Illicit AI: Part Seven

By William A. Lasher

Vanessa invites Baxter over for dinner. It’s too hot to cook outside on the grill, so she makes Colombian style tamales with the banana leaves that she bought at a specialty shop. She pairs the tamales with Sancocho, a hearty chicken soup that she serves with chunks of corn on the cob.  

The Tall Saguaro Townhomes were built on a gentle incline, and from Vanessa’s living room window, you can see the city lights of Tempe in the distance. The dining room table is lit by candlelight with the rest of the interior lights turned down. It’s a romantic setting. She’s been getting tips on classical music from Burkheart and has Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 on the sound system, a sensual, soaring piece, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They enjoy each other’s company and eat at a relaxed pace.  

After dinner, they move to the living room sofa. She brings the bottle of Beaujolais. It’s a light-bodied, easy to drink dinner wine and they’re halfway through polishing it off.  

“That was a fantastic meal, Vanessa, best tamales I’ve ever had.”  

“A little different than the Tex-Mex style you’re probably used to eating.”  

“Yeah, they are. Not so heavy on the meat and grease.” 

 Vanessa picks up the electronic key that controls her AI processor. “I’m going to shut off Nancy for a while if you don’t mind.”  

“Why would I mind?”  

She clicks off the interface device and notices immediately how her intimate attraction grows stronger. Her carnal interest in Baxter is something Nancy doesn’t know much about. “Do you think I’m different with the AI turned off?”  

The question makes him uncomfortable because he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. “Uh, yeah. I do think you’re different.” 

“How so?”  

“Umm… I think your natural personality comes out more.” He doesn’t say she seems less intelligent. It’s what he’s thinking, but he doesn’t want to insult her.  

“You know what I like about you, Baxter?”  

“What’s that?” 

Vanessa is being careful with what she says too. “I like how you’re—how should I say this—less masculine than most other men.” He seems pleased by her comment and makes eye contact and breaks out in a warm smile, so she stays with it. “You have a definite feminine side if you don’t mind me saying so.”  

“I don’t mind at all. In a lot of ways, I feel feminine. Especially when I’m hanging out with a beautiful woman like you.”  

His response gives Vanessa the confidence she needs to go forward with her idea. “You know, Baxter, ever since I first met you, I’ve thought you would make a good cross-dresser.” 

“Really?”  

“Really. And I would love to help you try it out if you’re up to it.”  

He feigns laughter and gives her a sheepish grin. “Know what?”  

“What?”  

“I’ve been cross-dressing since I was ten years old.” 

“You’re kidding.”  

 “Nope. I’m serious. Give me about twenty minutes and I’ll show you.”   

Baxter goes next door to his place and Vanessa heaves a sigh of relief. She was afraid he might be miffed at her suggestion, but no, she was right—he’s already doing it. She can’t wait to see what he looks like in drag, and it takes him longer than he said. Forty minutes passes. She’s almost ready to text him when she hears the doorbell ring.  

When she opens the door, she can scarcely believe her eyes. He’s dressed as a beautiful young lady, and she thinks he looks awesome in his floral print skirt and stuffed halter top. He’s done an excellent job with the make-up—a subtle Ravishing Rose lipstick and just enough eye liner and mascara. His long blonde hair is combed out, instead of the tightly cinched ponytail, and he’s wearing nylons and a pair of casual burgundy flats. Men can be sloppy cross-dressers and tend to overdo it, but Baxter appears to be talented at pulling off a convincing switch. 

“You look gorgeous, Baxter.”  

He puts his hand on his hip. “Delaney, my dear. I left Baxter over in my bedroom.” The only thing about him that’s non-passable is his voice. His decidedly male tenor is not so easy to disguise.  

“Gosh, you look sexy.” She leads him in by the hand. “Let’s sit down and have another glass of wine.”  

“I’m glad I could come out to you, Vanessa. I had a feeling you’d approve.” He takes a seat on the sofa and then continues, “I have two distinctly different people inside of me and I’m Delaney as much as I’m Baxter.” 

