Illicit AI: Part Three

By William A. Lasher

Vanessa is awake and out of bed before the alarm goes off. She does her stretches, puts on her sweats, and she’s out the door on her morning run.  

She sleeps much better with Nancy unplugged. When her AI is activated, the slightest sound can awaken her, and she ends up lying in bed with insomnia. Problems seem more serious in the middle of the night and once she’s awake, it’s hard to get back to sleep. Beyond worrying about the complications that arise in her day-to-day life as an AICC agent, she’ll revisit the past, often dwelling on things that didn’t go right but are impossible to change. The AI amplifies everything in Vanessa’s mind, even the things she’d just as soon forget. 

Running down the street in her Scottsdale neighborhood with Nancy deactivated, she has a different perspective on things. She hears the distinctive song of a Cactus Wren and simply listens instead of analyzing. It makes her smile because the bird has such a beautiful sound.  

A neighbor’s dog watches her run from a fenced-in yard at the end of the street. He’s barked at her before when the AI was plugged in. But now, with Nancy turned off, he wags his tail and keeps his mouth shut. Does he sense her as being less threatening with the AI turned off? She’s not sure, it could all be in her imagination, but she knows that dogs have a sixth sense about such things. 

She noticed the same thing with Junior’s dog, Otis. He seemed wary of her at first, sniffing her hand tentatively when she held it out in friendship. He kept his distance, off in a corner, with a suspicious eye on her, but when she switched off the AI, his demeanor changed abruptly. He walked over to her chair wagging his tail, and then fell asleep on the floor, inches from her feet. 

Vanessa wonders if she would be happier with Nancy turned off for good. It would undoubtedly create problems, the biggest being she’d no longer be suited for her job at AICC. She could return to Bogotá, but then what? Without Nancy’s help, it might be hard to find any kind of meaningful work. She could live off her trust fund, but after everything she’s been through in the last few years, the prospect sounds awfully boring.  

She’s sure her parents and brother would be happy to see her home in Colombia but giving up on the AI would mean giving up on everything that she’s accomplished on her own in America. It would be like setting out to climb a mountain and then turning around halfway up because the trek is too difficult.  

Vanessa is no quitter, so her decision is to persevere. Turn off Nancy when she feels like it at home, but at work she’ll leave the AI turned on.  

She loves her morning run, because everything seems to make more sense when she’s exercising. It’s her brain releasing endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones, that’s how the AI explains it. The strenuous exercise puts her brain in touch with her primitive hunter/gatherer instincts, in what Freud called her id, deep down inside, where Vanessa still rules. 

Back at the house, she takes a shower and gets dressed for work. She eats a light breakfast, a banana with a container of yogurt. She lives alone and she’s thought about finding a pet, but she’s never cared for cats and thinks it would be cruel to leave a dog inside all day. Junior showed her the doggie door he installed for Otis, but her backyard is a common area, it wouldn’t work at the Tall Saguaro Townhomes.  

Some of her neighbors are friendly, others aloof. She adores the property manager, Baxter Langford. He’s a few years younger than her and slightly effeminate. Baxter lives next door and they hit it off fast. Vanessa thinks he would make a good cross-dresser, but so far, she’s kept the idea to herself. He has such a beautiful face, she thinks, heart shaped instead of square, the natural good looks of a gorgeous girl. Someday she’ll talk him into putting on a skirt. Get him drunk first. She knows she could make him look passable. 

She turns on Nancy before she leaves for work. With help from her AI, operating her levitation cycle is less risky. Nancy makes her more aware. 

She pauses to check out current news and weather before she goes out the door. Vanessa doesn’t need a television or computer monitor when Nancy is activated. The AI creates vivid imagery that she can see in her mind. She browses the internet mentally.  

The Mexican border situation is back in the news. It appears that Winston February’s andys have seized control of the smuggling plazas from Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico after slaughtering most of Rubén Badillo’s gang in Torreón. The remnants of El Culto al Lobo were killed in the attack as well, and an unusual type of weapon may have been used in the violence. 

Sounds like they were wiped out by laser weapons, thinks Vanessa. The weapon’s existence is still classified top secret, but she wonders how much longer it will stay like that.  

The news reporter goes on to say that the Mexican authorities seem unable or unwilling to confront February’s automated henchmen and the U.S. government is sending an envoy to Mexico City to discuss the problem. February is in Buenos Aries, and the Argentinian authorities say he can’t be arrested because he’s an android, not a mortal man. 

