By William A. Lasher
Vanessa sleeps 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, 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.
It’s the dawn of a brand-new day. The sunrise illuminates the rugged outline of the Superstition Mountains, and the pavement still feels warm from the extreme heat of the previous afternoon. One by one, the automated streetlamps begin to shut themselves off.
Vanessa has a different perspective on things as she runs down the streets and sidewalks of her suburban neighborhood. With Nancy deactivated, 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 deactivated, 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 about Hoage’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, then fell asleep on the floor, inches from her feet.
In the days following the car wreck and the installation of the tiny AI processor on the back of her head, she was in a mental fog and the machine was in control of her brain. The human Vanessa was still there, but she felt like she was trapped in a dark hole, trying to find her way out.
At that point, her AI controlled mind thought that changing her name was an appropriate action. The Peruvians still had the contract out on her life and with the organic Vanessa mired down in a state of mental confusion, the machine chose its own plain, generic sounding American name, Nancy Johnson.
Most of the brain damage she’d sustained in the car wreck was to her frontal and parietal lobes, and though the cells in those parts of her cerebral cortex could never grow back, other parts of her brain grew stronger to compensate for the loss. It took a few years, but as the alternate pathways became more lucid and integrated themselves with the enhanced AI, the human Vanessa began to regain her natural sentience.
Finally, she looked in the mirror one day and said, “Why in the name of Jesus did I change my name to Nancy?”
Not Ashley or Leanna, the machine named her Nancy. A generic Nancy Johnson.
Vanessa’s biggest complaint about Nancy is she has no interest in sex. The machine knows what sex is but has no sexuality.
The human Vanessa is in love with sex. She adores it. The chica is an authentic, hot-blooded Colombian and the truth is, she’s more interested in Hoage’s sister than she is in Hoage. No offense to the big guy. That’s just the real Vanessa. Unabashedly bisexual and kinky too.
In many ways, the old Vanessa is back. In her time off from being an AI Compliance Corps agent, she shuts off the processor and works at being her normal self. With the AI turned off, she’s coherent enough to hold a normal conversation and accomplish ordinary tasks such as driving to the grocery store, but at the same time, operating the advanced weapons system on the chopper would be impossible without help from Nancy.
With the AI activated, she’s easily the most intelligent person in AICC, but Nancy is a machine, and Vanessa wants to be in control of her own destiny. She knows it would be impossible to do her job with the AI turned off for good, but in doing simple things like watching football with Demetrius and Hoage, it’s a joy to switch off the processor and just be Vanessa again.
Would she be happier with a permanent disconnection? It would undoubtedly create problems, the biggest being she’d no longer be suited for her job. She could return to Bogotá, but then what? Without Nancy’s help, it might be hard to find any kind of meaningful work.
Her family would be happy to see her home in Colombia, there’s no doubt in her mind about that, but giving up on the AI would mean giving up on everything 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 Nancy off 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 Dr. Novachek 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. Vanessa turns on Nancy before she leaves for work, and she takes a couple of minutes to check out current news and weather. She 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 Juarez. 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.
Walking out to the carport, she finds Baxter Langford watching his Endeavatron as it paints an exterior wall on the recreation building. Baxter’s the property manager, he lives next door and they hit it off fast. He’s a few years younger and slightly effeminate. Vanessa thinks he would make a good cross-dresser, but so far, she’s kept the idea to herself. Someday she’ll talk him into putting on a skirt. Get him drunk first. She knows she could make him look passable.
“Your Endeavatron is a fast painter,” says Vanessa. 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.
“You bet I am,” replies the metallic contraption from its automated voice-box. When it speaks, orange LEDs light up in the shape of a mouth and eyes on an oval head that sits atop its oblong body.
“It’s fairly amazing,” says Baxter. He wears all white to stay cool in the desert heat, shorts, polo shirt, and athletic shoes. His long blonde hair is combed back in a tightly cinched ponytail. “The thing does perfect work.”
“You were expecting a substandard job?” The orange LEDs that form the machine’s mouth change from a square shape to a smile. One of its 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. Nakamura 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.
