Author, decopunk, dieselpunk, retrofuture, science fiction, speculative fiction, Writer

Chapter 3 Scene 3 of Ruby Descent: “Even Robots Have Bad Days”

The final scene of “Ruby Descent” Chapter 3 is up just in time for Camp Nano!  Trouble in Security! Walter and Lily rush to assist Mr. Paynter with the crisis, while the mystery of the strange code fragment still troubles their minds. Having a staff that’s 99% robotic has its pros and cons. In this scene, the cons explode into mayhem. The latest model of Sentry units have been known to glitch out before, much to the dismay of their human managers. Luckily, the valiant crew of the Ruby are well-accustomed to rampaging robots. Mr. Paynter also reveals interesting information, despite his reputation as a crass scoundrel who always gets away with nonsense.

***

They rushed down a back stairwell and through a staff door to the third guest floor, where the Security headquarters awaited. The polished arches of the red-walled corridor and guest cabins seemed to stretch on forever. A pair of Lily’s Custodian units trudged by on a maintenance duty, greeting her and Mr. Marlow with a crisp and standard ‘good day’. Trailing behind these, a General Utility Steward scampered on spidery chromed legs, a room service tray balanced upon its versatile effectors.

“I find it odd that we haven’t received any alerts from Zora in tandem with Mr. Paynter’s,” Mr. Marlow said.

“It’s possible the system is still delayed after the shutdown.” Lily shook her head. “All I can say is, this had better be a genuine emergency, and not another crap-shoot of Mr. Paynter’s. I’ve got more pressing things to do than chase his trifles around.”

Mr. Marlow smirked. “If he exaggerates, you can be certain I’ll discipline him accordingly.”

“I know you will. It’s Cunningham who always dismisses Mr. Paynter’s goddamn hogwash.”

“Now, Miss Fairpoole, you mustn’t–” Mr. Marlow’s reprimand ended in abrupt alarm when a crash and clatter echoed down the hall.

They quickened their pace. The Security office occupied a niche just ahead, beside the locked steel gate which cordoned off the steerage level. Only staff or hotel management could open or pass through the gate. The steerage passengers—mostly off-world miners these days—stayed separate from the more refined passengers in first and second class.

The office door was open, the interior dark and ominous. Fragmented lights sputtered within. The warbled banter of a robot, another crash, and Mr. Paynter’s startled shout foretold trouble.

Mr. Marlow peered in the door. “Mr. Paynter?”

Mr Paynter answered. “Back here, sir. I hope you’ve brought that little robot death-stick of yours.”

“I’ve got mine,” Lily said. She patted the deactivation rod on her tool belt. Mr. Marlow had given it to her when she was first hired, and taught her how to wield it, as her job involved dealing with unruly robots more than anyone else’s.

Mr. Marlow nodded, brow lined in concentration. “Good. Keep it ready as a last resort. I’ll go in first.”

The pungent odors of cigars and old coffee wafted from the small, dim room. A huge desk was shoved aside, piled with haphazard stacks of paper and several half-filled mugs. The walls flickered with dozens of display panels, monitoring every level, door, and incident aboard the Ruby. On a side table, a wireless terminal blinked green and red, communicating to all of Mr. Paynter’s robotic patrols. The lift’s robots had their own private language, and its static blips and pulses formed a hypnotic rhythm through the tense, smoky air.

Lily covered her nose against the smell as she followed Mr. Marlow inside, noting the ashtray crammed with cigar butts on the edge of the desk. “He’s been smoking in here again. Didn’t you report him to upper management for that months ago?” The Royal Crown’s anti-smoking policy was strict, but somehow Mr. Paynter always got away with it.

“I did, but that’s not important now.” Mr. Marlow crept toward the bulkhead dividing the detention center from the main office. He raised a hand to Lily. “Stay back for a moment.”

The robot’s garble continued. “Good day? Patrol 23 reporting, sir…down, left face, red alert. All units, observe corridor B-7. B-7. Halt, intruder!” Its looping trill ended in a sharp crackle, like a drunk madman with an electronic voice.

Mr. Marlow entered, and Lily poked her head in after him.

“Watch out,” Mr. Paynter said. “It’s gone haywire.” He stood in one corner, a lean figure in his black and red-trimmed Security overcoat, plasma rifle drawn and aimed. His dark blue eyes twitched under the brim of his uniform cap.

A Sentry unit swayed alone near the far wall of the detention cell. Its durable red casing gleamed in the dingy overhead lighting, oblong optical pane glaring red. It muttered an inquisitive bleep, jerking its smooth, domed head to watch Mr. Marlow and Lily. 

Lily unclipped her deactivation rod and grasped it tight. Being the Head of Engineering and Tech, it was her job to manage malfunctioning units, often a rough-and-tumble affair.

“Sentry, state your identifier and your patrol,” Mr. Marlow said, cautiously approaching the robot.