“You’re not a woman trapped inside a man’s body?”  

“No, I’m not like that at all. It’s not like I have a secret desire to make a permanent transition or anything like that. I have a true split personality, and I don’t mean I’m schizophrenic. It’s not a mental illness, it’s just the way I turned out—I was definitely born this way. I started cross-dressing before I reached puberty, and it’s not sexual… by that I mean I don’t get turned on by becoming Delaney. Most people would assume I’m gay, or at least bi, but I’m not. I’m heterosexual. I just enjoy changing my persona to female at times.” 

Listening to Baxter talk about the two different people inside his mind makes Vanessa realize how much they have in common. He turns Delaney on and off the way she turns Nancy on and off, though with her own split personality it’s entirely cerebral. Physically, both sides of Vanessa’s alter-ego look the same.   

“What do you do when you get dressed up? Do you ever go out?”  

“Never. I just hang out and watch a movie or go online. I have a social networking presence as Delaney. You wouldn’t believe some of the vulgar pigs who message me.”  

“I know all about it. That’s why I avoid the social apps.”  

“I just block them and keep going. But I do have some polite friends I’ve met online, and most of them are female.” 

Vanessa pauses for a few moments to think. Her mind doesn’t move as fast when Nancy is unplugged. Finally, she says, “We should go out. Go to a dance club or something.” 

“You think I’m passable enough?”  

“I know you’re passable enough. We’ll go out on the town with you as my girlfriend.” 

“The only problem is when I open my mouth.” 

“Keep it closed then. I’ll do the talking.” 

Vanessa calls for a Snappy Cab. If Nancy was plugged in, she could do it mentally, but without the AI’s help, she needs to go on the website with her smartphone. She enters her address and the number of riders. Within minutes, the automated electric car pulls up outside her front door, and once they’re inside, the system responds to voice commands. It’s a small two-seater.  

“Take us to Techno Groove Station, Snappy,” says Vanessa.  

Green and yellow LEDs light up on the dashboard when the system responds. “937 East University Drive in Tempe. A techno-rock dance club that’s popular with college students and young adults.”  

“That’s the place.”  

It’s not far to the club, and as the cab makes its way through the heavy evening traffic, Vanessa notices that Baxter has become awfully quiet. He has an anxious expression on his face.  

“You’ve never been out in public as Delaney before, have you?”  

“Nope.”  

“Don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t work out, we won’t stay. Don’t be afraid to speak up.” 

“Okay.” 

The cab pulls up outside the club and when it stops, red LEDs light up on the dashboard. After Snappy tells Vanessa how much the ride cost, she inserts her card in the chip reader and the machine spits out a paper receipt. They hear the door locks click open. 

“If you forget your card, the machine won’t let you go,” says Vanessa as they climb out. 

“Seriously?”  

“Yup. Snappy calls the cops and won’t unlock the doors until they drive up.” 

Techno Groove Station is in a sprawling one-story building with garish graphic art painted on the stucco exterior. They’re close to the university and Vanessa is familiar with the neighborhood. When they walk through the front door, they come to an automated bouncer in a lobby with a coatroom. There’s loud music with a pulsating beat coming from inside, and they can see the flashing strobe lights from the lightshow.  

The bouncer is called a Sassy Sandy, a turnstile with a square robotic head on top. Purple LEDs in the shape of a mouth, nose, and eyes light up as Vanessa approaches. “Twenty-dollar cover,” says the machine in a flirtatious female voice. She inserts her card in the chip reader and the word, “SALE,” lights up on the display. “Now I need to check your identification, sugar.” Vanessa holds her driver’s license up to the machine’s scanner. “Looks good, sweetie,” and she pushes through the turnstile arms.  

Baxter goes through the same process. When he holds his driver’s license up to the scanner, the irreverent machine responds, “Whoa, you look a little different than your photo, there partner. Please place your index finger on the print scanner.” He puts his finger on the small electronic screen. “Okay, José. You can go right in.”  