She walks out to her carport, and on the way, she finds Baxter watching his Endeavatron as it paints an exterior wall on the recreation building. The machine has an aluminum body atop two robotic legs that propel it from place to place. Four telescoping robotic arms accomplish a wide range of tasks according to what the user programs on its processor.  

“Your Endeavatron is a fast painter,” says Vanessa as she pauses to watch the machine.  

“You bet I am,” replies the metallic contraption from its automated voice-box. When it speaks, green LEDs light up in the shape of a mouth and eyes on a rectangular head that sits atop its oblong body.  

“It’s fairly amazing,” says Baxter. He’s wearing all white to stay cool in the desert heat, shorts, polo shirt, and athletic shoes, and his long blonde hair is combed back in a tightly cinched ponytail. “The thing does perfect work.”  

“You were expecting a substandard job?” The green LEDs that form the machine’s mouth change from a square shape to a smile. One of its telescoping robotic arms uses a scraper and sanding block to prepare the surfaces, a second and third use tape and paper to mask the areas that don’t need paint. A fourth arm operates a pneumatic paint sprayer.  

“I didn’t expect it to have so much personality. It cost a bundle, but I think Mr. Hanamura got his money’s worth.” 

“You want to come over for dinner tonight? I have chicken marinating in the fridge. We can grill on the deck.” 

“Sounds good, Vanessa. What time?” 

“Text me about seven.” She gives him a wink. 

The morning sun is warming things up fast. Summer is hot as a pizza oven in the Sonoran Desert.  

In the carport, she pulls on her helmet, climbs on her levitation cycle, and presses the start button. The bike has a high-performance motor, and she watches her speed as she takes off down the residential street. It’s a gated community, and the security guard gives her a friendly wave as she passes through the front gate.  

Traffic is backed up on Camelback Road, so instead of stopping at the intersection and waiting for the light to change, she switches on the bike’s maglev plant and goes airborne. She opens up the throttle as the machine creates its own anti-grav pathway into the ether.  

Air traffic over central Phoenix has picked up considerably as levitation cycles and rocket belts have become available to the general public. Wasting time in traffic jams with automated tractor trailers and self-driving buses is passé for the flying commuter, and Vanessa’s cycle is equipped with radar that warns her with an audio alarm when another commuter’s flight path is too close.  

It’s not far to downtown, she makes it less than five minutes. Slowing down as she approaches the Hazeldine Federal Building, she sees that Junior has just arrived from the north, and he’s landing his cycle on the rooftop helipad.  

She’s circles around and comes in behind him. Rapidly deaccelerating, she pulls her bike up next to his and parks it. She slips off her helmet and finds a hairbrush in her saddlebag.  

“Morning, Junior. How was the ride in?” she says as she straightens out her long brown hair.  

“Awesome. Made it in ten minutes.” He pulls off his helmet as he climbs off the bike. “What’s on the agenda today, boss?”  

“Colton Hardgrave is testifying at a secret senate hearing in Washington. The proceedings are closed to the public, but Chuck said he’ll have a vid link on the Feature Screen.”  

“The owner of Global Mart. That should be interesting.” 

There’s a commanding view of the city and mountains beyond from the roof of the downtown skyscraper. To the south, they can see the Salt River Wall. Still under construction, the thirty-foot tall barrier looks out of place. Once busy streets now dead end when they reach the construction zone and it’s contributing to the nightmarish traffic jams that plague the city. 

The controversial wall is designed as an impassable barrier to keep the massive homeless encampments from overwhelming the downtown core. At least a hundred thousand long term unemployed are camped along the dry desert riverbed and the shanty towns grow bigger daily. It’s the price of automation in a cold-hearted capitalist society, and the socialist programs that are supposed to help are riddled with corruption and largely fail. 

The rank-and-file police are under orders to remove the homeless from city streets and transport them to the area south of the wall. They stop people based on looks alone. If a subject can’t prove he has a lawful residence and financial solvency, in the paddy wagon he goes. Dropped off south of the wall, the police tell him not to come back because next time it’ll mean jail. They keep a database of mug shots, and they can quickly identify repeat offenders with facial recognition software. 

Vanessa can see into the gigantic encampments from the federal building’s roof. The abject poverty looks as bad or worse than any third world country and it’s shocking to her that the misery is allowed to exist in a nation that has such deep pockets. She was fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family in Bogotá, and the poverty along the Salt is in stark contrast to the affluence she takes for granted in Scottsdale. 

