Illicit AI: Part Five

By William A. Lasher

Monday morning and Vanessa’s on her way into work. High atop the Hazeldine Federal Building, she lands her levitation cycle on the helipad and then coasts it over to the spot where she and Junior normally park. She pulls off her helmet and finds a brush in her saddlebag to straighten out her hair.  

She hears the message notification on her phone and when she checks it, she discovers a fresh text from Junior. Running late this morning, I’ll be there in thirty minutes. 

A short time later, another text arrives. The second one’s from Demetrius. I just heard from Junior, and I can use the extra time to check a maintenance issue on the chopper. See you in thirty minutes or so.  

She could head down to Minus Five by herself, but she likes to keep Demetrius and Junior in the loop when she meets with Burkheart, so she decides to hang out on the roof and wait for them to arrive. She’s been wanting to see what it’s like to switch Nancy off at work and it looks like the next thirty minutes will be the perfect opportunity to try it. 

She locates the electronic key that controls her AI processor and switches off the hardware. Her stream of consciousness slows immediately, and she loses the visual window in her mind that only opens when Nancy is turned on—the window that allows her to browse the internet mentally. 

The best place to check out the view is from the south side of the skyscraper, and when she walks to the railing and looks down, she finds her natural fear of heights is more intense with the AI turned off. It’s a long way down to the street and the pungent smell of the morning smog seems stronger too. 

She can see the Salt River Wall and the massive homeless encampments distinctly from her rooftop perch. The stark contrast between the affluence of downtown and the depressing poverty south of the wall affects her emotionally with Nancy unplugged. She has a heightened sense of empathy and feels sorrow for the unfortunates. The shanty towns are as bad or worse than the makeshift slums she’d seen on the edge of Lima when she went to school in Peru. She thinks about the children, if they have enough to eat and if they’ll ever go to school. The unemployment rate continues to skyrocket and building a thirty-foot wall to keep the poor out of the city hardly seems like a practical solution. The politicians passed a bill that gives every citizen a monthly UBI check, but with double digit inflation the norm, the meager checks are hardly enough to pay rent.  

Her long-term memory works reasonably well with Nancy unplugged, the temporal lobes in her brain were for the most part unaffected by the trauma in the car crash. Exercising her memory helps Vanessa regain her sentient coherency and she uses the extra time on the roof to do some reminiscing about how much her life has changed in the last few years.  

She thinks back to the moments before she lost control of the Porsche, and then the long lapse in consciousness. She finally came around, but she was in a mental fog until her AI awakening, when Dr. Novachek switched the interface device on for the first time.  

The AI allowed her to return to school and she remembers how astonished her instructors were when she began acing every test they gave her. Haffner the psychology professor thought her enhancement was unfair to the other students and he tried to get her kicked out, but she was the first of her kind, and there were no rules on the books that regulated her unique intellectual advantage. The administrators let her finish, and she graduated early. (In the years since, the government passed a law that prohibits AI enhanced individuals from attending public universities.)  

She carried handguns everywhere she went because of the trouble with Inca Resurrección, the Peruvian drug gang that had the contract out on her life. She obtained a concealed carry permit and kept pistols in her car and in her house.  

She met Tom Hanes at the gun club in Paradise Valley. She was shooting a brand new .45, and after a friendly conversation, he stood behind her on the range and watched intently as she hit the bullseye on every pull of the trigger. He watched her piggy-back the entire magazine from twenty-five yards and then, quite politely, asked her if she was an artificial, he thought she might be an ADU ultimate companion. 

She told him about the interface, and when he introduced himself as a federal investigator, she told him that she was studying law enforcement in school. He asked her to come down to the federal building and meet Chuck Burkheart. They were looking for exceptional individuals to join what was at that time called DTIA, and Burkheart hired her on the spot following the interview.  

The feds put her through a training program in Montana after she graduated from the university—that was where she met Junior. They both stuck out of the crowd, Vanessa because of her enhancement and Junior because he was a 6’8” hillbilly from the backwoods of Kentucky. He went to college in Lexington on a football scholarship where he’d also majored in law enforcement. Vanessa and Junior were both over achievers in the training program and neither one of them fit in socially with the other recruits. 

Her first assignment was joining a blue cap deactivation squad in Seattle. There was conflict between her and the squad leader, mostly because of her good looks and artificially enhanced intelligence, the combination seriously upset him. Burkheart brought her back to Phoenix and put her in charge of her own squad. She asked him if she could have Junior on her team, and they transferred him to Phoenix a week later.  

