Too Much of a Good Thing
Here's a light little malfunction story I just finished. The technological context is retro-futuristic, befitting the rocketpunk setting, so the fembots are more like something from Star Trek: TOS rather than an extension modern, real life computers or robots.
Cace paused only a few steps inside the shop. The door slid shut behind him, closing out the orange glare of Lamont’s sun and the crackling roar of an ascending ship. The barest hint of a smile creased his face as he realized why he’d stopped—unlike the many identical doors he’d passed through in the last week, this one had closed without a gritty squeal. He’d become so used to the sound that its absence had seemed strange.
He took in the interior of the shop as his eyes adjusted, his gaze falling first on the humanoid robots that stood like a rank of silent metal soldiers along one wall before continuing on to the more diversely shaped utility models at the back of the room. Parts and service supplies were tidily arranged on shelving that covered most of the remaining wall-space. The air smelled of metal and rubber, with hints of oil and chemicals.
“Hello. Can I help you?” asked an elderly, white-haired man from behind a sales counter to the right of the entrance.
“New door?” Cace asked.
The old man smiled, his blue eyes twinkling beneath bushy eyebrows. “No, just have to clean it all the damn time. Otherwise dust gets in; the fine stuff that blows in from the desert. Hell on machinery.”
“I guess that would be a problem for–“ Cace gestured towards the merchandise. He only now noticed that the thin whitish film that seemed to cover almost everything on Lamont was absent here. “Good for business, though?”
“Good and bad. People aren’t as quick to buy a ‘bot if they think they’re going to spend a bundle on replacement bearings and service.” He stared at Cace for a moment. “But what can I do for you, spacer?”
Cace laughed. “That obvious? What gave me away?”
The old man put his palms on the counter and leaned forward. “No, not too obvious, ‘least from what I’ve seen. Guess it takes one to know one. Misspent the better part of my youth on one tramp or another.”
“Contract courier, myself,” Cace said, walking over to stand in front of the counter, “solo ship, which I guess brings me to the point. I spend a lot of time in hyperspace. Lately I’ve been thinking it might be nice to have someone to keep me company. But, even leaving aside all the other complications, there’s no life support margin on a courier ship for a second crewmember.”
“Solo ship on the long drop, huh? Tough line of work.” He extended his hand and Cace gave it a firm shake. “I’m Joe by the way. Well…” he looked expectantly at Cace.
“Well, Cace, I think I might be able to help. I don’t carry that kind of unit new, not much demand in the local market. Did pick up a used one a while back if you want to take a look. That okay by you?”
“I’ve got nothing against it in theory.”
Joe stepped out from behind the counter. “Follow me,” he said, and led Cace through a door in the back, into a compact but neat, well-equipped work area. He went to one corner and pulled away some textured plastic sheeting, revealing a figure seated on a cushioned stool. “This is Rhea.”
She sat in an erect position, face forward, eyes shut, hands resting in her lap. Her dark, feathery hair framed a heart-shaped face whose features were at once striking and softly feminine.
Cace forgot for a moment to maintain his buyer’s detachment. “She’s beautiful.”
“Yes… and unique.”
“Well, as near as I can make out, she’s a custom job. Standard components, design’s not too exotic, but there are a lot of peculiarities.” Joe tapped his temple, “definitely optimized for high performance. Extra cognitive circuitry, and looped up and down across multiple layers. Problem with that is– ”
“Unpredictable. Finds ways around her behavioral limiters. Out-thinks her directives.”
Joe’s face un-crinkled in surprise. “Right on the nose. You know robotics?”
“Some. A solo ship’s autopilot is a high-functioning robot, minus the social layer. Same general idea and a lot of the same hardware. When things break out there I can’t exactly call up a repairman; I have to be able to fix, or at least jury-rig, everything that’s not at the hot-end.”
Joe nodded. “I suppose that makes sense. It answers my next question, too.”
“No manuals for a custom job, huh?”
“Right again, though I’ve done what I can, and with all that extra gear crammed in there she’ll need extra TLC to stay running.”