The Black Canyon Freeway is packed with southbound traffic and starts to gridlock by the time Hoage reaches Bell Road, so he switches on his levitation cycle’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 morning strategy meeting on Minus Five, so after returning to the pavement, he decides to stop at the Aphelion Cafe for breakfast. He pulls into the parking lot and cleans the bugs off his helmet’s face shield. He uses glass cleaner and a washable cloth that he carries in his saddlebag.
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 thief 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. A passing police car slows down and pulls in close to the curb. He recognizes Derek Taylor as the chunky Afro-American lowers the passenger side window to chat. “Agent Hoage, how’s it going today?”
“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 breakfast. 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 Hanes?”
“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, 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.”
“I’m headed down there after breakfast. 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 tactical 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 Fast-Food Herbie rolls out of the kitchen with his food. It’s a primitive robot that resembles a tacobot in appearance. Herbie 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 it speaks.
“Sausage and egg bagel for Mr. Hoage.” A door slides open, and a singular mechanical arm sets a plate on the table. “And a large coffee, no sugar.” The beverage compartment slides open, and the mechanical arm sets a disposable coffee cup down next to Hoage’s breakfast. “Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?”
“How ‘bout some ketchup?”
“Of course.” Fast-Food Herbie 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, Herbie.”
“Thank you, sir, and have a wonderful afternoon.”
As Hoage eats his breakfast, Rory brings up an internet news story on his tactical 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 40%, 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 needs 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 AI.
He’s had enough of the depressing internet news stories, so halfway through his breakfast sandwich, 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.
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 at 7:30 in the morning 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.
Vanessa 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, Vanessa switches on the bike’s maglev plant and goes airborne. She opens up the throttle as the machine creates its own antigrav 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 Hoage has just arrived from the north, and he’s landing his cycle on the rooftop helipad.
She circles around and comes in behind him. Rapidly decelerating, she pulls her bike up next to his and parks it. She slips off her helmet and finds a hairbrush in her saddlebag.
“Morning, Hoage. How was the ride in?” she says as she straightens out her long brown hair.
“Awesome. Had enough time for breakfast at the Aphelion.” 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 desty 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.
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, piloting Zulu Bird. 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,” then motions for them to head down the hallway to his office.
They find Burkheart at his desk watching the secret senate hearing on the 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 their chairs.
Senator Levi Gardner 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 a 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. “That’s a big ten-four, Chuck, 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 Hoage.
“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.”
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.
Partially obscured by morning smog, a hot amber sun is just clearing Piestewa Peak as the squadron lifts off with Zulu Bird 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 two 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 fine desert dust as they land inside the security fence. Enough to choke on.
Hoage 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 touchscreen on his tactical arm. Rory’s CGI gazes back at him silently.
“You’re in charge on the ground,” says Vanessa, turning in her co-pilot seat to make eye contact with Hoage.
“Roger that, 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 Hoage. They wear black rubberized coveralls and thick-soled boots 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.
“Unknown,” responds Hoage. “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.
“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. Hoage likes her spunk.
“Me,” says Miguel Cardoza, stepping forward. “I’m in too.”
The trio approaches the entrance to the administration building cautiously with Hoage 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.”
Hoage pulls the door open and steps inside. Three office workers are seated at their desks. A middle-aged woman stands at a window surveying the scene outside apprehensively. He looks to the touchscreen on his tactical 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.” 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 Hoage.
“Not a problem.” He goes back to work on his computer. “I’ve closed the entire facility to automated trucking.”
“We appreciate the cooperation,” says Hoage. “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.”
Hoage goes back outside with Tripley and Cardoza. He opens a communication link to Zulu Bird, circling overhead. “Vanessa, the general manager is cooperating. They put the blue caps in sleep mode.”
“Should we leave permanent deactivation to the salvage squad?”
“No, let’s put ‘em down before we leave.”
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.
Tripley enters a new building with Hoage 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. She nails it with her Annihilator. Cardoza finds another, frozen in place behind a boxed barbecue set on a pushcart, more fried circuit boards.
