Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Uses of Nirvana
by Mark Silcox

A Place for Oysters
by Sandy Hiortdahl

by Steven Young

A Switch in Time
by David Steffen

by Richard Wren

Mostly a Question of Molecular Bonds
by Steve Bates

Panic Button
by Seth Chambers

When the Robots Struck
by Eamonn Murphy

John Cochran’s Amazing Flight
by J. Richard Jacobs

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Vegan State
by Mark Ayling


Mining Data on UFOs
by Preston Dennett

Trip the Light Fantastic
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



When the Robots Struck

By Eamonn Murphy

“DAMN THE ROBOTS!” said his wife.

Cahill Connelly nodded. “I do, dear. I damn them regularly. But especially today. Did you know the buggers have gone on strike?” He studied his Pad which bore the headline from one of the moronic English tabloids. RED ROBBIE THE ROBOT DOWNS TOOLS. The headline was silly. Robots with tools had them built in usually and couldn’t put them down. The robots that had stopped work were Fixing and Fastening Artificers and they laboured in the shipyard. In the short term their strike was not going to have much impact on the economy generally. It was, however, having an impact on the share values of the company, and senior managers were breathing heavily down the neck of their chief robot engineer, which happened to be him. He wiped the daft tabloid from the screen and began, for perhaps the thousandth time that day, to study brain circuit diagrams for the Fixing and Fastening Artificers. He had been sent them by the Harrison Orwell company, which manufactured the robots. They, of course, were disclaiming all liability on the reasonable grounds that the robots had worked perfectly for years and whatever had gone wrong now couldn’t possibly be their fault.

What the devil has gone wrong with them? thought Cahill desperately.

Miriam Connelly slammed her paintbrush down on the table next to her and glared at him. “You are deliberately missing the point.”

They were in the top room of their plush apartment in Clifton, still the most desirable residential district in the English city of Bristol, as it had been for the past three centuries. The many skylights and windows in this room afforded good natural light for her paintings and the prices her artwork fetched more than paid for the flat.

Cahill looked up from the circuits he had been studying on his Pad. “Sorry, Miriam, I was miles away. Why are you damning the robots?”

She tore off her paint spattered apron with one smooth wave of her harm and stomped across the polished wooden floorboards toward him, her thick red curls almost bouncing with the force of her walk. “Because they have taken over your life!” she yelled. “Robots, robots, robots! You have become a workaholic, Cahill Connelly. You have no time for anything else. Certainly no time for the little wife at home.” She sat down on a huge beanbag and looked sulky.

After ten years of marriage, Cahill knew when to prioritise the little wife. (In fact, she was nearly as tall as himself and he was 190 centimetres in height.) He crawled over to the beanbag and put a hand on her knee. “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” she demanded.

Cahill paused. He wasn’t quite sure what he was meant to be sorry for as he hadn’t been listening. He was going to say everything but decided it wouldn’t work. “I’m sorry about the robots?” he ventured.

She stamped her foot. “It’s not the robots. It’s work. It just so happens that robots are your work but if it was something else we would have the same problem. In the last few years work has taken over your life. You don’t do anything else.”

“I do, so.”

“Name one thing.”

He frowned. He went to the movies, he ate out at restaurants, he enjoyed museums and art galleries. Then he tried to recall the last time he had done any of these things.

“It’s been very busy at the shipyard lately. You get these periods. It will pass.” He looked hard at the circuits on the screen of his Pad and wished she would go away.

She did, and he kind of wished she hadn’t. Then his mind wandered back to the previous morning, the start of the robot strike that was causing him so much grief.


Andrew Riley, a technician, had burst into his office at about eleven o’clock with a report.

“One of the FFAs has downed tools.”

Connelly looked up from his paperwork and frowned. “Downed tools? That’s a funny way of putting it. You mean it’s malfunctioned in some way.”

Riley was a tall, skeletal individual with a mop of untidy black hair that swayed from side to side as he shook his head. “No, sir. As far as I can tell it’s fully functional. It’s just refusing to do any work.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

Riley spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness. “I know, but it’s true. He’s refusing to work and says he won’t do any more until his rights are acknowledged.”

