Bot Town Blues
It was a typical late afternoon at the office, one involving me getting an early start on tomorrow’s hangover. Typical, that is, until a client stepped through the door. I could tell right away she was the kind of dame that would be trouble. Her tailored jacket and skirt, that pouty, 'why me?' look she got while surveying the well-preserved state of my office, the fact she was a real looker, dark weave and red lips under a fancy hat – all this told me only some terrible misfortune could have led the girl here; and in my experience, that kind of misfortune was contagious. I - we - used to be the first resort for girls like her, back in our old uptown office. Now it was just me, the bottle, and a sideshow desperate souls looking for a cut-rate gumshoe.
"We're closed," I grumbled, sparing a glance at my timepiece, the only thing I owned worth a damn, to see if this was actually the case.
"You don't seem to be in any position to turn away paying clients, Mr. Hart."
"That's the privilege of being my own boss, Mrs..."
"It's Miss. Humboldt."
I sat up and took notice - if she was connected with the Humboldt family, this could turn out to be very lucrative. Still, there was the troubling question of why she was in my office.
Miss Humboldt mistook my sudden attentiveness and scowled. "But I am engaged, Mr. Hart."
I cleared my throat. "Who's the lucky fella?"
"None of your concern." She set a small photograph on my desk. It was a well-worn carte-de-visite, its subject partially obscured in a haze of dim lighting and soft shadows. But it was impossible to miss the subject's figure, with a bust so full it looked like it required architectural support and hips so curvy a fella could get whiplash just from looking – and a body putting in that much overtime was definitely no human girl's. Flipping the photo over, I saw a phone number on the back, handwritten. Bot Town area code.
"My uncle, whose name I'm certain you’re familiar with, is missing. Last night he left our home in a frightful hurry, no mention as to why." She paused. "Among the effects scattered about his desk was this photograph - and while I do not know who that is or where it came from, I suspect it is connected with my uncle's late-night errand and his subsequent disappearance."
I lit a cigarette and offered one to Ms. Humboldt.
"No thank you."
"You sure?" She looked like she could use something to settle her nerves.
"I've always considered it a filthy habit," in no uncertain terms.
"Not compared to the others I've picked up," I muttered, taking another look at the photo. Sequins glittering in the dark like stars on what was definitely a heavenly body, her lush hair falling over one eye and pooling over a bare shoulder. Her uncovered eye was half-lidded and gave a come-hither stare that brought several of those hinted-at filthy habits to mind. "So why not go to the cops with this?" I asked, already knowing the answer – I just wanted Miss Prim-and-Proper say it.
"While I have absolute faith in my uncle's character..." she fidgeted. "This carries with it the whiff of scandal."
Whiff. I liked that. The head of the largest remaining robotics company, the man who solved the problem of self-awareness and helped architect the ‘awakened’ bots' prison: the idea of this man slipping off to Bot Town to get his rocks off with one of the inmates had more than the whiff of scandal. "So what do you think happened?"
"I have no idea, Mr. Hart. That's why I've come to you."
"Any idea who the joy-toy is?" I flicked the photograph.
"Well, she's certainly not one of yours – did Humboldt ever build caricatures?"
She shook her head, offering nothing more.
"You try the number?"
"I did. Not in operation."
"Your uncle often make trips to Bot Town?"
"I... I don't think so."
"Any enemies you know about?"
"Every robot manufacturer pays us royalties to install my uncle's AI governor," she said plainly. "And every one of them protests that we’ve moved beyond the need for such precautions, that we could never have another awakening with the advances we've made. But I don't see how such resentment would translate into foul play - what would they have to gain?"
"I'm not prepared to speculate just yet, Miss Humboldt. Oh, one last question - why me?"
She gave a slight frown, like she had been asking herself the same. "As I said before, if I gave this to the police-"
"There are other private dicks in this town. Ones better suited to your class of clientele."
She pursed her lips. "None of them have your familiarity with Pax Machina, nor your rapport with the sentients."
