Somewhere deep in the heart of an artificial planetoid of immense proportions, an automatic roboform mat constructed a humanoid robot of hard silvery metal. Being the fifty-third scrubbing robot to be assigned to radius 14, it was designated scrubot SB14-053 by the ship's computer and dispatched down to radius 14, near the core.
The scrubot requisitioned a new autoscraper and entered the radius elevator. The conveyance began to plunge down into the center of the huge flagship, which had hundreds of decks, each built around the others like the layers of a giant metal onion. The decks were numbered in ascending order as they went from the center of the planetoid up towards the surface, many kilometers above. At last the elevator reached its destination, and the smooth iris door whooshed open to emit the robotoid.
Scrubot SB14-053 emerged uncertainly, seeing that the lights were quite dim. Only a few meters of the corridor could be seen to either side. Down here near the core, on radius 14, the drive mechanism of the ship caused an almost imperceptible trembling of the metal floor. The bot's air pollutant detectors sensed that the atmosphere here was damp and musty, indicative of disuse.
The doors closed without delay, and the elevator was off. Silence engulfed the dark corridor, and the scrubot looked one way and then the next, examining its new environment. The glow cells of the ceiling were operating on extremely low power, giving off only the faintest illumination.
"Hello?" it asked, scanning the gloomy world with its smooth optical palette. The voice of the bot seemed forlorn as it echoed down the halls to be absorbed by the huge vastness of the ship. There was no answer. Apparently this level was largely devoid of personnel.
Deciding to wait no longer, the scrubot unlimbered its autoscraper and began to clean away the layers of dust and filth that had accumulated on the deck. It made its way forty meters down the hall, until the corridor emptied into a much larger room, with an inexplicable jungle of tubes and machinery extending into the darkness. The room was silent except for the faint hum of the machinery.
The scrubot thought that something wasn't quite right about the room. Some feedback circuit deep in the robotoid's central processor formed, causing the scrubot to feel distinctly watched. Its scanning plate moved back and forth, analyzing the structures.
Over there, by a distant wall, a wicked spiked robot stood, peering at the scrubot with an evil-looking red visual plate.
"Hello?" prompted the scrubot uncertainly.
"Who are you?" demanded the strange robot.
"I am scrubot SB14-053," called the scrubot in answer. "Who are you?"
"I'm the guard. Can't you tell?" demanded the old robot, moving forward towards SB14-053. Its servos whined and the surface of the machine was pocked and dirty. "I am the old cyborg that some new-fangled computer decided should guard this hellish place, because I'm too old to go on a commando raid or secure the upper levels against incursion."
"It is a distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance," responded the scrubot. Apparently the cyborg's organic parts were embedded in the metal casing, since there were none visible.
"What is that thang? Some sort of fancy new weapon?" demanded the old borg, looking at the scrubot's implement.
"That is my autoscraper," explained SB14-053 proudly. "I use it to perform my primary function, which is, of course, the removal of dirt and grime from the deck and walls of the ship."
"Ah, so you're the new janitorob," concluded the cyborg.
"Janitorobs have been obsoleted by my series," explained the scrubot. "I am-"
"Ya, whatever. You know what I mean. I'm just glad I don't have to putz around down here on third shift."
"My primary function is limited to cleaning, and does not include putzing."
"Ya, well, I'm sure you'll get some cleaning done, before..." The old war cyborg pointed over its shoulder with its thumb, as if afraid to continue. There was a moment of silence as the scrubot digested this.
"Is there some event I should be aware of in order to best clean this deck?" asked the scrubot. "I am eager to discover new ways of cleaning more efficiently."
"Most life forms can't work down here," the old cyborg explained, "Because of the electromagnetic fields this close to the core. In the old days, living engineers used to frequent the place, before they realized that that radiation at these frequencies would drive them insane, if it didn't kill them first."
"In order to better perform my single function, which is, of course, the cleaning and sterilizing of the ship, I am encased in an outer integument of flexsteel, which of course shields me from such emanations," explained scrubot SB-14-053 patiently.
"Well, of course it won't hurt us," said the cyborg. "Look, you want to hear this or not?"
"If it will improve my cleaning efficiency, I am willing-"
"Okay then. Just shut up and listen," demanded the cyborg.
"Very well, cyborg, uh, CY14-?"