They see Demetrius flying in from the west. He’s piloting the Zulu Team Chopper, and after he sets it down on the helipad, the trio boards an elevator for a fast descent to Minus Five. Kitty Kanazawa is halfway through an important hands-free telephone call, and she pauses to tell them, “Mr. Burkheart is expecting you,” and motions for them to head down the hallway to his office.  

They find Burkheart at his desk watching the secret senate hearing on his Feature Screen. “You’re just in time, the socialist from Minnesota is grilling Hardgrave about the blue caps in Buckeye.”  

“He’ll be lucky to get anything out of him we don’t already know,” says Demetrius as they settle into the visitors’ chairs. 

After numerous scandals and corruption indictments, the Republican and Democratic political parties both collapsed in the mid 2030s. In the wake of their misconduct, three brand new political parties seized power, North American Socialist, Conservatarian and Anarcho-Primitivist. 

Senator Levi Gardner is a North American Socialist. He speaks with a strong upper-Midwest accent, and sits behind a long, elevated desk at the front of the committee room. His name placard and an old-fashioned microphone rest on the desk in front of him. Other senators from the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence are seated to his left and right. 

“Mr. Hardgrave, is it true that you opposed the Generic Android Abolition Act of 2036?” 

“Yes, I did.” Colton Hardgrave is owner and CEO of Global Mart, and the world’s first trillionaire. He’s seated at a witness desk that faces the committee members.  

“Is it also true that you financed a political action committee that was formed to lobby against passage of the Generic Android Abolition Act?” 

Hardgrave’s attorney is seated behind him, and he exchanges whispers with the lawyer before responding. Finally, he answers Gardner’s question: “Yes, I did raise money to finance the noted pac.” 

“Precisely why did you oppose the abolition of generic worker androids so vehemently?” 

“I saw it as an unnecessary governmental intrusion on free enterprise.” 

“You’re familiar with the John Doe 7200 generic worker androids, also known as blue caps?”  

“Yes, I am.”  

“And you’re aware of the fact that the blue caps have built-in programming flaws that make them extremely dangerous to operate?”  

Hardgrave goes back to whispering with his attorney, and then answers: “As far as I know, you’re referencing biased research that’s flawed and inconclusive.”  

“I’m referencing research from several noted artificial intelligence experts.”  

“Funded by the federal government and in my opinion, heavily biased.” 

Gardner pauses to check his notes and then continues: “Mr. Hardgrave, are you aware of the fact that use of the blue caps both before and after passage of the Generic Android Abolition Act has resulted in massive amounts of long-term unemployment throughout the United States?”  

Hardgrave exchanges whispers with his attorney once again and then replies: “As far as I know, you’re referencing biased research that’s flawed and inconclusive.” 

Gardner looks like he’s losing his patience, but he takes a drink from a water glass and keeps his cool. “When Global Mart chose to employ blue caps at your Metro-Phoenix regional distribution facility, was it a willful act of defiance in contempt of the Generic Android Abolition statute?” 

“The Buckeye facility in west Phoenix is operated by an unaffiliated contractor, Papago Retail Solutions. Global Mart does not employ blue caps.” 

“But Papago Retail Solutions processes merchandise for your corporation. Surely Global Mart must maintain some degree of control over their day-to-day activities.”  

“Global Mart has absolutely no control or oversight in regard to PRS’s hiring and staffing practices.” 

“So, you can tell me with a straight-face that no one from Global Mart had any knowledge of the one hundred and eighty-three illicit androids that were subsequently deactivated and destroyed by AICC a few days ago?” 

“That’s correct, Senator Gardner.” 

“Mr. Hardgrave, do you have any type of business or personal relationship with Winston February, CEO of the Wunderlin Beef international agri-business conglomerate?”  

“Winston February? Why I don’t believe I’ve ever met the man.”  

“Winston February is an artificial lifeform, not a man.” 

“Well then permit me to rephrase my reply, senator. I don’t believe I’ve ever met that particular artificial lifeform.” 