Vanessa is waiting on the other side of the turnstile and sees him blush and look around to see if anyone heard the machine’s cheeky remarks. “C’mon Delaney,” she says after he pushes through the metal arms, and then taking his hand, “Let’s go find a table and order a couple of drinks.” 

 

*** 

 

Vanessa’s up before the sun as usual. She has a hangover from the drinking—red wine and tequila are a rough combination—but she’s in good spirits. Her date with Baxter couldn’t have gone better. They stayed at the club for a while. He summoned up enough courage to go out on the dance floor with her, but it took a couple of margaritas to loosen him up.  

He was awfully self-conscious at first but turned out to be a great dancer and they were definitely noticed by the other people at the club. When the guys came up to their table asking for a dance, Vanessa turned them all down while Baxter remained silent and tried to ignore them. There was a skinny guy in an ugly plaid shirt who looked like he had too much to drink. He had a crush on Baxter’s feminine alter ego and wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Cat got your tongue? …C’mon let’s dance.”  

“Buzz off, cowboy,” said Vanessa.  

“Your friend can’t speak for herself?”  

“Get lost.”  

She puts on her sweats and running shoes and she’s out the door at the break of dawn. It’ll be another blistering hot day in the desert and the pavement and sidewalks are still warm from the day before. The sun’s just cresting the ragged Superstition Mountains as she takes off on her run. 

She sees her neighbor’s dog in the fenced-in yard at the end of the quiet residential drive. The one who barks at her when Nancy is plugged in. This time he wags his tail when he sees her coming. “Good boy,” she coos to him as she jogs by the fence line and the Welsh Terrier yawns and stretches and continues wagging his tail.  

Dr. Novachek is uncertain why dogs are suspicious of her when the AI is activated. She asked him about it in a phone call, and he said he wasn’t sure. Could it be a high frequency sound that they hear? she asked. Impossible, he responded. The device uses a typical microwave encoder, like a cellular phone. If they hear the processor, they’d start barking every time someone picks up their smartphone.  

Demetrius thinks it’s a sixth sense. Dogs read people’s intentions through body language and smell, and the Terrier barks at Nancy because he’s warning his people that there’s something he doesn’t understand approaching. He’s telling them that he’s not sure what Nancy is, and she could be dangerous. 

Back at the house, Vanessa peels a navel orange and eats it with a container of yogurt. It’s pineapple, her favorite. She drinks more water than usual and takes a couple of ibuprofens for her headache. Her mouth is dry as sandpaper from the drinking. 

She switches on her AI and checks the morning news. There’s video of Colton Hardgrave at an event in Buenos Aries, more than likely another replicant, but it’s hard to tell from the stream. His disappearance is classified information that hasn’t been released to the public and the talking head on the newscast is obviously unaware of it.  

The morning traffic on Camelback Avenue is heavy as usual. She goes airborne on her levitation cycle, and after finding her antigrav pathway into the ether, she makes it to the federal building in eight minutes flat. She’s running late and Demetrius and Junior are waiting by the elevator door.  

“Morning, Vanessa,” says Demetrius. 

“Morning, guys. Sorry I’m late.” 

“No big thing,” says Junior.  

“Looks like February activated another Colton Hardgrave replicant.”  

“Yeah, I saw it on the news.” 

They ride the elevator down to Minus Five and exchange the requisite small talk with Kitty. She’s programmed to be gregarious. After a short walk down the subterranean hallway, they’re back in Burkheart’s office. He has a live feed from a Jackson Hole surveillance camera on the Feature Screen. People are eating breakfast on a restaurant’s outdoor deck and the imposing Grand Tetons rise up in the background.  

“Morning, Chuck,” says Vanessa. “I listened to Schubert’s Symphony number three with my dinner date last night.” 

“How’d you like it?”  

“It was wonderful. Very romantic.” 

