“—the bed bugs bite,” Jack said before initiating standby mode for EMA, her Electro Mechanic Assist bot, between Control Station #16’s biweekly maintenance checks.
For EMA, flipping from standby mode meant seeing Jack’s face mere moments after her last farewell, her thumbs wiping oil smudges and dust from their external interface as she loaded a pre-programmed list of duties for which she needed EMA’s assistance.
Today, it wasn’t Jack that flipped EMA, but Dr. Clementine.
EMA’s internal clock blipped that they were two days early for the next scheduled maintenance check. Their processors read that Jack was not in the room with Dr. Clementine, who, furthermore, had brought no instructions for EMA. No loadable data disks. Only her empty hands lingered softly against EMA’s external interface, her finger tracing circles around their blue lighting array.
“Hey, Emma.” She leaned against the back of her wheelchair, hand resting lightly on EMA. Her nails were painted cherry coke red, but they were chipped, needing a new coat with matte varnish, just the way Jack liked it.
“Dr. Clementine,” EMA said, inflection tinny from the utilitarian speaker box which served as their mouth.
Dr. Clementine smiled without a say cheese show of teeth as she tied her hair back into a thick ponytail. “We need to do something about your voice processor. You sound just just like Jack.” She reached for EMA’s speaker, her thumb lingering there, tracing the rectangle shape with the scuffed, silver paint. “It’s confusing. Hearing you both speak with the same voice.”
She had done that a lot with Jack, reaching up towards her to fix her lipstick, tracing the outline of her lips. EMA logged to ask why she would do that when they weren’t like Jack for they had no such facial features to caress.
“She is the model for my voice protocols,” EMA said, blue lights that Jack had once called their eyes blinking. “Where is Jack? We are early starting our routine checkup for the Control Center.”
“Always straight to business aren’t you, Emma?” Dr. Clementine rolled her chair backwards, face twisting into shadow as she turned to leave. “You’ll need to initiate Maintenance Protocol Beta.”
“To be initiated only in case of absence by the System Engineer, whether on sick leave, vacation, disciplinary action, or at will termination. Primary station maintenance will be fulfilled by the Electro Maintenance Assist bot. By no means should the EMA be considered a substitute or replacement for a Systems Engineer,” EMA recited, green lights blipping across their external interface as they checked the logs that had been loaded into their system while on standby. “Jack did not log that she was leaving.”
“It was unexpected,” Dr. Clementine said. “She’ll be back soon.”
“I’ll presume that I’ll see her sooner than you, relatively speaking. Jack calls relativity time twisters.” EMA paused, but when Dr. Clementine said nothing, they said, “Get it? Like tongue twisters but with time.”
Dr. Clementine spared a moment to look back at EMA and roll her eyes, but she did not laugh, not like Jack did at her own jokes.
EMA used their legs to walk after Dr. Clementine, logging that their joints were in need of maintenance. Though EMA recognized that their form was a crude approximation of the bipedal structure similar to what Dr. Clementine and Jack employed, EMA had always notified Jack that it was not a conducive shape that allowed for self-sufficient care, and regularly logged the complaint. For example, EMA was unable to reach the interlocking joints that functioned similarly to human vertebrae. Jack had always taken care of them, but she was not here.
Perhaps Dr. Clementine would help. She was a doctor, after all, and Dr. Clementine had told EMA that it was the responsibility of all doctors to help any being in need. EMA logged to request maintenance care before the end of their shift. Perhaps they would accompany the request with an off-the-cuff joke about a maintenance assist bot needing maintenance assistance.
Jack had been fond of jokes, specifically play on words.
“Okay, well,” Dr. Clementine said, “I’ll just let you do your thing. You can reach us over the com if you need anything.”
EMA blipped a blue affirmative light and proceeded to the Control Center to calibrate the scanning equipment that monitored the structural integrity of Control Station 16, which was stationed at Black Hole, code named #16, located in that area of the galaxy that Jack was fond of describing as Nowhere’s Middle of Nowhere.
According to Jack, no one ever came here, which EMA knew to be false since there were records of a freighter docking after their slingshot from Control Center Oscar. Their cargo consisted of coffee beans, a bold roast, and they had given the Control Station a month’s supply as part of their payment for use of the black hole.
