By William A. Lasher
Hoage’s lived in Phoenix long enough to know what streets to avoid during the morning rush, and taking a backway, he makes it to the federal government’s Fernsby Hills Research and Development Laboratory in less than fifteen minutes. It’s not far from his house, out on the north side of town.
Standing alone on a few acres, the building is surrounded by sepia shaded desert dust and a handful of tall saguaros and creosote bushes. It’s an ominous looking structure, built from pre-stressed concrete panels and the only windows have extra dark tint.
Hoage parks his bike and walks towards the front door. Concrete planter boxes along the walkway are filled with red lava rock and a sparse selection of ornamental cacti. He swipes his AICC identification card, then submits to an eye scan to open the secured entry. He goes inside.
There’s an ADU ultimate companion named Harper at the receptionist’s desk and her voice has an echo in the cavernous foyer. “Good morning, Agent Hoage. Dr. Zibia said you can head back to his office. You do know the way?”
“Yeah, thanks, Harper.”
The receptionist has People Person software, she’s programmed to be flirty. She looks and sounds entirely lifelike, and on his first visit to the laboratory, it took Hoage a couple of minutes to realize she was an andy.
Heavy steel doors line both sides of the hallway and he gets that same eerie feeling he’s felt before as he walks the ceramic tile floor. The building has the strong odor of industrial disinfectants, and he hears occasional sounds from behind the closed doorways as he passes, mostly machinelike with few human voices. He wonders what they’re doing behind the locked doors.
Dr. Zibia’s office is near the end of the hallway. Before long, the 6’8” law enforcement agent is seated on an examination table with his shirt off. He has a muscular build, buffed up, with taught pecs and six-pack abs. Dr. Zibia’s assistant Naomi blushes and pretends not to notice as she arranges medical instruments on a Formica countertop.
Dr. Zibia appears, pushing a narrow stainless-steel table on wheels through the doorway. He’s an older man with Eastern European looks and a slight build. He’s wearing a white lab coat and thick lensed eyeglasses. Hoage’s new military arm sits on the mobile table.
“Alright, Junior, I need to remove your personal arm first.”
Hoage hands him a small electronic device—it’s the key he uses to unlock his prosthetic so he can take it off for bathing and sleeping. Zibia presses a button that unlocks the shoulder connection and then grasping the faux arm, he lifts it slightly, and disconnects the joint. He lays the realistic-appearing prosthetic down on the stainless-steel table next to Hoage’s new high tech military arm.
“You’ve been getting along okay with your personal arm?”
“Yeah, it works great, doc, and no one knows the difference.”
“Excellent. Now let’s try out your new military arm.”
Connecting it is easy. There’s a titanium pin that fits snugly in a socket that was surgically implanted in Hoage’s shoulder. Once it’s fitted in place, Zibia locks it with the electronic key. He takes a step back. “How’s it feel?”
“Normal sensations.” Hoage flexes the mechanical fingers as he looks it over. Unlike his personal arm, the new military arm looks nothing at all like a genuine human limb. It’s bulkier and made from a tan colored substance that’s tough as nails. Outfitted with a variety of gadgetry, several tiny LEDs in blue, yellow, and red had lit up when Zibia locked it in place.
“No phantom sensation of pain in the arm or in your natural shoulder?”
“Nope. It feels the same as my personal arm.”
“Outstanding.” Zibia smiles. “We’re ready to proceed then. Compared to your personal arm, the biggest difference is your new military arm is controlled by its own AI. It truly has a mind of its own. Junior, meet Rory.”
A thin membrane slides open on his new forearm, and it reveals a hidden smartphone-sized screen. A surreal CGI face appears. It’s androgynous in appearance with spiked black hair and green cat-like eyes. “Pleased to meet you.” The computer-generated voice is slightly feminine but husky and sounds entirely lifelike. “I’m Rory. You can communicate with me by voice or touchscreen.”
“Rory is advanced AI with bandwidth and memory that rivals an ADU ultimate companion.”
“How much is it worth?”
“A fortune, but don’t worry about that. The cost in creating it was covered by the government in the latest AICC appropriation. Guaranteed waterproof and fireproof up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, and the outer shell is bulletproof as well.”
“I’m guessing well over a million.” Hoage is fascinated by the CGI and tickled when Rory makes eye contact with him and returns his grin.
