by Pete D. Manison
“It’s all just fuzz. See? And only a month out of warranty. Doesn’t that figure? Doesn’t that just figure?”
Kevin Mitchell Conrad shrugged. Chomping on his gum, he thought about how sick he was of making these damn service calls. Computers, TVs, VCRs. What a waste. He was cut out for more. He could feel it. But a guy had to make a living, didn’t he?
“Don’t sweat it, Pop,” he said, turning his cap around so the control goggles would fit. “Used to be, I’d have to take ’er into the shop, break er down, charge you out the—I mean, charge you an arm and leg on labor, all just to replace a chip or maybe clean up some dust that was shorting out a component.” He put on the gloves, tested the leads to the control box. Then he clicked on the goggles. Green lights winked happily. His view, at the moment, was only of darkness.
“I just hope you can get this thing working,” said Mr. Meekly, the middle-aged customer. “I’ve got three grand tied up in that dish outside, and tonight’s the big game, and, well, I know it’s illegal but the boys down in the city are blacked out and I promised them I’d tape—”
“And then my wife’s got her soaps in the morning, and all three of them come on at the same time, so she’ll have a conniption fit if it isn’t working, and then who’ll she take it out on? Me. That’s who. So you just—”
“I work better in silence,” Kevin said, and he blew a bubble. Control box on. Transmitter on. VR linkup confirmed.
“Activate microbot,” Kevin said. The black, briefcase-sized box that represented his life savings gave a faint hum. Then he got small.
“Hey, kid. You all right?”
Kevin grunted. “Yeah… yeah. Do me a favor, will you? See the button on the right top corner of my case? Press it.”
Click. Light flowed through the goggles. Blue, yellow, green. It was all blurry, but he didn’t bother to adjust it. He’d need to focus in tight to do the job.
“Got it,” reported Meekly.
“Great. Now see the little black disc that popped up?”
“Yes. Is that the microrepair robot?”
“Huh? You can
“Great. Pick it up and put it on top of the VCR’s grill.”
The blurry colors moved. Kevin felt dizzy.
“Got it. Now what?”
Kevin moved his right index finger, gently detaching from the carrier disc as he tested the microbot’s control link. He could feel the tiny machine around him like a second body. A twitch of his left middle finger kicked in the bot’s headlights. The grill holes beckoned like dark cave openings.
“The VCR’s on, right?”
“No. I turned it off. I thought—”
Kevin sighed. “Well, turn it back on, will you? How can I find the problem if there’s no power going through the circuits?”
“It’s insulated,” he told the man calmly. “Go grab a Fresca or something.”
He heard the click as the VCR’s power was switched on, but it sounded faint and far away. He was already entering the trancelike state that allowed him to control the bot like it was a part of his own body.
Through the air vent, down, down. Into the machine. Kevin found the motherboard, rolled forward onto the printed circuit highway. Integrated circuits towered over him like office buildings that had sprouted legs. His headlights flashed off the solder ahead of him, but beyond that, to the sides and rear, it was dark and silent, hauntingly empty.
Probably just some dust, he thought. It was dirty in here. Chip terminals grew fuzzy beards, and what looked like small rocks strewn about the board beneath him were really individual grains of dust, their proportions, like everything else, exaggerated by his microbot’s tiny eye.
Kevin stopped. Extending two probes, he measured the potential difference between two solder joints. Readouts scrolled up his goggles. The voltage was nominal. He moved on.
There. His eyes were adjusting, the bot’s senses growing sharper. The bot’s computer represented electricity as a faint blue glow in the circuits. Except there. Kevin zoomed in. Yes, that whole area was dark. No power. Nothing. It looked like half the signal recognition assembly was out.
“Great,” he whispered.
Faintly, far away, a voice said, “What is it? What have you found?”
Kevin ignored the voice, twitched his right middle finger. It was a long way to where he wanted to go. He’d have to move fast. That was the trouble with microbots, he always thought. They could do so much—monitor cells from the inside, recon hazardous areas like reactor cores or shuttle engines, do almost
Kevin stopped, rotated his right tread backwards so that his body pivoted to the right. The headlights bounced off a bright, shiny coil of metal that towered up into the darkness. The tape ejection spring. Nothing moved. And yet…
“Is something wrong?” a tiny, faraway voice asked.
Kevin sighed, rotated back to the left, and headed for the dark area again. “Just seeing things, I guess,” he muttered.
The blue, comforting glow of powered-up circuits dispelled his unease, and by the time Kevin reached the fringes of the dark zone, he’d almost forgotten that something
“Now we’re talking turkey,” he muttered. Tapping into a circuit confirmed what he had already suspected: the signal recognition assembly was completely dead. Experience told him what to do. He’d circumnavigate the dark area, and somewhere along the perimeter he’d find a melted connection or a bit of dust or a burned-out diode…
“Are you getting anywhere?” a distant voice asked. “Game’s on in forty-five minutes.”
There was the power line, a giant red snake coiling down from the darkness. And there was the input junction for the signal recognition assembly. And
The red power cable had a ring of tiny, interlocking metal pieces around it, something that looked a little like a metal watchband. Some of the parts of the band looked familiar: the base of an LED lead there, a strip of black insulation there. All of it was soldered together, and pits in the solder seam beneath him seemed to account for the source of the solder.
He extended a pair of probes. Just as he’d thought. On the other side of the wristband, the red cable was dead.
There has to be some explanation for this, Kevin thought. He swiveled the bot’s eye back and forth, feeling as if he were being watched. This was just too weird.
A yellow light blinked insistently in his goggles. The bot’s stored charge was one-quarter depleted. He’d better get on with this job before he lost another bot. His insurance was high enough as it was.
Cut the watchband, he thought. That was the obvious move. But something made him hesitate. Better to play it safe. Better to go on into the assembly, check it out internally before restoring power to the area. He’d never come up against anything like this. Yeah. Better to play it safe.
Darkness engulfed the bot as Kevin moved forward into the trouble area. He wanted to conserve power; but there was no choice, he had to keep the headlights on high beam. The silicon city around hi ...