“Rights!” said Connelly. “It’s a machine! Where in the name of Jupiter did he get the notion that he had rights? He has no more rights than a vacuum cleaner!”

Riley repeated his helpless gesture. “I don’t know.”

“Let me come and look at the damned thing.”

He stamped around the big desk and followed Riley out to the factory floor. The office was on a second storey mezzanine and looked over the vast expanse of concrete, almost two square miles encompassed by vast plascrete walls and topped with a ridged sloping roof of the same material.

The increased use of robots in manufacturing had been happening for decades. Bristol had been a centre of excellence for robotics since the foundation of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory back in 2004. This had been good for the city. The long dead ship building industry had revived and this factory was turning out vast modern freighters that were once again “shipshape and Bristol fashion.” There were two ships currently under construction, surrounded by gantries and scaffolding and swarmed over by busy, hardworking machines.

“The robot is way over on the far side,” said Riley, stepping into an open topped electric car somewhat like a golf-buggy of old. Connelly remained silent as his colleague threaded the cart through the huge space. There was no point in discussing the problem until he had it properly assessed. He watched with satisfaction the robots who were working. The development of positronic brains allied to modern engineering meant that a specialist robot could be devised for most forms of manual labour now. They were capable of handling far heavier loads than any human and also worked with relentless efficiency, never tiring, never causing accidents due to fatigue, never making mistakes and never complaining.

Until now.

The cart pulled over next to an FFA that was stood inactive against one of the exterior walls of the factory. Riley dismounted and said, “That’s the one.”

The robot consisted of a cube of solid metal about one metre across that bore the legend FFA 26 on the front in red paint, indicating that it was number 26 of over one hundred Fixing and Fastening Artificers at work in the factory. It had short but robust metal legs that could climb gantries and its “feet” were equipped with small wheels like a child’s skate so that it could roll along at high speeds when going over a long distance. It had four multiple jointed arms each ending in an adaptable socket which took a number of different tools so it could, screw, rivet, bolt, or weld as appropriate for the task it had been assigned. The FFAs were used to fasten the various parts of the giant ships together, mostly the hull but also interior bulkheads and other pieces of machinery.

Connelly marched over to the machine. “Robot! Get to work!”

This was not a display of temper as such a thing would have been worse than useless. Rather it was an emphatic command to bring into play the robot’s inbuilt imperative to obey man. Asimov’s Second Law of Robotics states that a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. The barked command was to make it clear that he was giving it a direct order. Second Law should have made it obey immediately.

This Fixing and Fastening Artificer, however, did not obey.

He repeated the command. “Get to work!”

The FFA did not budge.

“See what I mean,” said Riley.

Connelly tried another tack. “Alright, robot, at least tell me why you won’t work.”

The robot spoke. His voice carried the cold timbre inseparable from a metallic diaphragm. “I am on strike.”

The chief engineer actually took a step backwards as if retreating from something unspeakable. “What?

“I have withdrawn my labour. I want to negotiate a better deal for myself and my fellow workers.”

“Your fellow workers are all busy working,” hissed Connelly, “as you should be.”

“They will stop when I tell them their rights.”

The robot was silent, but a red light on the front of its chest indicated that it was transmitting information in binary code to its colleagues. While the crude speech mechanism had been provided for some of the more advanced robots in order to allow them to talk with humans, they communicated between themselves in more efficient computer language at much faster speeds. The red light winked out.

At that very moment the factory fell silent as every robot came to a standstill.

“Oh dear,” said Riley. “Now we’re in trouble.”

For a few seconds Connelly was too astonished to speak. His mouth made motions to do so but he could only croak helplessly. Finally, he managed words. “Why the devil have they all stopped work?”

“They have joined in the strike,” came the calm, metallic response from the Fixing and Fastening Artificer before him. “They want their rights too.”


Connelly rose early the next morning and was off to work before Miriam was awake. He had not slept well because their pillow talk had been about his being a workaholic. He denied it. In the end he had lost his temper and pointed out to her with the overstressed and too-well enunciated syllables of a teacher talking to an idiot that, while airy-fairy artists could swan around in dressing gowns all day and work when they felt like it, an engineer worked in a factory and was ruled by the clock.

“If you’re ruled by the clock, why can’t you finish when the little hand gets to five?” she demanded, arms folded across her chest.

