on the console's main display. Vargas watched as the rockblip closed the kilometer-scale distance toward the ship's centered display symbol, then passed by, harmlessly.
"That was a close one."
"Does Tally usually foresee meteoroids and signal the Helmsman before you detect them?" To Vargas, this reality seemed to place the Ship's Precognitor and Sensorman in a redundant, but necessary, competition.
"If they are large enough, sir."
"How big do they have to be?"
"Large enough for Mr. Nostradamus to foresee, sir." This circular explanation verified what Vargas had been told about Handy's
intellect. Prying information from him was sometimes a daunting task because of his rigidly-structured positronic thought processes.
"I see." Vargas returned to the matter at hand. "Did you use the corridor, out there, on the day of the murder?"
"Was this compartment's hatch open?"
"Did you look in at Sensorman Hales?"
Vargas knew that the robot lacked human curiosity. He would pass an open hatch without so much as a glance inside, something that few humans could resist doing.
"Handy, do you know anything about Sensorman Hales' death?"
The robot replied without a pause for reflection, "He was strangled from behind his seat, sir."
Vargas frowned. "How do you know that?"
"You showed me how it was done, sir."
"Thanks." Chagrined and frustrated, the Security Officer left the Sensorium without another word. He was certain that no offense would be taken by the substitute operator.
Tally Nostradamus was edgy. "The security guy is questioning everybody. Did you handle him okay?"
Tally grimaced. "Are you sure he doesn't suspect you?"
"Are other crewmen talking with you about the murder?"
The Precognitor seemed satisfied. "Of course. What else is there to talk about on this flying coffin? What more exciting topic of conversation could there be than Sonny Hales' mysterious death?"
"I'm glad we get along so well, my friend. I value your tailor-made friendship." Tally's subtle sarcasm had no effect on his listener.
"I'm approaching a dead end, Captain. I can't find any on-duty crewman who admits being near the Sensorium around the time of the murder, and there's no way to track those who were off-duty at the time." He added, "You'll recall that the Fleet rejected
corridor-monitoring CCTV cameras in this vessel. My only recourse now is the polygraph."
The Captain ignored the implied criticism of his recommendation against the recording cameras. "I'd prefer not to order polygraph tests, Jerry. The crew won't like that."
"Those who aren't guilty have nothing to fear, Captain."
"About Sonny's murder, yes. About other things, that's a different matter. They'd be afraid of a fishing expedition. You remember the missing ice cream the cooks complained about? And the other thefts and petty vandalisms?"
Before Vargas could respond, the compartment door opened, and Dr. Ava pulled himself inside, without announcing himself. The Captain frowned at the man's bold entrance but said nothing. The Physician was one of his most valuable senior officers.
"Oh good, Jerry's here. He'll want to hear this."
"What've you got, Doc?" replied Vargas. The Captain scowled at being left out of this colloquy. Ignoring the Security Officer,
the Physician said, "You'd better prepare yourself, Captain. This is weird."
"What is it, Si?"
Ava handed the Captain a sheet of paper. "You'll never guess what material I found traces of on Sonny's bruises." He paused for effect.
"Tell me," replied the Captain, ignoring the paper.
"Durillium. In a ten-finger strangulation pattern." His eyebrows arched.
The two officers stared at the medical officer as if they expected more from him. "And...?" challenged the Captain.
"Just that – durillium -- no rubber or fibers." Vargas thought Ava looked relieved that his medical gloves were not implicated
in the crime.
"Durillium," repeated the Captain, as he considered this development.
The Physician looked at both of the officers, awaiting the expected reaction. When he didn't receive it, he continued, tentatively. "Only one 'crewman' has durillium fingers."
Vargas scoffed at this startling accusation. He viewed the ship's robot as beyond suspicion. "You can't be serious, Doc. You know Handy can't kill anybody."
Dr. Ava had the only solid evidence in the case, and he was determined to play it for all it was worth. "I know all about Handy's Asimovian programming, but the durillium traces do present us with an incriminating picture."
