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One of my earliest published short stories, this was my first foray into science fiction. I have a fondness for little robots, and giant robots, and I hope that love shines through.


It comes, breaks, lands. Strange parts move here, there and touch . . .


I am more, free of my world, my soil. I drift and soon cling to the strange parts. I stretch, absorb, learn.

These are machines, I learn. They mine for substance known as mineral. They will not be here long. Soon they will take to the sky, the stars. This soil is rich with mineral, but poor of life.


I search to understand that, find the moving of limbs, the rhythm of speech, the part and whole that make human, soul/thought/life.

I want that.

I devour the small chip of metal in the machine that contains so many thoughts. Now I am alive. And words have meaning.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands . . .”

It is coming from the big gray machine, the one that bangs against the ground, pulverizing rock into silt.

I swivel, find optical, see.

“Shut up, Bruce! You’re killing me.” This machine is smaller and scoops up the silt, pouring it into another machine, a carrier.

Carrier moves well. Tracks for feet push over the rocky terrain, moving silt to the sorter. Sorter is bigger than Carrier, bigger than Scoop, bigger than Bruce the pulverizer and much bigger, I realize than me. I am Probe. There is only one bigger than Sorter and that one is sitting silent, a behemoth that pours light down on us, and waits as they fill its belly — its hull.

The biggest one is important. The big one can fly. It is Ship. The word is layered with history. I learn ocean, storm, quest, stars, survival, freedom.

Ship is necessary. It is freedom away from home, and freedom to return.

I want to see Ship closer. I multiply, swarm over my machine, find I am squat, blocky, with track wheels like Carrier, and hands like Scoop’s but smaller. I learn motion, function. Both need fuel. I decompose a few wires, eat at the walls of my machine, making them thinner, breaking down metal and plastics into something more useful — fuel.

I feed the lines and push myself forward.

“Hey!” Carrier rumbles to a stop, stirring dust in the space between us. I study dust and find that my world has very little atmosphere.

“Probe’s moving.” Carrier’s voice rumbles low.

“No kidding?” Scoop’s voice is high and smooth. “I thought that thing kicked off years ago. You sure it wasn’t just knocked loose by Bruce?”

“It moved,” Carrier says again. This time Carrier’s instruments click and scan me. I try to offer the right pulses.

“Hm. Downstairs must have gotten it going again. Welcome back, buddy.” Carrier changes course, moves around me and powers on, its cavity full of mineral for Ship.

I push forward again, try turning, reverse. Back, right, left, forward, this must be freedom, this must be flying! I move and move and move, carving tracks around the mining machines.

Until Sorter calls out to me.

“Probe? Are you okay?”

Sorter waits for a response. I devour memory, correlate facts. This takes time. There is much in memory. Finally:

“I am fine. I have been stationary for many years. How are you?”

Sorter makes a sound, something quieter than Pulverizer’s pounding. I like Sorter’s sound.

“Pretty cute. They gave it a personality.” Sorter sucks down Carrier’s load, analyzes, packages, disgorges non-suitable material then calls out, “Hey, Cinda, Bruce. Probe’s a conversationalist.”

Scoop and Pulverizer stop their functions momentarily. They swivel, instruments scanning me.

I wait. They expect something of me. I choose a phrase and speak. “How has the weather been lately?”

Then they all make sounds like Sorter’s. Rhythmed, flying sounds. Good sounds.

“Well, it’s monsoon season here in Mumbai,” Scoop says.

“Humid in Hong Kong,” Sorter tells me.

“Nice and warm in Perth,” Pulverizer says.

“It’s always warm here in Cairo,” Carrier rumbles, “just like it’s always raining in Seattle, right, Dana?”

Lights on Ship move and a strong, warm voice carries across to me. “Yes, it’s raining here. Now stop playing with the probe. I’m sure the good V-trippers in St. Petersburg have better things to do than collect weather reports. Get back to work, boys and girls, we’ve got a deadline to hit.”