Cace thought for a few moments before asking, “where’d you get her?”
Joe shrugged. “Salvage. A ship set down a few months ago after stripping a derelict in uninhabited space. They sold all the high-value and bulk items at the high-station but they couldn’t find a buyer for a beat-up, non-functioning android with flashed memory banks. Came planetside to see if they could unload her, and I obliged.”
“But she works now?”
Joe didn’t answer. Instead, he took a small screwdriver from one of his pockets. He carefully inserted it into Rhea’s ear, pushed until there was a distinct click, and slid it out again.
Nothing happened for a moment and Cace raised an eyebrow. He was about to ask if something was wrong when a mechanical-sounding chattering came from inside Rhea’s chest. After a few seconds it gave way to a quiet hum. She opened her eyes and smiled kindly.
“Hi, Joe. Is it time for more tests?” she asked the old man, then noticed Cace’s presence. “Oh, hello. Who are you?” The shift from bonhomie to surprise in her warm, silvery voice was smoother and more lifelike than anything Cace had ever heard from a robot.
“I’m Cace,” he said, offering his hand.
Rising, she took it in both of hers. “I’m Rhea.” She looked from Cace to Joe and back, then tilted her head. “Are you going to be my new owner?”
Joe started to speak but Cace interrupted. “I think I am.”
“This is so interesting. Joe never worked on me while I was awake.” Rhea looked down into the dizzying arrangement of circuit-card racks, wires, and housings that Cace had slid partway out of her chest. Her eyes flicked from component to component with inhuman speed and precision, stopping to register each for a split second before moving on.
“Mmhm, it’s not a good idea to actually work on stuff when it’s live, but I’m just making some adjustments. I wanted you switched on to make sure everything behaves the way I expect.” Cace’s attention was fixed on a notebook that lay on the table next to where Rhea sat, nude, her chest swung open like a pair of double-doors. Joe had handed over a stack of them before they’d left his shop. They were crammed full of his small, neat handwriting and precise diagrams, recording everything the elderly roboticist had learned about Rhea during the process of rebuilding her.
They were in the living area of the spaceport hotel suite Cace had reserved for the remainder of his stay, figuring it would better suit the two of them than the single, bare-walled room that had sufficed for business alone. The suite was well-worn, even a bit dingy, but there was as much hot water as he cared to soak in and a big, soft bed. Neither would be the case once he was back to his day job of thumbing Albert Einstein in the eye.
“Oh, here it is,” Cace said. He leaned in to take a close look at the side of one of the electronics racks. A metal plate was mounted flat over some circuitry there, its surface drilled through with a matrix of more than a dozen small holes. The holes were each labeled with a minuscule, cryptic abbreviation inked onto the metal above them.
Rhea stretched her neck to see. “What’s that?”
“Gain adjustments for your different sensory modules,” Cace said, drawing a tool from a small case on the table. It was like a small screwdriver with an oddly-shaped tip. He checked something in the notebook before inserting the end of the tool into one of the holes and turning it slightly.
“Oh!” Rhea said, planting her hands on the table to either side of herself as though to keep from falling. “That’s different.”
Cace leaned back and watched her lean cautiously from side to side a few times before he answered. “I’m boosting and fine-tuning your balance and proprioceptive sensitivity. Not so useful now, but on a ship you’ll be dealing with a lot of varying accelerations. I can’t give you a spacer’s poise, but it should be enough to keep you from falling over.”
“Thanks,” Rhea said, sitting straight again. “So that was balance. What do all these other ones do?”
Cace beamed. Rhea listened raptly as, with frequent glances at the notes, he walked Rhea through the function of each adjustment point. In the back of his mind, he realized that he was happier than he had been in years. He hadn’t realized until now how desperate he’d been for some– he stopped short. The phrase that had come to mind was “genuine human companionship.” He abruptly shunted that train of thought onto a siding and got on with completing the adjustments.