"Si, Handy obeys the First Law of Robotics. 'No robot may harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,'" recalled the Captain with certainty. He added, "Robots don't kill people."
Dr. Ava shrugged. "What happened, then? Did someone use a pair of durillium gloves to make it look like Handy did it? That doesn't make any sense. Are there even any durillium gloves onboard?"
"Someone must have made a pair," offered Vargas. He repeated the Captain's confident belief. "Handy couldn't have done this."
"Who did, then? Do you have any suspects, Jerry?" The Physician's question was an uncomfortable reminder of the investigation's failure.
"Did you ask Handy if he did it? They say he can't lie."
"No, I didn't ask him, Doctor. I'd have felt like two cents if I'd done that."
"Well..." Ava looked meaningfully at the Captain. "Let's have him in here and ask him."
The Captain considered this novel suggestion. With polygraphy ruled out, it could be the only course of action left in the futile investigation.
"Why don't you ask him, Doc?" Vargas smirked, knowing his fellow officer would be reluctant to do that.
"It's not my job to interrogate criminal suspects, Jerry," Ava replied with some irritation.
"I'll do it." With that assertion of responsibility, the master of the Rockrunner put his querulous subordinates at ease. "I'll do it as a matter of record," added the Captain. "But I don't expect any surprises.
"Crewman Handy reporting, sir."
The blue-black robot pulled himself up to the Captain's desk and floated there, his feet several centimeters above the floor bulkhead. The Security Officer and the Ship's Physician sat in two nearby chairs. Vargas was unhooked from his chair so he could protect the Captain if he had to. It was a prospect he vaguely feared. He kept his right hand on his shoulder-holstered radpistol.
"Uh..." the Captain began tentatively. "Handy, we're investigating the death of Sensorman Sonny Hales. Are you aware of this crime?" He fumbled for a lead-in to the question he must ask.
"The Ship's Physician found traces of durillium on the victim's neck bruises, in a ten-finger pattern." He paused for a reaction from the robot. There was none. The Captain glanced at his Security Officer, who was poised for action.
The silence was leaden. Then, the ship's master released his decisively-gathered courage in a headlong rush.
"Handy, did you kill Sonny Hales?"
Handy answered the question, simply and directly. His impassive metallic face could not display his feelings -- if he could be said to have any.
His audience was thunderstruck. Vargas pulled his radpistol halfway from its holster, but the robot remained unmoving. The officers detected no embarrassment in his calm demeanor. He was merely reporting in good order to his Captain.
"But you told the Security Officer you knew nothing about the crime."
"I sought to conceal my involvement, sir." His explanation seemed fantastically improbable.
"Then why are you confessing, now?" The Captain's face was a mask of amazement and disbelief.
"The evidence of my involvement seems conclusive, sir."
McCadden sputtered onward, "But how could you have killed anyone? Your programming is designed to prevent that."
The robot replied, enigmatically, "I applied quantitative reasoning to the First Law of Robotics, sir."
"How? What was your motive for killing Sensorman Hales?"
"He had to die, sir. His negligence could have brought great harm to the ship."
Each officer stared at each of the others, as if one of them might be able to explain this disturbing statement. The Captain resumed his tedious interrogation.
"How did you reach this conclusion?"
"I was assisted by Mr. Nostradamus, sir. He is my special friend."
The officers' eyes widened and their jaws dropped.
"Go on, Handy," urged the grim-faced Captain.
"Mr. Nostradamus reported that Sensorman Hales drank too much alcohol, and thus was inattentive during his sensor-watch. He also reported that Sensorman Hales engaged in sex play with the Communications Officer while on duty. Mr. Nostradamus foresaw that a large meteoroid would intercept the ship while he, himself, was in an allowable sleep period, and that Sensorman Hales would not detect it in time for the ship to change course. He pointed out that if I did not kill the Sensorman, many more ship's personnel would die. He stated
that my programmatic prohibition against murder must be interpreted quantitatively, as well as qualitatively. By killing one person, many others would be saved from death. That interpretation is logical because I cannot, through inaction, allow humans to come to harm."
The Captain avoided looking at the other officers present.
