He watched the lift car approach, hanging from a steel rail, arriving much sooner than Andrew anticipated. Had it really come so far in just a few minutes? He worked against an urge to check his computer, which he knew was not functioning properly, to confirm the time.
The car moved past the windows and arrived at the steel double doors. After a few seconds of buzzing, the car opened. It was empty. Of the four lights in the ceiling, three remained lit. Andrew stepped in and told the computer to head to sector four. The motor overhead jumped to life, the doors closed, and the car lurched, heading out and down.
Through two small windows in the doors, Andrew watched the colony’s headquarters shrink, cut into living rock and lined with multiple stories of lit, empty windows. Below the car was a black abyss spanned by steel and old scaffolds – the first mining site of the colony, now abandoned and depleted. Eventually, the lights shrank to dots, and he turned to the windows on the opposite side. He was hovering in the dark, the running lights on the track the only thing to remind him he was moving forward. Seconds passed, then long minutes.
The track turned and slowed. The descent leveled off as he approached sector one. It was black save for a few scattered lights. Nothing moved except for some clouds of dust as the car moved past the open landing cut into the rock and back into the dark caves. It began to get colder, and Andrew clenched his ungloved right hand. As the car rolled on, the running lights on the track growing brighter (they were newer, he reckoned), he reeled at the amount of atmosphere the colonists had created for their operation. The planet’s surface was still thin and made mostly of greenhouse gases, a necessary step for even the accelerated process of creating a garden world, but the vast catacombs of the Gibraltar mine were full of fresh oxy. The way forward was wide, but always around the car earth-like air rushed like wind.
The car approached sector two. The rock ceiling came into view as the car slowed and paused at what looked like an equipment bay. A few hanging sodium lamps lit a long open avenue, lined with lockers and abandoned tools. A few computer terminals were still lit, ticking away with whatever tasks they had. The doors opened automatically. Andrew flinched and shouldered his rifle, but relaxed as a small robot rolling on tracks appeared from around a rock formation. The light on the end of its single appendage searched back and forth over the smooth floor.
“Hello!” Andrew yelled. Nothing answered him past the glow of the lamps, but the robot, not slowing, turned its light upon him.
“Greetings,” it said in a warm, feminine voice as it approached. “Sector two is not staffed today. Are you looking for someone?”
Andrew felt a bead of sweat pop on his brow, despite the still and cold air of the bay. “Um… I might be,” he said, shrugging, though he knew the robot would likely not recognize the gesture.
“Are you heading further down?” it said pleasantly, pausing in front of the open doors. “Perhaps I could share a ride with you if you are. If not, or if you do not wish to ride with me, I will wait for the next car.”
“Um…” Andrew stepped away from the robot to appraise it. It took the gesture as consent and rolled into the lift. The doors closed, and the car began to move down again, the computer being operated remotely by the robot.
“Are you new?” the robot said.
“I am,” Andrew said. “How did you know?”
“I haven’t seen you before.” Its arm and its strange light (which had dimmed to a pale blue) swiveled to regard Andrew.
“Oh,” Andrew said.
“What is your name?”
Andrew thought a moment. “Toro.”
“My name is Lucille. Are you married or single?”
Andrew frowned at the thing. “What is your function, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“My function is autonomous maintenance of electronics and basic structures within the mining hazard zone. What is your job, Toro?”
“Why are you asking if I’m married?”
The robot dimmed its front light. “I don’t have any records of you. I thought I would update the personnel files for Tracy with the identity of your spouse and children, if applicable. I know she would appreciate having it done for her.”
Andrew nervously checked the safety of his rifle. He had flipped back to auto at some point. He put his thumb on it and slowly clicked it back twice to safe. “I’ll talk to Tracy myself.”
“What is your job, Toro?”
“I’m sorry, Toro, I meant to say-” The robot paused and clicked a few times, “What is the title of your job position?”
“Why do you want to know? I told you I’d talk to Tracy.”
“What is the title of your job position?”
Andrew looked out the window. They were passing through a narrower stone passage, not hanging over an abyss any longer. It was still cold and dark. The stone had a mottled color, grey and black, with veins of iron that had not yet gone to rust in the newly oxygenated mine.
“Have you forgotten your job title?” The robot said.
“Yes,” Andrew said.
“Open positions were for maintenance supervisor and demolitions technician. Does either of those sound correct?”
“Yes. Maintenance supervisor.”
“Pleased to meet you, Maintenance Supervisor Toro. I am Lucille, one of the autonomous maintenance robots that operate in the mining hazard zone,” it said, seemingly oblivious to its own conversation history.
“How many more of you are there?”
“Where are they?”
“The other maintenance robots are powered down, sir.”
“Their services have not been required.”
“Why are your services required?”
“Sectors three and four have not been serviced in 45 days.”
“Transport has not stopped at my service terminal in 46 days.”
“I am not authorized to operate lift cars except in the presence of staff, for logistic and security reasons.”
“I meant why hasn’t there been any elevator stopping at your last location?”
The robot clicked. “I don’t know that, sorry.”
“You stopped my car. I wasn’t stopping at your last location.”
After a few seconds, the robot said, “I am not authorized to stop a lift car.”
Andrew growled to himself softly. “You know what, Lucille, I forgot – I am looking for someone.”
“Who are you looking for?”
The robot clicked. The computer terminal moved through some menus on its own. “Sorry, the network is slow.”
The robot clicked a few more times. “Vivian is in the third grade. You can find her in the education center, either in the common area, or as a pupil of Elena Garcia.”
“Thanks. I’ve already been to the school, and she wasn’t there.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. You can contact the education center to see if she was out of class due to health concerns.”
“I don’t think it was that.”
“I’m sorry; I don’t have information on that.”
“It’s fine, Lucille.”