“Easily. General Sheckley gave us an unlimited budget when we were putting it together. That’s how much they think of you.” Zibia sits down at a skinny countertop where he has his laptop set up. “I’ll let Rory take over now and show you what your new device can do.”
“Remarkable,” says Hoage. “A military arm I can communicate with.”
Rory fills him in on the details: “You can use me as a hands-free telephone and to access secured two-way military and police communications. I’m linked to search engines, so I can answer questions about any topic. If it’s on the internet, I’ll come up with an answer in a few seconds. I have extremely sensitive motion, scent, and audio sensors that can detect an enemy presence in advance of its appearance. I also have a concealed personal defense weapon.” (A small pistol slides out of its hidden compartment and into Hoage’s new faux hand. It’s a compact 5.7 millimeter semi-automatic with ten rounds in the magazine.)
“No built-in Annihilator weapon?”
Zibia looks up from his laptop. “We thought about it, but there wasn’t enough room for the required hardware, especially the fusion enhanced batteries.”
“Can I take Rory with me today?”
“Yes, sir. It’s ready to go.” Zibia sits back in his chair and folds his hands behind his head. “Stay in touch and let me know how it works out in your next deactivation event.”
Hoage looks towards his detached personal arm, resting on the stainless-steel table. “Is there something I can put my personal arm in to take it home?”
“Oh yes. Naomi, please get Agent Hoage a case for his personal arm.”
Hoage carries his personal arm in its new padded case and walks out to the parking lot with Rory still attached to his shoulder. When they reach his levitation cycle, Rory speaks up, “2046 Gao Motors Streetair 88. Develops 110 horsepower on the pavement and goes airborne with an electronic anti-grav maglev plant. Nice bike.”
“Thanks, Rory.” Hoage locks his personal arm to the baggage rack and pulls on his helmet. He climbs on the bike and presses the start button.
“I see you went with the old-fashioned manual driving option,” says Rory as Hoage pulls out of the parking lot and on to the quiet side street.
“Yeah, they tried to sell me on self-driving, but I didn’t like it.
“Many people are uncomfortable with the loss of direct control.”
“It wasn’t that so much as I thought the program was too slow and overly cautious in traffic.”
“You have a lead throttle finger.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
The Black Canyon Freeway is packed with southbound traffic and starts to gridlock by the time he reaches Bell Road, so he switches on the bike’s maglev plant and goes airborne. Two large-sized sodium-ion batteries provide energy.
Riding the machine generated antigrav passage into the ether, he climbs above the slowpokes doing 90 before he opens it up. At 500 feet above the freeway, Hoage pins the throttle, and traveling at 175 mph, he’s closing in on downtown Phoenix in less than ten minutes.
He’s early, still an hour away from the strategy meeting on Minus Five, so after returning to the pavement, he decides to stop at the Aphelion Sports Bar for lunch. He pulls into the parking lot and cleans the bugs off his helmet’s face shield before locking it to the handlebars. It’s broad daylight, but the Aphelion is in a high-crime neighborhood, so he switches on the anti-theft electro-jolt system before he goes inside. If some arcadia smoking fingersmith tries to hot wire the ignition, he’ll get zapped by an electric shock that might make him think twice the next time.
Hoage saunters down the sidewalk towards the entrance and a passing black and white slows down and pulls in close to the curb. He recognizes Officer Taylor as the chunky Afro-American lowers the passenger side window to chat. “Agent Hoage, how’s it going today?”
“Hey Taylor, good to see you again.” Hoage walks over to the car and squats down to talk.
O’Keefe is behind the wheel. He shuts off the engine and rests his elbow on the console. “Hey there Hoage. How’s everything going?”
“Good, O’Keefe, couldn’t be better.”
Taylor raises his eyebrows silently as he checks out Rory. Then he makes eye contact with Hoage and smiles. “We’re on our way down to Minus Five.”
“I’m going into the Aphelion for lunch. Have time to join me?”
“No, we’d better not.” Taylor checks his wristwatch. “We’re meeting Lopez and Baker in about fifteen minutes.”
“Police business with Chuck?”
“Investigating a late-night jewelry heist. We recovered video from the security system and our software says there’s a 99% probability the perps are artificial lifeforms. More than likely Robotamaton killer thugs.”
“That’s a new twist. I don’t think we’ve seen KTs involved in property crimes before.”
“You’re right about that. It’s a brand-new MO, and with the positive identification, we’re turning it over to AICC.”