"Thank you, Handy. You may return to your duties, now." Ava and Vargas gasped in astonishment at the Captain's action. The Security Officer wanted to object, but he didn't.
Robot, Ship's, General Utility, Mark-17A2 calmly left the compartment as if he had just reported a leak in the ship's plumbing.
"That was the most incredible..." Dr. Ava was at a loss for words to describe what he had witnessed. "... outrageous..."
"But was it true, Doctor?" interjected Vargas. "Maybe he's covering for Tally." The Security Officer was annoyed that the robot had so adroitly made him a victim of its unknown wiles.
"Tally couldn't have crushed Hales' neck like we found it," replied the Physician. "You know what a weakling he is."
The Captain spoke. "I believe him, Jerry. Handy simply told you what was necessary to conceal his involvement in the crime. It was the most logical thing to do after he had 'reinterpreted' his programming.... Si, do you believe what Tally told him about Sonny Hales?"
"Hales does... did... like his booze, but his drinking doesn't seem to have affected his work." He reminded McCadden, "The sensor computer records the Sensorman's response times to rock alarms. Has the Sensor Officer ever brought any of Hales' detection failures to your attention?"
"No. He did his job satisfactorily."
Vargas asked, "Captain, do you believe what Tally told Handy about the Communications Officer?"
"I doubt it, Jerry. Lt. Wilmerding is too responsible an officer to distract a sensorman from his watch for 'sex play,' as Handy put it. I know they were lovers, but..."
"I heard a rumor that Tally once put the make on Carlyn, Captain. If that's true, it could explain the motivation for his misinformation to Handy. When she rejected him, he might have ranted, and she might have responded by comparing him unfavorably to Hales."
"Jealousy is a powerful motive," seconded the Physician.
"Yes." considered McCadden. "But I'm sure Tally will deny discussing Sensorman Hales with Handy, and he'll certainly deny
getting a robot to murder his rival. I can foresee him laughing in our faces myself."
"Okay, Captain. Then Tally's the real killer. That smug little bastard's just the type to do something like this."
"He'll never confess," Ava asserted confidently. "We're left with a terrible conflict, here."
A heavy silence followed this truth, during which only the ambient sounds of the ship could be heard. The two officers stared at the Captain's hands, which were being wrung in frustration. "I suppose I could enlarge this investigation. I could question Tally and Carlyn. I could get Lt. Olafssen's take on possible motivation... but I won't."
The master of the Rockrunner keyed his comm-panel. "Chief Engineer, this is the Captain."
"Yes, Captain?" The reply came from a distant part of the ship.
"Angus, didn't you tell me that Handy has always wanted to get in some extravehicular time?"
"Yes, sir, but we've always avoided risking him by sending him outside. He's too valuable."
"Didn't you say something about 'candy'?"
The Engineer chuckled. "I joked with Handy that letting him go outside would be like giving a child some candy as a reward. I told him he had to earn the outside by his performance inside. It was just a way of putting him off about doing EV work."
"I'm sure he got the point, Angus. But I'm afraid he's finally earned his candy."
Starlight bathed Handy as he jetted unerringly toward the two main propulsion engines at the rear of the ship. He had been sent outside to check on a cracked rocket nozzle.
If he had been capable of pride, he certainly would have been feeling it, now. He finally had permission to perform outside maintenance. He noted that the Captain had approved the Chief Engineer's action and, inaccurately, that this approval showed human confidence in his ability to initiate necessary actions.
Ignoring the glorious sights of free space, he reached Engine No. 2. He moved into its huge, funnel-shaped nozzle and began his careful inspection by playing his bright inspection lamp over the heat-scarred interior surfaces. Even in high-resolution mode, his keen eyes could see no fracture in the pitted metal. He switched his vision to the infrared. Still, he detected no serious defects. Perhaps, he thought, the
Engineer had made a mistake, and the hazardous crack was in the other engine's nozzle.
"Chief Engineer, this is Handy. I detect no fracture in the nozzle of Engine No. 2."
