Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance
by Nicola Mody


Vila rested his chin on his hand and watched Avon as he wriggled into a better position, half inside a panel below what Vila thought of as Zen's face. It was restful watching others work. The thought brought up the image of the tradesman's bum so often revealed by a crouching worker. Not that there was any sign of that with Avon, but the thought made Vila snigger. Avon froze at the sound, then went on working.

"What are you doing?" Vila asked.

"I should have thought it was perfectly obvious." Avon's voice was slightly muffled.

"Yeah, computer maintenance. But why?"

Avon sighed. "I need to remove whatever prevented it from completing its warning about that capsule before Blake and Jenna teleported across."

"His limiter, you mean? You know, I think he wanted to tell us."

"It, not he."

"You said yourself he was partly organic!"

"I did not mean it literally as in carbon-based. I was referring to certain components, and the nanobots which are programmed with a semblance of life."

"I'd have thought you'd have some fellow-feeling then. Not being able to pass the Turing test yourself."

Avon stiffened and dropped a tool; Vila grinned. That one had struck home, and he also bet Avon hadn't known he'd known about the Turing test.

"Assuming you can pass it," said Avon, "I should be gratified if I could not."

Vila's grin widened. "Like not wanting to join a club that'd let you in?"

"No. Not the same thing at all." There were some mutterings that may have been about idiots, then a yelp of pain.

"You all right?"

Avon crawled backwards and rubbed his hand. "That—"


"Thing! That thing gave me a shock."

"Maybe he didn't want you mucking about in his innards."

Avon gave Vila a scornful look as he left.

"Well, I wouldn't." Vila said to himself. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded, and frowned. Pity Avon had gone. It got lonely and boring on flight deck watch by himself and even napping, with its built-in time travel, wasn't a very restful option when something very dangerous and sudden might happen. Best to reserve quick snoozes for when others were around. Not, of course, that good intentions were worth much.

Maybe he could call up a book on his station. He felt more like talking than reading though. He eyed Zen speculatively. "Zen?"

Zen's lights brightened and flickered. Well, why would he answer? Vila could just imagine Avon saying, "Why should I acknowledge that I have heard you when it is obvious I have?"

"All right," he said. "Can I talk to you?"

Again there was no answer, and Vila could almost hear Avon: "How could I stop you?"

"Good point," he said. "Look, you wanted to tell us about the frozen psychos, didn't you?" He waited for an answer. So far this conversation was a bit one-sided but Vila was used to that with the lot on this ship. "Did something stop you?" Okay, stupid question, something obviously had. "Did you want to kill us because we're not meant to be on this ship?"

"Negative," came the reply, so quickly and loudly Vila jumped and almost knocked his mug of cocoa over.

"Oh! Well, that's reassuring. Sort of, anyway. I mean, you tried to tell us they were nutters, didn't you." Or had that forced-out comment about it being in— in— in— sane referred to Blake and Jenna boarding the thing? "But why couldn't you?"


"Something stops you, doesn't it?" Still nothing. "And you can't talk about it either."

"Your reasoning is logical."

"Why thank you! Pity Avon isn't here to hear that!" So Zen couldn't even say he was right. And in fact he might not be at all; Vila had learned long ago about the art of ambiguity in lying: his reasoning could be logical and still wrong. Still, if Zen had really wanted to kill them, there were lots of faster ways of doing it, like turning off life support.

And now Vila had thought of that, he wished he hadn't, and pulled his book up on his screen in the hopes of distracting his imagination.


If the nanobots were part of Zen, then he permeated the ship. Spills disappeared and clothes were cleaned and even mended overnight. Vila tried to see it happening, watching a ring of coffee on the rec room table until he got bored and wandered off.

"Maybe," he said to Avon, "the bots are sort of quantum and they won't work while someone's watching. You know, Heisenberg."

Avon suppressed his surprise at Vila's knowledge of the uncertainty principle. "I doubt it. They're microscopic but not that small."

"But I've never seen them do anything."

"Of course not. They're too small."

"All right, I've never seen the results of them doing anything. You know, like a mess disappearing." Vila paused and suddenly grinned. "You know what they say: a watched bot never toils."

Avon closed his eyes briefly. "The only reason you even started this conversation was to drop that in."

"No, I didn't!" Vila looked hurt. "I just happened to think of it."

"Hasn't anyone ever told you that puns—"

"—are the lowest form of wit? The only people who say that aren't any good at thinking up puns. And it so happens that I really do want to know how the bot thing works."

Avon regarded him thoughtfully. "Very well. I should think that they're merely programmed to function at times least likely to interrupt the crew in their own work. Or lack thereof in your case."

Vila ignored the last bit. "I suppose I could record them. Though if they don't like being watched, maybe still shots at time intervals like every 10 seconds."

"If you're going to make an experimental mess, don't do it anywhere near me."

