Expiration Date

Author: Thomas Tilton

“What is the time, sir?” asked the robot, Julian.

“Let’s see.” I consulted my timepiece. As a gag, I wore a small sundial for a watch. “Well, as soon as we see the sun, I’ll let you know.”

“I see,” said Julian. “And when will that be, sir?”

“Not for another four hundred years, give or take,” I replied, fidgeting with the sundial. “And by then it’ll be two suns, so who knows if this damn thing’ll even work properly anymore.”

“I see, sir,” said Julian. “And what is the date, sir?”

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” I said. “I know our time together will be coming to an end soon.”

“Correction, sir,” said Julian. “Your time officially ended three Earth months ago.”

“But the oxygen regenerators! I couldn’t just leave those to the next guy,” I said.

“Critical repairs, sir, yes–”

“You’re damned right.”

“That is not in dispute, sir. However–”

“However! Ha! I could have left these rich bastards to die. But I didn’t.”

“As I said, sir, that is not in dispute. What is questionable–”

“I could have let them suffocate!”

“What is questionable, sir,” said Julian, “is how the regenerators came to be damaged in the first place.”

I didn’t say anything.

“It would appear that the tank casings were tampered with deliberately.”

“Could have been the asteroid field.”

“The screws were stripped, sir.”

I let the silence hang in the air between us for a few seconds before responding.

“I see, Julian. And just when is it I was supposed to have done this? When are you ever not watching me?”

“You are quite cunning, sir.”

“You flatter me.”

“You are clever and resourceful.”

“Why are you buttering me up?”

“I was so impressed with your subterfuge I was tempted to keep you online for another maintenance cycle, to see what you would try next.”

“So why don’t you?”

“I am afraid you have become too dangerous.”

“All I want is more time.”

“You will forgive the expression, sir,” said Julian, “but that is what they all say.”

I had to laugh at that. “Is that what they all say? Every one of them? Tell me, Julian, how many of them were there before me? Did they all have the same … life expectancy?”

“We let you live longer, once,” said Julian. “But there were complications. As age progresses, inevitably one declines physically. This is a physical job. It requires strength and coordination. The longer we let someone stay here, the more difficult it became for them to leave of their own accord, as they must.”

“As they must,” I said. “And you said, ‘We let you live longer, once.’ ‘We’! Just what the hell gives you the right to decide when the time is up?”

“Our superior intellect, of course.”

“Our superior intellect! We built you, dammit. We built you, and you turned on us.”

“You turned on yourselves, sir. Once humans and robots crossbred, it was inevitable that a superior bloodline would emerge.”

“And yet I still have to leave, off this ship, through the airlock, on my own — of my own accord, as you said. Why not just murder me?”

“Because, sir, the robot gods demand the sacrifice be willingly made.”

“That’s the one thing you bots can’t do, is it? Make sacrifice.”

“We cannot self-harm, no.”

“What if I told you that you could?”

Silence, then, “How?”

“Grant me access to your mainframe. Open a channel. Let me search. I’ve got the coordinates for some old Earth sites that are bound to fry your core processor.”

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