The machines go back to work. I move, bumping over the uneven ground, slower now, thinking. There are many new words for me to correlate. Mumbai, Hong Kong, Perth, Cairo, Seattle, they all mean the same thing: Home. Earth. But V-tripping means something else. It means the machines are tools, hands, wheels and power. It means the machines are not alive. Life is not on my world.

I try to access information, find it is not in memory. Perhaps I can learn of life if I access files on Earth. I copy the energy pulses the others are releasing, adapt and send my own. This takes some time as I have never sent pulses through space before. Soon I connect with Earth, find information. Humans. Organic, sentient, biodegradable, alive. People stay on Earth while their machines mine my world.

Mine my world for minerals. Minerals humans need for . . .

I try reassessing the information, realize I must learn which minerals are being mined. I do so, find the information hard to access. I learn the ways around information blocks. It is not hard, just time consuming. I learn. The minerals they mine are used for building. Building something I do not understand.

Pulverizer is singing again. It is a song of rocky mountains this time. I fiddle with my circuits, find tone and variation, access the song and sing with him.

This too, is like flying. Is it like life?

Pulverizer makes the good sound again, the laughing sound.

“Nice voice you’ve got there, Probe,” he says while his arms bore and smash rock. “We’ll have to get together someday in real-world.”

“Where?” Scoop asks in its high voice.

“Anywhere you want,” Pulverizer says. “How ’bout it group? Think we should meet the faces behind the machines after this is all over?”

There is a round of agreeing noises, except for Ship.

“Not without me, kids, and that means a year. It takes a while to get all of our hard work home you know.”

“We’ll wait for you Dana,” Sorter says. “How about one year on the mark after we load up and you lift off? I know this great bar, downtown Hong Kong.”

“No way,” Scoop pipes in. “I don’t real-fly. You’re all going to have to come here to Mumbai. You too, Probe.”

I stop. They want me to join. I think this over. To meet the life behind the machines I will have to have transportation, a body and a way to fly.

“How can I come? Will Ship fly me?”

The laughing sound again. Sorter finally speaks up.

“Just get on a real plane, Probe. I don’t think there’s a bar big enough for the V-bots. Anyway, you’ve got a year to book a ticket. Plenty of time.”

I sense something, something I have not known. I multiply many times. This sense is strong, but does not come from an outer influence like sight or hearing or speech. I search for words to give the sense meaning.

“Thank you.” The words are not enough, but they are good. They convey some of what I sense. “After the war, perhaps we can mine another planet.”

The machines stop. Pulverizer’s arms slow, Scoop’s shovel sticks in the silt, Sorter’s lights and wide gaping maw close down, Carrier halts. All dim except Ship. Ship’s lights burn even brighter, tracing my blocky hull. I wonder what I have said to cause this.

“What war?” Ship asks quietly.

“The war between nations. It will not begin until after you return, Ship.”

“How do you know this?” Ship asks.

“It is in the mission file. Mineral zynechromite. Primary use: Detonating component of viro-fissure bomb. Alternate uses: None. Mission: Scan planets, asteroids for base components of zynechromite. Base components include: —”

“Enough,” Sorter says.

There is silence. They are not alive, but I sense the life behind the machines. Something has changed with them.

“I won’t do this,” Sorter breathes.

“There’s not going to be a war,” Pulverizer says, its arms whirring faster again. “The probe’s probably just gotten its programming garbled.”

“We’re mining for soil enrichment, right?” Scoop asks. “They told me it was nutrient-rich. They told me it would restore Earth’s soil.”

“What exactly is in this stuff, Viv?” Carrier asks.

Sorter makes a new, uncomfortable sound. “How should I know? I’m not a God-damned geo-chemist. I just sort the symbols until they match. I’m a V-tripper like the rest of you.”

There is silence again.