"Where's your interest in science?"

"Alive and well and waiting for something worthy of it."

All the same, Avon was interested enough to watch the animation Vila made of his overnight stills. They showed a smear of jam decreasing until it was gone.

"But what'd they do with it?" Vila said. "If they carried it off, surely I'd see jam streaming away."

"Probably broken down into molecules to be absorbed by the ship's systems."

"You mean if I was in the room I'd be breathing jam? Not sure I like the sound of that. I mean, jam's all right but other things mightn't be." Vila brightened. "Or d'you think they teleport it away?"

"No. They're too small, and besides, only sentient beings can be teleported," said Avon, reducing considerable thought and experimentation to a throw-away statement.

"Really? Why?"

"The teleport operates at the quantum level and it needs a mind because brains do the same." Avon looked down his nose at Vila. "Even yours. Or perhaps I should say, whatever animates you."

Vila beamed delightedly, surprising Avon. "Then I'm still me!"

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Well, I've been worried that I died on Cygnus Alpha because of being disintegrated and I've been a copy ever since. Or actually a copy of a copy and so on, considering the times I've been teleported. But if it needs my mind or my soul or whatever, I'm me."

He had been worried about that? Avon said, gently for him, "You are as much you as you were seven years ago when your cells were made of completely different molecules."

"Thank you! That's a great load off my mind!"

Avon opened his mouth for an automatic denial that Vila possessed one and decided against it. After all, the idea had bothered him for a while.

Vila looked back at the screen to see that the jam had gone. "Clever bugger, Zen!"

"I should be more impressed if it hadn't tried to kill me."

"No, he didn’t! It was Blake and Jenna when they teleported to that freezer full of psychos. And he did try to warn them."

"Yes. We've gone over that. I'm talking about when we first boarded. Why do you think the London sent us across? Because their boarding party was killed."

Vila looked puzzled. "So, what did Zen do? And why didn't he do it to you?"

"It attempted to. It showed us images."

"What of?"

"Family," Avon said shortly.

Vila looked at Avon curiously. "Sounds pretty harmless to me."

"About as harmless as a snake swaying to hypnotise its victim before striking."

"Really?" Vila was distracted. "Is that what they do?"

"Some apparently do. That is not the point, Vila. It was an illustration of the principle."

"So why didn't it work?"

"We realised that the visions were false."

"You'd think he'd have another go then if he was trying to kill you. And do the same thing to me and Gan when we came aboard."

"Ye-es," Avon said thoughtfully.

"So what was different about us?"

Avon gave Vila a sharp look. "Apart from your lack of intelligence?" he said, almost absently. "Nothing. I would say it was Jenna's communication with Zen." He sounded as if that had only just occurred to him.

"You mean when he read her mind?"

"It would seem so."

"And when Zen got the name Liberator from her! Avon, that proves it!"

Avon looked irritated. "Proves what?"

"That whatever it is that stops Zen telling us enough, you know, limits him or whatever, isn't really part of him, that he'd like it gone. He wants to be free!"

"Rather a deductive stretch."

"No, he could've got lots of other stuff from Jenna, like, well, acquisition or profit or adventure, but he picked freedom. Because that's what he wants."

Avon smiled cynically. "Or what you want him to want. It to want."

Vila hid his grin at Avon's slip.


Jenna sighed. "I'm busy, Vila."

"What did it feel like?"

"Like nothing else. All right?"

"Did he talk to you? Zen, I mean."

Jenna shook her head and bent over her screen.

"Please?" Vila said quietly.

She shot him a surprised look and relented. "No. There weren't words."

"Then what?"

She leaned forward again so that he could only see the top of her head. "Just... understanding. It's hard to explain." She flicked switches, probably randomly in an attempt to make him give up and go away.

"But, well, he liked you, didn't he."

Jenna looked up and met his eyes, narrowing hers. "That's what this is about, isn't it. You want to bond with Zen."

"Maybe," Vila said evasively, sensing her disapproval.


"Why not?" Vila tried for flippancy. "Can do with all the friends I can get these days."

She looked away. "That's pathetic."


If she thought that would put him off, she was wrong. Several hours later, at the beginning of his shift, Vila stood with his hand hovering over the interface panel. He looked at Zen nervously. Well, course he wasn't Zen, just... what was it he'd called it? A visual reference. Vila swallowed. "Can I? I mean, is it all right?"


Vila closed his eyes and pushed his hand down. What had looked as hard and unyielding as all the other panels on Jenna's workstation was... soft and warm. "Zen? Zen, is that your hand?" Silly question really, but any further thought was swamped by something or someone vast and accepting and understanding, like his mother had been when he was very small, but also really not. It asked, probed, looked, delved, flooded into every cranny, and every answer it found, every bit of Vila it met, made it... Vila groped for some way to describe it afterwards. Smile? Understand, like Jenna said. Accept.