“Affirmative,” it said. “Patrol, round twenty-three. All access clear. Data breach, corridor B-7. Engage and subdue.” It stepped forward and raised its arms. The plasma cannon and retractable shield extended from its effectors, and snapped into place. Mechanisms within the brilliant metal hull hummed as the weapon charged.

Mr. Marlow blanched. “Oh, damn. Get back!” He ducked behind the bulkhead with Lily.

The bright, hot plasma beam sizzled and struck, and left a blackened crater in the wall.

“Seize the crazy bastard,” Mr. Paynter said, dashing at the Sentry.

The robot swiveled its torso and swung one heavy arm, thumping Mr. Paynter in the skull. Mr. Paynter clutched the side of his head, dropping his weapon, and stumbled against the wall. Blood flecked the floor with a soft patter.

No time to think, only act. Lily and Mr. Marlow charged in as one. Her mind focused to sharp clarity, time slowing. She dove low, avoiding the Sentry’s reverse spin.

Mr. Marlow dodged the robot’s cold, hard punch with a fighter’s precision. Fists raised, he feinted and slid, quick as a hawk on the swoop. He grappled the Sentry around its upper body, sweat dripping from his face.

The robot struggled. Gears and actuators ground against the strain, but Mr. Marlow’s strong pin held it. Another plasma charge swelled to fire.

“Now, Miss Fairpoole,” Mr. Marlow shouted. “Get the switch.”

Lily swerved behind the robot, and reached for the power switch at the back of its neck. Robots were programmed to defend this vulnerable spot, a vital security measure. She wished it wasn’t so vital at this moment.

“Engage,” the Sentry said, pivoting away from Lily. “Subdue intruder.” It rotated its body again in a deft 180, and slammed Mr. Marlow against the floor.

Mr. Paynter muttered to his wristcom. “All patrols, dispatch nearest units to headquarters. Repeat, nearest units to headquarters immediately.”

Lily pressed the button on her deactivation rod. The slim metallic rod warmed beneath her fingers.

The plasma weapon chimed ready, and the robot pointed it at Mr. Marlow.

“Shit!” Lily cursed and leaped onto the Sentry’s back, distracting it, and wrapped her arms and legs around it.

The Sentry thrashed and clawed, trying to dislodge her in vain.

Time for the last resort. With a firm stab, she thrust the deactivation rod into the robot’s neck joint, and pushed the trigger. She withdrew the cylindrical applicator and stepped back.

Beeping in a pathetic wail, the Sentry unit groped the back of its neck. Too late. Thin coils of chemical fumes snaked from the rod’s deadly insert. The small dose of white phosphorus burned into the inner circuits. Within seconds, the robot wobbled and slumped into silence. The plasma weapon shut down with its host.

Mr. Marlow scrambled to his feet, glancing about wide-eyed. “Is everyone alright?”

“I’m fine, but this bucket of bolts will need a complete overhaul, now.” Lily kicked the defunct Sentry in the leg, and slipped the empty deactivation rod into her belt.

Mr. Paynter groaned, hobbling forward. A trickle of blood stained his jaw and graying whiskers. “Nice job, Miss Fairpoole. Faster than a wildcat, and a thousand times prettier in the kill.”

Lily crossed her arms. “Really? Prettier than a wildcat? Is that all you can say to me when you’re dripping blood, and Mr. Marlow nearly got fried? You’re an ass.”

“Calm down, please,” Mr. Marlow said. He drew a deep breath, and brushed the wrinkles from his coat. “This is no time to argue. Mr. Paynter, how severe is your injury?”

Mr. Paynter removed his cap, the cut oozing along the edge of his balding scalp. “Feels like just a scratch. It stings some, but I’ve had worse.”

“It looks terrible,” said Mr. Marlow. He activated his wristcom. “I’ll alert Mrs. Colby to come and tend you.”

They returned to the front office, and Mr. Paynter sank into his chair. He flung his cap onto the desk and buried his face in his hands. “Wasn’t that a load of fun? Fifteen minutes to docking, and already a Sentry bugs out. I really hate these new 5G units. They’re shiny, but they’ve been nothing but a headache ever since management introduced them.”

“I agree with you on that,” Lily said. “Do you think Cunningham will ever let us go back to the older model like I asked, Mr. Marlow?”

Mr. Paynter interjected, chuckling. “Heh, not a chance. Cunningham thinks the 5Gs are superior. Once that old codge gets a notion about aesthetic improvements, he’ll never relent. It’s all about appearances in his opinion.”

“The last time I inquired on the subject, Mr. Cunningham refused,” Mr. Marlow said. “We have to do our best with what we’re given. Though I admit, this incident doubles my own reservations against these machines. I’ll raise the issue again when I meet with Cunningham at the Crown.”

Two of Mr. Paynter’s dispatched Sentries plodded into the office at that ironic moment, their opticals flaring white in preparation for orders. Mrs. Colby arrived right after, with a slender medical assistant unit pacing behind her.