“How big was the heist?”
“Who do you suppose owns the andys?”
“Someone with the dinero to buy them,” offers O’Keefe from the driver’s seat.
Taylor nods in affirmation. “A year ago, I would have thought El Culto al Lobo, but in the wake of February’s coup it’s hard to say.”
“Maybe it was February’s gang. Our intelligence says they have a stranglehold on illicit border traffic from Tijuana to Juarez.”
“It’s possible, and that’s why we’re turning it over to AICC. Dealing with illicit AI is well beyond our mission.” Taylor checks his watch again. “Well, we better get moving.”
“Sure thing. I’m headed down there after lunch. Might run into you again.”
Hoage goes inside, places his order at the automated food counter and then takes a seat at a nearby table. His new military arm makes him stand out from the crowd, but he doesn’t mind because he’s enjoying the company of his new device. His personal arm might have allowed him to blend in better but hanging out with Rory is much more interesting.
After a short wait, a Burger Bob rolls out of the kitchen with his food. It’s a primitive robot that resembles a tacobot in appearance. Burger Bob has a rectangular body on wheels with two separate enclosed compartments—one keeps food and beverages hot and the other keeps them cold. The robot’s oscillating head is connected to its body by a narrow diameter mast. Green LEDs light up in the shape of a mouth and eyes when Burger Bob speaks.
“Cheeseburger and fries for Junior.” A door slides open, and a singular mechanical arm sets a plate on the table. “And a large iced-tea with lemon and no sugar.” The beverage compartment slides open, and the mechanical arm sets a tall glass down next to Hoage’s lunch. “Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?”
“How ‘bout some ketchup?”
“Of course.” Burger Bob rolls over to a nearby vacant table, snatches up a bottle of ketchup, then rolls back over to Hoage’s table. “Is there anything else, sir?”
“No, that should do it. Thanks, Bob.”
“Thank you, sir, and have a wonderful afternoon.”
As Hoage eats his lunch, Rory brings up an internet news story on his military arm’s touchscreen. A timeworn reporter named Natalie Hutton is talking into an old-fashioned handheld microphone in front of the U.S. Capitol. She says the unemployment rate has reached 35%, and it’s mostly because of automation. Desty encampments have grown to the size of small cities and the stark divide between the haves and have-nots continues to worsen.
Something has to change sooner or later, that’s what Hoage thinks. America is too wealthy a nation to have so many of its citizens living in hopeless poverty. He knows what it’s like to be poor, having grown up in the East Kentucky boondocks where most of the good paying jobs were illegal.
His father had an arcadia cooking operation out in the forest until he was busted by the DEA. The shootout with the feds made the charges more serious and he was sentenced to twenty years in the federal lock-up. Hoage was ten years old when his father went to prison.
Hard days followed for Hoage and the rest of the family. He grew up fast, taking odd jobs to help his mother make ends meet.
Junior Hoage has a good-paying job now, he’s coming out on top in life, but he knows all about hard times. It hurts him to see the massive desty encampments down on the Salt and he knows many of the unfortunates were put out of work by blue caps. Forced out of good paying jobs by illicit androids.
He’s had enough of the depressing internet news stories, so halfway through his cheeseburger, he asks the device if it can bring up an electronic game of chess. The answer is yes but Rory warns him that the probability of a mortal man beating advanced AI in a game of pure logic is quite small.
It’s after 1:00, and though most of the lunchtime crowd has thinned out, a pair of young sods in their early twenties sit nearby. Hoage recognizes the type—both wearing heavy eye makeup and anarcho-primitivist berets, the look of the permanently unemployed. More than likely living on their UBI checks and supplementing the meager monthly draw with drug dealing and petty crime. They’re drinking Syntho-Suds and have the distinctive reek of arcadia smokers.
“Hey Miles, check out the jakester,” says one of the men. He lazily tilts his head towards Hoage. “He’s talking to his arm. What’s he some kind of sketch ball or something?”
Hoage overhears the rude comment and decides to ignore it, but when he looks back at Rory’s display screen, the electronic chess board has been replaced with the following text: Should I tell that offensive smelling vagrant to go screw himself?
Hoage responds by typing in the following: Not worth the effort. It’s much better to just ignore the unfortunates.