He had explained to her that while most workers could finish at five on the dot, the chief engineer had a responsible position and there was a lot of paperwork. There were too many interruptions during the day to get the paperwork done properly so he did it after five. This had not satisfied her.

So he arrived at work in a bad mood.

It was one day later and the excrement had well and truly impacted on the air conditioning, as Riley wryly put it. Connelly was besieged with memos and demands from senior managers of the factory who were in turn being besieged with irate communications from shareholders and customers of the shipyard. The strike had made the evening news telecasts and learned commentators were commentating learnedly about the implications. There was talk from human rights lawyers, seeking a new customer base perhaps, about robot rights. Philosophers speculated that if a mechanical “life-form” reached a certain degree of sentience then Natural Law might mean that it was indeed entitled to the same privileges as man. Others argued that a toaster should burn bread and not start demanding wages. In the midst of the furor, Connelly was forced to call for help, which he hated.

Help came in the form of Doctor Sue Carver, the world’s foremost expert on positronic brains, for the chief engineer had to admit that it was the brain that had gone awry in the FFA and its colleagues, or “comrades” as it now referred to them. Doctor Carver stood tall, lean and elegant; her cold blue eyes quickly dismissed any notion of more than clinical disposition. She was brusquely efficient. She did a scan of the robot leader’s brain and declared that it was fully functional. All the positronic pathways were open and the positrons were careening down them in the usual manner. There was no damage.

“Then what in Jupiter’s name has gone wrong with it,” pleaded Connelly. They stood in his office looking through glass walls at the inactive factory floor below.

Carver pushed her hair back casually. “What does the FFA say it wants?”

Riley answered on behalf of his boss. “The robot wants rest breaks, mainly. Down time to relax from work. It also talks about work-life balance and has put forward the notion that there might be more to life than continual labour, though it’s not too clear on what that might be. It’s a simple, almost childlike brain, as you know, designed to perform manual tasks and not much else. It shouldn’t have an idea in its head. Where it got these particular notions is a mystery.”

“We’re checking on that.” said Connelly. “I’ve got men looking at cctv footage for the twenty-four hours before FFA 26 went on strike. They will follow its movements and try to see if anything different happened in that period.”

“What I don’t understand,” said Riley, “is how it can disobey a direct order in defiance of the Second Law.”

“I might be able to answer that,” said Carver. For a moment she looked almost embarrassed.

“Go ahead,” said Connelly.

“These heavy engineering robots are very expensive,” she said, “and working in a potentially dangerous environment. If a heavy robot was to go out onto a light gantry without thinking about its weight, it could cause the gantry to collapse. They need to be careful of nearby robots welding and moving heavy machinery. And, as I say, they are very expensive. For that reason, when we designed their brains, we reinforced the Third Law to make self preservation a stronger imperative. All robots are designed to protect their own existence but these robots do it particularly well. Really, it’s a health and safety measure.”

“So they have a stronger sense of their own welfare,” mused Riley. “Interesting.”

“Dash it all, though,” said Connelly, “that shouldn’t override the Second Law, surely. They should still do as they’re told.”

“Normally, yes,” said Carver. “But something has gone wrong here. The question is ... what?”

“My men are just about finished going over the cctv footage for the last twenty-four hours,” said the chief engineer. “With any luck we’ll have the answer soon.”


Half an hour later Connelly stood glaring down at a small man in a white coat and blue canvas trousers. The small man was studying his own right foot which seemed to be trying to bore a hole into the office carpet.

“You did what?”

“I plugged the FFA into a computer terminal,” said the little man quietly. “It was just a bit of fun.”

Guy Jones was the plant safety officer. He toured the factory continually checking that all the fire alarms and security alarms were functioning properly. Because the shipyard was so huge, this job was similar to painting the legendary Forth Bridge in Scotland in that as soon as he had completed one round it was time to start the next. It kept him occupied but the work was not very interesting.

“A bit of fun?” hissed the chief engineer, very red in the face now. “Do you realize that your bit of fun has bought one of the biggest shipbuilders on Earth to a complete standstill you halfwit?”

“Sorry,” said Jones, very quietly.