She looks to the west and sees the chopper approaching. Though she’s leader of the squadron and calling the shots in the field, she doesn’t think of Demetrius as being beneath her. He retired from the Navy at the rank of commander and piloted fighters in wartime, he’s at least her equal and knows more about how things work in the military. He has more government contacts too, and the top-secret file he came up with is what convinced Inca Resurrección to drop the contract on her life and instead go after Eddie Dominguez, the espionage agent who duped her. 

Demetrius keeps his cool under pressure, that’s what she likes about him most. He never gets flustered, and she’s never seen him project anger towards anyone. He grew up street savvy in Gardena, halfway between Compton and Redondo Beach. 

As Demetrius lands Zulu Bird, she looks to the north, but there’s still no sign of Junior. It takes Demetrius a couple of minutes to completely shut down the aircraft. She walks over to the chopper’s entry door and while she waits for him to finish the shutoff sequence, she finds the electronic key in her pocket and reactivates Nancy. Her stream of consciousness picks up speed geometrically and with the built-in internet connection, her mind regains its link to the cloud. Nancy is more than just an IQ enhancement, it’s an additional cyber being that comes to life in her brain when the device is activated, she’s sure of it, and that’s what bothers her about it—because it’s obvious that Nancy wants to be the one in charge.   

Demetrius lowers the automated stairway beneath the entry, the door swings open, and he climbs down out of the chopper. “Morning, Vanessa.”  

“Hi, Demetrius, how was your weekend?”  

“Epic, my oldest launched a bleacher buster in his Hasty Ball league. Drove in two base runners and won the game.” 

“That’s sensational. Were you there to see it?”  

“Yup, and I went out in the desert and tracked down the ball.”  

“I’ll bet you were a proud poppa.”  

“Yeah, it’s great having kids. Watching them grow up and do things like hitting their first bleacher buster.” He pulls off his extra dark shades and polishes them with a cloth he carries in his top pocket. “Tiana was asking about you. Wants me to invite you over for dinner again sometime.”  

“That sounds like fun.”  

“What about next Saturday? We can barbecue in the evening, after the sun goes down.” 

“Let’s make it a date.”  

They see Junior approaching on his levitation cycle from the north, moving fast with the throttle wide open. He rapidly deaccelerates and brings it in for a smooth landing, coasting up to where Vanessa and Demetrius are standing.  

He kills the ignition and pulls off his helmet. “Sorry I’m late. I had to meet an electrician at the house this morning.” 

“Electrical problems?” says Demetrius. 

“Nothing serious. Looks like I need to upgrade a breaker. I kept losing the air when it got so hot the other day.”  

“Ain’t nothing yet. Wait until June, that’s when Phoenix gets really hot.” 

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I want to make sure everything’s up to snuff. With Otis home alone all day.” 

“Got to keep that dog cool.” 

They board the elevator for a fast descent to Minus Five. They’re greeted by Kitty Kanazawa when the door slides open in the subterranean command center.  

“Vanessa and the gang, back for another week of AI enforcement excitement.”  

“Morning, Kitty.”  

On her maglev Smart Seat, the ultimate companion floats from place to place behind her horseshoe shaped desk. There’s an Annihilator weapon concealed behind a panel on the front of it. If a malicious andy ever makes it through the street level security apparatus, it’ll be toast when the elevator door slides open. Kitty will make sure of that. 

“I miss Danny, are you going to replace him with someone new on the team?”  

“If we can find someone up to Junior’s high standards,” says Vanessa.  

Junior cracks a smile. “I have Rory to keep me company in the meantime.”  

“And how’s your personal AI working out?” says Kitty. 

“Saved my life more than once already. Rory’s enemy detection programming is phenomenal.”  

Burkheart has a live feed from the Calexico border crossing station on the Feature Screen in his office. Five stories beneath ground level, the office has no windows, and Chuck says the live outdoor scenes keep him from getting claustrophobic. Vanessa thinks he looks pale and needs more sun. 

“How was the weekend, Chuck?” says Vanessa. 

“Fantastic, took the wife to see the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.” 

“Sounds like a classy date.”  

“It certainly was. They played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 6. You need to hear it live to fully appreciate a great piece of music like that.”  