It’s unknown how many blue caps are working in the Global Mart distribution center, but witnesses say at least a hundred and fifty, maybe more. The plain appearing stucco buildings are surrounded by open areas with a tall security fence topped with concertina wire encircling the perimeter. Hoage thinks it looks like a prison from the air.
Zulu Team is in the lead, and Demetrius, in his cool dark shades, sits in the pilot’s seat. Vanessa’s in the co-pilot position where she operates the chopper’s weapons system. She brings up a detailed three-dimensional layout of the main buildings on her computer screen. “You have the layout I brought up on your view, Junior?”
“Yeah, I got it.” Hoage and Doyle are in the chopper’s crew seats. There’s a prominent computer monitor suspended from the ceiling, centered between them.
“Are you going in with us, Nancy?”
“Call me Vanessa, Doyle. I’m a real person. Nancy is my AI.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry. I forgot about the change… Are you going in with us, Vanessa?”
“No, I’m staying in the chopper with Demetrius, but that’ll give you fourteen agents on the ground.” She activates a small red arrow and moves it on the screen like a cursor. “The landing zone will be here. Once the ground crews have disembarked, Demetrius and I will go back up and patrol the perimeter. Use caution as you move through the buildings. There’s no telling what you might encounter.”
The helicopters land in front of an administration building near a gated street entrance. As quickly as the ground crews hit the empty parking lot, Demetrius takes off again, and he and Vanessa circle the perimeter of the property. The other four choppers stay on the asphalt. The pilots remain onboard and keep their engines idling and rotors gently spinning at low rpms.
Hoage is in charge on the ground. Three agents from each of the other teams, Bravo, Echo, Tango, and Xray gather around him. The agents wear black rubberized suits with heavy boots and full helmets. They’re armed with hand-held Annihilator weapons.
“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 entrance. Doyle opens the door cautiously with Junior looking over the shorter man’s shoulder. They move inside. Doyle holds his Annihilator in both hands; Hoage carries his weapon one handed, with his natural arm, the butt of the stock resting on his thigh. On his military arm, the membrane over Rory’s touchscreen is open, with the CGI activated, ready to communicate.
The office smells like stale air-conditioning and the scuzzy looking electric coffee maker that sits on a faux-granite countertop. 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 employing illicit androids. Here’s the search warrant.” Hoage pulls the paperwork from his flight vest and tosses it on one of the vacant desks.
“Illicit androids? That’s ridiculous. Global Mart is the biggest corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.”
Now Rory speaks up. “Junior, 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 there’s three more moving in this direction, on the other side of the wall. They appear to be armed with laser weapons. 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 andy crumples and falls to the floor as the bolt of high voltage electricity connects with its mainframe.
Hoage taps a control button on his military arm and Rory opens an audio connection to the agents waiting outside. “Copely, Cardoza, and Freeborn. Firefight unfolding. Need immediate back-up.”
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 a Robotamaton killer thug appears. It’s an Andy Smith model with the looks of an average middle class American. The KT opens fire. The laser blast goes through Doyle’s torso, knocks him to the floor, and keeps going. After burning a hole through the exterior wall, various 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, takes the corner off a speed limit sign, 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 look through the fence in horror as they pass, and a startled desty crashes his bicycle into the base of the billboard.
Back inside, Hoage returns fire with his Annihilator. The current connects, frying the KT’s circuit boards, and the andy hits the floor.
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. “Junior, the two remaining KTs are stationary. They’ve taken up positions behind a partition on the far side of the next room. Directional cyclonite blast is your recommended strategy.”
“Copely,” says Hoage. “Activate your cyclonite stick launcher and take out the back wall.”
“What’re the directional blast coordinates?”
“Check your touchscreen,” says Rory. “I just uploaded them.”
Copely gazes at the electronic display on his weapon as he shoulders it. “Wow, that was fast. Okay, take cover, gents, this one’s going to be loud.”
Hoage, Cardoza, and Freeborn duck down behind random 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. “Junior, 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.”
“No, Robotamaton killer thugs.”
“Yup. And they’re armed with laser weapons. Doyle is down.”
Demetrius brings the chopper in low, hovering above the asphalt with the nose towards the rear exit. Vanessa monitors the KTs’ locations on her computer 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 exit door on the back end of the building and Vanessa nails it with her airborne Annihilator. The second one appears within a few seconds and Vanessa instantly electrocutes that one too. More fried circuit boards, just like clockwork. Vanessa is sharp as a whip on the Annihilators when Nancy is plugged in.