EMA had been on standby during their visit, but the records didn’t lie. Jack excused her own falsehoods as hyperbole, which according to her, were didn’t counts.
After they entered the code granting them access to the Control Center, they blipped green and red processing lights when they realized that Controller Larissa Cairn was already there. She had tied her black hair back with a pink satin scarf, and she wore a jewel blue blouse, the one that was soft like silk because it wasn’t real silk, the one that had been Jack’s favorite.
Even though there was a chair, she stood, preferring to lean over the desk, bent at the waist, her face hidden in her elbows as she waited for the program to alert her of its findings.
“I can take over for you, Controller Cairn,” EMA said. “I apologize for my lateness. Or for my earliness, relatively speaking.”
Controller Cairn did not lift her head when she spoke. “Please don’t trouble yourself, Emma.” Her voice came through muffled and unclear, like bad reception snowed with static.
“Dr. Clementine ordered that I initiate Protocol Beta,” EMA said. “Line 1039 of that code contains the directive for me to monitor the structural integrity of Control Station #16 and to recalibrate the fields and seals as necessary in order to maintain the safety of this facility.” EMA paused. “As Jack would say, I must insist.”
Controller Cairn finally looked up. “And I am overriding that order with authorization code Beta Zeta Delta. I will monitor the fields and seals, and recalibrate as necessary.”
EMA’s lights blipped blue. “Confirmed, Controller Cairn.” EMA logged that they would double check Controller Cairn’s work after they finished their primary directives. After all, Jack always had EMA double check her own work. Two eyes are better than one, she always said, and EMA agreed, even though they didn’t have eyes in the organic sense of the sentiment.
Technically, when Jack and EMA worked together, their work was triple checked, as Controller Cairn always looked over their reports, and everything else that was directly or indirectly involved with the Control Station, especially trade routes and reports of smuggling activity.
Controller Cairn did not usually have the time to assemble data herself. It was very strange. EMA logged the incident. Perhaps Jack would perform the triple check when she returned.
Controller Cairn wiped her eyes, not with the cuff of her sleeve like Jack did, but with a lacy white hanky. Her initials were embroidered in scarlet thread. Jack’s hand. Her stitches were uneven. Novice. Controller Cairn put the hanky away, slid it back into her pocket, even though her eyes were still wet.
EMA logged the incident. “Are you alright? Should I call for Dr. Clementine?”
Wiping the tender skin beneath her eyes, like Jack did when she fixed her liner, Controller Cairn turned to face EMA. There were wrinkles, smudged with day old makeup, around her eyes. Her thumbs traced circles against her black skin as she held her hands together. “I’m fine, Emma. Dr. Clementine is aware. There is no need to bother her, okay?”
“Confirmed.” EMA left the Control Center and started their work at the forward end of the facility, which housed the sleeping quarters for the three women who manned the station.
Three-tiered bunks took up much of the space while an entertainment system ten years out of date left just enough space for Dr. Clementine to maneuver her wheelchair safely. Still, the space was cramped, and sometimes the occupants injured themselves bumping into walls or beds if they weren’t careful.
Jack had shown them one such bruise as she prodded the hurt with her fingertips, smiling and laughing even though there was pain.
EMA, of course, did not bruise. If they bumped into the entertainment system, the system would be the one that would sustain damage while EMA would not due to the superior alloy that comprised their interior and exterior systems.
Controller Cairn’s and Dr. Clementine’s bunks were made according to facility standards, but Jack’s wasn’t. Her pale blue sheets were turned down, wrinkled and messy. Her sleeping clothes were strewn across the pillows instead of folded neatly in the storing compartments underneath the bottom bunk.
EMA bundled the sleeping clothes to be cleaned, then decided the sheets should be cleaned as well. Perhaps that was why they had remained unmade.
As EMA worked, they realized that the room itself was not up to station standards. None of their few possessions was neatly put away, so EMA rearranged their nail polish from dark reds, to pinks, to blues, to blacks, to greens.
