A familiar asteroid with a familiar receiving station on it and a familiar robot trudging around a familiar route in a familiar way.
In fact, only three things had changed from the first time we visited this place :
- The robot. Barnacled Hermit, was very happy
- The receiving station was cleaner than the day it was manufactured, and
- The equator of the asteroid now bore, in letters twenty feet high and ten feet across, the words ASTEROID SWEET ASTEROID.
The Hermit was so happy because its long and tortuous nightmare of living as a human being was finally over. That alone was enough to fill his days with bliss. Now and then he would pause and knock on his metal chest with his metal fist just to hear the satisfyingly non-squishy solid metal clonk. Or he would be walking his route while reveling in the fact that he felt nothing sloshing, pulsing, gurgling, or flatulating inside him any more.
The experience had left its marks on the Hermit’s fragile psyche. 14 solar revolutions of his asteroid had passed and he still had nightmares of being back there interrupted his dormant self-diagnosis and maintenance mode, forcing him to start the whole cycle over again from the beginning.
And he couldn’t do that until he stopped shaking and sobbing.
And the memory file of the experience kept loading itself into his active working memory for some reason, and he had to play through the whole thing before he could get those sectors of RAM back.
So while he spent his days happy and content now, part of him was reliving the experience over and over again.
The first days had been the hardest. Being in a squishy goopy messy human body was a never-ending emotional trauma for the Hermit, and in those first few times, he had been quite insane.
That was a hard thing for a robot to admit, even to itself. Robots of the Robohomo Society prided themselves in their logical and methodical natures. It was considered by robots to be their defining difference between themselves and humans, and in their minds, it was the that difference that justified their existence.
Anything that made a robot less logical and self-controlled, therefore, became a deeply taboo subject. Many of the less sophisticated robots believed that there was no such thing as an insane robot. The commonly repeated explanation for how this could be was that “so many things would have to go wrong in order for a robot to be insane that there was no way the robot would remain sentient enough to be considered insane. ”
This was mostly true, but only if one limited onself to mechanical causes for insanity. There were many ways a robot’s software could become corrupted and a lot of those corresponded with human forms of insanity to a high degree.
In fact, in the more strict and conservative enclaves of the robot half of robohomo society, individual robots were required to refresh their software from a common hubs as often as once an hour, or be considered insane and have it done by force.
But there was no denying it for the Hermit. He had been insane for two entire ship’s days. His memory of those days was fragmentary, but those fragments told a tale of terrifyingly random behaviour that traumatized both the robots and the humans aboard ship, and it being that very randomness that made made him impossible to capture because nobody could predict what he would do next.
In fact, it hadn’t been until he had accidentally stumbled into a robot charging station (believing it, at the time, to be a unicorn’s eye that led to a fancy fudge factory) and saw the familiar machiney that he snapped out of his madness and was able to, with great difficulty, come back to himself.
The first thing he did was to jam the charging station’s two doors so that nobody could come and make him act like a human ever again. Then he sat down with the charging dongle close to what seemed like the closest thing a human body had to the appropriate socket, and started to plan his escape.
Being a robot and thus having a computer for a brain, he could generate, test, and disregard millions of plans a milisecond, but none of them could overcome the three limiting condition of the problem :
- He had no idea where he was relative to his home
- He now had a crippling fear of humans that would not stand for the slightest chance of encountering one, and
- He didn’t know how he’d gotten into this mess in the first place, so for all he knew, any action would result in an even worse dislocation of consciousness and then it would be fancy fudge factory time all over again.
So he entertained not-quite-impossible plans like programming the ship’s core to explode in a solar system sized fireball (which he knew he would survive) using only the charging station’s primitive interface and his own signal modular (would take decades to work), or enlisting a human ally via the ship’s internal com system (fine idea but he had absolutely no idea how to befriend a human even under normal sircumstances, let alone when he was gibberingly afraid of them), or merely annihilating himself in a ship’s decombiner and hoping to be reborn as a robot (which had a strong emotional appeal but required so many unbased assumptions that a robot;s mind stood no chance of pulling it off).
And so he sat there, allowing his doomed plan-generating subroutine to take over more and more of his CPU, just like a virus, but one he made for himself in order to make the time pass faster.
His salvation had come in the form of the reality breakdowns that were the direct result of the abscence of a Primary in this fiction. One day the wall next to him had dissolved into a gray sparkling nothingness, and through there he had found himself in the Now (which to him was a transcendant data network) and was able to access the network protocols and transfer himself back to his asteroid and his proper body from there.
The joy he felt when he found he was once more circuit and steel instead of flesh and blood was indescribable. It was so strong that it overwhelmed his ligature controls and he had fallen to the ground, laughing.
He lay there for what might of been seconds, minutes, or hours, laughing like he had hiccup in his vocal output stream. He did silly things, like throw rocks at himself with increasing force just to feel them painlessly strike his indestructible metal frame, or go through an improvised routine where he moved every part of his body through every single angle a human body could never achieve without fracture, or run around the asteroid’s equator at blinding speed just to feel the exhiliration of all his circuits firing without having to worry about limiting his speed out of fear of harming his fleshy frame.
It was on one of those runs that the idea for the words came to him in a flash of intuition (thanks to his state of the art Higher Integration circuits, he had intuition). He had wasted a half dozen picoseconds dazed with wonder at the brilliance of the notion, then immediately set to work.