Gardner uses his laptop to bring up an image on the prominent hearing room Feature Screen, it’s behind him, mounted on the wall to his right. “The image on the screen shows you shaking hands with February at last year’s Pan American Business Conference in Buenos Aries.” He brings up more images. “And here’s a photo of you sitting next to February at the official banquet… This one shows you having an intimate conversation with him in a lounge area, and finally, here’s a photo of you entering the foyer of the Wunderlin Tower in the central Puerto Madero district where it appears you were accompanied by Winston February.” 

“I meet and confer with scores of dignitaries on a regular basis and come to think of it, I do remember having a few words with Mr. February now.” 

“Do you remember what you talked about?”  

“It was a private conversation.” 

Gardner looks over his notes and then turns to the committee chairman. “That’s all the questions I have for Mr. Hardgrave.”  

Burkheart mutes the volume on the Feature Screen. “That certainly was illuminating.”  

Demetrius nods in agreement. “Yup, and there’s one thing we can be sure of now– Colton Hardgrave is a pathological liar.”  

“I would have to agree with your assessment, Demetrius.” 

“I suppose when you have that much money, you can get away with almost anything,” adds Junior. 

“He’s in dangerous territory flaunting national security for profit,” says Burkheart. “I talked to General Sheckley earlier today, and he said our new top priority is raiding every Global Mart distribution facility in the Southwest.  

“Where do we start?” says Vanessa. 

“There’s a big one in Nogales. Right on the border. I’ll get Hanes to file for a search warrant and you can hit it first thing tomorrow morning.” 

 

*** 

 

Vanessa’s AI enforcement squadron has their work cut out for them and they show up the next morning at the hangar west of town. There’s a pair of helicopter mechanics on the payroll, Klein and Velasquez. They work an overnight shift, and they’re just finishing their maintenance chores as the agents roll in. The sodium ion batteries are fully charged, and the biofuel for the jet engines topped off as the crews climb aboard their birds.  

Beyond the Annihilators, the helicopters are outfitted with a new type of weaponry – air to surface missiles equipped with Urban Friendly Intelli-Bombs or UFIBs. When the warhead contacts a target and detonates, it causes molecular decomposition of all matter within a thirty-foot radius. There’s no fiery explosion, just a bright flash as everything within the blast circle is reduced to a fine textured, grayish dust. The weapon’s chief advantage is there’s no ignition of combustibles, it destroys the target without starting a fire, a surgical strike. 

Each chopper carries eight of the missiles, four on either side, mounted in external launching brackets. They’ve tried them out at a remote testing range but have yet to use them in a live fire raid. 

Partially obscured by morning smog, a hot amber sun is just clearing Piestewa Peak as the squadron lifts off with Zulu Team in the lead. Nogales is two hundred miles to the south, and after gaining sufficient altitude, the pilots fire up their jet engines. Crossing bare rock mountain ranges and wide expanses of unpeopled desert at subsonic speeds, the choppers complete the trip in about thirty minutes. 

Nogales sits in a desert grassland. It’s surrounded by mountains and higher in elevation than Tucson. The international border runs along a natural divide, and the Mexican side of the agglomerated city is ten times bigger than the Arizona side. It’s a busy port of entry with several cross-border entrance stations. 

“There it is,” says Demetrius as they close in on the Global Mart distribution facility. “Right on the border, a couple hundred yards from Mexico.” 

The choppers kick up clouds of dry desert dust as they land inside the security fence. Enough to choke on. 

Junior has an eerie feeling of déjà vu. The layout of the buildings is similar to the Buckeye depot where they’d been surprised by the KTs a few days before. He looks towards the empty crew seat beside him and pauses for a moment to remember Doyle, then checks the touch screen on his military arm. Rory’s CGI gazes back at him silently. 

“You’re in charge on the ground, Junior,” says Vanessa, turning in her co-pilot seat to make eye contact. 

“Ten-four, boss.” He pulls on his helmet, climbs off the chopper, and keeping his head down, he walks through a cloud of tawny colored dust towards the administration building.  

Demetrius lifts off to patrol the perimeter while the remaining pilots stay on the ground with their motors idling.  

The ground crews gather around Junior. They wear black rubberized coveralls, thick-soled boots, and full helmets to protect against electrocution. The Annihilator weapon develops 10,000 volts of fusion enhanced electricity, and every agent carries one.  

“What are the chances of encountering KTs?” says Jett Luxa of Echo Team. 

“That’s a big unknown,” responds Junior. “Stay aware of your surroundings and be ready to activate your weapon at any time.”  

“Going up against laser weapons is more than I expected.” says Dallas Janks of Bravo Team. 