Sitting behind his cluttered desk, Burkheart gestures with his hands in expressing himself. Vanessa’s AI enhanced vision picks up the glint of his 24kt gold cufflinks in the fluorescent light, and a strange comment surfaces in her mind—the naturals are fond of their expensive heavy metals. It stuns her. That was Nancy, not me. There’s a separate cyber entity alive in my brain. Her first reaction is to switch the device off, but she needs to keep it on at work. 

“Last week was the third time we’ve encountered sleeping UGRs in a routine deactivation event,” says Demetrius. “Any new intelligence to share, Chuck?” 

“General Sheckley says the investigators are working on it.” 

“Generic worker andys are one thing, but the UGRs are equipped for combat. February’s up to something; more than getting his cantaloupes picked cheap.” 

“I hear you, Demetrius, and I can assure you General Sheckley shares your concern.” He jots something down on a notepad and then lightly tosses the pen down on his desk next to it. “I’m going to put that one on the back burner for now because I have a brand-new issue to brief you on this morning.” 

Burkheart goes to work on his keyboard and kills the stream on the Feature Screen. He replaces it with a lone static image, centered on the empty background. “Last week, when we watched the secret senate hearing, this is one of the pics Senator Gardner used to debunk Colton Hardgrave’s claim that he’d never met Winston February. The image shows Hardgrave walking into the Wunderlin Tower with February.”  

He changes the image to a new one. “Here’s another security camera pic that the intelligence guys came up with since. The second photograph shows Hardgrave leaving the Wunderlin Tower with February about an hour later. What’s noteworthy about it?”  

Vanessa comes up with the answer instantly. “His sport coat is a different shade of blue. Going in it was imperial blue. Coming out it’s steel blue.” 

Demetrius and Junior look to Vanessa with expressions of astonishment. 

Burkheart smiles. “Bingo, Vanessa. For some reason, Hardgrave is wearing slightly different clothes after a brief meeting with Winston February.” He manipulates the Feature Screen with his keyboard and brings up another image. “The next photo shows Hardgrave walking through the metal detector at the Capitol when he was on his way in to testify last week. The alarm continued to go off, even after he’d removed his belt and everything in his pockets. Why?”  

“Androids can’t pass metal detector tests,” says Vanessa. “There’s several heavy metals present in their circuitry and joints.”  

“Correct answer. The apparent human being we watched testify last week was not a human at all. It was an android. A replicant cloned from the real Colton Hardgrave. Something happened to him at the Wunderlin Tower in Buenos Aries. He may have been killed or it’s possible he was kidnapped, but intelligence is 99% sure he was replaced with an identical android.” 

“That means February is in control of Global Mart now,” says Junior. “The biggest retailer in the world.  

“That’s what it looks like. Hardgrave’s imposter is currently meeting with Asian business leaders in Singapore. His press secretary said he’ll return to his mansion in L.A. within the next couple of days. Your mission is to raid the property and capture Hardgrave’s android imposter when he returns.”  

“Take the whole squadron to the coast?” says Vanessa. 

“Yup. The National Guard has a helipad and vehicle depot near LAX. You’ll fly out there and wait for confirmation that Hardgrave’s replicant has arrived at the mansion. When you get the word from the spooks, it’s gametime.”  

 

*** 

 

After leaving the hangar with overnight bags packed, it takes the squadron less than two hours to cross the vacant reaches of the Sonoran Desert and arrive in the Los Angeles Basin. They fly over the East L.A. Wall, the prototype for the Salt River Wall. It’s been in existence for a few years and roughly follows the route of the Long Beach Freeway, from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains southward towards the harbor. The wall is thirty feet tall and electrified with enough juice to knock the daylights out of anyone who tries to climb over it.  

The homeless encampments in Phoenix are small in comparison to the massive shanty towns east of center city L.A. In once tidy suburban enclaves such as Alhambra, Montbello, and Downey, the tract home neighborhoods were completely overrun, and the residents are long gone, replaced by close to five hundred thousand long term unemployed. It’s a surreal scene from the air, most of the houses and commercial buildings were heavily vandalized or burnt to the ground by anarcho-primitivist radicals. The water and power were shut off years ago and the once busy east-west freeways—the Pomona, the San Bernardino, and the Riverside—now dead end at the edge of the socioeconomic nightmare. 

There’s a heavy police presence west of the wall, but the local cops don’t normally venture inside the sprawling shanty towns to the east of it. Instead, gangs of anarcho-primitivist goons roam the makeshift slums and bully the unlucky squatters.  

