By William A. Lasher
The crime scene reminds Hoage of a prison from the air. Drab gray buildings in the baked desert dust and there’s a tall security fence topped with concertina wire that surrounds the place. It seems odd that the employee parking lot is empty, no commuter cars or workers in sight, and the Global Mart trucks are all automated.
The helicopters land in sequence in the deserted parking lot. The ground crews disembark quickly, and once they’re clear, Zulu Bird takes off again. Demetrius and Vanessa patrol the perimeter from the sky, while the remaining four choppers stay put on the asphalt, engines idling and rotors still spinning.
Armed with handheld Annihilator weapons, the enforcement agents wear black coveralls with heavy boots and full helmets. Fourteen of them in all, and they gather around Hoage in the tepid morning breeze. Vanessa may be squadron leader, but Hoage calls the shots on the ground.
“Doyle and I will go in the front office and serve the search warrant. Once that’s done, we’ll begin securing the facility building by building, but for now, stay alert and remain in place.”
Hoage and Doyle move towards the administration building. Hoage carries his weapon one handed, with his natural arm, the butt of the stock resting on his thigh. On his tactical arm, the membrane over Rory’s touchscreen is open, with the CGI activated, ready to communicate.
Doyle tries the entry door. It’s unlocked, and he opens it cautiously with Hoage looking over the shorter man’s shoulder. They go inside.
The office smells like stale air-conditioning, and the grimy electric coffee maker looks like it hasn’t been used in a while. It’s a sizable room that holds several unoccupied workstations with a fine layer of desert dust visible in the low morning light. The place appears neglected and it’s strange because the warehouse complex behind it is busy with automated truck traffic.
Towards the back, a lone man stands up to confront them. He leers at them suspiciously. “Is there something I can help you with?” He’s dressed in a plain white dress shirt with a gray polyester jacket and cheap yellow tie hanging nearby. His tone is hostile.
Hoage opens the tinted shield on his helmet. “Who’s in charge?”
“I’m the administrative office manager, Mr. McKenna.” He narrows his eyes and looks past Hoage and Doyle. “What’s with the helicopters and federal troopers in my parking lot?”
“I’m Agent Junior Hoage of AI Compliance Corps. We have reason to believe this facility is using illicit androids to conduct your merchandising operations. Here’s the search warrant.” He tosses the paperwork on one of the vacant desks.
“Illicit androids? That’s ridiculous. Global Mart is the biggest corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.”
Hoage’s AI assistant speaks up. “You’re conversing with an artificial lifeform.”
“A completely legal artificial lifeform,” responds McKenna curtly. “I’m an ADU security sentry and it may be time for me to telephone our—”
Rory cuts him off. “He’s lying. McKenna is a Robotamaton killer thug and three more are moving towards us. Immediate defensive action recommended.”
McKenna lunges for a weapon that’s concealed behind his desk, but Doyle hits him with an Annihilator blast before he can reach it. The bolt of high voltage electricity connects, and the andy crumples and falls to the floor.
There’s a closed door at the back of the room and as Doyle moves cautiously towards the downed andy, the door swings open, and another Robotamaton killer thug appears. It’s an Andy Smith model with the average looks of a Tucson car salesman.
The KT opens fire. The laser blast goes through Doyle’s torso, and he collapses on the floor. Next, it burns a hole through the exterior wall, and agents in the parking lot jump for their lives as the neon yellow beam flashes between them. Powerful enough to burn through almost anything, the laser cuts a hole through the chain link fencing, crosses West Baseline Road, and scores a direct hit on a Luke Hoxie’s Last Ride Funeral Parlor billboard.
Witnesses in a self-driving sedan stare through the fence in horror as they pass, the laser barely missed them, and a startled desty loses control of his bicycle and wipes out on the sidewalk.
Inside the building, Hoage returns fire with his Annihilator. The current connects, frying the KT’s circuit boards. The andy hits the floor.
Hoage taps a button on his tactical arm and Rory opens an audio connection to the agents waiting outside. “Copely, Cardoza, and Freeborn. Firefight unfolding. Need immediate back-up.”
Keeping his head down, Ace Copely hurries in from outside. Cardoza and Freeborn are close behind. Hoage makes a quick examination of Doyle’s singed corpse and realizing his crewmate is dead, he pauses for a moment and shakes his head with remorse.