“You can bail out at any time if you’re not up to it, Janks. Go sit in the chopper if you want out.” 

“Nah, I’m okay, Hoage.” He’s embarrassed now and some of the other agents are giving him looks of surprised indignation.  

“Alright, then. First order of business is serving the search warrant. I need two volunteers to go in with me.” 

“I’ll go,” says Lucinda Tripley. She’s the highly motivated ex-Marine from Bravo Team. Junior likes her spunk. 

“Who else?”  

“Me,” says Miguel Cardoza, stepping forward. “I’m in too.” 

The trio approaches the entrance to the administration building cautiously with Junior in the lead. He pauses at the door before going inside. “Rory, can you give me a reading on lifeforms present in the office?” 

“Affirmative… I’m analyzing microwave discharge and there’s nothing I’m picking up that indicates the presence of artificials.”  

Junior pulls the door open and steps inside. Three office workers are seated at desks and a middle-aged woman is standing at a window surveying the scene outside apprehensively. He looks to the touchscreen on his military arm and sees a text message from Rory: All four occupants appear to be human.  

He opens the tinted shield on his helmet as Tripley and Cardoza fall in behind him. “Who’s in charge?”  

“That would be me,” says the woman standing by the window. “I’m Alice Newman, the general manager.”  

“I’m Agent Junior Hoage of AI Compliance Corps. We have reason to believe this facility is employing illicit androids in your warehouses.” He steps towards her and hands her the search warrant.  

Newman shakes her head and rolls her eyes as she glances at the paperwork. “I knew it was a bad idea replacing the workers with blue caps.”  

“So, you admit to employing illicit androids?” 

“Corporate made the decision, not me. I had nothing to do with it.”  

“Do you know how to put the blue caps in sleep mode?”  

She turns towards one of the office workers, an Asian man sitting behind a large sized computer monitor. “Mr. Liu, would you shut down the warehouse personnel please?”  

“All of them?”  

“The whole plant, shut it down.”  

“Yes, Ma’am.” Liu goes to work at his computer station. “Give me a few moments here… okay, that’s it. All onsite John Doe 7200s have been placed in temporary deactivation mode.” 

“Can you pause the automated truck traffic, too?” says Junior.  

“Not a problem.” He goes back to work on his computer. “Alright, I’ve closed the entire facility to automated trucking.” 

“We appreciate the cooperation,” says Junior. “You’ve made our job a whole lot easier.”  

“Of course, Agent Hoage,” says Newman. “And there’s one thing you can bank on.” 

“What’s that, Ms. Newman?”  

“I’m not going to jail to protect that lying weasel.”  

“By ‘lying weasel’ you mean Colton Hardgrave?”  

“You better believe I mean Colton Hardgrave.” 

Junior goes back outside with Tripley and Cardoza. He opens a communication link to the Zulu Team chopper, circling overhead. “Vanessa, the general manager is cooperating. They put the blue caps in sleep mode.” 

“Outstanding.”  

“Should we leave permanent deactivation to the salvage squad?”  

“No, let’s put ‘em down before we leave.” 

“Ten-four, boss.” 

The agents move through the warehouses deactivating blue caps as they’re encountered. They find the robots frozen in place, in whatever position they happened to be in when Liu pulled the plug. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Pop! Pop! Pop! 

Tripley enters a new building with Junior and Cardoza close behind. It’s a tall metal structure with high ceilings, illuminated by fluorescent lights and it’s windowless, with aisles full of various retail merchandise stacked high. Tripley is in the lead and the first blue cap she sees is stopped cold on a forklift. Pop! She nails it with her Annihilator. Cardoza finds another, frozen in place behind a boxed barbecue set on a pushcart. Pop! More fried circuit boards.  

Junior is starting to relax now. With the cooperation from the front office, the raid is going much smoother than he anticipated. We’ll have this thing wrapped up in no time, he thinks to himself… and then Rory speaks up: “Junior, I’m detecting active artificial lifeforms at the far end of the building.”  

“What type? Can you give me an ID?” 

There’s a pause and then Rory’s CGI lights back up: “They’re Andy Smith models, not blue caps.” Another pause and then: “I have positive identification – Robotamaton killer thugs. Two of them, armed with laser weapons.”  

Tripley snaps a fresh battery into place on her Annihilator. “Let’s hunt ‘em down and fry ‘em.” 