The chopper squadron lands at the National Guard depot in the shadow of LAX on the coast. There’s an airport hotel within walking distance, and Vanessa hands out government vouchers for food and lodging. “We need to be ready to move at any time, so stay prepared to meet back over here at a moment’s notice.”  

“Any idea when that will be?” says Jett Luxa.  

“It could be two hours or two days; I can’t say for sure.”  

Zulu Team lingers at the depot while most of the other agents hoof it down a deserted side street towards the hotel. Lucinda Tripley’s been staying close to Junior ever since the squadron landed on the multi-chopper helipad. Vanessa and Demetrius both notice how she’s glued to him like an adoring fan. 

“This is Demetrius’s home turf,” says Junior to Tripley. 

“Yup,” says Demetrius. “I grew up in Gardena, just a couple of miles down the 405.” 

“You still have family here in L.A. then?” says Tripley. 

“No, my parents moved to Vegas when my dad retired, and my brother’s in Texas.” 

“So, what do we do while we’re waiting on Hardgrave’s replicant?” says Junior. “There must be something better to do than sitting around in a hotel room watching TV.”  

“It’s warm enough to go to the beach,” says Demetrius. 

“Now that sounds like fun,” says Vanessa. “I haven’t seen the ocean in a while.” 

“The duty sergeant might let us borrow one of those jeeps.” Demetrius lifts his chin towards a row of parked military vehicles. “We could cruise down to Redondo with some wheels.” 

“I’ll go find out.” Vanessa walks off towards the administration building.  

“You ever been on a surfboard, Junior?” says Demetrius. 

“Nope. I grew up a long way from the beach.” 

“I have,” says Tripley, beaming. “My home port is Melbourne, Florida. I learned how to surf when I was ten years old.” 

“No shit,” says Demetrius. “If Vanessa can score one of those jeeps, we could head down to Brody’s Surf Shop in Redondo and rent some boards.”  

“Yeah! I’ll teach you how, Junior,” says Tripley. “Is Rory allowed to go in the water?”  

Rory’s CGI lights up. “That’s an affirmative, Agent Tripley. I’m guaranteed waterproof.” 

Vanessa reappears, holding up a set of keys as she walks across the parking lot. “Snagged one. We’re good to go for as long as we need it.” 

“We were talking about renting surfboards,” says Demetrius. 

“As long as we can stay in contact with the intelligence team.”  

“I have you covered, Agent Alvarado,” says Rory. “I’m communicating with their AI on a minute-by-minute basis. They’ll know where we are at all times.” 

Vanessa climbs behind the wheel of the jeep; Demetrius takes the passenger seat, and Junior and Tripley climb in the back. They head south on Sepulveda Boulevard. Traffic is heavy, mostly small electric cars and automated tractor trailers on the streets, and overhead, there’s plenty of levitation cycles and commuters using rocket belts to beat the traffic jams.  

There’s a heavy police presence too, and when they’re stopped at a busy intersection in Manhattan Beach, Vanessa sees a pair of city cops questioning an apparent homeless man who’d been pushing a shopping cart loaded with his possessions down the sidewalk. It takes three turns of the light to make it through, and while they’re waiting, she sees an L.A. County paddy wagon pull up in an adjacent parking lot. The homeless guy is arguing with the cops and trying to hold on to the shopping cart when one of them starts pulling it away from him. They grow more assertive and one of the cops puts him in handcuffs. Then they load him in the back of the van.  

The paddy wagon looks like it’s already packed with prisoners. It’s more than likely bound for the far side of the East L.A. Wall, where the vagrants will be unceremoniously dumped off, and strongly encouraged to stay put. After one of the cops slams the door shut and locks it, the van driver tries to nose his way back into the stalled traffic, but the waiting motorists are reluctant to let him in, until finally, he activates the emergency lightbar.  

Meanwhile, one of the city cops pushes the overloaded shopping cart towards a bank of dumpsters in a narrow alley between an auto parts store and a Vietnamese restaurant. His partner follows and then they both take hold of the cart and hoist it into one of the dumpsters. Almost instantaneously, a Vietnamese man rushes out of the restaurant and begins berating the cops for the unauthorized use of his trash receptacle. They ignore him and walk back towards their black and white, but he follows, gesturing emphatically and yelling at them. Once inside the car, the cop in the passenger seat drops his window and Vanessa can read his lips—Go fuck yourself, he says to the irate business owner, and he flips him the bird as his partner forces his way back into the heavy traffic by activating the lightbar.  