“Yes, it’s a compelling piece. The interplay between the strings and woodwinds is sensational.”  

“It did the trick. Created the mood I was looking for.”  

“You should come with us to see the symphony orchestra some time.” 

“I’d like that, Chuck.” 

“I’ll check the schedule and pick out something you’d appreciate.” 

“That sounds lovely. I’ll look forward to it.” 

“Colton Hardgrave was back in the news this morning,” says Demetrius. 

“I saw the report,” says Burkheart. 

“We can assume it was another replicant?”  

“Yeah, Demetrius, I think that would be a safe assumption.” 

“Is there a way we can get to February in Buenos Aries?”  

“I would say it’s a possibility. But it would need to be a covert operation. The Argentine government has refused to cooperate with our arrest and extradition requests.” 

“Because he’s an artificial.”  

“Ten-four, and the thing is, even if we did manage to take him out, he could be replaced. For all we know, there could be more than one Winston February already in existence.” 

“What about going after Harold Beidelman in Karachi?” says Junior. 

“Hanes says there’s nothing to link him or Robotamaton to February’s criminal activity. Manufacturing generic androids is not against the law in Pakistan and there’s a theory that February has free will.”  

“He’s acting outside of Beidelman’s control? Is that possible?” 

“It’s only a theory, but well within the realm of possibility.” 

“What about the UGRs we keep turning up?” says Demetrius. “Is there an explanation for the military grade andys?” 

“General Sheckley authorized me to tell you it’s a top security concern. Their existence is under investigation. That’s about all I could get out of him.” 

“I’d hate to encounter a few hundred of them activated,” says Junior. “We’ve been lucky to only find them sleeping.”   

“So what’s on the agenda for today, Chuck,” says Vanessa. “Where do we go next?” 

Burkheart goes on his keyboard and changes the stream on the Feature Screen to another live surveillance feed. “This is an aerial view of the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container ship port in the country. It’s in the San Pedro section of the city and also home to the second largest Global Mart distribution facility in the world.”  

He changes the stream to a view of the massive warehouses. “In the past, February has used Manzanillo almost exclusively to import the illicit andys, but with the real Colton Hardgrave out of the picture we think he may have switched to bringing a portion of them in through San Pedro. There’s been corruption uncovered in the local Customs office in the past, and a whistleblower told our investigators that the port is currently wide open to illicit activity.”  

“We’re going back to L.A. then?” says Vanessa. 

“Affirmative. Use the National Guard depot as a base of operations, and rendezvous with intelligence when you arrive. This could turn into a major bust.”  

“Will our five-chopper squadron be enough?”  

“I’m not sure. That’s why you need to contact Aaron Estrada when you get out there. Take a good look at the situation on the ground and call me before you commit to a raid.” 

 

 *** 

 

The squadron departs Phoenix at mid-morning. They cross the Colorado and Demetrius points out the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range as they fly to the north of it. It’s where he did his target practice when he flew fighter jets for the Navy, and there’s not much out there beyond the creosote bushes and the rattlesnakes. It’s just before noon when they land on the helipad at the National Guard depot next to LAX.  

“We’ll meet back here at 7:00 am tomorrow and have a pow wow with Aaron Estrada, the local intelligence manager,” says Vanessa as she hands out vouchers for the hotel rooms. “There’s no definite decision on how we proceed at this time, so be ready for anything, including a total scrub.”  

Zulu Team lingers on the helipad as the rest of the crews walk off towards the hotel… Except for Tripley, she’s hanging out with Junior.  

“Beautiful day,” says Junior. 

“Sure is,” agrees Tripley. 

“Beach weather,” says Vanessa. 

“Damn right,” says Demetrius. “So, there’s only one thing left to do…” 

“Head for Redondo,” responds Junior.  

Tripley laughs. “Cool. I made sure to pack a swimsuit this time.” 