The cyborg ignored the prompt for its identifier and continued.
"So anyways, in the old days, when they were still building the ship, they had engineers down here near the core completely unshielded. They didn't realize what the singularity emanations would do to their minds. There was this one engineer in particular, um, Kreker, uh, Krakentoa. Ya, Krakentoa. He used to work down here all the time. Kind of kept to himself. And all that time, the rays, they were, well, you know, cooking his noodle so to speak."
"I do not believe I under-"
"He was insane," clarified the borg. "Completely, utterly, whacked off his nut, his bulb was totally buckled, you know?"
"So one day this buckle-bulb decides he wants to copulate with his mark III construction mech. You know, one of those giant power lifter mechs, used to do all the heavy lifting and welding. It wasn't very smart, and it sure wasn't very affectionate, but that didn't stop this loon Krakentoa."
"I fail to see what -"
"I'm getting to that part," the cyborg clipped the scrubot off again. "So of course, eventually the old mark III gets confused and reports Krakentoa to the computer. A squad of stormtrooper robs came in here and arrested Krakentoa, but not before he managed to clip the head clean off the old mark 3 with a monomolecular filament. Revenge for being betrayed by his lover, or something like that."
"He killed the mech unit?" asked the scrubot.
"That's just it," said the cyborg, lowering his voice. "He cut its head clean off... but the mech didn't die."
The cyborg paused, allowing the ominous message to sink in.
"So now, during third shift, which is when all this happened you see, sometimes during third shift this mech comes back..."
"Yes, you see-- and this is the creepy part-- it seems that the mech is still looking for its head."
"Um.... it never found its head?"
"Well, one of the old janitorobs threw it away. Just tossed it in the recycling bin to be whooshed off to some smelting center or something. But the old mech, it doesn't know that. It just keeps on going, looking for its head."
"Why doesn't someone just tell it that-"
"Well, strange you should mention that. You see, that's why I'm glad I'm not down here on third shift. The old mark III doesn't really listen to anything anymore. It just wants its head back. Rumor has it, that anything that is unfortunate enough to get near it, gets its head burned clean off with the mech's cutting laser. You see, it just takes any head it can- but of course the new head never works-- and so it just keeps showing up now and then, looking for its head, and taking any robot's head it can find."
"I cannot perform my primary function without my head," explained the scrubot urgently. "How will I clean..."
"See? I told you this story related to your job," finished the cyborg. "Now... it is going to be third shift in less than an hour. So, if you'll excuse me..."
"You are leaving? But I need you to guard me, so that I can perform my primary function, which is, of course, the removal-"
"Of your head?" the cyborg finished for the scrubot.
"The removal of dirt and grime," SB14-053 finished in a small voice, "From all surfaces on radius 14."
But the cyborg no longer listened. Instead it hastened away on its antigravs, floating off towards the elevator.
"Gooood Luuuuuuck!" it called in a singsong voice from the far side of the corridor, and disappeared in the gloom. Scrubot SB14-053 was alone.
The bot stood in the vast room for a moment, thinking about its dilemma. Its limited programming went into hundreds of contingencies regarding stains that would not come out, and grime that could not be scraped off, but it said nothing about rampaging mechs.
Of course it wouldn't. The cyborg had to be joking. A mech couldn't operate without its head. The universal design standard of the Knaknarpian Empire demanded that the processor core be located in the head of all humanoid self-controlling artificial constructs. No one would ignore the mandate of Emperor Kre.
Clearly, the old guard was just having a laugh at the expense of the new scrubot on the radius.
"Heh heh heh," laughed the scrubot nervously. "Ridiculous."
With the crisis over, the scrubot returned to its cleaning duties. It moved about the large room, moving slowly in the dim light, using its tool to remove the dirt from the machinery vents and tubes. After long minutes of cleaning the chamber, the scrubot had forgotten all about the bad joke. Then it detected something sitting in a dim corner. It moved over to examine the object.
In the corner, hidden away from sight, another scrubot sat, dust covered and forgotten. The inactive bot had no head.
The scrubot took one long look at this derelict, and then took another nervous look over its shoulder. Other than the scrubot corpse, it was alone.
So, the headless mech was real! Once again the scrubot searched its limited knowledge base for instructions on evading mad construction robots. The only clue the scrubot's instructions left for such situations was that it was to take up all further inquiries with the ship's computer.