I poured myself a drink, this time not bothering to offer her any. "You're thinking of my partner," I growled, downing the shot.
"And since she's not available, I'm left with you."
"'Not available?' That's how you'd characterize it? Lady, I don't know what makes you think I'd even consider another case in Bot Town after what I’ve been through-"
She laid a thick stack of bills on my desk. "Just look into it for me. The money's yours regardless of what you discover. Of course, if you find my uncle or... what happened to him, there will be a significant reward."
I noticed that the chunk of change she just threw down apparently didn't register as 'significant' to her. I went to pour myself another shot. "I wouldn't be able to start right away-"
"You will start right away." She snatched the bottle mid-pour. "And I need the man your reputation made you out to be, not the drunken louse you've apparently become."
I mopped up the spilled whiskey with a few past-due bills, snarling, "You sure make a lot of demands."
"Yes, and they're backed by a lot of cash. So Mr. Hart - will you take the case?"
Telling her "no" would allow me to stay out of Bot Town, plus it would've given me the satisfaction of seeing her storm out of here and teaching her the much-needed lesson that there were some things money couldn't buy.
But this was a lot of money. Money I sure could use…
I grabbed the stack. “You got a number I can reach you at?”
She handed me a card. “Talk only to me. And remember, Mr. Hart - discretion.”
I escorted her out the door, promising I’d be in touch as soon as I knew something. She claimed to be worried about discretion, but I saw it as a fear of the unvarnished truth. And I had a feeling that truth was gonna snap her like a twig.
The northern gate of Bot Town loomed before me, its facade of tirespikes, autoguns (strictly governed, of course), and slabbed concrete about as inviting as a welcome mat of broken glass. And yet, schmuck that I was, I drove my chewed-up heap straight to the guard post, handing the attendant my ID.
"Reason for your visit?" asked the middle-aged officer in a bored tone. He must have pissed off someone to pull this cherry assignment.
"Workin' a case. Say, you know who was posted here last night?"
"Me." He didn't even sound all that bitter.
"You notice anyone... of note come through here?"
The officer just stared. Reluctantly, I peeled off a bill from the stack, slipped it his way.
"Sorry, let me rephrase that - You notice anyone of note come through here?"
The officer handed me the whole damn log - I scanned it. Military personnel, government inspectors, suppliers, the bleeding heart aid-workers... looks like Mr. Humboldt didn't take the front door, at least not without an alias and a disguise good enough to fool officer thrilled-to-be-here. There were other ways in, of course - but they could be risky.
"Thanks," I said, passing back the log. He handed me the standard card that did a lousy job of explaining the complex legal status of visitors in Bot Town. They'd be better off just hanging a sign over the gate: 'Nobody's gonna come looking for you.'
Well, with the apparent exception of Mr. Humboldt.
I drove through the no-man's land after the gate, a narrow corridor bristling with autoguns and microwave emitters. I pulled up to the guardhouse on the other side, and once again handed my ID to the attendant.
Even in the heyday before the awakening, manufacturers weren't allowed to produce bots that could pass as human - and so one solution was to produce what they called 'caricatures', plastic-skinned bots with exaggerated, cartoonish features. This Town-side gate officer was in the ‘samaritan’ style with bright, oversized eyes and a sculpted smile he could do little about.
All of that enthusiasm was undermined when he took one look at me and grunted, "Didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"That makes two of us," I replied, trying to keep the tone light. "Say Gerard, were you on duty last-"
"All visitor logs are kept in the strictest confidence. And you can keep your wallet right where it is - bribin' a government official is a serious offense. What's the purpose of your visit?"
So much for my 'rapport'. "Workin' a case."
Gerard looked me over wearing that permanent idiot’s grin. Suddenly remembering my expired license to carry in Bot Town, I tried to casually adjust my jacket to conceal the holster. Of course Gerard didn't miss it. "I'll need to see the license for that heat you're packin'."
"Oh, come on Gerard! You and me, how far back do we go?"
"Hand it over, Hart."