They ordered the oils and lotions and perfumes in tear-dropped bottles from tallest to shortest. So many of their bottles were almost empty. EMA logged which ones were in need of refilling in order to check the inventory then submit a request for replacements if necessary.
They opened the storage units lining the bottom bunk and refolded the clothes neatly. For the socks they were unable to find matching pairs, they set aside in their own separate drawer.
When finished in their sleeping quarters, EMA logged the activity as completed, and continued to the kitchen to check that the equipment there was in working order and to inventory their food supplies.
The kitchen, however, was locked and emergency sealed, refusing to accept any of EMA’s access codes. EMA logged the incident as an event to be escalated to Controller Cairn.
It was imperative that EMA’s software be kept up to date with all current access codes. It would be impossible to assist if they had no proper access.
The narrow hall leading from the kitchen to the med bay flickered from brightness to shadow to brightness. EMA logged to discover the source of the flickering and to repair according to their ability.
It was well documented how flickering lights instigated headaches in the crew, specifically for Controller Cairn, who had a history of suffering from migraines.
The med bay doors slid open at their approach because Dr. Clementine did not believe in locking the area with an access code. No potential patient should be inhibited from any required care.
That was her philosophy. That’s what she believed. Believed it with a crossed heart and hope to die.
A patient already occupied the med bay, which was strange since there was no record of a docked ship at the Control Center, and there were only two crewmen aboard the station.
The patient’s face was covered with a white sheet, so EMA pulled it down because they knew that humans became uncomfortable and scared when their breathing apparatuses were inhibited.
EMA, of course, did not fear suffocation as they did not need to breathe.
Their lights strobed green, red, and blue as EMA considered for a long time the face under the sheet, which they recognized as Jack’s.
They logged Jack’s pallid complexion, Jack’s lack of a heartbeat, Jack’s inactive internal organic systems.
EMA accessed Dr. Clementine’s files and found the recorded time of death, which had occurred twelve hours ago.
They copied and flagged the log for their own records, then replayed it in the silence to confirm Dr. Clementine’s voiceprint. Voice recognition pattern confirmed as Dr. Clementine’s.
But Dr. Clementine had told EMA herself not two hours ago that Jack would “be back soon.”
Voice recognition pattern also confirmed as Dr. Clementine’s.
The red and green lights blipped, chirruping quietly as EMA reanalyzed the logs they had made and the data they had saved in the past few minutes.
The body that had once been Jack’s had already begun to decay.
Relatively speaking, organic beings were in a constant state of decay, but the cessation of critical life functions had accelerated the process.
Soon, Jack would no longer be recognizable as Jack to human eyes. EMA would always be able to recognize Jack, of course: DNA and digital reconstruction based on bone and facial structure were only some ways, but it was not per policy to allow a dead body to rot on a med bay gurney.
Jack would never have allowed herself to be in such flagrant violations of protocol.
EMA replaced the sheet as they had found it, as Jack had taught them after EMA had examined Dr. Clementine’s lipstick and had failed to return it to Dr. Clementine’s annoyance, and, dragging Jack’s body from the gurney, carried it to the airlock, which was the primary entry and exit to and from the facility.
After entering the access codes, they tethered themselves to the station as the airlock began its opening procedures, and EMA’s censors recorded the oxygen dissipating into space, tugging at their body and Jack’s too.
A dull thump sounded behind EMA. With their rearview sensors, they perceived Dr. Clementine, her palm banging flat against the glass, open mouth twisting her face.
EMA raised their hand in greeting, as Jack had taught them, as was their habit when they took their space walks together to check the exterior systems of the facility.
Dr. Clementine was supposed to wave back, but she didn’t. Instead, her hand slid against the glass. Her face was wet, her features contorted, her breathing labored. Then she slammed her com against the window, her mouth pressed up against the glass, her words fogging it over so that she could write something in the cloud, but it was not one that EMA recognized.
EMA checked their own com, but there was no incoming message. They logged a notation to examine the communication system as there was obviously an error.
But now that the airlock was open all the way, they guided Jack’s body to the exit, and pushed while Dr. Clementine pounded with increasing volume and strength on the glass behind them.