And it was slow going at first because he lacked the proper tools, or anything even remotely resembling them. He had all the necessary equipment to repair and maintain himself and his receiving station, and most of THAT was software from a cartidge loaded into his Temporary Memory Module bay.
Everything else was up to him to figure out. That’s what those Higher Integration circuits were FOR. They were meant to give him the capacity for creative problem solving, and thus allow him and his model-mates to be deployed with far less in the way of machinery and tools, which saved his deployers tons of resources.
He knew this because it was in the sales pitch recorded in his audio banks. His model was too utilitarian to promote itself like some models did, but he could play the precorded message whenever he felt like it.
He never felt like it.
And when the full suite of creative problem solving subroutines came online, the process accelerated, because that allowed him to make the tools needed to make the tools needed to make the tools he needed to actually do the task.
It was exhilerating. He had never accessed those circuits before – not much need to in a job as routine and predictable as his – and the expansion of his capacities filled him with a sense that was not awe, but was the closest a robot could get to awe.
He wondered if this was what humans called “creativity”, and if it felt as good to them as it did for him.
He decided that it didn’t. How could they, with minds so slow?
After that, his life had settled back into its old groove, and now, he reveled in the predictability of his life.
What the hell was that noise? thought Tidus “Tiny” Foregold.
He had been reading the latest in a series of erotic sociology mysteries (the best one in the series so far, in fact) when he had been jarred out of his state of thoughtful arousal by an entirely unfamiliar sound.
And for Tiny, that was extremely stressful, because he had been alone in his three person grid-ship for almost two years and had encountered many different situations which prompted many different noises to be played over the PA system as his non-sentient AI tries to alert him and inform him of the nature of the threat at the same time.
And he was certain that by now he would have heard them all. But this one was new. It consisted of a repeated loop of some very loud angelic music, over which some kind of voice was saying something he couldn’t quite make out through the haze of his shock.
Then Tiny’s emergency training kicked in, and he calmed himself down, found his “island of peace”, and listened.
“The Hermit has been found! I repeat, the Hermit has been found! Congratulations, [Gridder A872T131]! You are the lucky pilot who has found the Hermit at long last. and everlasting fame, glory, and wealth await you, for you shall be forever known as [he] who brought the Barnacled Hermit home!”
For six very long seconds, Tiny’s mind went completely blank. His mind could not accept the notion that he was the person to find the Hermit. Intellectually, og course, he knew that was the whole point of gridships and their mission to search every single micrometer of the sector for the figure that had become as powerful a cultural goal as putting a human on the moon or breaking the warp code, and as deeply meaningful to people as the old Christian concept of New Jerusalem, or the England sector’s notion of the return of King Arthur.
So he had known that’s why he had been given this grid-ship and sent out on his preprogrammed search cycle.
But he had never expected it to actually happen.
Once he got over the shock, Tiny moved very quickly. As he activated the greeting robots Slipper (short for Sideslipping Otter) and Wembely (short for Werewolf Assembly), all his childhood dreams of what he would say if he finally met the fabled Barnacled Hermit came flooding back and it was a struggle to execute all the necessary protocols and procedures with so many deep, rich emotions flowing through him.
The moment Slipper and Wembley came online, they said the same thing. “Is it time?”.
And both times, Tiny was overjoyed to tell them “Yes. It is time. ”
And both times, they had reacted in the same way : they had gone completely still except for vibrations which seemed to flow from one body part to another in waves. And the expressions on their robotic faces were those of transfixed joy.
Because for the humans, it was a Holy Cause.
But for robots, it was the Second Coming.
Then, once all their brains returned to more or less normal, they gathered together in the exit bay, looked at one another with great joy, then walked out to greet the cultural hero they had adored for decades.
It was time to bring him home.
The Hermit was just as shocked as they had been when the round, fat ship had dropped out of transwarp right above him.
First he wondered how in the Circuit could he have missed the signals that surely preceded the ship’s arrival.
Then he wondered if he was in trouble and if they were here to punish him.
Then he wondered if they were there by accident and would leave without so much as saying hello or picking him up.
Then he wondered why he would even think of such a thing,.
He had just gotten around to wondering if his experiences as a human had driven him insane and he was hallucinating this whole thing when the ship landed delicately in front of him, its Exit Bay opened, and two of the sexiest robots – one red, the other pink – the Hermit had ever seen emerged, along with a petite human in a bubble-suit.
With practiced precision, all three of them moved to formed a loose half-circle in front of the stunned Hermit, their every movement conveying joy and welcome.
“We have two things we need to say to you, o Barnacled One. ” said the pink robot.
“The first is that we are very, very sorry that you got lost. ” said Tiny.
“And the second is that we are very, very glad to see you, and that it will be our honour and privilege to finally, at long last, take you home. ” said the red robot.
“We love you, Barnacled Hermit!” they said as one.
“Now please come with us. ” said the red robot.
“There’s a lot of people who will be very happy to see you. ” said the pink.
“And know that from now on, you will never be lonely again. ” said Tiny.
The Barnacled Hermit didn’t know what to say. What do you say when a dream you gave up on a long time ago comes true before your very eyes? For a moment, his entire vocal system was paralyzed.
Finally, he said “Thank you for finally finding me. I’m happy to see you too. ”