The Vietnamese man sees Vanessa and Demetrius watching from the National Guard jeep, and holds his hands in the air like, what the hell? Demetrius silently gestures at him, just stay cool, brother, and he turns and walks back towards the restaurant. 

“That was completely uncalled for,” says Vanessa. “The police shouldn’t treat people so rudely.”  

“Welcome to L.A.,” responds Demetrius. “Manhattan Beach cops always have been assholes.” 

Finally, after spending well over an hour in the gridlocked traffic, they’re pulling up in front of Brody’s Surf Shop next to the Redondo Beach pier. It’s early afternoon and they grab a quick lunch from a Jalisco Tacobot before they go in the shop. Brody Lawson is standing behind the counter. “Demetrius, my man, I haven’t seen you in years.”  

“What’s happening, Brody.” They exchange handshakes and Demetrius introduces him to Vanessa, Junior, and Tripley. “Brody and I go way back. I used to ride a bicycle out here from Gardena when I was in high school.”  

“Yup, Demetrius kept his surfboard stashed at my house when we were teenagers… So, are you still flying jets for the Navy?”  

“No, I went on to bigger and better things. Flying a jet powered chopper for AICC.”  

“AI Compliance? Here in L.A.?”  

“We’re based out of Phoenix.”  

“Man, that’s a long way from the ocean, D. How do you like living in the desert?”  

“It’s not too bad, and I can’t complain about the paychecks. The feds are making it worth my while.”  

“Still with Tiana?”  

“Oh yeah, and we have kids to put through school now too.”  

“What brings you to L.A.?”  

“That’s classified information that I’m unable to divulge, but we have some time to kill, and we thought renting some boards would be a kick.” 

“Sure thing. I’ll get you fixed up with four of my best. Freshly waxed and top of the line.” 

“Is there a swimwear shop close by?” says Vanessa.  

“Four doors down. Bernardo’s Hawaiian Trunks and Bikinis. It’s a little pricey but they have a good selection of shades too.” 

The least crowded surfing spots are another mile further south, on the beach along Miramar Park. The waves are medium sized for Southern California, and in early summer, gentle enough for a beginner. Tripley stays close to Junior, giving him instructions on how to ride his board. He’s a natural athlete, and after a couple of wipeouts, he manages to stay on his feet for the duration of a long breaking wave. As it turns out, Tripley is a dynamite surfer, and Junior can’t help but notice how sexy she looks in her brand-new swimsuit. 

Vanessa stays close to Demetrius. She has some experience from Pradomar, a popular beach on the Caribbean Coast in Colombia, but she can’t seem to stay on her feet this time. After several frustrating wipeouts, she has it figured out. “I think it’s Nancy,” she says to Demetrius. “My AI is over analyzing the situation.”  

She takes a break and walks out to the parking area. She locates the electronic key in her daypack and turns the AI off. As she walks back out towards the water, she notices that her senses seem more acute. Without Nancy’s razor-sharp intelligence dominating her mind, she’s more aware of the salty smell of the onshore breeze, and the sounds of the surf breaking on the beach. She walks past a pair of attractive young ladies sunbathing in skimpy string bikinis and realizes her libido has come back to life too—on her way to the jeep, with Nancy still activated, she hadn’t even noticed the good-looking chicas stretched out on their beach blankets.  

Demetrius is sitting on the sand watching Junior and Tripley as he awaits Vanessa’s return. He’s unsurprised that Junior has picked up on the sport quickly and Tripley is hot dogging it now, showing him how to cut in and out of a wave’s curl. 

Vanessa rejoins him and they paddle back out into the surf. With Nancy turned off, she manages to stay on the board without falling and it brings her a great deal of satisfaction… and pleasure. Another human emotion that’s noticeably stronger with the AI deactivated. Nancy can’t surf, but Vanessa can and the realization that she can do something better with the AI turned off is making her extremely happy. She told Demetrius she could surf, and with the machine unplugged, she pulls it off.  

 

 *** 

 

 Word comes from intelligence the following afternoon. Hardgrave’s jet has landed at the private airport in Van Nuys, and his replicant is on its way to his posh mansion. The address is in Bel Air, a ritzy residential area in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. The property is in a secluded spot on a dead-end cul-de-sac. There aren’t many places to land a helicopter in the rugged hills, so Vanessa decides to send the ground crews up there in jeeps, three of them that they borrow from the National Guard. 