Rory sounds off. “The two remaining KTs are stationary. In the back room behind the door. Directional cyclonite blast is your recommended strategy.”
“Copely,” says Hoage. “Activate your stick launcher and take out the back wall.”
“What’re the directional blast coordinates?”
“Check your touchscreen,” says Rory. “I just uploaded them.”
Copely locks in the coordinates, then shoulders his weapon. “Take cover people, this one’s going to be loud.”
The remainder of the crew duck down behind the vacant office furniture as Copely triggers his weapon. When it hits the wall and detonates, the projectile is designed to push the explosive power in a specific direction, and as planned, the shockwave hits the concealed androids hard and sends them flying further into the building, but their bulletproof shells survive the explosion.
In the aftermath, Rory’s sensors process new, unfolding information in a split second. “The two remaining KTs are mobile now, headed for the rear exit.”
Hoage opens an audio connection to Vanessa in the chopper. “Vanessa, two rabbits headed for the rear exit on the administration building.”
“Yup, and they’re armed with laser weapons. Doyle is down.”
Demetrius brings Zulu Bird in low, hovering above the asphalt with the chopper’s nose towards the rear exit. Vanessa monitors the KTs’ locations on her weapons screen. They appear as a pair of flashing blue lights on the building’s floor plan, fleeing from the ground crew.
The first andy runs through the door and Vanessa nails it with her airborne Annihilator. The second one appears within a few seconds, and she instantly electrocutes that one too. More fried circuit boards. Vanessa’s mind is sharp as a razor when Nancy is plugged in.
Doyle’s demise puts a dark cloud over the remainder of the operation. As suspected, scores of blue caps are working in the warehouses, and the remaining thirteen agents move through the buildings deactivating them one by one. Some attempt to fight back but are quickly knocked down by Annihilator fire when they charge the agents.
A few go rabbit, fleeing through rear exits. Vanessa picks up the runaways on her weapons program and she deactivates them handily as quickly as they appear. One makes it through a gate, and Demetrius gives chase as the robot takes off across a vacant lot. It doesn’t make it far before Vanessa cooks its circuits with another well aimed Annihilator blast.
It takes a couple of hours to conclude the operation. Finally, the all clear signal is passed from squad to squad.
Copely helps Hoage carry Doyle’s corpse out to the parking lot. Demetrius sets Zulu Bird down nearby. Hoage can see the concern on Vanessa’s face when she climbs to the ground. She helps them carefully place Doyle in a body bag and they set it inside the chopper when they’re done.
Vanessa tells Demetrius to head for Minus Five. The AICC salvage squad will take over at the distribution center, removing the downed andys, and taking them to an incinerator in Gila Bend. She orders the rest of the squadron to return to the hangar in the desert west of town.
Doyle’s in a body bag in the back of the chopper. He has a hole burnt through his abdomen. Never knew what hit him. Hoage’s riding in the back with Danny. He has his hand on the bag and a few stray tears rolling down his cheeks.
It’s quiet in the chopper on the ride downtown. No one has much to say. Hoage feels a sense of guilt. If he’d been watching the door more closely Doyle might still be alive. The KTs were unexpected, but he’s not in the habit of making excuses. Not for his own poor judgment.
Demetrius clears air traffic control and lands the chopper on the Hazeldine Federal Building’s rooftop helipad, high above downtown Phoenix. The trio ride an elevator down to the subterranean command center.
Five levels below East Van Buren Street, they exchange greetings with Kitty Kanazawa, the ADU ultimate companion at the reception desk. Though Kitty is an artificial lifeform, it’s hard to refer to her as an “it”, because everything about her appears to be completely human. She’s built as an attractive blue-eyed brunette, and seated behind her horseshoe shaped desk, she floats from place to place on a magnetic levitation device.
“Vanessa, I’m so glad to hear you’re reconnecting with your true self.” Kitty has People Person software; she’s programmed to be flirty.
“If you don’t mind me asking, is that your natural hair color too?”
“No, I don’t mind, and yes, it’s my natural color, chocolate brown.” Vanessa smiles and lightly grasps a lock of her long hair between her thumb and index finger.
“It’s a lovely color, Vanessa.” Now Kitty shifts her attention towards Agent Hoage. “Looks like you have a new prosthetic device.”