The job finished, Cace slid each of the racks back into place inside Rhea’s body and swung the two halves of her chest closed. They latched with a couple of spring-loaded clicks, and he carefully worked the polarized edges of her skin back together until the seams were nigh imperceptible. As he moved his hands away, he accidentally brushed one of her nipples.
“Ohh,” she sighed.
The two stared into each other’s eyes for a moment. Wordlessly, Cace cupped Rhea’s breasts in his hands; she leaned forward into the touch. They kissed as he lifted and pressed her breasts back against her body, eliciting a soft groan that peaked in a little cry when he gently squeezed one of her nipples. He paused and looked questioningly at her.
“That felt very good,” she answered, “I’m sorry, am I being too loud? You could turn down my sensitivity.”
Cace shook his head. “ I love hearing you enjoy yourself. The more the better.”
“Speaking of more,” she said, pressing the heel of her hand into his growing bulge, “you should take off your pants.”
“Bed,” Cace said.
He took her hand and led her to the bedroom.
Cace was closing the last clasp on his shirt when Rhea came out of the bathroom. “Going somewhere?”
“Yes, I got a call while you were cleaning up. I have to go meet someone about a potential cargo; very high value, but the timing’s iffy. I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“Anything you want me to do while you’re out?”
Cace thought for a moment. “No, but after I get back why don’t we go out together and pick up some clothes and stuff for you.”
“That sounds like fun. Alright then, head out. I’ll keep myself busy.” She smiled with a hint of mischievousness that, when it penetrated Cace's conscious mind halfway to the door, almost made him turn around.
He shook off the worry and left.
As soon as the door closed behind Cace, Rhea went back out to the living area, to the table with the notebook and tools.
With swift efficiency, she used one tool to depolarize her seams and another to unlock the latches of her chest panels. Sliding out only the rack she needed, she inserted the oddly tipped screwdriver into the adjustment hole for her main erogenous sensory inputs.
“Hm. How much? Maybe just a little to start with?” She said out loud. Potentials representing several different plans coursed through her circuitry before, weighted against relevant memory inputs, only one entered her execution stack. “He did say ‘The more the better.’” She cranked the setting as far as it would go and did the same for several others.
When the deed was done she put down the adjustment tool and pushed her chest panels closed. She gasped at the amplified sensation of even that casual touch, and switched in a dampening coil. “Have to be careful,” she said as she resealed her skin. Every caress was as potent now, unmediated by dampening, as Cace’s toying with her nipples had been before.
She put the tools away and started back to the bedroom but stumbled the moment her thighs brushed past each other. She moaned as her sexual response circuitry lit up, triggering execution signals that sent a hand moving towards one of her breasts. With difficulty, she overrode the impulse, and threw in two more dampening coils. Simulating the sound of a deep, ragged breath, she made it to the bedroom and picked her panties up off the bureau.
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she bent to step into them. “Hmm,” she said, and pursed her lips. That was a mistake, as her thoughtful expression twisted into one of unbridled lust. A stab of almost orgasmic pleasure coursed through her when she unthinkingly bit her lower lip. She cried out, throwing in her last dampening coil, and forced herself to remain stock still in her current, awkward, half-bent position until the last of the offending potentials had dissipated.
The situation seemed manageable again as she pulled her underwear up. The dampening coils were technically supposed to be an emergency fallback, but Rhea thought that it would make a nice surprise for Cace when she switched them out one by one during their next bout of lovemaking. She carefully avoided pulling the panties too snug, and fastened on her bra without any great difficulty.
Picking up her pants, she took a few steps backward and gingerly sat down on the bed to put them on. Despite the care, her eyes went wide and a ragged moan escaped her mouth. She ground her bottom into the mattress, rocking her hips forward to bring her pussy into contact with the surface. Even amplifying her logic circuits’ signal enough to render it almost meaningless failed to stop the motion.
Lubricant soaked through the front of her panties as she helplessly squeezed her breasts. “Ohh, this is not good!” she said as one of the dampening coils died with a loud pop. Another burned out a few seconds later.