“They’re on the move,” says Rory. 

“What direction?” says Junior 

“They’re moving away from us… now I lost them. They’re gone.” 

“Where’d they go?”  

“I’m not sure.”  

The trio moves cautiously through the aisles towards the last location where Rory’s hardware picked up the KTs’ microwave signals. They pass by more blue caps in sleep mode but leave them untouched for now.  

Finally, they come to an alcove in the building. “This is the location where I lost them.” 

“What happened?” says Junior.  

“I’m analyzing.” Rory’s silent for a few moments and then, “I have it. There’s a concealed panel on the far wall in the alcove. It leads to an elevator.”  

“Can you open it?” 

“It appears to be electronically controlled. I’ll see if I can hack the password.” In less than fifteen seconds, Rory pulls it off. The panel slides open and reveals a cargo elevator.  

They board the elevator and Junior presses the down button. The utility car begins a slow descent. “When we get to the bottom, be ready for anything.”  

They drop to a lower floor, and the car comes to a stop. All three agents stand ready with their Annihilators as the door slides open, and they’re instantly stunned by what they see – there’s a whole platoon of UGR military grade andys standing in formation under the fluorescent lights. Luckily, they’re in sleep mode.  

“They’re dressed like soldiers,” says Cardoza.  

“Like the ones we found in Calexico and Cochise County,” says Junior. “Unidentified Generic Robots, military grade, and every one of them is carrying a laser weapon.” 

“How many you figure there are?” says Tripley.  

“At least a hundred, maybe more.”  

All the andys looks the same, like blue caps, but instead of the cobalt-colored ball caps with the Robotamaton logo, the UGRs wear camouflage fatigues and infantry helmets.  

The agents exit the elevator and step out on to the concrete floor. Rory speaks up: “Junior, I’m picking up those same two KTs again. They’re headed south through some type of passage at the other end of the room.”  

They move through the room cautiously, along a masonry wall, keeping a wary eye on the rows of UGRs in sleep mode. At the other end of the room, they find what appears to be a hallway, but when they enter it, they realize it’s a tunnel. It’s well-built with a concrete floor and occasional support beams. Electrical conduit runs along the ceiling to power fluorescent lights and fans. There’s a musty odor, they can tell they’re underground. They walk for a couple hundred yards, and it keeps going.  

“We’re still headed south?” says Junior to Rory. 

“Affirmative.” 

“Towards Mexico?”  

“My GPS says we’re now in Mexico. We just crossed under the border.” 

Junior opens a radio link to the Zulu Team chopper. “Vanessa, we discovered an underground chamber full of UGRs in sleep mode.”  

“That’s unexpected, I’d better notify Chuck.” 

“Yup, and that’s not all. We also found what appears to be an elaborate smuggling tunnel. We’re following it, and GPS says we just crossed into Mexico. Should we keep going?”  

There’s a pause and Junior looks towards his teammates. Tripley grins back at him broadly, like she’s having the time of her life. She has short brown hair and intense blue eyes. You can tell she spends a lot of time outdoors just by looking at her. 

Cardoza is eyeing the unexplored length of tunnel with an anxious expression, Annihilator ready, fiddling with the safety. He’s naturally wired, grew up in Jersey in the NYC burbs. 

Finally, Vanessa is back on the horn. “Chuck says go ahead and see where the tunnel leads, but exercise caution. He’s calling General Sheckley about the UGRs. Said he’ll get right back to me.” 

“Ten-four.”  

They continue walking and arrive at a heavy steel door. Tripley tries to open it, but it appears to be locked.  

Rory speaks up: “The lock is electronically controlled, but I should be able to hack it.”  

Within 15 seconds they hear the deadbolt slide open and Tripley tries it again. It’s unlocked now, and she cautiously pushes it open. They find themselves in a deserted mechanic’s shop. Shelves and cabinets are loaded with tools and various auto and truck parts. It smells like oil and grease but there’s no vehicles, the service bays are empty. 

“What’s the status on the KTs?” says Junior to Rory’s CGI.  

“They’re gone. I’m not picking up anything.”  

He nods towards an exterior door on the front wall of the garage. “Let’s have a look at where we are and then we better head back.”  

There’s daylight coming through the window. It’s next to the exterior door alongside one of the auto bays. They walk towards the door and Cardoza opens it. He steps through the passage and smiles. “Nogales, Mexico. Just like I pictured it.” 