“I do, and my new tactical arm is equipped with advanced AI.” He holds his artificial forearm vertically, so she can see Rory’s CGI on the display screen. “Meet Rory, my new automated assistant.”
Burkheart’s Feature Screen fills one whole wall of his office, and he has a live street scene from a Karachi, Pakistan surveillance camera on display. It looks like a dangerous neighborhood.
“Losing Doyle was an unlucky turn of events,” says Burkheart as the lead chopper crew settle into their seats.
“He was a good man,” says Demetrius. “We’ll miss him.”
“I checked his paperwork, and he has no next of kin noted.”
“I think he came from a rough background,” offers Vanessa. “Divorced parents with chronic alcoholism. Grew up in Baltimore. Told me if he hadn’t gotten out of there young, he would have ended up dead or in jail.”
“Well, he has no known family to call, so we need to take care of the funeral arrangements in-house.”
“We can handle it,” says Hoage. “The body bag’s in the chopper. We’ll find somewhere to get him cremated this afternoon.”
“Except he stipulated traditional burial in his paperwork.”
Hoage shrugs his shoulders. “We’ll find a funeral home, then.” He raises his eyebrows and looks towards Vanessa.
“Yeah, we’ll take care of it,” responds Vanessa. “Make sure Danny gets a proper send off.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan. You can use the government card to take care of the costs.”
“What’s going on with Global Mart, Chuck?” says Demetrius. “Blue caps are bad enough, but Robotamaton killer thugs in a retail distribution facility? What’s up with that?”
“I was on the phone with Tom Hanes a few minutes ago. Global Mart is saying the processing facility is run by an unaffiliated contractor. They have no oversight whatsoever.”
“That’s a load of crap. There’s a dead agent in the chopper.”
“You and I both know it’s BS, but we’ll need to let the investigators sort things out. Blue chip corporation or not, someone has criminal liability for Doyle’s death.”
“We never expected to see KTs armed with laser weapons,” says Hoage. “The only place we’ve seen weapons like that before was on the sleeping UGRs, and the KT truck drivers in Calexico.”
“It makes you wonder,” says Vanessa. “Is there some link between Global Mart and Winston February.”
“Those laser weapons came from somewhere,” says Demetrius. “They sure as hell didn’t buy them at the sporting goods superstore in Tempe.”
There’s no shortage of mortuaries in Phoenix, and at first, they’re not sure which one to choose. Demetrius is behind the wheel of his pickup and Vanessa’s riding shotgun. In the backseat, Hoage’s going through a list of mortuaries that Rory brought up on his tactical arm. He sees one in Fernsby Hills, not far from his house. It’s a Luke Hoxie’s Last Ride Funeral Parlor, a franchise operation, and it has a 4.7-star average review rating.
From the street, the mortuary looks like a western movie set. It’s housed in a modern building, but it has a Victorian era façade, steep roofed with fancy woodwork on the eaves and a wide front porch. It sits on a well-watered dichondra grass lawn, though most of the other nearby businesses have sparse desert landscaping. They can see the expansive burial ground with its patchwork of granite headstones as they pull in. It stretches out across a few grassy acres behind the building. The circular drive is empty, and Demetrius parks close to the entrance.
They go inside where they’re greeted by streaming video on a full-sized floor to ceiling Feature Screen. It’s the late Cowboy Luke Hoxie himself. A well-known western movie actor, he sits in a rocking chair and smiles. The scene looks like an old-time movie set—a homey living room furnished with antiques, straight out of the 1800s. His famed Border Collie, Rex, is curled up on an oval rug in front of a crackling fire.
“Howdy, partners, and welcome to Luke Hoxie’s Last Ride Funeral Parlor. Rest easy, friends, and be assured we’ll treat your departed loved one with the respect and dignity he or she deserves. Have a seat, and a member of our staff will be with you ASAP.”
As the agents take seats in the waiting room, the scene on the Feature Screen changes to Cowboy Luke on horseback. He tips his hat and smiles. Then he turns and slowly rides into a surreal orange sunset with his faithful dog Rex by his side. The traditional western funeral song, “Go Rest High on that Mountain,” comes up on the audio as Cowboy Luke grows smaller and smaller, silhouetted by the soft colors of a desert sunset.
“This place is perfect for Doyle,” says Demetrius.
“He would have loved it,” says Vanessa.