Vanessa grabs the keys to one of the jeeps from the duty sergeant. She climbs behind the wheel and the rest of them pile in. The traffic on Sepulveda Boulevard is heavy as usual and they hit another traffic jam in Manhattan Beach, giving Vanessa a strange feeling of déjà vu. It’s only been a week since the last time.  

It takes four turns of the light to get through the gridlock. When they finally make it across Manhattan Beach Boulevard, they see what’s causing the jam up—a crappy looking sedan is stalled out in the middle of the intersection, and a tow truck has arrived to move it out of the way. Meanwhile, in an adjacent parking lot, an L.A. County Sheriff’s van pulls up, and two Manhattan Beach cops walk a scraggly looking man with long unkempt hair towards the back. Probably the owner of the stalled-out beater, and more than likely, he’ll soon be on his way to the far side of the East L.A. Wall… It’s just another day in paradise.  

The traffic smooths out as they pass through Hermosa Beach. Still stop and go, but the gridlock eases up.  

For the most part, the L.A. beach towns all look the same. It’s continuous urban sprawl from Santa Monica to Newport Beach, and if you don’t pay attention to the signs, you’ll lose track of where you are. 

Soon they’re in Redondo, and Vanessa finds a parking spot by the pier. They climb the stairs and go in the surfing shop. Brody Lawson is behind the counter. 

“Demetrius! I wasn’t expecting to see you back so soon.”  

“Hey, Brody. We’re back in town on more official business.” 

“And you decided to come and see me. You need boards again?”  

“Yup.”  

“How were they last time?”  

“Perfect,” says Tripley.  

“That’s what I like to hear. I’ll go ahead and get you fixed up again. Four of my best.”  

“Will you let me pay you this time?” Demetrius reaches for his pocket. 

“No way, Demetrius. Put your money away. AICC surfs for free in Redondo.” 

“Then where can I buy an ice chest and some drinks?” 

“Look to the east at the bottom of the stairs. Hai Pham’s Food Store. You’ll see the sign.” 

They carry the surfboards down to the jeep and load them in the back. There’s a stiff offshore breeze and multi-colored flags flap audibly in front of a real estate office across the street. The salty smell of the ocean is mixed with the tangy aroma of carne asada cooking on a nearby tacobot’s grill. 

“I’m passing on tacobot this time,” says Vanessa. 

“Me too,” says Junior. “Fast food sounds like a good idea until you actually eat it.” 

“I’m going to walk down to the store, instead” says Demetrius. “See if I can buy a cooler and some ice.”  

“Sounds good D,” says Vanessa. “I want to go back in Bernardo’s and have another look at their sunglasses.”  

“Can I go with you?” says Tripley. “I could use a new pair of shades.” 

“Sure. Let’s go.”  

“I’ll hang out,” says Junior. “Make sure no one takes off with the boards.”  

Vanessa and Tripley walk back up the stairs. The front door’s pinned open at Brody’s Surf Shop and he looks over his current customer’s shoulder to give them a friendly wave when he notices them strolling by.  

Being alone with the boss is energizing Tripley. She’s more chatty than usual as they walk together towards the apparel store. “I’m glad they put me in a female led squadron. I think it’s so cool that they put you in charge.”   

“It’s not as easy as it looks, Lucinda.”   

“Yeah, I know, or uh, I can imagine how hard the job is.”  

“It’s a lot of responsibility calling the shots in the field.”  

“Junior was telling me how he went through the training program with you in Montana. He said you were going by a different name when he first met you.” 

“He told you about my AI interface?”  

“Yeah, it’s common knowledge among the other agents. No one brings it up with you because they don’t want to seem rude.” 

“I don’t mind talking about it. When I met Junior, the AI was in total control, but in the years since, my organic brain has gradually overcome the injury. I can turn it off now and be myself again.”  

“Do you have it turned on right now?”  

“Yeah, I do. I need the enhanced intelligence to do my job, but I’m going to turn it off when we get to the beach. When we were down here last week, I found I could surf better without it.”  

“That’s sensational. That your body was able to overcome the damage you suffered in the accident.” 