Hoage starts to relax. With the cooperation from the front office, the raid is going much smoother than he anticipated. They’ll have this thing wrapped up in no time. And then Rory speaks up. “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 then, “I have positive identification—Robotamaton killer thugs. Two of them.”
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 Hoage.
“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 Hoage.
“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 Hoage 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. 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 Hoage. “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 look 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 onto the concrete floor. Rory speaks up. “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 Hoage to Rory.
“My GPS says we’re now in Mexico. We just crossed under the border.”
Hoage opens a link to Zulu Bird. “Vanessa, we discovered an underground chamber full of UGRs in sleep mode.”
“That’s unexpected, I’d better notify Chuck.”
“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 Hoage looks towards his teammates. Tripley grins back at him broadly, like she’s having the time of her life. Hoage likes her intense blue eyes. He 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 calls back. “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.”
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 Hoage to Rory’s CGI.
“They’re gone. I’m not picking up anything.”
He nods towards an exterior door at the front. “Let’s have a look at where we are and then we better head back.”
There’s daylight coming through a window. It’s next to the 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 weapons pointed in our direction.”
“Cardoza!” shouts Hoage. “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 Hoage, 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 a hole through the tool chest and keeps going, boring another hole through the cinder block wall at the back of the garage.
Hoage and Tripley begin hoofing it back through the tunnel, and Rory speaks up. “There’s four KTs coming after us now. All armed with laser weapons.”
“They lured us into a trap,” says Hoage.
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 Hoage, “can you disable the lift’s electronics?”
“Hit the control box with your Annihilator, it’ll be faster.”
Hoage shoots the control box with his weapon from a couple of feet away. The current connects and instantly fries it.
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 Hoage 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 four 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, Hoage’s lost a teammate to laser fire from Robotamaton killer thugs. If it wasn’t for Rory’s hardware, they might have killed him too.
Zulu Bird gains altitude, then 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 Hoage 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 Hoage 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, 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. 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.
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. “Let’s head back to Phoenix, Demetrius, I have a dinner date tonight. We’ll let the salvage squad do the rest.”
Burkheart calls Octavius Bartley, commander of the regional AICC salvage squad, the cleanup crew for deactivation events. He’s seated in his office, a cavernous industrial space with a bare concrete floor, his face eerily illuminated by a lone shaft of daylight from a high window. The slump block building is next to the gate at the government incinerator where deactivated illicit androids are melted for scrap. It’s ten miles southwest of Gila Bend, in a remote stretch of desert where toxic fumes from the incinerator can safely dissipate into the atmosphere.
Bartley is a large, barrel-chested man with a shaved head, and a thick black mustache. He has two partially deconstructed blue caps on a worktable behind him, and Burkheart, on his Feature Screen, can see one of the half-disassembled robot heads vacantly staring back at him. The work area is littered with various android body parts—arms, legs, and more than one blue cap “brain,” the advanced AI processor that’s inside every one of their hard plastic skulls.
Burkheart appears larger than life on Bartley’s wall mounted screen. “Good afternoon, Octavius.”
“Hello, Chuck. How did things go in Nogales?”
“The Global Mart administrator cooperated with Hoage, and the operation went off without a hitch. At first anyway. Then things turned dicey when they discovered a hidden basement with a regiment of sleeping UGRs.”
“No. Sheckley had Vanessa destroy the building with UFIBs.”
“Do we need to evacuate the dust?”
“Yeah. Vacuum it up and burn it, but before you do, test it for toxicity—radioactivity and heavy metals etc. Research and development says the residue is harmless, but it’s brand-new technology, so let’s play it safe.”
“Okay. I’ll check a sample before we burn it, and prepare an analysis for R and D.”
“I appreciate the extra effort, Octavius.”
“All in a day’s work.”
“After Hoage’s team found the UGRs, they also discovered a cross-border tunnel that led to an automotive shop in Mexico. They were attacked by KTs and we lost Cardoza.”
“Affirmative. Vanessa thinks she successfully sealed the tunnel with a UFIB, but you better double-check it. I’d make sure your andys are carrying their Annihilators.”