After a few minutes of waiting, the funeral director appears, a Mr. Bruneau. He’s a gaunt, middle-aged man with pale skin and a solemn demeanor. “May I help you with something?”
Vanessa rises out of her seat. “An associate of ours passed away this morning and we’d like to have him buried.”
“You came to the right place.”
Demetrius and Hoage carry the body bag inside and Bruneau shows them a table to set it down on. Hoage zips it open.
“My goodness that’s an unusual wound.” Bruneau takes a closer look at the gaping cavity in Doyle’s abdomen, and he’s quick to notice the lack of blood stains. (The laser blast fused the blood vessels shut when it burned the hole through his torso.) “What was the cause of death?”
“That’s classified information,” says Vanessa. “I can’t say.”
“That’s right, we’re AI Compliance Corps.” Vanessa pulls a slim wallet out of her pocket and opens it so he can see her ID card and badge. “Danny Doyle’s cause of death is confidential information that we’re unable to divulge.”
“I see. Have the local police been notified?”
“Of course. We’re closely associated with the Phoenix PD.”
“What about Mr. Doyle’s next of kin?”
“He has no next of kin. That’s why AICC is making the funeral arrangements.”
“Would you like to schedule a funeral ceremony?”
“No ceremony necessary,” says Hoage. “We want to put him in the ground as soon as possible. We’ll have an informal wake at my place later on.”
“We can take care of it right away then. Here at Luke Hoxie’s Last Ride Funeral Parlor, we have a variety of caskets available from a basic economy model to the most luxurious casket in the funeral home industry.”
“Give him the best box in the house,” says Demetrius. “Doyle deserves it.”
“Our top-of-the-line model is quite expensive.” Bruneau looks towards Vanessa with a questioning expression.
“The government’s paying for it.” Vanessa nods at Demetrius. “Give him the best one.”
Bruneau looks pleased. No price haggling with thrifty relatives, he’ll make money on the transaction.
He asks Hoage to help him lift Doyle’s corpse and they set it down on a conveyor belt. It’s the intake to an automated embalming machine. Every Luke Hoxie’s Last Ride franchise has one. He produces a handheld electronic device and activates the machine. The conveyor belt springs to life, and an overhead door slides open. Doyle’s corpse is transported through the machine’s intake port, and the door slides shut behind it.
They go outside and stand under a portico on the back of the building as they wait for the embalming machine to finish. Bruneau says it’ll only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, a Luke Hoxie Burialmaster 5000 is rapidly excavating a perfectly shaped rectangular hole in the burial ground.
A bell rings and the overhead door on the embalming machine’s yield port slides open. The conveyor belt starts up, and an extra fancy casket appears. Bruneau stops the conveyor, then opens the casket.
“I like to make sure the machine has the right client in the right box.”
Hoage takes a look. “That’s Doyle alright.”
Bruneau closes the lid, secures it, then uses his handheld device to summon the Burialmaster 5000. The elaborate machine rolls over to the conveyor belt and picks up the casket with its four telescoping mechanical arms. It rolls back out to the excavation, and smoothly places the casket in the bottom of the six-foot-deep hole. They watch with somber fascination as the machine buries the box with the freshly excavated dirt, then meticulously replaces the sod.
Demetrius removes his ball cap. He holds it over his heart. “Doyle wasn’t perfect. He could be a real fuck-up at times, but he had a heart of gold.”
“He gave his life in battle,” says Hoage. “Wasted by an andy; it could have easily been any one of us.”
“Rest in peace, Danny,” says Vanessa.
They go out to Hoage’s house and hold a wake for Doyle. Just the three of them. Vanessa says she’s shutting off Nancy while they barbecue steaks and drink a few beers. Demetrius and Hoage say neither one minds. (The truth is, Nancy is so damn smart sometimes it can be irritating.)
They spend a couple of hours reminiscing, then Hoage falls asleep on the sofa after Demetrius and Vanessa have gone. He wakes up a short time later and walking into his bedroom he realizes he still has his tactical arm connected to his shoulder.
Hoage yawns as he pulls on his pajama pants, and though he normally removes his personal arm for sleeping, he decides to leave Rory attached.
“Nighty, night, Rory,” he says as he stretches out on his over-sized bed.
“Sweet dreams, Hoage.” The thin membrane over Rory’s touchscreen slides shut, and the tiny LEDS go black.