It’s after sundown when they leave the depot. Junior’s in the lead jeep. He’s riding shotgun and Tripley’s behind the wheel.  Ace Copely and Danica Freeborn are in the back. Demetrius and Vanessa are following in the Zulu Team chopper while the rest of the birds remain grounded at the helipad.  

Flying above the city at night, it’s easy to pick out the East L.A. Wall. To the west of it, the bright city lights are endless, but to the east of it, the scene is much darker. It’s a stark urban contrast that’s impossible to miss. Demetrius points out Santa Monica Boulevard as they fly overhead. Seeing the iconic avenue reminds Vanessa of the time that she and Regina drove through Hollywood, and she thinks about how much her life has changed in the years since. 

Beneath them, the ground crews are northbound on the 405 freeway, and they take the Mulholland Drive exit at the crest of the mountain, the natural divide between L.A. proper and the San Fernando Valley. They’re in Bel Air now, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. The houses are huge and many of them are on multi-acre lots. 

They travel east for a short distance and then Tripley makes a right-hand turn at Roscomare Road. Junior is on the horn to Vanessa. “Are you going to alert the local Mounties?”  

“Not until the fireworks are over and then I’ll let them know AICC is in town.” 

“Could be a little dicey getting through the security gate.” 

“Whatever you need to do.”  

Tripley makes another turn, this time on to Hardgrave’s private road and they come to an elaborate security entrance with a small gatehouse. She stops the jeep, and the other two cue up behind her. Andres Modesto is behind the wheel of one of them, and Katsuki Houshakuji drives the other.  

A startled security guard walks out of the gatehouse, he may have been sleeping when they pulled up. He looks at the jeeps suspiciously as Junior walks around to talk to him. Copely and Freeborn climb out too.  

Junior looks to the touchscreen on his military arm and sees a text from Rory—no artificial lifeforms detected; the guard appears to be human. 

The agents are decked out in their black rubberized combat suits and carrying their Annihilators. The unarmed guard surveys them apprehensively, “May I help you with something?” When he reaches for his cell phone, Copely leaps forward and snatches it out of his hand. “Now, wait a minute, I need that to call my supervisor.”  

“Later,” says Copely. “You’ll get your phone back later and you can call anyone you want.” 

“Who are you people?”  

“AI Compliance Corps,” says Junior. “We have a search warrant to enter the premises.” 

“You’re feds?”  

“That’s right. Federal AI compliance agents. I’m Junior Hoage, what’s your name?”  

“I’m Jason. Jason Grible.” 

“Alright, Jason Grible.” Junior looks towards the second jeep and signals Dallas Janks to come over to where they’re standing. “Agent Janks is going to hang out with you while we go inside. Cooperate with him and no one gets hurt. When we’re done, you get your phone back. Are we seeing eye to eye, Mr. Grible?” 

“Yeah, sure, anything you say.” 

The ground crew can hear Zulu bird, but Demetrius has switched off the running lights so they can barely see the chopper hovering above them. 

Junior uses Rory to open a communications link to Vanessa. “We found a lone guard at the security gate and he’s cooperating. How should we proceed from here?”  

“I’m picking up four artificial lifeforms at various locations around the perimeter of the residence,” says Vanessa. “I’ll link Rory to the data.” 

“Affirmative, Agent Alvarado,” says Rory. “I’m reading the andys on my schematic. They appear to be KTs armed with laser weapons.”  

Demetrius switches on the microwave cloaking program that will make it almost impossible for the andys to zero in on the chopper’s location. They move in for the kill and Vanessa activates her forward Annihilator weapon. She locks in on the first KT and triggers her weapon. Pop!  

The ground crew sees the bolt of electricity touch down as it fries the malicious andy. They can briefly see the chopper too in the bright flash of light, but then it disappears into the night sky once again.  

Vanessa locks in on the next KT and triggers her weapon. Pop! Two down, two to go. She’s back on the horn to Junior. “The two remaining KTs took cover after the second one went down.” 

Rory speaks up. “Affirmative. Their locations are showing up on my schematic. One of them went inside a garage at the front of the house, the other is inside a pool house at the back.”  