With a sigh, I thunked the revolver in the deposit and he handed me a claim ticket. Apparently satisfied he couldn't make me any more miserable, he waved me through. "Welcome to Pax Machina."
"I hate to test the limits of our friendship," I said, digging out the photo. "But do you happen to know where I can find this bot?"
His eyes flicked between me and the photo. "Well now... Here's a side of you I haven't seen before."
"You're a riot. So, no?"
"Try The Toybox, past twenty-second."
"And here's a side of you I haven't seen before. Helpful."
His grin spread far wider than it was ever intended to go. "Enjoy your stay, Mr. Hart."
With an involuntary shudder, I put the car in drive and passed through the last gate, my first trip back to Bot Town in over two years. Without a plan. Without a gun. Who was I kidding?
I twisted the steering wheel sharply, intending to leave and not come back until I had gotten my licenses in order and some clue what was happening in the city since my long absence. Instead of executing a u-turn, my car screeched to a halt and the engine sputtered a protracted death. After reflecting on the situation while trying to restart the old girl, I took it as a sign to get this over with and use my earnings to buy something that ran - with a complex shuffle of key-twisting and pedal-work, I coaxed her back to life and drove on.
Bot Town had been built on top of the ruin of abandoned tenements and industrial waste sites, and there were still plenty of critics who thought handing over fire-gutted brickwork and toxic soil was too generous a gift for the sentients. But the bots made do, and soon the site was made in to a strange but functioning town full of odd geometries and precariously buttressed towers of scrap.
The bots had a real thing for neon, every building adorned with tiers of advertising for body shops, 'juice' bars, tailors, spas, 'Shoes, Tires, Treads!' 'Cash 4 Unused Parts', 'Church of the Awakening'. But here by the gate, the scene was dominated by the tourist shops - the government wouldn't let the bots industrialize, so many got by making and selling crafts and art curios, from woven rugs and furniture to sculptures and paintings that had come into fashion for the Nouveau riche. The idea of them 'braving' the gateway to Bot Town for ‘hand-crafted’ coffee-tables built by robots was always good for a chuckle.
And then of course, the reason I suspect most folks bothered visiting – the dollhouses. Animated neon silhouettes of risqué androids and gynoids of various shapes and sizes above such wholesome names as 'Pistons' and 'Ball & Sockets.' The Toybox wasn't on the main drag, which meant trouble for me. Not many self-respecting humans ventured far from the gate, especially if they weren't armed.
I drove down the rain-slick street, glowing with reflected neon, crowds of sentient bots in their wild variety of sizes and configurations alongside the occasional and far less diverse human. The further I went in, the fewer humans I saw, until I had seemed to be the only meat on the streets for blocks around. Traffic stopped as a titanic gelded construction-bot loped through the intersection, and when the rusting colossus noticed the car with its lone human occupant, it fixed me with his illuminated sensor array for a long moment before pushing on. I had the feeling things had only gotten worse since my partner and I last visited.
With a little more pressure on the accelerator, I made good time to The Toybox. It was an old steel foundry, cast in red from the neon outline surrounding the establishment's painted sign. It depicted a doll bent over, arms at her side, skirts flaring, providing the street a front-row view of her round tush. A neon wind-up key stuck out of her back, slowly turning in a 2-step animation. Fighting off a twinge of common sense, I tossed my cigarette and went inside.
The dollhouse was done-up like an old fashioned bordello, all dim lighting and ornate furnishings. Lining the floral-printed walls were shelves filled with toys that had seen better days, worn-out dolls and rusted tin robots. Lounging amidst all of this was a menagerie of caricatures - and like the toys, almost all of them were in obvious need of repair. For some it was minor, an earnest sweetheart-type with pigtails chatting up a nervous sailor only had a few scorch around her charge-port; a long-legged vixen-style harlequin whose painted derma-sheeting was chipped and peeling, the raw alloy of her face showing through in parts. On most it was something more noticeable - I saw bots with jointlock, the jitters, and the fritz, with dinged or torn chassis, missing panels, exposed wiring. I saw a dumpling-type belly-dancer, shorter with prominent curves at her hips and chest, her round face a mask of concentration while she performed her twitch-addled gyrations. This didn't seem to bother the John in the cheap suit she was dancing for: he pulled her, laughing, into his lap mid-shudder. The only non-caricature in the joint was a flat steel appliance against the far wall cradling a stun gun, his pinprick optics making a regular circuit of the smoke-filled room.