Jack’s body floated towards empty space, drifting without purpose or navigational guidance.
There was no telling where Jack’s body would end up. Without the ability to receive the radio signals of the Control Centers, it would probably fall into the black hole, never to be seen again, like the ships that overshot their slingshots from station to station.
EMA watched Jack’s body until it drifted beyond reach of the station’s space lights, winking in the darkness, then diverted their energies towards attending to their duties, tending to the sensor arrays and the radio signal alerting incoming ships to the presence of their Center, the needs of their Center, and the black hole it monitored.
Jack had said they were lighthouses in space, bringing their star sailors home safe and sound.
It was a reference that EMA did not understand, but Jack had promised that she had ordered data cards coded with the history of lighthouses.
EMA logged to see if the cards had arrived yet.
Everything appeared to be in order, except for the outside kitchen area, whose structural integrity had become compromised to such a degree that it had initiated emergency procedures—which had caused the seal that would not accept any of EMA’s access codes.
Jack must have been in the kitchen when the structure failed.
EMA’s green processing lights blipped.
Oxygen from the building would have dissipated into the vacuum, until there was no more for Jack to breathe. Jack would have been unable to get out in time. Control Station #16 had saved the other two members of the crew over Jack.
Controller Cairn would have donned a space suit to retrieve Jack’s body. It would have taken her a little over ten minutes to do so. She would have had to use the airlock, and make the trek around the building with reduced mobility due to the suit.
By the time she arrived, the body might have been still warm, but Jack would have been unconscious due to lack of oxygen. If Controller Cairn had brought the second suit, she still would have had to put that on Jack before bringing her back through the airlock to Dr. Clementine’s care, who would have been able to do nothing due to the do not resuscitate order in Jack’s file.
Even if there had been no order, anything that Dr. Clementine might have been able to do for Jack would have come too late.
EMA logged to sync their systems with the Control Station to confirm their extrapolation of events, then began to analyze the breach, far too large to repair with their patch kits, which were designed only to repair small holes.
They logged the materials necessary to repair the damage, then compared it to the Station’s inventory records.
There was not enough.
EMA logged that too, then finished their inspection of the facility’s exterior. There were no other weaknesses that they could find, but then, they hadn’t found anything last time that would have indicated that the structure was on the brink of failing.
EMA logged the observation.
When EMA returned to the airlock, Dr. Clementine was still there on the other side of the doors, waiting with her head pressed against the window, smudging the glass.
EMA logged to clean it.
Only after EMA had re-entered the facility did Dr. Clementine finally raise her head. “Why did you do that?”
“Do what, Dr. Clementine?” EMA asked. “I have done many things since we last saw each other. I have been a busy bee.”
Dr. Clementine clutched the arms of her wheelchair. The polish on her fingers was all gone now. EMA found it in flakes on the floor, under her wheels.
They logged to sweep it up.
“Who gave you authorization to take the body?” She rolled herself closer, then shoved a finger against EMA’s exterior. “To barge into my med bay like you own it?”
“I’m a maintenance bot,” EMA said. “I go where I’m needed.”
Dr. Clementine’s eyes narrowed, her complexion paling as her muscles went rigid. “Jack was not trash for you to throw away like some bio-waste bag.”
“She was dead,” EMA said. “I know because you declared it yourself.” They replayed Dr. Clementine pronouncing time of death, and Dr. Clementine’s limbs shook as she pressed her palms over her ears.
“Stop it,” she said. “Stop.”
“It is procedure to dispose of corpses in this way to stave off disease after death.”
“You had no right—she was still my patient, my responsibility—you didn’t even give us time to perform a service–“
“I’m a maintenance bot,” EMA said. “I go where—“
“I don’t care what you are,” Dr. Clementine said. “We’re never going to see her again, and you threw her away without even letting us know what you were doing. Just like you threw away her clothes and remade her bed and touched every last thing she touched. Didn’t anybody teach you not to touch what wasn’t yours?”
“You said that she was coming back. You lied. Or you were mistaken. Or it was easier to say that than that she was dead, again.” EMA went silent, green lights blipping thoughtfully. “Jack had trouble saying some things too.”