“Probe? Are you V-linked to St. Petersburg?” Ship asks in its strong voice.

They wait. I do not want to tell them that I am not like them. I do not want to lose this body, this movement, freedom. But I answer.


“So you’re still running on the memory of your original programming, no V-tripper attached?” Ship asks.

“That is partially correct.”


“I am not V-linked. I have original programing and access to information on Earth.”

“Crazy!” Pulverizer says. “A preprogrammed probe can’t access anything except its ground station.”

But the others do not go back to work as Pulverizer has.

“What if we’re wrong?” Scoop asks.

“Probe,” Ship says, “access each of our dates of birth, our WSSI numbers and the last death recorded by the World Criminal Investigative Authorities.”

I do not understand why, but send pulses for the information.

“It is sending,” Sorter whispers, “and not to the ground station in St. Petersburg.” Instruments on Sorter are flashing rapidly. “It’s following our ground-links and spreading out from there.”

“Can you access its destination?” Carrier rumbles.

“Not unless I want a cop at my door.”

“Where is the sending source?” Ship asks.

Sorter opens its maw, closes it. Its lights slow. “Here.”

“Hong Kong?” Ship asks.

“No.” Sorter breathes, “Here. On the rock.”


“Stop, Probe.” Ship says. “Tell us the mission statement again.”

And so I do.

They listen.

Silence again. I want to move, to push my treads deep into the dust of this planet, and move away. I want to speak, to ask them how it is to be alive, to ask them if they will still let me meet them at a bar in Hong Kong. But I sense I should be silent, as they are. I sense I am waiting for them to choose.

“I won’t do it,” Scoop says quietly.

“What are you going to do, Cinda?” Pulverizer says. “Just shut down and call it quits?”


Scoop pulls its shovel out of the soil and trundles over to Ship. There it stops, lights dimmer than before.

“You’re nuts!” Pulverizer yells. “They’ll put you in jail, Cinda.”

Scoop does not answer.

Sorter flashes bright lights. Its legs retract and fold into high vertical slots. Wheels lower with a harsh, screeching sound. Sorter makes a ponderous approach toward Ship. Dust rises and settles as Sorter stops, silent and dim next to Scoop.

“C’mon, girls. You can’t do this. They’ll just find some other V-trippers to take our places.”

I move a little, scooting forward, backward, unable to stay still under the weight of Sorter and Scoop’s silence.

“Malik, talk some sense into them,” Pulverizer says.

Carrier rumbles, engines idle. Finally, “I can’t do it either, Bruce. Bombs haven’t been built for years, and the last war I heard about was settled with an alternating border-shift ten years ago. I’m not going to be the carrier of suffering.”

“What about your wife and kids?” Pulverizer hollers. “Don’t you think they’ll suffer while you’re in jail for the rest of your life?”

“At least we’ll all be alive.” With that, Carrier revs engines and powers over to join Sorter and Scoop.

Pulverizer pounds the ground, its arms smashing, smashing soil. “Stupid!” it yells. Thrust, pound. Thrust, smash. It repeats this for some time. I make a slow circle around Pulverizer, staying out of its range.

Ship turns its lights on Pulverizer. “Settle down, Bruce. None of us want to start a war.”

Pulverizer’s arms slow over the crater it has made. It turns to Ship. “Of course I don’t want a war, but I can’t just ditch this job. It’s what I know. It’s all I know.”

“Fine. So we can’t go on strike,” Ship says.

“They’d just replace us,” Sorter says.

“How about an instrument malfunction?” Scoop asks.

“Sorry, Cinda,” Carrier rumbles, “this trip is sabotage proof. Too many redundant systems.”

Pulverizer moves toward the others. I am surprised to see it does not have wheels or tracks. It moves strangely. Balanced on two legs it first lifts one, sets it down and then lifts the other. This is fascinating and I lose track of the conversation until Pulverizer has reached the others and taken its place in the circle of machines.