“What in blazes happened here?” Mrs. Colby asked, her tranquil blue eyes rounding. “And what’s that awful stench?”

“Deactivation fumes,” Lily said. “One of the Sentries wigged out again.”

“Merciful stars, those things are glitchy,” Mrs. Colby said. “If I had my way, I’d boot them all to the compactor.” She noticed Mr. Paynter’s wound, and set to work at once. The medical robot popped open its hull, revealing the plethora of bandages and supplies it carried.

Once Mr. Paynter was disinfected and bandaged, Mr. Marlow sat on the edge of the desk. “So, Randall, give me a complete rundown on this encounter. What you know of it, that is.”

Mr. Paynter grinned at being referred to by his first name. Everyone knew Mr. Marlow meant business with such informality.

“I’m at a loss as to the cause, sir,” Mr. Paynter said. “I finished my docking reports, and was about to come to your office like you’d asked earlier, when that crazy contraption wandered off its patrol, and came in here babbling nonsense. I’d guess it’s an isolated incident, as you can see the other units are functioning fine. I suggest you turn the investigation over to Miss Fairpoole from here on out.”

“Agreed,” Lily said. “I can begin a thorough inspection and diagnostic on the Security network right away, Mr. Marlow.”

“Please do,” Mr. Marlow said. He stood, and cracked his knuckles, a habit when he was agitated, or preparing for an onslaught. “I wanted to discuss the delayed shutdown notice with you, Mr. Paynter, but it’ll have to wait. Docking is imminent, and I must return to the desk.”

“Before you do, sir, there’s something I should mention,” said Mr. Paynter. He folded his hands over the desk, and dipped his grizzled chin. His gaze was like stone.

Mr. Marlow straightened his bow-tie and nodded. “Go ahead.”

“The entire crew should know, as a matter of fact.” Mr. Paynter’s tone fell to all solemnity. “Cunningham warned me, when I met him for lunch last week, that strange things would occur on this upcoming descent.”

Lily coughed and raised a hand to her throat. “Um, what did you just say? Repeat that please. I nearly choked.”

“I said, Mr. Cunningham himself warned me things might be…complicated during this descent.”

Mr. Marlow’s professional suave gave way to rare fury. He balled a fist, and strode to Mr. Paynter, his face flushing red. “Why would Mr. Cunningham tell you something like that, and not me, when I’m the one who should know first?”

Mr. Paynter’s eyebrows arched, and he tilted his profile. “I’ve never told anyone this, but Cunningham and I go way back, brothers in arms. Met him when we were both young grunts, during year eighteen of the War. Long before all you kids were born. Anyway. If you want to know, I trust the old bastard, and he confides in me. He knows things. We both started working for the Royal Crown the year it opened. He’s climbed his way up to the top, and he has an ear full on how things really run at this hotel. He told me that the Admin isn’t the only authority keeping us under surveillance. Everblue has this coming descent under a watchful eye, and they might even tamper with Zora to meet their agenda.”

Goosebumps pricked Lily’s smooth brown skin. So that’s how Mr. Paynter got away with so much. He was Cunningham’s old war buddy. It all made sense, and she shared Mr. Marlow’s outrage.

“You two-faced scoundrel.” Mr. Marlow raised a shaking finger in Mr. Paynter’s face. The lock which always fell loose from his tonic knifed over his enraged glare. “All this time, and you’ve never confessed you were in with Cunningham. What the hell else has he told you? And what have you been hiding from me?”

Zora’s chipper voice crooned over the Ruby’s public channel. “Good day, ladies and gentlemen. We are ten minutes to docking with the orbital platform. Please collect all of your personal belongings, and prepare to debark at the most convenient exit.”

Mrs. Colby placed a gentle hand on Mr. Marlow’s shoulder. “Sir, we’re out of time, and we must attend to the guests. I’d recommend we discuss this matter with the rest of the crew on the shuttle.”

Mr. Marlow tugged his lapels into place, regaining his composure. “A sane idea. Let’s all resume our posts. Mr. Paynter, be prepared to relate every detail of this conspiracy, and what you know about Everblue’s involvement. If you conceal anything, I’ll go above your doting friend Cunningham’s position, and I’ll ensure that your lying head rolls from the highest peak in the company.”

Mrrr-aow?” An inquisitive cry broke the tension, and Mr. Vincent sauntered in. He jumped onto the desk, and gazed at everyone with regal disdain.

Mr. Marlow scooped the cat up into his brawny arms, a look of boyish distraction softening his features. He glowered at Mr. Paynter one more time, then stormed out of the office without another word, hugging Mr. Vincent to his chest.

“Always that damn cat, lording it over us like he’s the king of the known worlds,” Mr. Paynter said.

Lily sneered. “You’d do best to respect Mr. Vincent. He has more honor in his furry little paws than you do in your entire smug-scummed body.”

Everyone rushed back to their duties, leaving Mr. Paynter to ponder the concept of feline wisdom.

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