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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Dark Star Calling

A Dark Intercept Novel

The Dark Intercept (Volume 3)

Julia Keller

Tor Teen



The Robot Who Loves Knock-Knock Jokes

“Star number 76.435.7863.”


“Star number 76.435.7864.”


“Star number 76.435.7865.”


“Star number 76.435.7866.”

“Negative. Hey, Rez, I’m totally, totally starving. How about a lunch break?”

Rez looked up from his computer screen, scowling in the direction from where the remark had come. His scowl was deep and deliberately prolonged—even though it would, he knew, have absolutely zero impact on its intended target.

Not because that intended target was a robot. Robots were fully capable of reading human facial expressions and deducing the emotions generating them, and then initiating the appropriate behavioral change.

No, the scowl was a total waste of time for another reason:

Because this particular robot wasn’t about to change anything. He was not like other robots. He was not earnest and dutiful. He was not devoted exclusively to service and obedience.

This robot was a rascal. A joker. A screwup. A show-off.

If Rez had had his way, he would’ve traded in the AstroRob—short for Astronomy Robot—for another. But he couldn’t. He had pulled this one out of the scrap heap and, when nobody was looking, put him to work for an off-label use. He needed to keep that fact as quiet as possible. Requesting an AstroRob through regular channels might have caused some nosy supply clerk in NESA—New Earth Science Authority—to get a little too curious about why it was that eighteen-year-old NESA director and chief technologist Steven J. Reznik needed an AstroRob in the first place, being as how the director’s job was largely bureaucratic.

“Largely bureaucratic” was another way of saying that Rez spent his days approving other peoples’ projects. Signing off on other peoples’ requests for AstroRobs and BioRobs and TechRobs and ReadyRobs and other essential equipment.

Not doing his own project.

Yet that’s exactly what Rez was up to—privately, that is. Under the table. His actions weren’t specifically illegal, but they were … highly irregular. For the past three months, he’d been coming here on his nights off, first checking the roster to make sure nobody else had scheduled time on the telescope for the next chunk of hours—and then going to work.

His only companion on these secret shifts was the misfit AstroRob, an orphan from a long-shut-down project in the Dark Matter lab. An AstroRob that nobody missed because, frankly, he had been such an annoying little twerp to begin with.

But Rez needed an extra hand. So he was forced to endure the robot’s completely infuriating and wildly inappropriate sense of humor.

Or what passed for a sense of humor.

A few weeks ago, he had nicknamed this robot “Mickey.” He’d remembered, from his Old Earth History and Culture class, an animated character back in the twentieth century whose name—Mickey Mouse—became synonymous with time-wasting nonsense. “That’s a real Mickey Mouse thing to do,” people would say. Or, “Don’t be such a Mickey Mouse.”

Perfect, Rez had decided. It fit him. Mickey it was.

Tonight, for the past several hours, Rez had been in a bit of a trance, because this work—while critically important—was also tedious. Rez would call out the names of star after star on a randomly selected grid of galaxies, and then Mickey would check to see if there was any anomaly, any shift, any variation, in the light emanating from that star. Rez would systematically record Mickey’s response on the spreadsheet whose ever-changing numbers quivered across his computer screen like a spiderweb trembling in a morning breeze.

And then Mickey had broken the spell with his ridiculous request for refreshments.

“Shut up,” Rez snapped back at him.

Mickey answered with a sound that was engineered to resemble a snicker. Robots didn’t get hungry. Hence they didn’t need food. But sometimes—if they happened to have been programmed by someone who regarded stupid humor as a good thing, a view that Rez found totally bogus—they did make jokes. Groaningly awful ones. Stupidly juvenile ones.

“If you want to know the truth,” Mickey added, “I could really go for a bucket of bolts in chipotle sauce.”

Rez’s scowl intensified yet another degree, despite its futility. He added an eye roll. He was not amused. He’d been working hard. This was a serious matter. He didn’t need the aggravation.

He knew the guy who was responsible for the funny—the allegedly funny—robot. It was a programmer named Dave Parkhurst, a.k.a. Dumb-Ass Dave. Spiky yellow hair, baggy trousers, food-stained tunic, big stinky feet: Rez had gone to school with him and could picture him—and almost smell him—to this day. Because of Dumb-Ass Dave’s wacky plan, what lived inside Mickey’s cranial cartridge was a tiny, telltale wiggle in the otherwise rigidly straightforward lines of instructional code. The wiggle had been put there by Dumb-Ass Dave to enable at least one industrial-use AI machine, normally a bland and predictable variety, to crack jokes at regular intervals.

To be, that is, a first-class, all-purpose goofball.

Dumb-Ass Dave had somehow persuaded his bosses to let him endow a handful of robots with a sense of humor. It’ll help morale, he had argued. Lighten things up.

Rez, on the contrary, believed quite firmly that things did not need to be lightened up. In fact, if he’d had his way, things would be darkened down, not lightened up. But he’d lost the argument. The Dispute Resolution Subcommittee of the Conflict Strategy Division of the Science Committee of the New Earth Senate had sided with Dumb-Ass Dave.

“I told you to zip it,” Rez muttered.

Mickey’s response was swift and sure: He emitted a noise that was indistinguishable from a human fart.

Rez’s irritation flared again. He didn’t say anything out loud, though, because he didn’t want a back-and-forth conversation. Time was too precious. They could be interrupted any minute by some eager-beaver staff astronomer colleague with actual authorization to be accessing the telescope, and Rez had a ton more stars to get through tonight to make his quota. His schedule was terribly ambitious.

Copyright © 2019 by Julia Keller