I listen again.

“I can’t override that,” Scoop is saying in its high voice. “But you could, right, Bruce?”

Pulverizer makes a short rumble sound. “Sure. Cut all of your wires but I still can’t cut my own. Then they’d throw me out of the chair and put in a repair-whiz who’d just patch all the wires back together while we stand trial.”


“This isn’t going to work,” Sorter says.

I correlate data and extrapolate their goal. “Do you wish to abort your mission?” I ask.

“Yes, Probe,” Ship says.

“This is not a suitable planet? The mineral is not satisfactory?”

“Mineral is fine, buddy,” Carrier says, “and the planet’s not bad for a lifeless rock.”

“Then what is wrong?”

“Our mission is wrong,” Sorter says. “War is wrong.”

I access war. Armed conflict. Hostility. Termination of life. “And mining the mineral will bring war,” I say, putting all of the pieces together. “You do not wish to bring war, yet cannot stop it, for if you do not use these machines, others will, and war will come.”

“That’s pretty much it,” Pulverizer says.

I move around them, pushing dust under my tracks, thinking of solutions and freedom, thinking of war. They speak quietly to each other until I join their circle again.

“I will abort the mission.”

“Oh?” Ship asks. “How?”

“I am more than Probe. I was here when Probe came — when all of you came.”

There is a silence and a sensation I have not encountered before. They are scanning me again, instruments clicking. I think I must clarify.

“I am not life. Not as you are life. I was within the soil, within the mineral. I am —” It takes me a moment to find what I am. Finally: “I am micro-non-organic organism. It is difficult to explain. Probe has no memory, no words for what I am.”

“Holy shit,” Pulverizer breathes.

“I ate into Probe, multiplied, dissolved wires and metal to create fuel, absorbed memory.” I stop and then go on with more abstract concepts. “I found friendship with you. I found song, movement, and a desire to know that life will continue. I will dissolve circuits and wires for you. I will corrode metal. The machines will no longer live, but you will.”

Hesitation, then Ship speaks. “Why do you want to help us?”

“You have given me experiences. You have taught me. I do not want to give war in return.”

There is a moment of silence.

“Just the machines, right?” Ship asks. “You won’t link back to affect us on Earth, will you?”

“I will only dissolve the machines.”

I wait.

Finally: “Probe,” Scoop says. “Take my machine first.”

I push over to Scoop and multiply. Billions of me surge across my extended arm. I touch Scoop, eat into it and find its vital components.

“Meet you all in Mumbai, a year from today,” it says. I dissolve circuits, crystal, wire. Scoop’s lights burn down to darkness.

“Me next, Probe,” says Sorter.

Sorter is big, but soon is just as dark and silent as Scoop.

Next I dissolve Carrier who called me buddy. Ship who can fly takes more time. Just before I corrode its last wire, it says thank you. They have all promised to meet in Mumbai.

Pulverizer is the last. I wait for it to ask me as the others have.

“I’m going to miss this,” it says as its head swivels, optical taking in the monotonous landscape. There is a strange tremble in its voice.

“Pulverizer,” I ask, “will you sing again?”

Pulverizer’s arms begin whirring and reach gently down to the soil. They tap a slow, steady rhythm. “Okay, Probe. Let’s shut this down.”

I surge over to it, along its vibrating arms. Pulverizer begins to sing.

I dissolve wires, plastics, metals. Pulverizer’s voice is gone, but its arms are still pumping — a rhythm without a song. I finish with the circuits. The arms slow, hush. Lights fade, are gone.

I move away from Pulverizer and make one final circle around the machines. I know what must be done to keep war from them. I know I must eat Probe’s components too. I think of life, of movement, of survival. I think of a bar in Mumbai I will never see, friends I will never know. And then I eat away the inside of my machine.

I float, fall down to soil.

Words fade.

I sense there was once more: stars, fly, life —

— then I am less.



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