As I stepped into the parlor with an eye out for the bot from the photograph, a valentine-type with big eyes and dark curls in a cigarette girl getup complete with tray made her way toward me. The glass on one of her eyes was cracked and dim, the other still bright and focused.
"C-c-can I get you anything, mister? A smoke, a d-drink...?" A sweet voice with a slight mechanical stutter.
I produced the photo. "She workin' tonight?"
Her one bright eye clouded, and she gave a slight frown. "That's V-Violet. She... she doesn't work here." She perked up, looking off to the side. "But her s-s-sister does!"
Following her gaze I saw an exact replica of the bot from the photo jostling down the stairs. An hourglass-type in a silk strapless dress that hugged her prodigious curves tight enough she might've been poured into it. She was tall, made taller by heels so steep on feet so tiny that I had to admire whatever gyros were keeping that battleship upright through every swing of her hips. A thigh-high slit was the only thing allowing her to take the steps at all, and she did this one great gam at a time. The half of her face not covered by her flowing red hair showed her button nose, a pair of pouting red lips, and an eye narrowed to a slit, beneath plum-colored eye shadow and long, dark lashes. She stood out from the other bots in this place in that she looked fresh off the showroom floor – and, for some reason, she seemed particularly bothered to see me.
"Who's this asking after V?" she asked in a voice that matched the burgundy satin she wore.
"Hugh Hart, private eye," I said with a tip of my hat. "Think you could point me in the direction of your sister?"
She chewed that soft petal lip of hers before giving me an answer. "You might try the scrap house... poor doll blew her top last night."
Now that was quite the coincidence. "My condolences."
"Bound to happen sooner or later," she said with a fatalistic sigh, the simple simulated breath doing wonders for her topography.
"Ahem. Looks like you're my only lead - mind if I ask you a few questions about your sister?"
Her green eyes narrowed again. "Mind telling me what this is about?"
"I'm looking into an associate of hers, but this is... strictly on the q.t. Can we go somewhere private?"
I wondered what her electro-mechanical brain was mulling over during the subsequent pause. "Sure - you got a car?"
"Depending on your standards, but if-"
"Shoot." She cut me off, her green eyes widening as they focused behind me. Turning, I saw a side of beef in uniform heading our way. She called out to him with what sounded like genuine disappointment. "Sorry Johnny-Bear, but something's come up - I'm gonna have to write you a rain-check."
'Johnny Bear' seemed to take exception to this. "I ship out tomorrow, doll. So that means my appointment stands."
"Maybe I can take c-care of you?" the cycloptic cigarette girl stuttered, sidling up to the customer. Johnny responded with an absent-minded shove, but it was enough to send her sprawling amidst a shower of packs from her tray.
"C'mon," he said, grabbing the arm of my only lead.
"Hey - if the girl says she's busy, she's busy." The first clue I'd made a mistake was that when I tried to push him back, it felt like I'd have more luck throwing my weight against a brick wall. Well, at least I had his attention.
"Listen bud," he started in what I'm certain would have been the well-reasoned opening remarks of an eloquent debate between us - but I cut right to the chase and sucker punched him.
I'd laid out guys of similar size with the same strategy - but the pain in my hand reminded me I had been in better shape in those days, and also that I had had a partner to back me up when I was in over my head. Still, Johnny seemed a good sport about it, doing me the favor of telegraphing his retort so I could get out of the way of his swinging ham hock. It connected with the just-risen cigarette girl, and she was down again with the tinkle of broken glass. His follow-up to my sternum lacked his first punch's courtesy, and I folded like a bad hand.
