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Excerpt from "Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables"


To Arms

Jelika stands, all pulled-taut hair and crisp green medic's smock, at the storage servery, fingernails drumming relentlessly on the countertop. The nail tattoo is a signal, plain and strong as you could wish, but the storebot isn't getting it. Oh, for Force's sake... what's keeping it now? Can't it just access the sys-inventory? Apparently not.

Instead, she can hear the bot rummaging - there's no better word for it, although 'dithering' comes close - where were we, yes, rummaging through the assorted bric-a-brac of ship's stores, more like a child playing hide-and-seek (and that rather incompetently) than a state-of-the-art Class 5A Archival / Object Retrieval droid tasked with the sole task of outmanoeuvring a collection of thoroughly inanimate objects. She can hear it. Lifting containers. Searching shelves. Checking labels. Climbing ladders, for Force's sake. While she seethes, brimming with roboticidal intent.

Eventually, after two-and-a-half subjective epochs, the storebot returns to the counter. It pays no apparent heed to the brazenly murderous cast of Jelika's face. Its own pressed-metal visage is, of course, unreadable, but it's not carrying anything.

"Well?" asks Jelika, from whom, in this state, the monosyllable should be capable of piercing the bot's triple-steel titanium-skinned, osmium-lined torso, if not actively initiating a general emergency by way of explosive hull breach; but the storebot still doesn't get it. Doesn't get Jelika's uncontained impatience, her unconcealed frustration, her willingness to commit SHC if it'll just get the task done.

"I'm sorry," the storebot starts, speaking as though it believes itself to have all week to stand and chat. And perhaps it does. "The item you requested," it resumes after an apoplectogenic and thoroughly redundant breath-simulation pause - during which Jelika widens the scope of her wish-list hit list to encompass not just the bot itself, but also its designers, its programmers, its builders, its tutors and its neural-net developers - "the Mark 7.3 Auto-sighting Tranquiliser Dart Dispensing Machine Rifle with Telescopic Tripod Support and Rapid-Fire Magazine of Wide-Spectrum Xenovermicide Soluble Dart-Flechettes, isn't currently available. There is one, but it's the last in store."

"Buggeration," she replies, for the moment at least keeping within the confines of reasonably polite discourse, though the effort's not without cost. "Then I'll need to come up with som— Wait on, did you just say that you've got one in store?"

"Yes, certainly, that is precisely the summarised content of my verbal utterance to you on the subject."

"Who's it being held for?"

"Held? It's not being held for anyone, Ms Karlyle. It's just being held against contingencies."

"Well, then, this is a flicking contingency! I'll take it! Please."

"Oh, now, I couldn't do that—"

"Why the flick not?"

"Because if I give it to you, we'd then be out of stock in that line. And we can't have that, now..."

"Look, do I or do I not have the appropriate authorisation to requisition the flicking dart dispenser?"

"Certainly, you've got the authorisation, Ms Karlyle; but I can't let you take the last one, someone might need it."

"I need it! Desperately! Now, if not sooner! Look, if I don't get that trank gun in the next few minutes, there's not going to be any other someones to want to borrow it!"

"Ms Karlyle. I am fulfilling a serious responsibility here, and your grandstanding and histrionics are both uncalled for and unhelpful."

"Unhelpful! Listen, you, you, you cybernetic misplacing machine, I'll give you unhelpful! Unhelpful is when some copper-jacketed cretin thinks it's god's gift to junk collectors, refuses to release probably the one item has been requested in the past year, and then stands about and rusts wondering why nobody's left on board to give it its monthly service! You want to answer to an imperial commission about how you decided to let the ship's crew all die a horrible death rather than switch off your own anal-retention circuitry, you go for it, buddy, just make sure you let them know I put you well informed of all the facts!"

"Facts, Ms Karlyle?"

"I so don't have time for this. But. All. Right. If I don't get Security Chief Thacker sedated, with a fast-acting xenovermicide, within the next few minutes, then it's all going to be too late. I told him, told him not to touch the Arcturan salad, told him if he did that he needed to gamma-nuke it first... and he didn't, and I watched it happen, tried to warn him, there was a Sirian mindworm larva on one of the salad leaves... horrible, it did that nasocranial intubation thing, and that was what, twenty-three minutes ago, and any minute now it's going to hit maturity, and do that explosive parthenogenesis trick, and then... And now, of course nobody believes me, but I know what I saw, and I know you don't dick around with a Sirian mindworm or it's the last flicking mistake you'll ever make... and... so, can I have that flicking trank gun now?"

"Ms Karlyle. I can appreciate that this is a circumstance of somewhat of an urgent nature, and therefore I am prepared to waive the usual store policy..."

"You will? Then just hand it over—"

"As I was saying, I will waive the usual store policy, and issue a priority crew-wide call for competing claims of interest on the item you have specified. If, after a reasonable period of, say, two to three days there are no other—"

"Two to three days? You still don't get it, do you? People are going to die here, just because... look, forget the trank gun, it's obviously a no-brainer, just get me a, a, I don't know, a piece of polythene tubing, any length, and just one trank dart."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible, it would leave us short-stocked on the darts."

"Shortstocked? What d'you mean, shortstocked? The standard magazine has hundreds of darts—"

"Three hundred and sixty, to be precise."

"There you go, then. Just give me one of those."

"But, Ms Karlyle, our current inventory is only three hundred and sixty darts. One magazine. And I obviously can't split a magazine."