“Always. My ground crew never leaves the ship without them.”
“It’s getting late, you can put if off until morning if you want.”
“No, I’d rather work at night in this heat.”
Most of the salvage squad personnel are automated lifeforms, ADU security sentry models manufactured in Palo Alto. Though each one has a unique appearance and was given an individual name at the factory, they’re not as advanced as an ultimate companion or a Robotamaton Andy Smith model. A security sentry can vocally relate information when instructed to but does not initiate back and forth conversation with its owner, and like a blue cap, it’s easy to pick one out of a crowd.
Bartley and Tyler Lewis, his pilot and tech expert, are the only humans in the unit. Lewis is younger, in his early twenties with a slight build and a mop top of curly red hair. He’s an introverted loner, and Bartley nicknamed him Little Orphan Annie, to try and lighten things up and draw him out of his shell. They’re the only mortal men on the remote base, and Octavius wishes he could get more conversation out of him. Lewis knows nothing about sports, is petrified around women, and refuses to go to the local tavern and drink beer.
The salvage squad airship is an immense hovercraft with an open cargo bin like a gigantic dump truck. Bartley nicknamed it the Tub, and the sobriquet stuck. With a top speed of about eighty miles per hour, it’s much slower than a jet-powered chopper. When they’re traveling, the sight of the unusual craft is enough to make people pull off to the side of the road and snap photos. The Tub has the girth of a whale, and it’s as long as a 747.
They reach Nogales at sundown, and seated in his pilot chair on the bridge, Lewis activates powerful work lights mounted along the underside of the ship. The directional beams illuminate the deserted Global Mart distribution facility with bright white light. Next, he awakens the eighteen andys that comprise the crew. In sleep mode, the ADU security sentries are packed into an elongated storage compartment to conserve onboard space, but now that they’re activated, they don rocket belts, and one by one, fly down to the surface. Wearing rubberized combat suits, their helmets are equipped with lights, and each one carries an Annihilator.
The andys are programmed with floor plans of the various buildings and every deactivated blue cap is highlighted on the plan by a flashing blue light. The security sentries carry and/or drag each blue cap out into an open area, where Lewis can pick them up. He uses a jointed mechanical arm with claws on the end to snatch up each one and then deposits the deactivated blue cap into the Tub’s cargo bin. He controls the mechanical arm with a touch pad that’s linked to a program on his computer.
Bartley has a captain’s chair with his own computer monitor, but he spends most of his time on his feet. He watches the operation through a pair of binoculars, and then stands behind Lewis and watches over his shoulder as the younger tech expert manages the ground crew on his screen.
“Looks like you’re falling behind there, Annie.” The blue caps are piling up at the drop-off location in the parking lot.
“Yeah, there’s well over a hundred of them.” He partially turns towards Octavius in his seat. “Watch this, I’ll get the andys to help.”
A pair of the security sentries pick up one of the blue caps by either arm. They activate their rocket belts, fly towards the hovercraft, and then drop the disabled robot into the bin. Meanwhile, an additional pair picks up another one by its feet and repeats the procedure. Lewis continues with the mechanical arm, and before long, most of the deactivated blue caps are loaded up and ready for the trip back to Gila Bend.
Bartley uses a drone mounted camera to zoom in on the former location of the tunnel entrance. He inspects it thoroughly to make certain Vanessa sealed it off adequately. It looks like the UFIB blast did the trick and he makes a note of it.
Before they leave, Lewis drops a large diameter vacuum hose down to the surface, and a pair of the andys help him suck up the fine gray dust that was left over from the UFIB blasts.
The mop up operation is complete and the andys use their rocket belts to fly back up to the ship. Once they board it, they repack themselves into the storage compartment, and Lewis returns them to sleep mode.
Back at home base in Gila Bend, Lewis backs the Tub up to a hopper and dumps the deactivated blue caps. The robot carcasses slide down a long chute to a processing area where an automated mechanical arm picks them up and feeds them into the incinerator one by one. It takes a couple of hours to burn them all and the appalling odor of scorched electronics permeates the warm desert night.