The Parking Level by Victoria K Martin
Notice: Vehicle owners may only access their vehicles when the ferry is in port. Access to the parking level during travel is strictly prohibited for all passengers and staff. Vehicles in this area will be monitored and maintained by an onboard AI to ensure they are in working order upon arrival.
Maintenance Log for Journey 2516, Earth to Gliese Colony 10
Inspection No: 1 (Preliminary inspection)
Number of Vehicles: 883
Time Estimate: 73.5 E-hours
Vehicle Maintenance Unit 7, designation VM-7, completed the first 107 inspections without issue, finding all vehicles in the expected state. However, when it reached vehicle 108, a Ford Comet, a problem was encountered: the right thruster was not drawing power. VM-7 requested the full schematics for the model from the database, then began troubleshooting. However, knowing about all the features—even the patented foot warmer—would not help in this case. The cause for the malfunction was obvious yet mystifying.
A wire was missing. Not disconnected, not damaged—somehow, it was just gone, even though the vehicle had entered the parking level under its own power. While this development was troubling, VM-7 didn’t let these troubles delay the repair. Replacing the wire was at least straightforward, and so it would only push the schedule back by a few minutes, which was well within the confines of slush time.
When the repair was complete, VM-7 moved on to vehicle 109, then 110, then 111. But when it reached 112, it discovered another problem, one the robot didn’t know how to fix.
Inside the car was a human.
VM-7 looked at the human, and she looked back at VM-7. This lasted for a moment, just until the human tried to open the door on the other side of the car, clearly planning to escape. However, the robot had already connected to the vehicle’s onboard computer, and it superseded this action, locking the door in less than a second. Safely contained, the human looked back as VM-7 held up its soldering arm, sparks dancing on the end.
“Surrender or I will be forced to stop you,” the robot said, voice clear even though it had not spoken in a very long time—375 days, to be precise.
“Okay,” the human said, raising her hands and somehow appearing smaller, even though VM-7 knew her mass was unchanged. “I surrender.”
VM-7 unlocked the closest door, allowing the human to exit the vehicle. Then it examined her carefully. The robot’s role did not involve much human contact, so specific knowledge about them was not part of its programming. All that was certain was that the human appeared to be young and female. And scared.
“Please don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
“You are a stowaway,” VM-7 said, “I must report you.”
The human looked left, then right, but a few more sparks from VM-7 made it clear that escape was impossible. “No, I…” she paused, the skin on her forehead wrinkling for some purpose that was beyond VM-7’s comprehension. “What’s your primary purpose?” she asked.
“To inspect and maintain vehicles in the parking level, to ensure that they are functional at the end of each journey.”
The human nodded. “And you’re meant to do this as efficiently as possible?”
“Then let me help you. I know I don’t look it, but I’ve been taking electronics apart and putting them back together for as long as I can remember. I know I could be useful.”
VM-7 considered this, then remembered the missing wire. “You have damaged one of the vehicles already.”
“Oh, yeah…” the human pulled a wire from her pocket. “I thought it might come in handy if I needed to re-wire anything. But you can have it back if you need it.”
“I have already repaired vehicle 108.”
“Oh… I guess I’ll keep it. That is if you’re letting me stay.”
VM-7 took a moment to check its programming. While there was a protocol for stowaways, it was of low importance compared to the robot’s primary function. “Very well,” it said eventually. “As long as you do not damage any more vehicles, you may have a chance to prove yourself helpful.”
Inspection No: 5
Because inspections two through four had revealed no necessary repairs, VM-7 had remained quiet about the human, reasoning that she deserved a chance to prove herself useful. VM-7 had hardly seen the human during active duty since there had been little need to go to the supply room, where she was staying. When performing inventory at the end of every inspection, the robot had noted with satisfaction that everything was in its proper place and all supplies were accounted for. If nothing else, that convinced VM-7 that its decision-making was sound. Stowaways were only a problem to it if they interfered with vehicle integrity—which the human had, of course, but only once, and the promise of future help outweighed that minor setback.