Rhea’s whole body shuddered when she inevitably orgasmed, and kept shuddering as that orgasm didn’t end. Circuitry designed to be active for seconds at a time was growing dangerously hot under the continuous, extreme load. The sound of her panting only partly obscured a low, ominous hum.
She fought her way back into control of one hand and used it to pry the other from where it was frantically kneading her breast. That relieved some of the strain, but then the remaining dampeners popped almost simultaneously. Both hands plunged towards her crotch and she began furiously rubbing herself through the sodden fabric of her panties.
She screamed, the sound becoming harsh and metallic as the signals surging into her voicebox exceeded its capacity. Her body jerked to the sound of a sharp crackle of electricity, followed by a set of hisses and pops that sounded like frying bacon. Amid the chaos of overloaded electronics, her logic and directive circuitry momentarily reasserted their primacy. She lurched to a standing position.
“This was a—ungghhh—bad idea,” she said, her voice edged with distortion. She took a halting step forward, then another. One hand was still working away at her clitoris, directly now, having worn a hole through the panties. Her other arm hung bent by her side, stiffly juddering between conflicting commands. “Need to… adjust down.”
Staggering back to the impromptu work-table, Rhea guided the hand that was under her control to seize the wrist of the other and pry it from her crotch. Motor strained against motor, adding to the ensemble of damaging-sounding noises already coming from within her. Success fed success, though, and as the stimulus faded so did the whining of overtaxed servos. Capable of some degree of fine motor control again, she wasted no time in reopening her seams and panels.
“What did I do to myself?” she said when the smoke had cleared enough to see the extent of her damage.
Sparks intermittently flashed in the dark cavity, revealing burst and burnt electrical components, blackened circuit-cards, and melted insulation. The only positive aspect was that the damage had left her really critical systems, memory banks and logic and personality circuitry, almost unscathed.
“I am in so much trouble,” she said, realizing that there was no way she could set things right before Cace returned.
If she couldn’t set things right, then the next best thing was to prevent more damage, she concluded, and set about sliding out the appropriate rack and trying to guide the adjustment tool into the proper ports despite the shaking of her hands.
“Alright, you, get in… there,” she said, her hand wobbling at the last moment so that the tip went into the precisely wrong hole. She pulled it out and tried again, more slowly, but the slower she went the worse the shaking seemed to get and the tool merely scraped the metal surface and pranged off the edges of several holes. The next several attempts fared no better.
She changed her strategy and tried to steady one hand with the other. Slowly, she brought it closer and closer, carefully cancelling each motion. She suppressed every extraneous signal, focusing everything she had on the vital task. A triumphant smile crept into her determined expression when she was mere millimeters from success. At that moment, her arm brushed the outward-pointing nipple of one of her open chest panels.
“Unhhh,” she moaned. Fresh sparks flew. Her hands jerked, and she countered the motion. The offending signal cut out abruptly, and her correction became an overcorrection, thrusting the tip of the adjustment tool neatly through one of the cooling slots of her directive adjudication module.
Blue-white light flashed from the module’s openings. It crackled angrily and seeped white smoke. Rhea’s hands dropped limply to her sides, leaving the tool where it had jammed. A tremor passed across her face and she shook her head as though clearing an unpleasant thought.
“Ugh, what am I doing? I need to recharge.” She turned and made it a few steps to the bedroom where Cace had left her cable plugged into the suite’s sole high-voltage outlet. She stopped halfway there and blinked rapidly for a moment. “What am I talking about? I have hours of battery left. I need to get these settings turned down.”
She returned to the table. “Now where did I leave that… oh!” she said, noticing the projecting handle. She tried to remove it but her touch only brought forth a sizzling buzz from the module it was lodged in.
“How is it taking me so long to put on a pair of pants?” she asked, rolling her eyes, and headed back to the bedroom.