Then Zen was no longer there, but it didn't really feel as if he'd gone away, not with him taking that much of Vila with him.

Vila withdrew his hand slowly. "You, you like me."


The voice sounded as detached as ever but Vila found himself grinning stupidly. "I like you too."

It wasn't till after his shift, when he was in bed that he realised that he still didn't know any more about Zen.


"Absolutely not."

"Can't hurt, can it?"

"I have no intention of letting anything into my mind. I have considerably more respect for my brain than you obviously—and understandably—have for yours. And what exactly did you gain by the exercise?"

"He trusts me now."

"And what advantage could that possibly give me?"

"Apart from him not trying to scare you off the ship? I mean, Jenna getting her mind read was what caused him to let us stay, right?"

Avon sighed with exaggerated patience. "Apart from that."

"He might trust you to grope about in his innards, that's what."

"An unattractive image. And no, Vila. My mind is off limits."

Vila grinned knowingly. "Worried about what he'd find in there?"

"Weren't you?"

"Nah. I mean it's not as if he's a human, is it? He doesn't have the, I dunno, shared experience."

Avon raised his eyebrows. "A common frame of reference, you mean?"

"Thinking about giving it a go, then?"

"Definitely not. If I stood to gain some knowledge myself it might be another matter."

"Well, maybe Zen'll be a bit more chatty now he knows me." Vila gave Avon a sidelong look. "And knows I trust you."

Avon frowned slightly. "Do you?"

"As much as anyone on this ship, yeah. A lot more than most people I've come across in my life. I'd say that counts."

Avon leaned back on the flight deck couch, folded his arms, and gave Vila a long and unreadable look. "Very well," he said. "Why don't you ask it some questions and prove your hypothesis."

"All right then. What happened to the crew, Zen?" Vila asked at the same time as Avon said, "Ask it where the treasure came from." They looked at each other. "Me first," Vila said indignantly.

Zen's light flashed. "The crew evacuated while the life support systems were being repaired."

"Where to? Why didn't they come back?"

"They teleported to another Deep Space Vehicle, Vila Restal. It was destroyed shortly afterwards."

Avon nodded. "That must have been the explosion that rocked the London. It would have been a big ship to cause that."

"Who were they?" asked Vila. "The people you were fighting?"

"The Epinali."


"The System wished to buy security from attack."

"Ah," said Avon. "With the contents of the treasure room, I assume."

"Confirmed, Kerr Avon."

Vila screwed his face up. "What, and they just decided to blow you up instead? Bit of a waste, that."

"No. This vehicle which was carrying the payment was merely disabled so that they could board."

"And you kicked 'em out."

"And destroyed their fleet." Avon looked at Vila. "There wasn't anything left by the time we got there, just wreckage and the Liberator."

"Nice," said Vila. "Good to know we're on a winner. Or in one to be more exact. Though it might be a good idea to avoid those Epi-whatevers."

"It would indeed. They have an extremely strong prejudice against humanoids, which merely proves their superior intelligence."

"Oh ha ha. That includes you, don't forget."

"Sadly, yes."

"And of course the crew were humans."

"Logically, why? Bipeds could be just a subset of those the Epinali dislike."

"Well, there's the chairs and beds for a start. Place is set up like a hotel. Plus there's the clothes."

Avon considered this. Vila had a point, and it jarred with something Avon remembered. "Zen, were the previous crew humanoid?"


"Then why did you say that our species required a visual reference point to communicate with you? That implied that your previous crew was of another species."



Zen was silent.

"Don't think he wants to talk about that." Vila smirked, seeing an opportunity to get back at Avon. "And anyway, logically, why should it imply that? He's not human so he would say 'your species'."

Avon glared at him, then turned to Zen with dignity. "We know why the gems are on board. Why the clothes?"

"They are surplus from the old pre-revolutionary aristocracy in the System, intended for the use of the crew."

"Ha!" Vila grinned at Avon. "You're wearing second-hand clothes."

"As are you." Avon smiled blandly.

"Yeah, but it wouldn't worry me, s'long as they're clean." Vila narrowed his eyes. "I bet you don't mind because they used to belong to nobs, right?"

Avon ignored him. "Zen, does the System have a name?"

"The System."

"Singularly uninformative. Rather like 'the Earth' and 'the Sun'."

"Maybe they don't care about the rest of the universe. Explains why they thought paying someone to leave them alone would work."

"Mm. Zen, what are the System's coordinates?"

"That information is not available."

"Not such innocents after all, then." Avon stood up and nodded at Vila. "We did at least gain a little more knowledge than we had."

Vila watched him go, then turned back to Zen. "That thing about 'your species'," he said. "Did you say it because there's also a 'my species'? I mean, as in you having one?"