“I feel blessed, Lucinda. It’s truly a miracle.” 

“I love Junior for going on with his life after he lost his arm. He told me he’s stronger now with Rory by his side.”  

“Junior’s an exceptional individual.” 

“Yeah, I really like him.”  

“Did he show you any pictures of his sister?”  

“No.”  

“Ask him sometime. Her name’s Shelby.” 

They go in Bernardo’s, and Vanessa remembers the name of the saleslady at the sunglasses counter. Brenda is young and svelte, a petite blonde. Vanessa thinks she looks a little bit like Regina, that’s why she remembers her by name. They both buy new shades, then stroll back towards the jeep.  

As they walk down the stairs, they see Demetrius coming back from the store. He’s carrying a brand-new cooler loaded with bottled tea and water and there’s a big bag of trail mix on top. They pass it around on the way to Miramar Park. When they get there, Vanessa switches off her AI in the parking lot.  

The brisk offshore wind makes the waves steep and fast. Vanessa paddles out into the swells with Demetrius and manages to stay on her feet when a big breaker comes in. Nearby, Junior can’t help but laugh when Tripley attempts a rodeo flip but instead wipes out… They stay on the beach until sundown and then eat dinner at a seafood restaurant before heading back to the depot.  

 

 *** 

 

The next morning, the chopper teams rendezvous on the helipad at 7:00 am sharp. Just in time to see Aaron Estrada fly in on his levitation cycle. He’s their AICC intelligence contact in L.A. and Vanessa, Demetrius, and Junior meet with him in a conference room inside the depot building. There’s a Feature Screen on the wall and Estrada loads visual aids with his laptop. He’s about forty, short in stature with longish black hair combed straight back. 

“We’ve had the Global Mart distribution center in San Pedro under surveillance for quite a while. It’s within a block of the container port.” He clicks through several static images as he speaks. “These are shipping containers that originated in Karachi and all of them went to Global Mart.”  

“Did Customs check them out?” says Vanessa. 

“Only visual inspections when they logged them. They never opened them up. If the containers are marked as retail electronics, they don’t scan them with X-ray devices either.” 

“Sounds like the port is wide open for smugglers,” says Junior. 

“Looks that way doesn’t it,” says Estrada. “Customs claims it’s a lack of manpower.”  

“Like there’s no one looking for work in L.A.”  

“Does Global Mart normally do business with wholesalers in Karachi?” says Vanessa. 

“Occasionally, but the increased number of containers we’ve seen lately is unusual.”   

Estrada changes the image on the Feature Screen to a pair of architectural drawings. “Recently, Global Mart bought a large sized warehouse on an adjacent property and combined it with the rest of their operation. The image on the left shows the original building when it was permitted to be built twenty years ago, and the plans show a full basement under the floor. 

“They did some remodeling after the purchase, and when the building inspector showed up, the new set of plans—on the right—didn’t show the basement or the stairs that led down to it. When he questioned them on the discrepancy, the Global Mart manager said the original plans were wrong—there never was a basement. The inspector thought it was odd, and noted it on his paperwork, but never made an issue of it.” 

Junior looks towards Vanessa, raises his eyebrows, and then says to Estrada, “We raided a Global Mart distribution hub in Nogales recently—” 

“And you found a hidden basement with a concealed elevator. I read the report. It looks like it might be a similar set-up here in San Pedro.” 

“Do we have probable cause to proceed with a raid?” says Vanessa. 

“Yup. Two former employees told us they were fired when the facility switched over to blue caps. They witnessed andys working inside.”  

“Did you get a search warrant?” 

“Of course.” He opens his briefcase and hands the document to Vanessa. “Signed by a district judge yesterday. You should be good to go.”  

Vanessa makes a quick call to Burkheart in Phoenix. It takes less than a minute. “Chuck gave us the green light. Let’s go fry some blue caps.” 