Rory speaks up: “I’m picking up multiple KTs now. They’re in the building across the street, calibrating laser weapons pointed in our direction.” 

“Cardoza!” shouts Junior. “Get back inside!” 

…But he’s too late. Two laser blasts hit him simultaneously. One nails him in the breadbasket, the other takes off his head. He falls to the ground.  

“Holy shit!” cries Tripley.  

“We need to get out of here fast,” exclaims Junior, but Tripley is frozen in place, staring through the doorway at what’s left of Cardoza with a stunned expression on her face. “Tripley! C’mon, let’s go!” 

She snaps out of it and they rush back through the garage towards the tunnel. Another laser blast flashes through the door and hits a tall tool chest where Tripley was just standing. The thick neon yellow beam cuts an 8” diameter hole through the tool chest and keeps going, boring another hole through the cinder block wall at the back of the garage.  

Junior and Tripley begin hoofing it back through the tunnel, and Rory speaks up: “There’s six KTs coming after us now. All armed with laser weapons.”  

“They lured us into a trap,” says Junior. 

The agents pick up the pace. Sprinting through the tunnel, they make it back to the cargo elevator in less than a minute, out of breath and perspiring heavily in their rubberized suits. They climb on board and ride the elevator to the main floor of the warehouse.  

“Rory,” says Junior, “can you disable the lift’s electronics?”  

“Hit the control box with your Annihilator, it’ll be faster.”  

Junior shoots the control box with his weapon from a couple of feet away. The current connects and instantly fries it. Pop!  

They run outside and find the rest of the ground crew already boarding the helicopters. The blue caps are deactivated, and that part of the operation is a success. Tripley is the last one to board the Bravo Team chopper. 

Zulu bird is on the ground too, and Demetrius lifts off as quickly as Junior climbs aboard and takes his seat. 

“We were ambushed by KTs at the far end of the tunnel.” He pauses to catch his breath. “Wasted Cardoza. Lucky Tripley and I made it out.”   

Vanessa turns towards him in her co-pilot seat. “General Sheckley wants us to take out the UGRs. He authorized me to destroy the building with our UFIBs.”  

 “Rory picked up six KTs following us back through the tunnel, but I disabled the elevator. I hate like hell to leave Cardoza’s corpse, but we had to get out of there fast.” 

For the second time in a week, Junior’s lost a teammate to laser fire from Robotamaton killer thugs.  If it wasn’t for Rory’s hardware, they might have nailed me to, he thinks as Zulu bird gains elevation.  

Demetrius hovers above the complex of buildings as the rest of the choppers take off and clear the area.  

“What about the office workers?” says Junior from the crew seats in the back. 

“I evacuated them after talking to Sheckley.” Vanessa goes to work on her computer activating the UFIB weapons system. “They’re long gone.” 

The UGRs that Junior located are on a basement level below one of the big boxy metal buildings. Vanessa initiates the attack by firing a missile that denotates when it hits the roof. There’s a bright flash and when it clears, the grayish dust that was once the roof of the building floats down and accumulates on the main floor. Outside of the thirty-foot impact radius, the building is untouched, and she lights off another missile to clear the rest of the roof. 

Next, she targets the main floor. The missile detonates and when the bright flash clears, it exposes the lower level where the sleeping UGRs stand in rows. As the grayish dust that was once the main level floats down around them, a Robotamaton KT appears, average looks and dressed like a Glendale car salesman, pointing its laser weapon towards the chopper, calibrating coordinates, ready to fire.  

Quick on the Annihilator, Vanessa beats the andy to the draw and nails it with a bolt of high voltage electricity. Pop! More fried circuit boards. Another KT appears, as plain looking as the first. Before the machine can level its weapon, Vanessa activates her airborne Annihilator yet again. Pop! 

She takes out the rest of the main floor, and the remaining KTs hightail it back down the tunnel towards Mexico. Two more missiles and the UGRs are successfully destroyed. One final detonation seals the entrance to the cross-border tunnel. 

“Vanessa the Bogotá badass,” says Demetrius holding out his hand.  

“Nothing to it.” She slaps him five. “The computer does all the work.” 

“You’re way too modest.” 

She slides her seat back and lowers the backrest a bit. “Let’s head back to Phoenix, Demetrius, I have a dinner date tonight. We’ll let the salvage squad do the rest.” 

©2021 Surreal Science Fiction

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