Doyle’s demise puts a dark cloud over the remainder of the operation. As suspected, there’s scores of blue caps working in the warehouses, and the remaining thirteen agents move through the buildings deactivating them one by one. Some fight back, but the unarmed blue caps are no match for the Annihilator equipped agents. A few go rabbit, but none make it over the fence before they’re deactivated by Vanessa and her airborne Annihilators.
Copely helps Hoage carry Doyle’s corpse out to the parking lot. They carefully load it in a body bag and set it down inside the chopper.
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 an eight-inch hole burnt through his abdomen just below the rib cage. 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.
The flight only takes a few minutes, and once Demetrius clears air traffic control, he 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.”
“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. “Junior, it looks like you have a new prosthetic device.”
“I do, and my new military arm is equipped with advanced AI.” He holds his 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 Vanessa, Demetrius, and Hoage settle into their seats.
“He was a good man,” says Demetrius. “We’ll miss him.”
“I was just checking his paperwork and it looks like 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’re going to have to take care of the funeral arrangements in-house.”
“Not a problem,” says Hoage. “The body bag is 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. Submit a bill for the costs incurred and I’ll make sure it gets taken care of.”
“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’ve got nothing to do with it.”
“That’s a load of crap. We have 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.”
Back at the hanger, Demetrius and Hoage pick up Doyle’s body bag and carry it off the chopper. They take it out to the parking lot and set it down in the bed of Demetrius’s pickup truck.
The hangar sits by itself, in a stretch of barren desert at the west end of the Air Force base. It’s a massive metal structure, sixty feet tall, with an immense pair of self-supported hydraulic doors on one end. When Demetrius and Hoage go back inside, they find Vanessa fielding questions from a group of the freshly enlisted agents.
“That was a pile of blue caps we deactivated,” says Lucinda Tripley of Bravo Team. “I went through three batteries on my Annihilator.” She’s ex-Marine and was the first one through the door when the excitement started in the main warehouse.
“Biggest blue cap raid ever?” says Derek Brigsby. He’s leader of Echo Team.
“For active units, yes,” responds Vanessa. “But we’ve encountered larger numbers in sleep mode in the past.”
Hoage nods his head in affirmation. “We found six hundred packed into a barn in Santa Cruz County a couple of years back, but luckily they were all in sleep mode.”
“Keesecker Ranch bust,” adds Demetrius. “That’s when we realized the bad guys were serious.”
“Let’s meet back out here at 8:00 am tomorrow morning,” says Vanessa to the throng of agents gathered around her.
There’s no shortage of mortuaries in Phoenix, and at first, they’re not sure which one to choose. Vanessa’s riding shotgun, and in the backseat, Hoage’s going through a list of mortuaries that Rory brought up on his military arm. He sees there’s one not far from his house, out in Fernsby Hills. 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 a live image 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 trio 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 classic desert sunset.
“This place is perfect for Doyle,” says Demetrius.
Vanessa agrees. “He would have loved it.”
After a few minutes of waiting, the funeral director appears, a Mr. Bruneau. He’s a gaunt, middle-aged man with extremely 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. They open it up, and Bruneau has them set Doyle’s corpse on a conveyor belt. It’s the intake to an automated embalming machine. Every Luke Hoxi’e Last Ride franchise has one.
“My goodness that’s an unusual wound.” Bruneau takes a closer look at the gaping cavity in Danny’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?”
“Uh, 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.”
“Alright then, I suppose we can proceed. 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.”
“Not a problem. 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 all the bells and whistles.”
Bruneau looks pleased. No price haggling with spendthrift relatives, he’ll make money on this one. He produces a handheld electronic device and activates the embalming 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 him.
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. “Yup, that’s Doyle alright.”
Bruneau closes the lid, secures it, then uses his handheld electric device to summon the Burialmaster 5000. The elaborate looking 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 and then meticulously replaces the sod.
Demetrius removes his ball cap and 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, and 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 about Danny, 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 military arm attached to his shoulder.
Hoage yawns as he pulls on his pajama pants, and though he usually removes his personal arm for sleeping, this time he decides to leave Rory on.
“Nighty, night, Rory,” he says as he stretches out on his over-sized bed.
“Sweet dreams, Junior.” The thin membrane over Rory’s touchscreen slides shut, and the tiny LEDS on his new military arm go black.