Then, the robot moved out of the nozzle and toward Engine No. 1. He did this without the permission of the Engineer. Since his elimination of the sensor hazard posed by Sonny Hales, he had begun to evince a new independence of action. He had learned too much about human frailties and weaknesses while serving aboard the Rockrunner to rely completely on human judgment.
Disturbed by what he must now do, the Chief Engineer made the mistake of requesting the Captain's final approval, without ordering the robot to remain inside the engine's nozzle.
"He's inside No. 2, sir. Now's the time."
"Fire," the Captain ordered, calmly.
"Hold on, Handy," the Engineer radioed to the robot. But Handy had already moved away from No. 2's nozzle.
From his master control console, the Chief Engineer manually set both the ship's big engines alight. His hand trembled as he turned the key in the lockswitch. He genuinely liked Handy, and he resented the dirty job the Captain had given him.
Hellfire sprang from the engines... too late.
Two plumes of fire gushed hugely and silently in the vacuum of space-- but on both sides of Handy as he slowed his progress between the engines in response to the Engineer's tardy order. His eyes switched to protective mode as they were bathed in unendurable brilliance. His propulsor pack retrojetted to stop him.
His body danced in the vortex between the fires of his intended destruction, his mind ignorant of the brutal reality. Situated thus, he escaped incineration.
"Sir, someone has fired the engines," he calmly reported to the Chief Engineer.
The Captain's commline crackled with the Engineer's panicky voice. "We may have missed, Captain! I saw him in the 'tween-engines
camera! He moved out of No. 2 before I could stop him!"
"Okay, Angus. I'll check with the Sensorium." McCadden noted the stress in the voice of his Chief Engineer. He would have to have
another talk with him, soon. The officer had to be discouraged from talking to anyone about his role in the resolution of the Handy problem.
"Sensorman, this is the Captain!" McCadden inserted a false urgency into his own voice. "Do you detect Handy behind the ship? The engines fired while he was out there!"
The Sensorman switched his display to near-field. "I have him, sir, but I can't tell if he's okay. He's falling behind real fast."
"Damn it!" McCadden said. "He's probably fried -- and we can't spare the fuel to rendezvous and be sure. Thanks anyway, Sensorman. Captain out."
In his compartment, seated where his predecessor had been strangled, the Sensorman watched Handy's blip move farther from the ship's
display symbol. "So long, Handy," he said. "Guess you finally got all the candy you could ever want."
He and most of the other crewmembers would never learn about Handy's role in Sonny Hales' murder.
The Captain addressed his Security Officer and Ship's Physician, both of whom floated before his desk-station. "We're not going back. We'll just leave him there. The blast probably fatally damaged his functions." Then he added to reassure them, "In a few weeks, the rocks will riddle what's left of him."
The other officers drew a sad comfort from this assessment. In their privileged view, justice had been done.
"Now he won't be around to infect any other robots with his novel interpretation of Asimovian programming," assured Lt. Vargas.
"Thank God," added Dr. Ava.
Handy drifted in the almost-nothing of the A-Belt, his inspection lamp strung out on its tether, his visual sensors recovering from the brilliance of the Rockrunner's rocket plumes. He never considered that he was at the place of his intended death. Again he
radioed for help, but his transmissions went unanswered. He switched to the emergency rescue channel and repeated his calls, to no effect.
Then the robot began searching his stored data, seeking an explanation for what had happened to him. Finding no certain answer in technological sources, he examined humanistic works. He felt confident that he could discover a precedent for his current predicament.
Finally, in an ancient text, he found some words which seemed relevant. He spoke them, though soundlessly to the vacuum around him, as an incantation.
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
But because he was only a creature of humankind, his question was not answered.
© 2006 by Frederick Rustam
Bio: Frederick Rustam is retired civil servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. He finds writing stories more enjoyable than indexing documents. He has been contributing stories to various webzines for a number of years (including Planet Magazine); his first Aphelion appearance was in Issue 6(!) (1997). Among his more recent Aphelion appearances were the multi-part serial 'The Questors' (2003) and At the Lake of Golden Sunsets (November, 2004).
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