"You can if you use a meat cleaver," Jelika mutters, through clenched teeth.

"I'm sorry?"

"Look, scrap that, just find me something like a rubber mallet or something, I can KO Thacker and then snap-cryolise him, be a bit messier but it'll still buy us some time - you do have a rubber mallet in store, I'm guessing?"

"Certainly, Ms Karlyle, we have one of the items you mention."

"One. Two, maybe?"

"No. Just the one, I'm afraid."

"And - let me guess - I can't have it, 'cos someone-might-need-it."

"Regrettably, that is a reasonably accurate reflection of Store policy, yes."

"Great. Flicking great. Is there anything in store you happen to have two of?"

"I'm afraid you'll need to refine that search parameter somewhat."

"Um, OK, percussive anaesthetic devices, sports equipment - bats, racquets, clubs, anything with a handle and a good bit of heft to the frame. Baseball bat would be ideal."

"We have a baseball bat," the storebot announces, proudly.

"One?"

"Yes."

"Anything like that you have more than one of? Anything I could actually, like, borrow before the heat-death of the Universe?"

"We have a large number of golf clubs - but, unfortunately, only one of each sort. However, we do have two cricket bats listed."

"A cricket bat? That could work."

"Two cricket bats. Wait a minute, let me check... Sorry. They're part of a set."

"Right. Figures. Listen, does the word 'cheeseshop' mean anything to you?"

"No, should it?"

"Probably not."

"Can I enquire," the storebot asks, "if you've considered other approaches to your problem?"

"What are you now? Clutter Central and ship's psychotherapist?"

The storebot ignores her. "It sounds like a Security problem. Right now the Mind-worm is confined to Chief Thacker—"

"If the birth frenzy hasn't spattered his assorted bits across the refectory by now," Jelika snaps.

"—and could be ameliorated by directing your concerns to the Security 2IC, for example, who would be fully authorised and able to incapacitate Mr Thacker without any resort to tranquiliser darts, simply through the use of his stunner."

"Authorised, yes. Able, yes. Inclined, no way. You think anyone in Security is going to start taking pot-shots at their head of section, just on the say-so of a junior medical adjutant, who saw something fleetingly across the ship's canteen? And aside from the Captain, they're the only ones, shipboard, who're entitled to carry stunners. Which is why— Wait on. Do you happen to have any stunners in storage?"

"Parts, yes. But the full item - that falls under the categorisation of weaponry. You'd want the armoury, next level."

"Forget it." Jelika pauses for a moment, weighing up the prospects of starting over with the armoury service bot - who's rumored to make her present robotic company sound flexible to a fault, by comparison - against the likely time taken to assemble a stunner, from parts and her shaky knowledge of first principles, without a manual. Neither avenue appeals. It'd be quicker to invent the stunner from scratch. "Look! I need - I need - I just need something capable of exerting more than, say, five tysons of subduing force to an adult human male, when operated by someone of my stature. Give me a display of what you've got, in lendable duplicates, that you'd actually be willing to sign out to a junior medical adjutant, and that fits those parameters. And hurry, for Force's sake!"

The storebot's eyes go vacant - not much change there, Jelika thinks - while, presumably, it consults the store's central hive-mind. Then, on the adjacent wall display, an item list forms. It's a depressingly short list - doesn't require scrolling - and as Jelika stares at it she realises there's only one item among the displayed options which is going to serve her purpose in any way.

"This benchtop hydraulic press. Shown here. How big is it?"

The bot holds its 'hands' about sixty centimetres apart.

"Perfect," Jelika breathes, suddenly confident for the first time in far too many minutes. "Can you bring that out, please, so I can see how it operates?"

"Certainly, I can retrieve it for you. But I'm obliged to say I don't see how that addresses your problem. The anaesthetic properties of the benchtop press are not among its principal documented features."

"Oh, it's not the anaesthetic properties I'm after," she replies. "Just bring the flicking thing to me!"

"Right you are, Ms Karlyle. If you'll please just bear with me, I'll need to locate the item in question." The bot turns and ambles off into the store's labyrinth, and there follows a drearily slow symphony of metallic, synthetic, and evidently sometimes breakable items being moved, inspected, overturned, and, on occasion, dropped. Jelika is comforted only by the thought that these noises have not, as yet, been accompanied by the deafening klaxon of a shipwide General Alert, which would surely be sounded in the event of Thacker's apparently still-imminent spectacular demise in the mind-worm's birthing frenzy.

Eventually (still no broadcast siren) the storebot returns, struggling with the highly-cumbersome benchtop press, which shares the overall dimensions of an adolescent kodiak bear but lacks the latter's flimsiness of construction. The grunt the storebot gives is, surely, solely for effect, but it's with apparent difficulty that the bot manoeuvres the press onto the countertop. "I must say, Ms Karlyle, I don't see how you're going to transport this—"

"I'll manage," she says shortly. She bends to inspect the item. "Uh. No, look, this one's no good. The pressure surfaces are supposed to be micrometer-smooth, but this one's got a serious imperfection on the upper plate. Look, about here—"

The robot bends down, angles its neck, sticks its head into the gap between the press plates and turns its gaze to the indicated region. "I don't—"

* * *

Want to know what happens next?

Rare Unsigned Copy: Tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables by Simon Petrie. (Peggy Bright Books, 260 pp., ISBN 9780980699814, available from March 2010)

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Released: March 2010
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