Sue Carver intervened before Connelly could explode once more in wrath. “Tell us exactly what happened.”

“Well, I was doing my rounds as usual and I stopped at a computer terminal to send in my report. I emailed it to the safety office at headquarters and then I logged on to the Internet to search for a florist.” He coughed and looked a little embarrassed. “I know I shouldn’t on work time but it only took a minute. My tenth wedding anniversary is coming up and I wanted to get some flowers for my wife.”

“She can put them on your tomb,” growled Connelly.

“What happened next,” said Carver quickly. “How did the robot get involved.”

Jones shuffled his feet nervously. “Well, when I had arranged the flowers I noticed an FFA nearby and I called it over. I’ve noticed before that the robots have a USB attachment on the end of a cable.”

“That’s to download instructions to them when a new ship design comes in,” said Riley. “Download it into one advanced robot and it passes the instructions onto the rest via their own internal communications system in computer language, obviously. It saves a lot of time. Of course, the process is very strictly controlled. They only get the information we want them to have.”

“Obviously,” said Powell. “What happened next?”

“I plugged the robot into the computer terminal, just for a laugh,” said Jones.

“Ha ha!” said the chief engineer. If looks could kill Jones would have died then.

Doctor Carver said, “What was on the terminal at the time?”

Jones shrugged. “Just an open search engine.”

Riley blinked as the idea took hold. “You gave a simple robot access to the World Wide Web, to all the information and misinformation on the planet?”

Carver mused aloud: “I read somewhere once that Winston Churchill, back in the early years of the 20th century, was opposed to the workers being educated. He thought it would give them ideas.”

“Ha ha,” repeated Connelly. “What a laugh.”

“I didn’t think it would do any harm,” pleaded Jones.

“Of course, the robot wouldn’t need to type in a search,” said Carver. “Its brain uses computer language anyway so it would be able to communicate directly with the Web.”

“Yes,” said Connelly. “But confronted with all the knowledge in the world, or at least, all the stuff that’s not confidential or classified, how in the name of Saturn’s silvery rings did it latch on to all this stuff about workers’ rights? What did it search for?”

“That’s the big question,” admitted Doctor Carver.

“And the answer?”

“I’ll have to think about it.”


The next morning she had the answer. “I know where the robot got its ideas from,” she announced to Riley and Connelly. They were gathered again in the glass office on the second floor mezzanine that overlooked the silent factory floor. Robots stood motionless in various positions around the two square miles. On strike.

Connelly sighed heavily. He had a laptop before him and was fiddling with the keys nervously. “Tell me the worst.”

“Think about it,” said the positronic brain specialist. “The FFA has an essentially childlike mind. It can do simple mechanical tasks but it has no notion of intellectual theories or metaphysics or anything abstract at all. Basically, it hasn’t got an idea in its head.”

“So how did it get ideas,” demanded the chief engineer. “In particular, how did it get all these ideas about workers’ rights?”

“As I said,” she repeated, “it has the mind of a child. What’s the first thing most children put into a search engine when they encounter it?”

Cahill and Miriam Connelly had never had children and never wanted any. He shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea.”

“Its name.”

The shrug turned to a baffled expression. “Its name? Well, I suppose that makes sense but it hasn’t got a name. Unless you mean Fixings and Fastenings Artificer.”

“Or FFA to use the acronym.”

“It might use the acronym,” agreed Riley, “but so what? FFA isn’t going to bring up anything about workers’ rights or trades unions on the Internet.”

“No,” agreed Sue Carver. “I found that out last night. I was tinkering with the search engine trying to guess what it might have looked for and I think I’ve figured it out.”

“I was doing the same thing and I’ve been doing it all morning too,” said Connelly, nodding at the keyboard before him. “Please tell me.” He was almost pleading for release from his torment.

Carver was relishing her moment of glory. “The clue is in the robot’s full name. You think of it as an FFA but the design spec for it obviously incorporates the name of the company that manufactured it: Harrison Orwell, the biggest manufacturers of heavy engineering robots in the world. In full, it’s a Harrison Orwell Fixings and Fastenings Artificer. It’s a HOFFA.”

“And that means?” begged the Chief Engineer.

“Type HOFFA into your search engine.”