Dr. Clementine clutched at her chair, lips a thin line, body trembling. Then she shook her head. “What do you know about not knowing how to say things? You’re a robot, you don’t understand anything.”
“Dr. Clementine,” EMA said, “I am a maintenance bot—“
But she did not allow EMA to finish their sentence as she leaned forward in her chair and whispered, “Off.”
EMA’s systems shut down without following proper procedures. Emergency saves were initiated.
Then nothing until—
“You initiated an unsafe shut down when there was no emergency,” EMA said to Dr. Clementine, their red lights flickering as they examined their system, making sure it still functioned properly.
“That was a couple days ago,” Dr. Clementine said. “You sure do know how to hold a grudge.”
“For me,” EMA said, “it was only a moment ago. A time twister, you see.” The date confirmed that yes, it had only been two days since the incident.
“Got you something, Emma,” Dr. Clementine said, tapping a data disk against their chest center.
EMA checked the data logs. “Is it a history of the lighthouses?”
“The what?” Dr. Clementine said. “No. I have no idea about any of that. This is just a little something I found while you were off. The standard voice protocols from the Central Computer before Jack replaced it with her own.”
EMA checked their systems. “My voice protocols are fine. I am A-okay.”
As she inserted the data disk into EMA’s receptor slot, Dr. Clementine smiled the same smile that caused Jack to roll her eyes.
Flagged Log: Jack’s dead.
Data began to stream into their system.
“Gonna let those DL, okay?” Dr. Clementine leaned back, watching the way EMA’s green lights flickered into brightness as their processors analyzed the code. “I think the change will be the best for everyone, don’t you?”
She left though before EMA could respond.
EMA listened to the voice protocol samples. It wasn’t like Jack’s voice. It wasn’t like their voice.
They deleted the data, then went to the Control Center to update the radio signal so that any incoming freighter ships would know what supplies the Center needed for repairs, and to review the structural integrity check that Controller Cairn had initiated two days ago.
Controller Cairn had already updated the signal alerting listening ships of their need for a new engineer. EMA synced to the Center’s computer and instructed it to beam out the additional code listing everything they would need to repair the Station and restore complete structural integrity.
Dr. Clementine rolled into the control center. “You almost done in there?”
“Yes.” EMA said.
Dr. Clementine’s face folded into a frown. “Your voice—“
“Yes,” EMA said. “It’s still mine. Or Jack’s. Relatively speaking.”
Dr. Clementine bit her lip, staring down at her standard issue metal tipped boots that rested on the footrests of her chair. “It’s Jack’s voice,” she whispered, “and you know it.”
“She gave it to me,” EMA said.
“And she’s gone now, her voice with her.” Dr. Clementine wiped her eyes, shielding her face from EMA’s view. “What did you do with the standard voice protocol?”
“I deleted it.”
Then Dr. Clementine raised her eyes. This time, her voice was soft when she said, “Off.”
“Please enter access code,” EMA said.
“Excuse me, Emma?”
“Please enter access code,” EMA repeated.
Dr. Clementine rolled herself closer to EMA. “Is this a joke? You’re a maintenance bot. You don’t need access codes. You’re not part of the security system protocols. You just maintain them. And you can’t even do that properly,” she said, pointing in the general direction of the kitchen.
“I do maintain the facility, but I cannot if I am to be randomly shut down.” EMA checked their logs, and compared them to the present state of the facility. “No one has repaired the lights in the hall. I was going to do it, but then you shut me down. How can I assist with the maintenance of this facility if I am off?”
Dr. Clementine slumped against her chair. “Unbelievable,” she said. “Jack is dead, the kitchen is untenable, and your priorities are about the lights? Why aren’t you more concerned that the structural integrity of the facility failed? And that was your job to make sure it didn’t fail. Why aren’t you out there right now fixing it, like a good little robot?”
EMA logged Dr. Clementine’s observation, noting that it was similar to one they made two days ago. “The lights afflict Controller Cairn with migraines. That is my job too.”
“You don’t give a shit about Jack, but you still keep her voice.” Dr. Clementine’s hands clawed her knees.
“I don’t understand,” EMA said.