The squadron lifts off and flies south. It only takes about fifteen minutes to make it to San Pedro. The choppers land in a large parking lot in front of the distribution facility. It’s almost empty, and the lack of employee cars is a sure tip-off that automated help is being used inside.  

It’s the usual drill. The ground crews exit the choppers and Demetrius takes Zulu bird back up to patrol the perimeter with Vanessa. Junior, Tripley, and Ace Copely walk towards the administration building to serve the warrant. Junior’s in the lead, and he pauses outside the front door. “Are you picking up any sign of artificials, Rory?”  

“Negative, Junior. The management appears to be human.” 

They walk through the front door, and once inside, they’re met by an anxious general manager. “Good morning, I’m Dick Baldwin of Global Mart.” He holds his hand out, but Junior just looks at it suspiciously. Four additional office workers remain seated at their desks.  

“I’m Agent Junior Hoage of AI Compliance. We have reason to believe this facility is employing illicit androids. Here’s the search warrant.” He hands him the document in lieu of shaking his hand. 

Baldwin takes a quick look at it. “Well, I won’t try to bullshit you, Agent Hoage. Yes, our warehouse staff is fully automated, and yes, they are illicit androids. It was a corporate decision, I had nothing to do with it, and if you want to know the truth, I miss our fallible humans.”  

“Can you put the blue caps in sleep mode?”  

“Yes, I can. I’m willing to offer my full cooperation… You’re not going to arrest anyone, are you?”  

“That’s not my job. But if you’ll put the andys in sleep mode and stop the automated truck traffic, it’ll make things easier for us, and your cooperation will be noted in my report.”  

The GM looks towards a nearby office worker, a younger man seated behind an over-sized computer monitor. “Vince, would you please do what you can to help Agent Hoage?” 

“Sure thing, Mr. Baldwin.” He goes to work on his keyboard and a few moments later says, “I put the blue caps in sleep mode and paused the truck traffic… anything else?”  

“That should do it,” says Junior. “We appreciate the cooperation.” 

They go back outside, and there’s a group sigh of relief when Junior tells the rest of the ground crew that the blue caps are in sleep mode. It takes a couple of hours to go through all fourteen of the warehouses. They tackle the buildings one at a time, deactivating the blue caps with their Annihilators as they find them. They’re frozen in whatever position they happened to be in when the desk jockey in administration pulled the plug.  

After the crews have gone through J Building and moved on, Junior, Tripley, and Copely linger in J to take a closer look—it’s the building that Estrada brought up in the briefing. Rory has the older floor plan displayed in a touchscreen schematic, and Junior locates the spot where the stairway sat before the remodel.  

“Are you detecting any hidden apparatus, Rory?”  

“Affirmative. There’s a concealed panel, identical to the one in Nogales.” 

“Can you open it?”  

“I’m working on a hack…” and then, “Got it Junior.” The panel slides open, revealing a utility elevator. 

The trio rides the elevator down to the basement level that’s not supposed to be there, and when the door opens, they find rows of sleeping UGRs, standing at military attention. Hundreds of them.  

Junior goes on the horn to Vanessa in the chopper. “We found the disappearing basement.”  

“Is there anything in it?”  

“Sure is. It’s packed with sleeping UGRs.”  

“Carrying laser weapons?”  

“Yup.”  

“Can you give me a count?”  

Junior has Tripley count the andys in the first row while Copely counts the number of rows. Then he multiplies the numbers. “Five hundred and twenty. That’s almost a full infantry regiment.” 

“Okay, hold on a minute, Junior. I’m on the phone to Chuck…” There’s a pause but she’s back on his headset in no time. “General Sheckley wants me to destroy the entire building with UFIBs. Radio me when you’re clear and I’ll proceed with the demolition.” 

“Roger, Vanessa.”  

“Goddamn, Junior,” says Tripley as they walk back towards the elevator, past the rows of sleeping andys. “What’s Winston February getting ready to declare war or something?” 

“It sure looks that way, doesn’t it?”  

©2022 Surreal Science Fiction

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