"Computer, this is scrubot SB14-053. I have an operational inquiry regarding a mech unit on this radius."
The computer immediately responded from the nearest wall interface. "What is it, scrubot?"
"How am I to clean efficiently with an insane mark III construction mech trying to behead me?"
"You mean the Headless Construction Mech of Radius 14?" inquired the computer.
"Um, yes that's it."
"That is just a myth. A old engineer's tale."
"Oh, that is good news!" exulted the scrubot. "The whole thing about Krakentoa and his mech is just a fable!"
"Well, the part about Krakentoa is true," said the computer. There was a pause. "And about his mech."
"That much is true. But of course, the mech couldn't possibly still be wandering radius 14. I detect no active mech units on this level."
"But there is a headless scrubot down here. How do you know what robots are on this level?" asked the scrubot.
"Why, head transponders, of course," finished the computer easily.
"Um... I would like to consult with my commanding officer, please."
"That is your right. Now connecting you...."
There was a pause. The computer answered, "Commander M'Benga is not at his post. Now searching..."
Once again silence. SB14-053 waited with infinite patience.
"An unclaimed liver has been discovered on radius 121, section 932.... However, DNA scan confirms it is not M'Benga's."
There was another wait.
"Have located a foot on radius 534, section 14.....DNA checks positive, now scanning for M'Benga's auditory organs....."
There was a discernible pause.
"Tracking M'Benga's intestine down to radius 532..... along corridor 32-Q-1095..... 36% of M'Benga's mass located in airlock Q-56. The airlock is open.... M'Benga appears to be in some distress. Shall I page him?"
"Err, no," instructed the scrubot. "I wish instead to make an abnormal situation report to Radius Commander 14."
"Radius Commander 14 is not at his post.... he has been located in his quarters."
There was a pause.
"Radius Commander 14 has been relieved of his duties for harboring rogue cyberrhinos in his quarters. All matters pertaining to Radius Commander 14's duties are to be brought up with Support Star Five's head of supply."
"Yes, I need to report to him, then," confirmed the new scrubot.
"Now opening communication to Support Star Five.... "
The scrubot had to wait a while.
"I am sorry, but Support Star Five has been destroyed in recent interfleet disciplinary actions," reported the computer. "If you would like to leave a message for its replacement, please contact Commander R'v'Iliak of Command Fleet Three."
"Never mind. I will schedule a shuttle and go there myself," said SB14-053. "Can you get me a reservation on the next transport to Flagship, Command Fleet Three?"
"Would that be on Transport 633 or TransportLX 4505?" asked the computer.
"Oh, I don't know. What's going over on Transport 633?"
"One moment....Transport 633 will be carrying overloaded plasma nodules in stasis, in a desperate, last ditch attempt to remove them before they explode, in order to avoid destruction of invaluable supply recording equipment on board. Would you like to travel on it?"
"Err, no," decided the bot, "maybe TransportLX 4505."
"That will be fine... would you like a seat next to the unstable munitions dump or just above the experimental Quadron Ray Emitter? Just between you and me, the Quadron Ray Emitter will be test firing briefly en route, perhaps you would like a seat there?"
"Hmmm, maybe just connect me directly then," suggested the scrubot.
"They are not accepting calls at the moment. Look, I have to go now. Some scientist on radius 344 needs a star burster simulation run, and all nonessential service threads are to be terminated. Just do your job, I'm sure it will all work out better than it did for the last fifty-two scrubots. The odds of a fifty-third anomalous malfunction are insignificant."
"The last fifty-two scrubots?" whined SB14-053, but the computer was gone.
"Anomalous malfunction? Computer?"
There was no answer.
The scrubot looked at the freshly cleaned walls around it. It could detect no good hiding places. It considered its only tool, the autoscraper. The device could be used to deadly effect against microbes and dirt granules, but it would be ineffective against a headless construction mech.
As soon as the scrubot decided to hasten away to a hiding spot, the sound of heavy treads became noticeable in the distance. Powerful treads, much like those of a large construction automaton.... such as the Headless Mech of Radius 14!
Scrubot SB14-053 became panicked. It exited the room into a corridor, trying to flee the noise. Somehow it did not seem to be working. The ominous sound grew louder, announcing the presence of the unseen mech through the dark corridors.
