Captain Sumner watched Trane working on the controller robot, keeping herself several feet from Trane, Courtenay and Ward, who gathered around it. She was still wearing the jury rigged suit, because she'd strapped on her sidearm before putting it on and didn't want the others to see it, unless it became necessary to use it.
Trane had cut free the rest of the vinyl and was pulling out port protectors, laying them neatly to one side in such order that they could be replaced in the same ports they'd come out of. He was humming and looked as happy as Sumner had ever seen a technician.
Fully exposed, the crouched robot looked pristine and Sumner wondered if it had ever been activated at all. Maybe it was just housing for wafer packs and none had ever been inserted? Despite how useful a functioning controller would be in their current predicament, she found herself hoping it was just an empty shell. Controllers could be dangerous when they malfunctioned - but at least in static housing they couldn't run you down and throttle you.
She glanced to one side, looking at Nick Mitcham, who was also keeping his distance. It was hard to know for sure, but from how little and how smoothly his eyes moved, she suspected he was running his EyeSpy, capturing the moment for whatever grubby little newsfeed he could sell it to. Ordinarily, Sumner was not very sympathetic towards corporations, but in this instance, she was rooting for 4L to confiscate his recordings.
Trane jacked his datapad into one of the ports on the thing's head and crouched down in front of it, head bent over his screen. She saw Mitcham stepping in, trying to get a shot of the readout. Sumner knew from past experience that there would be nothing of use for Mitcham there - Technicians wore contacts to decrypt controller output and they were the only ones experiencing time fast enough to be able to read it as it blitzed up the screen anyway. Still - the fact that there was output meant that this was not an empty shell.
She expected things to take a while, but almost instantly, Trane and the robot stood up in synch. A number of coloured lights flashed in what was almost certainly a test pattern underneath the robot's faceplate. From somewhere near its head, the thing played a series of chimes, then rattled its way through a raft of phonetic sounds. The pitch and timbre of the voice was soft and only slightly on the male side of androgynous.
Now that the thing was standing, the 4Life logo on its left breast was visible and instead of a standard ID, it had 4LANCE stencilled underneath it.
Mitcham said, "Four Lance... what are the odds that's some stupid corporate acronym? Four Life something, something, controller something, I bet."
Courtenay glared at him, but everyone else ignored him in favour of watching Trane and the robot. Trane pulled his jack out and pushed the reel in on his datapad, stepping back to watch the robot himself.
Trane said, "Give it some room to test its mobility."
They all stepped away, including Sumner, who was already feet further off. She tucked a hand into her suit and reached down to release the restraining strap on her sidearm. She kept her other hand near the main abdomen seal.
The robot went through a short series of moves, many of which would have been impossible for a human to perform. Spinning its hands on its wrists, it's head doing a 360 and some kind of balance test that was so abrupt, Sumner almost drew her weapon on it. After that, it returned to a straight stand, the lights under the faceplate resolving to a gentle green glow.
Trane asked a question that he almost certainly knew the answer to already, "Controller, what is your common designation and how may we address you?"
The thing said, "Four Life Ambulatory Neural Controller Experiment twenty six. I may be addressed as that, or 'controller', 'Four Lance', 'Twenty Six' or 'Lance'."
"Told you," Nick smugged.
Trane said, "Explain in brief your primary purpose."
The thing said, "I am an experimental controller. My purpose is to demonstrate the advantages and viability of ambulatory neural controllers. I am compelled to inform you that I have three external emergency shut-downs," it used one hand to point out three yellow and black chevronned tear-aways on its torso, the back of its head and the small of its back, "I may also be shut down wirelessly with the use of a tone sequence, which is: A flat minor, F sharp and D minor. May I suggest you prepare that tone sequence in a shortcut upon your datapads for easy access."
Trane held up his datapad and thumbed a button. His pad played the tone sequence and the lights on the robot's faceplate faded out.
Trane said to Courtenay, "I think it's safe enough to use. Its basic observations are green across the board, the only thing wrong with it is that it's a little low on glucose and oil after being in storage so long."
Courtenay asked, "What about its Heppa?"
"Not introduced yet - it's an experiment, they didn't need it to run that fast."
Sumner asked, "Would it be fast enough to trim an engine? Theoretically."
Trane nodded, "Sure, you're ships a tiddler. No offence, but this thing is wafer-stacked for bigger jobs than shuttles."
"How many donors?" asked Courtenay.
Trane's enthusiasm damped a little, "Well, only six. Which isn't ideal."
Sumner frowned, "What does that mean?"
Courtenay sighed, "It means the organic matter used to make the wafers came from six individuals. Most controllers - even small stack unit ones - have a minimum of ten donors as a safety standard."
"Well..." Courtenay looked uncomfortable, "Because of things like the Vera Lynn."
Sumner frowned at her.
There was a lengthy silence, during which time they all looked at the controller, gleaming and silent and unlit.
Eventually, Courtenay said, "Restart it. Let's ask it about this facility and take it from there."
To general disappointment, the controller knew absolutely nothing about the facility. It had been made, run through basic tests and diagnostics and then mothballed shortly after the Vera Lynn disaster - which none of them believed was a co-incidence. Even more disappointing, it couldn't get past the security blanket any more than they could.
Sumner turned to Mitcham, "You said you've broken through security blankets before. What do you need to try?"