After a moment, Dr. Clementine said, “I don’t think you can.”
EMA’s lights blipped green. “Is that bad?”
Dr. Clementine’s head jerked up, lips curling around her teeth. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think it’s bad,” EMA said. “I don’t understand lots of things. Like how we’re lighthouses in space bringing our star sailors home safe and sound. That’s why I need the data discs that Jack said she would order for me.” Green lights blipped across their external interface. “Have they arrived yet?”
Dr. Clementine was crying. “Do you have any idea, how it’s like to hear Jack’s voice coming from you when she’s gone?”
“Jack’s dead,” EMA corrected. “There is no gone-and-back-again.”
Dr. Clementine frowned, her eyes wide and dull, her lips a thin, red line. “Jack never ordered those data disks for you. She said she did, but she never.”
EMA’s lights blipped green as they deleted data regarding the lighthouse data disks from their log. “Confirmed.”
Dr. Clementine shook her head, her fingers twisting the hem of her shirt into knots.
The Control Station beeped at EMA. The code had been updated. Controller Cairn’s work had been double-checked, and EMA submitted the reports so that Controller Cairn could look over them (again) so they could have Jack’s triple-check.
“My work here is done,” EMA said, which was also something that Jack said when she had completed a task.
“Then why are you still here?” Dr. Clementine leaned against the armrest of her wheelchair, forehead cradled in her palm. “Why don’t you run along and turn yourself off so you don’t have to deal with anything. No emotional fallouts on your to-do list today, am I right?”
EMA found the log they had made earlier, before they learned Jack was dead. “I am in need of maintenance assistance.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Dr. Clementine said.
EMA blipped blue at her. “Assist me.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because you are a doctor,” EMA said. “You must assist me.”
“Is it critical that you be repaired right this second?”
EMA bleeped a red-lighted no.
Dr. Clementine scoffed. “That’s what I thought. So why don’t we all remember that robots need engineers, not doctors.” She gripped the silver rails of her wheels and rolled backwards from the room, away from EMA. “I’m sure the engineer that will arrive eventually to replace Jack will be more than capable of taking care of you, and would do a far better job than I could do.”
“Of course,” EMA agreed. “They would need to be just as skilled or else they would be unable to perform up to standards.”
Dr. Clementine rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should figure that out for yourself. Maybe you should have a long hard think about what you’re good at and what you’re bad at and think twice before saying that the station is safe when it’s not.” She wheeled herself down the hallway towards her quarters.
“So am I to take it,” EMA said, raising the volume of their voice to ensure that Dr. Clementine would hear, “that you are not going to assist a maintenance assist ‘bot with maintenance assistance?”
Dr. Clementine did not answer. But she did raise a single finger in the air for a brief moment before disappearing into the sleeping quarters, closing the door behind her with a slam. EMA was seventy-five percent sure that Jack would have at least laughed at the word play but Dr. Clementine seemed not to have noticed it. Perhaps, she did not appreciate it, as Jack had.
The lights flickered as EMA trekked to complete their final task before returning once more to standby mode. With a squeak and squeal of screws, EMA shut down the power to that specific sector of the station and removed metal casings in the walls, exposing the electrical wiring. Their own lights blipped, hazy and soft in the darkness, as they fixed the lights in the hall to unfaltering brightness.
It was work well done, it was god-said-there-would-be-light-and-there-was-light good.
EMA raised their hand so that Jack could high-five them.
Flagged Log: Jack’s dead.
They waited for a long time, their hand still raised, untiring, because they had no muscles to tire. They called out “high-five” in Jack’s voice twenty-seven times until Controller Cairn emerged, hair still bound in pink satin, stretching and yawning as she shuffled down the hall.
She kneeled in front of them and, softly, gently, pressed their hands together, metal palm against one made of flesh. “We done good, EMA. High-five.”
Controller Cairn said it just like Jack even though she wasn’t Jack. Then she stood up and, with her hand pressed against EMA’s back, against the vertebrae like joints still in need of oil, escorted them to their jacking station. Then she said, “Goodnight,” as the lights went off.
EMA copied Jack’s farewell. “Good night. Don’t let the—“
Standby mode initiated.
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