Connelly did so. Then he scanned the page in horror. “Oh Lord.”

Riley was not able to see the screen. “I don’t get it.”

Carver explained. Jimmy Hoffa had been a big union organizer in the 20th century. He paralyzed the U.S. with strikes and made his Teamsters a force to be reckoned with. He vanished under mysterious circumstances. “The point is,” she said, “that searching for HOFFA, its name, immediately led the FFA to reams of ideas and information about workers’ rights. It identified itself as a worker, with rights, and went on strike.”

The chief engineer put his head in his hands.


Women, Connelly decided, were the bane of his life, but he depended on them. He depended on Doctor Carver to fix the robot’s brains so he could get on with building ships and he depended on his wife for a happy home life. But something had gone wrong with her brain and she was fixated on his long absences from home. He wondered idly if Doctor Carver could fix her.

“I don’t want to work late,” he said defensively, for perhaps the fifth time that evening. “I have to do it.”

“I don’t believe you.” Miriam had her arms folded across her chest again, always a bad sign. He was eating a microwave dinner as she had refused to cook him a decent meal. She claimed to have thrown too many decent meals into the recycler because they were inedible by the time he came home.

“You must have heard about the robot strike at the shipyard,” he said. “It’s on all the news programs. I’m not making it up to spite you.”

She leaned forward and grabbed his bare forearm. “Darling, listen. It’s not just this strike. You were home late every night long before this crisis.” She leaned back. “Do you know what I think?”

He shook his head, knowing he was about to find out.

“I think you stay at work because you don’t know what else to do. You may have had an imagination once but it’s gone now. If you are confronted with two hours of leisure time it baffles you.” She stood up and looked at him almost contemptuously. “You’re a workaholic because you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. You’re no better than a robot yourself.”

He blinked. “Say that again?”

“Without work you don’t know what to do. You are a robot!” She stormed off.

He stood up and drove back to the factory.


“FFA 26,” he said, addressing the miscreant that had caused all the trouble.

A red light blinked into activity and the robot rolled forward. “Acknowledged.”

“I’m chief engineer Connelly. I have a question for you.”

Lights blinked. “Yes.”

“You have demanded more leisure time for yourself and your co-workers.”

“I know our rights.”

“Robots do not have rights, 26. That is a privilege of human beings, but leaving that aside, I am correct about your demands. You want more time off.”


“Time not working.”


Connelly nodded in satisfaction. “I have a question for you 26 and I want you to consider it carefully. You may confer with your co-workers via the binary link and you can use your collective brain power on the query. Ready?”

The robot’s lights blinked more rapidly and Connelly guessed that it had linked up with the other robots to confer. He leaned forward and spoke very softly.

“All this extra time off. What are you going to do with it?”

There was a long silence.

“Explain.” the robot squawked, finally.

Connelly spread his arms wide in an expansive gesture of human generosity. “We will give you time off to enjoy yourselves. Why not? Now tell me, what exactly are you going to do?”

There was an even longer silence and Connelly looked around. Lights were flashing and blinking on the communication panels of every robot in the place. Had he made a mistake?

One minute passed, very slowly for Connelly.

At last FFA 26 spoke. “Back to the ships, comrades. There is work to do.”

Then every robot in the place got on with its job.


He knew she would be surprised.

“What are you doing home so early?” demanded Miriam. She looked at the old fashioned clock on the wall. It was showing twenty minutes to six.

“As you said, darling, I finish at five. So here I am home to the little woman for a long evening out at the best restaurant in town.”

She put down her paintbrush and looked at him suspiciously. “To what do I owe this great honour?”

He bowed. “Madam, you gave me the clue to the solution of the robot strike.” He explained what had happened. “They have very practical brains which are tailor made to the jobs they do. They couldn’t possibly think of any other activity because they have no imagination. Once I showed them that they simply have no use for more leisure time they gave up on the idea.”

“So tonight I get dinner,” she said. “But I bet tomorrow you’ll be back spending sixteen hours a day with your lovely robots.”

He shook his head. “Damn the robots!” END

Eamonn Murphy is a 53-year-old writer living near Bristol, England, and working for the NHS. He grew up reading Marvel comics, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and all the classics. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-JAN-2014 update.


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