Mitcham licked his teeth, "Well, there's usually something, somewhere designed to get through it legitimately. I was surprised there wasn't a comm station in the suit lobby. I hate to say it, but I think we're going to have to risk going down that comms corridor."
Courtenay said, "We have no idea what the warning meant. It might be like going into a hot zone without radiation shielding."
Ward said, "So send the robot. Trane, you can set up a digital feed so we can see what it sees, can't you?"
"It doesn't see the way we see," said Trane, "You wouldn't understand the output. Even I'd only get parts of it, you'd need a Violet Tech to match that data speed."
Mitcham shrugged, "So lets strap a datapad to its forehead and link to that instead."
Ward laughed, "You think like an engineer, Nick."
Courtenay nodded, "Do it. Whose pad is the most expendable?"
Everyone looked at Mitcham and Sumner had to fight to keep a smirk off her face.
Mitcham sighed, "Well fuck."
A half hour later they were back in the hub, watching the controller - looking significantly less pristine with a datapad duct-taped to its head - walk down the Black marked corridor labelled COMMS.
They gathered around Courtenay's pad, watching the digital from the datapad. Sumner noted that they had instinctively gathered as far from the Black trimmed corridors as they could get and she wondered if that meant anything.
On the small screen, they watched the controller open the door, go through the dustlock and emerge on the other side into a pie-wedge room that looked a lot like the one they had just vacated. The only real difference was what was on the shelves.
Before the controller could get far into the room, Trane spoke into his own datapad, "Lance, walk half as quickly and pan side to side so that the pad's field of vision catches everything on those shelves."
'Confirmed, Technician Trane.’
"Any adverse conditions?"
'Not that I am equipped to detect.'
The thing slowed down and panned. At first it was just closed cold cases with unhelpful labels, like 'Vauxhall seven' and 'Jane DeWitt'. Then they saw stacks of what Sumner thought might be an antique phone - or a very early datapad. One the other side as the view panned around, what was unmistakably a public terminal, its wiring sprayed out uselessly from the back.
"I wasn't expecting 'comms' to be so literal and yet so useless," said Mitcham.
Sumner grunted in agreement.
The shelves further on made less sense. There were several vinyl wrapped skeletons - looking unpleasantly real with their brown-stained grain. A number of cups, or vases with designs on them. A board covered in letters and numbers. A snarl of bare wiring, twisted into a rough man-shape.
"What the fuck is this?" asked Mitcham.
Courtenay said, "I told you they were a bit of a joke... I wonder who approved the storage costs of all this?"
Sumner said, "Tell it to speed up and find a working comm unit if it can, Trane."
Trane looked to Courtenay, who nodded.
The digital was harder to follow after that, though they all kept peering at it anyway. They saw the controller trotting past more shelving, hearing only the sound of its rubber-gripped feet on the silksteel. They were so clumped together around it, that when the lights went out, Sumner felt every twitch and jerk from the rest of them.
"Shit! Someone jump up and down," said Ward.
Someone did, but the lights stayed off.
Trane said, "The feed's dead too."
Sumner unhooked her torch from her belt, turning it on. It should have made her feel better, but it didn't. It was a good torch, but it still didn't seem bright enough as she instinctively shone it towards the comms corridor. The light barely reached the dustlock door.
Courtenay said, "Get that feed restored, Trane."
More torches came on and that was a little better. Ward set hers down pointing at the wall behind them so it bounced back and made a little puddle of light for them all.
Trane tried to get the feed back for almost twenty minutes before Sumner cursed and popped open the seal on her suit's abdomen - simultaneously unhooking the restraining strap from her sidearm.
"I'm going in. I could do with someone to watch my back."
Courtenay shook her head, "No you're not. We don't know what's going on."
Sumner drew her sidearm, "I'm armed - I have the correct permits and license. We might not know what's going on, but we know what will happen if we don't find some solutions to our predicament."
They all looked at the gun and it's red trim when she turned it on. The suddenly distrustful way they looked at it and her justified her concealing it up to now.
Mitcham asked, "Are you a cop, or something?"
"No," said Sumner, "I'm a shuttle captain. Very well - I'll go alone. Trane, do you want to set up another feed to my pad?"
"I'll try," said Trane, "Yeah, there we go. Hook it to your suit outwards, high as you can."
While Sumner hooked her pad to the chest of her suit, Mitcham said, "I'll go with you."
Sumner raised an eyebrow.
He shrugged, "I'm a curious fellow, remember? Besides, you've got a gun. If the boogyman tries to get us, you can blow it away. You're packing fat tens, I hope? I don't feel like sucking vacuum."
Sumner nodded, "They're hull-safe," she looked at Courtenay, "You know I'm right. We're out of options."
Courtenay inhaled sharply through her nose, then said, "Alright - but if you don't come back, no one else is going in there, do you understand?"
Mitcham mumbled something to himself and then started sealing his suit ready to put his helmet back on. It wasn't a bad idea and Sumner did the same. Then, she hooked her torch back onto her belt with the beam fixed ahead, turned on the torch on her gunsights and started down the corridor. She wasn't sure if Mitcham really would follow her, but after a slight hesitation, his heavy step joined hers. She still didn't trust him, but she was confident that she could beat his fat arse in a fight and she was willing to take a chance with him just to have another set of eyes on the perimeter.