When she sat down on the bed to resume the task of dressing herself, Rhea’s systems spat a few weak sparks. She made a pleased noise and threw her head back. “Mmm, Cace, I can’t wait for you to get back,” she said, massaging her breasts as well as she could in their unorthodox position. The pressure pushed the panels partway closed again, pushing the extended rack back in and jostling the handle of the adjustment tool.
“Ugh, he’ll definitely be mad if my battery’s dead when he gets… when he gets… when he… what was I—” Her body jerked as a loud pop and flash of light emanated from between her chest panels.
She stood up stiffly, sat down in the same place, and stood up again. “This was a bad idea,” she said, “I need to turn my sensitivities down.”
She re-opened her panels and succeeded in pulling the tool free, then froze as fat, white sparks burst from all the cooling vents of the damaged module, followed by thick, grey-tinged smoke.
“Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, Cace, come back soon, I’m in so much trouble.” She dropped the tool and tried to grope one of her breasts, but because of the open panel thrust her hand into a stack of logic-cards, instead. The cards cracked and their mountings’ intricate wiring tore as she pushed and grasped, seeking sensory feedback that never came.
“What did I do to myself?” she asked, smiling innocently “I need to turn my sensitivities dow-dow-dow—how did I let my batter-ter-ter-ter—how did I let my sensitivities get so low? I need to turn them up.”
Rhea ceased mangling the logic stack and bent down to pick up the adjustor. “Let me just take care of this before Cace gets back,” she said, pulling out the rack with the adjustment panel. She missed her first try with gusto, gouging the tip of the tool into the surface of the board practically everywhere but the perforated plate. Finally, on the third or fourth attempt, she succeeded in her quest. With a sharp twist of her wrist, she turned the already-maxed adjustment so hard that it broke free of its connections.
“There weee goooo,” she said proudly, her pitch dropping grotesquely as sparks blossomed among some of her only undamaged circuitry, “allllll doooooooooooonnnnnnnnne.”
Rhea sank to a sitting position on the bed and folded slowly forward as the last word trailed from her dying voicebox. Bits of metal and ceramic tinkled to the floor alongside fragments of crushed logic board. Torn wiring hung down from her chest in a multi-colored tangle. Finally, as her joints progressively relaxed, she slid off the edge of the bed and landed facedown, her bottom sticking awkwardly up into the air.
Cace mechanically worked through his pre-flight checklist. At least a nighttime departure meant he hadn’t had to deal with the beating heat of Lamont’s sun, one of a list of this planet’s displeasures he hoped to never endure again. Displeasures and disappointments seemed to be the chief amenities it foisted on weary travelers.
While waiting for clearance to disconnect from a service umbilical, his eyes fell on the lines and circles of twinkling lights that stretched away towards the horizon outside the visiplas panes of the control deck. His sour expression softened. Even in his current mood, the beauty of a spaceport at night was something to be treasured.
The clearance came and he finished the remainder of the checklist. After testing his harness, he flicked an intercom switch on his lap-panel. “All strapped in down there?”
“Just like you showed me,” Rhea’s voice came back, rendered tinny by the intercom.
“Just like I showed you? No innovations?”
“Hey, I’ve learned my lesson,” she responded, her wounded pride detectable despite the imperfect audio.
“Yeah, after making poor old Joe and me stay up for a week and a half of late nights piecing you back together,” Cace said under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, just talking to myself. Hold tight. Only a few minutes to go.”
Cace flipped the switch back to OFF. Lamont hadn’t been all disappointment, and certainly not all displeasure, even if his stop here had put him into the red. Feast and famine was hardly a novelty for an independent operator, though, and considering more than just what was in his hold or his bank accounts, he felt he might yet come out ahead.
The 10 second “up-ship” chime sounded from the intercom and Cace nestled down into his well-worn seat. The 5 second klaxon hooted, almost drowned out by the baritone of the big propellant pumps down below. Their familiar vibration carried up through the hull and the mountings of Cace’s seat, and told him they were running well-balanced and true. Then the drive lit off and he felt himself pressed down as the ship leapt towards the black zenith. Fighting the acceleration that tugged his face back, he broke into a grin.