In the story there is a robot with a positronic brain damaged by having to listen to crew members tapping Morse code messages to each other as they die in a crashed space ship. What is the name of this story, and what is the name of the book it appeared in?


1 Answer 1


Your description fits the story Terminus from Tales of Pirx the Pilot. That's a collection of short stories by Stanislaw Lem. It was published in 1965.

The story Terminus is pretty much as you described it. The dying crew of a crashed ship communicated with one another by hammering out messages in Morse code on the pipes connecting the compartments. A maintenance robot that was also aboard the ship heard the messages and somehow recorded them, though not as something you could play back as audio. It remembered the patterns the crew hammered out. It also seems to understand the code and the content of the messages.

The ship is later salvaged, repaired, and put back in service under a new name. The maintenance robot stays with the ship.

Pirx is assigned to the repaired ship. On its first voyage, Pirx hears messages in Morse code being tapped out on the pipes of the ship.

At first he thinks he's going crazy, then he thinks he's hearing the ghosts of the dead. At some point, he sends messages of his own in Morse code - and is very surprised when he gets answers from the supposed dead.

Eventually, Pirx finds that the maintenance robot has been "subconsciously" sending the messages as it works. It has a tremor in its hands and arms while working. The tremor is caused by sending the Morse code messages that it heard from the dying crew.

The robot was trapped in the crash and couldn't do anything to help the crew. Being trapped and having to listen to the crew it was supposed help die drove the robot insane.

The robot's insanity isn't helped any by its primary duty - patching radiation leaks in the shielding of the ship's nuclear reactor. The robot is (of course) exposed to radiation while patching the leaks. This damages its positronic brain, slowly causing a sort of senility.

This TV Tropes page says that Pirx has the robot destroyed at the end.

I have a copy of it here somewhere, but I haven't read it in years. The text above is what I remember. I may have gotten some details wrong.

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    That's the story I was looking for! Thanks! I just read the last paragraph and it ends with Prix signing the form to have the robot scrapped. Jul 21, 2023 at 6:30
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    @MikeHiggins: I know I may be a bit late to catch you, but you can accept by clicking on the checkmark by the voting buttons, as per the tour.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Jul 21, 2023 at 11:58
  • Sorry Fuzzy! Thanks for reminding me to check the mark! Jul 22, 2023 at 17:05
  • Aaaugh! I lost my copy. Loaned it to somebody, and then forgot about it I guess. Does it (the English translation) really say "positronic brain?" I thought that phrase was exclusive property of Issac Asimov. Jul 23, 2023 at 14:08
  • @SolomonSlow: I think it really did. I haven't hunted down my copy (it is in the attic somewhere,) but I remember having the same reaction when I read it: "Really? Positronic brains? Those were Asimov's thing."
    – JRE
    Jul 23, 2023 at 14:11

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