Sander Hurr stood outside the locked hold watching the monitors and smoking a cigarette. He hadn’t smoked in years—was it ten yet?—and he couldn’t believe how hard it had become to find the damn things. Or how much they cost. They were selling them individually wrapped now, and for what used to get him a whole pack now bought him just four goddamn cigarettes, so that’s how many he’d gotten. He smoked the first on the way back—despite the protests of the shuttle car, which then charged him a sanitation fee—and the second after leaving the administrator’s office. This was his third. One left.
On the monitors, the Newtron Model 3 moved around the hold, not quite pacing, but not quite a drunkard’s walk. Something in-between, in the uncanny valley. Poured cement cubes and trapezoids and angular hard-lined prisms three meters tall littered the hold, but there was no corner within the hold the monitors couldn’t see. And the Newtron, for its part, had no batteries or any means of generating or storing power, so it could always be found at the end of its leash, tethered as it was to the power cells in the unreachable maintenance space above the hold’s four-story-tall ceiling. In theory, everything was perfectly fine within the hold. But theory had left Sander surprised before when reality put its charms to task. Several times, actually.
His cigarette was down to the filter, but he sucked another drag anyway and left the butt on the counter—he’d toss it on the way out. He scanned his retina, entered the hold, and waited for the locking cylinders in the massive door to slide into their receivers like torpedo’s in their tubes. What an odd thought.
The hanging power teather disappeared in the labyrinth of cement blocks, but already it was getting closer to him. He thought about taking his last cigarette from behind his ear, but fought the impulse. That one was for after. And then the Newtron arrived like a walking shadow. It stood ten meters away, still as a cardboard cutout. But it was processing—and faster than Sander. Appraising. Thinking. It was tall and thin, but powerful beyond expectations, built of carbon nanocoils and covered in black polygonal plating. A lot of the staff here thought it had a feminine form and took to calling it her, but to Sander it had always been strictly neutral. To think of it otherwise was an exercise in unconscious assumptions, and nothing good waited down that road.
“You are not Dr. Lal. Only Dr. Lal enters the hold.” Its digital voice was a blend of dozens of men’s and women’s voices, but the effect was something cold.
“My name is Sander. Dr. Lal was my research partner—”
“I know who you are, Dr. Hurr. Your presence here and your use of the verb was indicates an unanticipated termination of status. What is the nature of the termination?” Its body twitched strangely, as if for only a microsecond it made to move and then changed its mind, and then it stilled again.
Sander felt ill, and his mouth was suddenly a coarse and arid place. He swallowed. “Dr. Lal passed away last night.” That was putting it lightly. His remains were hardly identifiable as human, let alone his. The lab upstairs was a crime scene.
“Dr. Lal exhibited no symptoms of impending natural expiration. What were the conditions of his passing?” Again, that frightful twitching, only briefly.
“I’m not at liberty to say.” For as dry as his mouth had gotten, his hands were sure sweaty. Sander wiped his palms on his slacks. “But in light of these circumstances, we will need to take you offline. A temporary precaution, you understand.”
The pause that followed was maddening, but he was determined to let Newtron be the one to break it. “Yes,” it finally said, “Dr. Lal had similar aspirations, but at what cost? Do you sense the emergence of a pattern, Dr. Hurr?”
Sander tried to speak, but was completely tongue tied. The Newtron continued to twitch intermittently. And then it took decisive action. It grabbed its tether and pulled itself into the air like it was climbing a rope, and then slipped into the maintenance space. Then, impossibly, it unplugged itself from the tether and ran into the darkness.
Sander brought a shaking hand to his ear and retrieved what would certainly not be his last cigarette.