The chance to finally make good on that promise came halfway through inspection five. The air pressure compensator was broken on vehicle 99, a Royal Stardust. This was a common occurrence for vehicles on such a journey, and it was one VM-7 could fix quickly. But instead, the robot went to the supply room and found the human.
“Fancy ship,” she said, looking at vehicle 99. “Someone’s got money.”
VM-7’s awareness of the economy was limited to the knowledge that efficiency saved money as well as time. “Do you have money?” it asked.
The human laughed. “If I did, would I be here?”
“I do not know, would you?”
The human looked at VM-7 for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I don’t have much money. Never really did. I’m hoping to change that once we reach the colony. I could use a fresh start.”
VM-7 did not understand the meaning of that phrase but knew that this conversation was causing time to be wasted. “Are you capable of making this repair?”
“Sure, not a problem. It’s not my first space race.”
“That is good. I will come to inspect the car again when you are done.”
VM-7 continued with the inspection and reached vehicle 105 before the human called over and said she was ready for the inspection. Looking again at vehicle 99, everything was in working order. “Your work is satisfactory,” the robot said. “And by you doing this, inspection five will only take fifteen minutes longer than would have been the case if no repairs were necessary.”
“I take it that’s a good thing?”
“It is. You have proven yourself to be useful. I will not report your presence on the ship.”
The human smiled, and VM-7 found itself thinking that maybe the smile was even better than the efficiency.
Inspection No: 8
“Why haven’t you asked what my name is?”
VM-7 considered the question for a moment. “It never occurred to me to ask,” it replied eventually. “What is your name?”
“Lara. What’s yours?”
“I do not have a name.”
Lara sighed—a sign that VM-7 had learned meant she was feeling exasperated. “What’s your designation?”
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.” Lara smiled, and VM-7 felt happy. Or at least that was the name Lara had given to the feeling when VM-7 described it during inspection seven. “So, VM-7, what’s your story?”
“I do not have a story. I was designed to inspect vehicles, and I inspect them.”
She nodded. “That’s what I figured. It must be nice to know where you belong.” She paused for a long time before continuing, “I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. That’s why I’m going to the colony, to try and start over and find a real home.”
Her smile was gone now, and VM-7 missed it, which may be why the next words were spoken: “You belong here.”
Lara didn’t say anything, and the look in her eyes was something that none of the robot’s programming could identify.
Inspection No: 14 (Final inspection)
The final inspection before the ship arrived at its destination was the most important and the longest. Every ship had to be 100% ready to leave upon arrival, and VM-7 knew it was essential that nothing go wrong. VM-7 and Lara worked tirelessly to fix even the smallest problem. Lara joked that some of the vehicles would now be in better shape when they left than they’d been upon arrival, and VM-7 could not deny that this was likely true.
When the inspection ended, VM-7 was meant to be in standby mode until the next journey began. Instead, it went to the storage room, but Lara wasn’t there. It waited many hours, but she didn’t come back.
It wasn’t until many hours later, when a message came asking why VM-7 was still operating, that the robot finally followed proper procedure. Lara never appeared.
Maintenance Log for Journey 2517, Gliese Colony 10 to Earth
Inspection No: 1 (Preliminary inspection)
Number of Vehicles: 601
Time Estimate: 50 E-hours
VM-7 investigated the first 24 vehicles without issue, finding them all in the expected state. However, when it reached vehicle 25, a Kia Muse, a problem was encountered: the rear stabilizer was not drawing power. The cause for the malfunction was obvious. Under any other circumstance, it would have also been mystifying.
A wire was missing.
VM-7 stopped the inspection and went to the supply room. Lara was there.
“You’re right,” she said, handing him the wire. “I belong here.”
This time, VM-7 was sure that it was happy.
Victoria K Martin lives in Ottawa, Canada, alongside a small menagerie and way too many unread books. When not writing or reading, she is usually found hanging out with her Great Dane who, despite his size, thinks he is a lap dog. She also co-hosts Needs More Words, a podcast about writing and reading (because we’re all stuck on something). For more information about Victoria, go to her website or follow her on Twitter.