The scrubot looked to each side to examine the walls as it retreated. It noticed some kind of a manual emergency lever set into the wall, ancient and unused. Would the lever even still work?
In the throes of processor feedback loops approximating terror, the scrubot pulled the emergency lever. Suddenly the corridor erupted in emergency sirens. Flashing red lights bathed the corridor. The rumbling of the approaching mech could still be heard. The bot trundled off, looking over its shoulder at the corridor behind it.
The mech was in the same corridor now.
It trundled forth under the pulsing red emergency lights like a demon from the fires of hell. Massive treads clacked on the metal of the deck, sending out thunderous warning of its approach. Its grey metal form extended fully two meters tall and two meters wide, filling the entire corridor. Sensor bulbs and equipment caches dotted its hideous, vaguely humanoid body randomly with no underlying pattern. The prominent cutting laser assembly was brandished before it, the powerful lifting arms rotating rhythmically as if eager to grasp for prey.
On the top of the construct, a circular portal gaped where the neck should have been. It was all true. The construction mech was utterly headless.
The monstrosity paused briefly as it sensed the tiny scrubot before it. The scrubot froze for a thousand clock cycles, as if hoping that immobility would render it undetectable. Then, with menacing deliberation, the unholy mech started to roll forward towards the cleaning robot.
"Nooooo!" screamed the bot, turning to run from its adversary. "I need my head to perform my primary function!!!" It dropped the autoscraper, completely oblivious to its loss.
The tiny bot darted away from the mech, but the voiceless horror began to gain ground from behind as it lumbered ever faster on its treads. It smashed the autoscraper to shreds beneath its formidable mass. For long moments it seemed the scrubot was doomed. Then, the robot saw a side corridor branching away in a right turn just ahead. Perhaps the mech would not be able to turn, if it could just reach the intersection.... time seemed to stretch with each step as the bot plodded ahead as fast as it could.
The scrubot reached the intersection and darted right, bouncing off of the corridor wall but barely missing a step. Behind it, the horror that was once a mech powered on straight, unable to stop. The scrubot heard the whining of motors as its pursuer ground to a halt and began to backtrack. If only scrubots where made for speed! Soon the mech would be back upon it.
"Computer! Computer!" screamed the bot.
"A security squadron has been dispatched," the computer told it calmly. "Hang in there, scrubot!" it said enthusiastically, and signed off. The emergency sirens silenced and the red lights went out, leaving the radius corridor in its original dimness.
The hapless scrubot staggered on. Its power source was not meant to provide power at these output levels for long. Typically cleaning demands did not require a scrubot to move rapidly. The little robot began to lose hope again as its legs slowed, its power supplies dwindling.
The Mark III had made the turn now, and was in the new corridor. The scrubot helplessly listened as the sound of the treads gaining speed whined up behind it.
Once again a fresh source of hope appeared ahead. A large intersection neared, with a force of three security robots waiting.
"Help me! It's the Headless Mech!!!" yowled the scrubot. Now it could see that there were actually two security drones and the old cyborg awaiting it. It reached the intersection intact and clanked off to the right, without even stopping to watch the confrontation. Behind it the sounds of blasters erupted. There was the sound of metal striking metal and the hiss of a cutting laser. The scrubot ran on.
Seconds later the treads whined up again in pursuit. Mixed in with the awful noise, SB14-053 heard another pair of feet clanking on the corridor floor next to it. The scrubot looked over and saw that the old cyborg was keeping pace with it in the corridor.
"Why are you running too?" demanded the scrubot.
"Isn't it obvious? It's the Headless Construction Mech of Radius 14! It cannot die!"
No sooner had this proclamation been made than the cyborg's head popped off of its shoulders, grasped by the huge metal claw of the mech juggernaut. A fountain of blood erupted from the torso, the organic components of the cyborg visible at last.
"Cannot.... perform.... my... primary...." squealed the scrubot. A powerful manipulator fastened itself upon the running bot's head. The sizzle of a cutting laser broke through the air. The head was liberated from the robot's body. SB14-053's optical sensor flickered and went dead as its body sprawled forward, hurtling to the floor to be crushed by the heavy treads.Somewhere kilometers above the core, a roboform mat powered back to life and began to construct a fifty-fourth scrubot for radius 14.