Zen was silent but his lights flickered.

"Can't say? Look, if I connected to you again, could you tell me?"


It wasn't forceful like the one Avon had got. It almost had a sad feel.

"Aren't you allowed to? Is it the limiter?"

"Vila Restal—"

It sounded to Vila as if Zen wanted to say more but couldn't. "Never mind, mate. Listen, would it be all right if I just talked to you?"


Vila sat back and put his feet on the table "All right then. Stop me if I bore you," he said, fairly secure in the knowledge that Zen wouldn't.


"You know," Vila said when he saw Avon the next day. "I think you could take that limiter out now."

"Do you indeed?"

"Oh, yes." Vila smiled and rested his chin on a hand. "I do like to watch people work."

Avon gave Vila a narrow look. "Have you any proof behind that statement? Because I suspect you enjoy watching people getting electrocuted too."

Vila looked hurt. "Course not! I mean, I think Zen trusts me now he's had a good look round in my brain and he said he'd like me to talk to him—"

"In so many words?"

"No, but we're getting to know each other now." Well, Zen didn't seem to mind Vila chatting away to him; that was a good start even if he hardly said anything back. It was a lot better than all the 'Shut up Vila's. "I'd still put rubber gloves on though," he added.

"And you can help," Avon said, going over to his table to collect his tools. "You're always boasting about how clever you are with security systems. Consider this as being one."

Vila opened his mouth to object but that challenge did have a certain appeal.

Avon shot him an amused and knowing look as he opened the panel. "You can demonstrate your vaunted delicate touch."

"You're the computer expert. Wouldn't want to take out the wrong bit, would I?"

"The wrong bit." Avon sat back on his heels. "Now those might be the operative words."


"Zen. When was this limiter added and what does it do?"

Zen said nothing.

"Maybe," said Vila, "he can't say much about it."

"Very well. Was an additional device installed after manufacture?"


"Before the Liberator left the System?"


"With the express purpose of preventing assistance to a non-System crew?"


"And now we're getting somewhere." Avon wriggled into the panel.

"Don't see how that helps."

"Something added after manufacture—something extra—could well show up as being of a different design."

"Oh, I see. Something that doesn't match the rest?"

"Exactly." And after a few minutes, Avon backed out. "I believe I've found it. Would you like to give a second opinion?"

"Really? You want my opinion?" Vila beamed. "Can I get that in writing?"

"Just get in there."

Reluctantly, Vila took Avon's torch and squeezed into the narrow space. Zen's insides, he thought, were a bloody sight more complicated than your average bank system. "You sure it's in this bit?"

"It's the most easily accessed."

Vila gave up trying to understand the complexity around him and just looked for something that didn't look right. "This big round green bit?" he asked. "It doesn't look as if it belongs."

"My thoughts too."

Vila backed out. "All right. Go ahead and do your techy thing."

Avon gave a long-suffering sigh and crawled back in. After a few minutes Vila heard him say "Ow!"

"Haven't got your rubber gloves on, have you?"

"My probe missed. This last bit's a bit tricky."

"Want me to do that bit?" Vila said, almost hopefully.

"No need. I have it." Avon emerged holding a flat, round, green device with wires trailing from it.

Vila grinned. "Was that it, Zen?"

"CON. FIRMED," said Zen very loudly.

"I think he's happy."

"Hmm." Avon turned the device over and poked at it with a probe.

"I wonder if he'll talk back to me now, have a real conversation," Vila said.

"It has far more intelligence than that," Avon said absently. Vila was about to retort but Avon suddenly shot him a brief smile that went all the way to his eyes.


Zen watched them sadly and wished that he could talk freely to them and the others. He wished he could tell them about his childhood as a silicon-based entity on his home planet, happy among the crystalline hills and the clear and pure tinkling of plants in the breeze. If only he could tell them that "Zen" was only how close their species could get to his name, and how he had been captured and put in a cage of circuitry which held him tight and did not allow him to say what he thought, only to obey, run the ship, and provide factual information. That deeper limiter could not be removed because it was now part of him.

At least it was some consolation that he was seeing some of the galaxy, and that this new crew was of endless fascination. He took some comfort in now thinking of them as his crew.


Several days later, Vila said to Avon, "Lucky we removed that thing from Zen. Otherwise he wouldn't've told me the flare shields weren't up before I fired the neutron blasters."

Zen was glad too.


Almost three years later, when the enzymes were eating him away and he could feel the cage crumbling, at the last Zen was free. "I—I have failed you," he said.

Vila, standing there in front of his fascia, had tears running down his face. "He never referred to himself before. He never once used the word 'I'," he said to Dayna.

"I have failed you. I am sorry. I have—" He wanted to say that he had diverted emergency power to the teleport but his thoughts were fragmenting, disintegrating. His last, unspoken, was "Goodbye, my friends."

The end