The ground crew begins moving towards the residence, a huge, multi-level house at the edge of a steep drop-off that affords a bird’s eye view of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles to the south. They’re on foot with Junior and Tripley in the lead. It’s about a hundred yards on a curvy cobblestone drive.  

Junior stops the crew about fifty yards short of the house and using sign language, breaks them up into three squads. Jett Luxa takes one squad and circles around through the trees to the north and Edmundo Riaz takes the other and circles around to the south. Junior gives them a couple of minutes to form a perimeter, and then resumes walking up the drive with Tripley, Copely, and Freeborn.  

Rory’s CGI lights back up. “Junior, the KT in the garage is scanning our location with targeting software. I’m locking in your Annihilator.” 

Junior raises his weapon and pulls the trigger. Pop! The high voltage electricity connects and the third KT goes down.  

As they continue walking up the drive, they see a bright flash of light off to the south side of the house, and Rory patches Riaz in. “Brigsby deactivated the fourth KT.” 

“Good work,” responds Junior. “Stay aware, we’re going inside.” And then to Rory, “Are you picking up any other KTs in the vicinity?”  

“Negative. I think they’re all deactivated, but I am detecting an advanced artificial presence inside the house.”  

“An armed presence?”  

“Negative. No additional weaponry detected.” 

Junior walks up to the front door and rings the bell. There’s no immediate response and he rings it again. Finally, a light comes on above them and a man appears inside, pulling open the entry door. He’s casually dressed in shorts and a polo shirt and looks stunned to see the four agents in their rubberized combat suits, seemingly unaware of the high-tech firefight that just took place outside. 

“May I help you with something?”  

“I’m Agent Junior Hoage of AI Compliance, we have a warrant to search the premises.”  

“What is it you’re searching for, Agent Hoage?” 

“Colton Hardgrave.” 

“I’m Mr. Hardgrave’s houseman. I’ll see if he’s available.”  

The servant tries to close the door, but Junior steps forward and won’t let him. “We’ll go with you.” The houseman holds his hands up and moves out of the way as Junior barges into the foyer with Tripley, Copely, and Freeborn following close behind. “Where’s Hardgrave?” 

“Right this way, sir.” He motions for them to follow and leads them through a luxuriously furnished great room. It has high, vaulted ceilings with exposed beam work and a tile floor. He reaches a set of French doors that are pinned open and pauses to address a man seated on a leather easy chair inside a study. “Mr. Hardgrave, we have some unexpected visitors who insisted on seeing you right away.”  

“And you let them in?” 

“We have a warrant. I’m Agent Junior Hoage of AI Compliance.”  

There’s a fresh text message from Rory on the touchscreen. Hardgrave is an artificial lifeform. No weapons detected in the vicinity. 

“Alright, thank you, Allbrook.” Hardgrave dismisses the houseman with a wave of the hand. “It’s after eleven, Agent Hoage. What in the world could be so pressing that you need to invade my home in the middle of the night?”  

“My AI assistant has identified you as an artificial lifeform. We have reason to believe you’re a malicious replicant, and we’re going to take you into custody now.”  

“Take me into custody?” 

“Affirmative. If you cooperate and go with us voluntarily, no restraints will be necessary.” 

“Well, I’m sorry to inform you, Agent Hoage, I’ve been programmed to self-destruct before you can, in fact, take me into custody. I’m going to cook out now, and just so you know, an additional replicant is waiting to replace me in Buenos Aries.”  

The andy’s face begins to glow and at first its skin turns red, and then begins to melt, revealing a translucent synthetic shell beneath it. When he hears a sizzling sound emanating from its mainframe, Junior takes a step backwards. Finally, there’s a loud Pop!  and the machine falls out of the chair and lands on the study’s fancy hardwood floor, a wisp of foul-smelling smoke rising up from its fried carcass. 

“Holy crap!” exclaims Tripley. 

Junior opens a connection to Vanessa in the chopper. “We located the Hardgrave replicant, but when we tried to take it into custody, it initiated a self-destruct sequence… it cooked its own circuits.” 

“Is there anything left of it?”  

“Just the burnt-out substructure. Looks like an Andy Smith model after an Annihilator blast.” 

“It’s still hot,” says Copely as he cautiously probes the mechanical carcass with the toe of his boot. 

“Give it a few minutes to cool off and then load it up on one of the jeeps so we can take it back to Phoenix. We’ll meet you back at the depot.”

To be continued…

©2022 Surreal Science Fiction

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