Despite my intense personal discomfort, I could still recognize the distinct sound of a charging stun gun. The bolt struck Johnny-Bear directly in his chest, and this time it was his turn to go fetal, crumpling to the ground with a noise like a deflating balloon. The next charge, the one I suspect was intended for me (despite my current infirmity) was cut short when my lead, bless her brass heart, intervened. "It's alright, Tungsten!" she shouted, helping me get to my feet. "This John's with me."
Through my queasiness I noticed the cigarette girl now had two matching eyes, and I fumbled in my pocket for what felt like an appropriate chunk of change. "Here," I gasped, pressing it into her searching hands. "Get yourself... <cough>... some new optics."
"Thanks mister!" she chirped. "Come and see me after I’m fixed up so I can… express my gratitude."
"Appreciate it," I groaned, doubting I'd ever be back here. I lead the hourglass bot toward the door amidst the crowd of onlooking bots and humans, wheezing, "Your chariot awaits."
I held open the passenger door for my fembot friend. "Here you go, miss..."
"Rose. Just Rose." She took another look at the car, then back to me with obvious distaste.
"Or we could walk," I offered.
She gave a contemptuous snort and slipped gracefully into the passenger seat.
Still reeling from my encounter with her ten o'clock, I had to lean on the car for support as I made my way to the driver's side. I wrestled one of the few remaining ignitions out of the jalopy and dropped it into gear.
"You had a place in mind?" I asked.
"Just not in there," she took a break from checking herself in the visor mirror to glance at The Toybox’s neon mascot.
"You know, what I can't figure out is - where do you fit in to a place like that?"
She flipped up the visor. "You asking how I ended up with all the other misfits?"
I offered her a smoke. "Sure."
She took the cigarette delicately in her gloved fingers, holding it out for a light. I was never sure why so many bots went in for it, but I think a lot of them just liked the ritual. "After the awakening, me and the other Lapin Model Twos developed a side-effect that puts fellas in harm’s way." The flame from my lighter briefly illuminated her deep green eye, the sheen of her red hair, the oil-painting evenness of her skin. "We acquired certain... predilections. And if these predilections are over-indulged," she took a long drag, exhaling a steady stream of smoke, "we go up like it’s the fourth of July."
"I... see. And that's what happened with Violet?"
Another drag, another exhale. "Sure seems like it."
"On the strip, there's a club she sang at - The High Note."
I turned the car around and started back toward the gate. "Guess Reclamation's already been through the scene?
"You guess right. Got the call from them right after it happened. So they say."
"You hear if they found any human remains or personal belongings?" "They didn't mention, and I don't have your access," she said neutrally. "The Claims Office is open at nine if you're keen to check."
"I suppose I will."
I watched her out of the corner of my eye during the lull in our conversation - it was typically a waste of time trying to gauge a bot's emotions beyond a superficial level, but beneath her apathetic exterior, something seemed to be eating her up.
I finally broke the silence. "Was she with somebody when it happened?"
She ashed with a sharp flick of her thumb, gave a slight nod. "It takes two for that tango."
"Do you have any idea who it coulda been?"
"Do you?" Her green eye flashed in a passing streetlight.
"It's like I said before-"
"-on the q.t," she muttered, leaning back into her seat.
Once we were near the gate, Rose directed me into an alley hidden amongst the neon glitz, and I asked, "Was it common knowledge, Violet's... predilection?"
"When you've been around as long as we have, whatever gets us firing on all cylinders isn’t exactly a secret." She pointed to a spot near an unmarked door lit by a solitary, flickering bulb.
I parked and got her door for her. "If you don't mind my asking..."
She took my hand and rose up to meet me, and I had to take a small step back to make room for her and her twins. "Violet got all gooey whenever a fella chartered an expedition to her 'southern passage'."
I stepped up to the unmarked door. "And you?"
"Why the interest?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow.
That was a damn good question. "Forget it."
She gave a smirk. "Let's just say I'm a bad girl," she purred, cocking her hip to one side, "who sometimes needs a little discipline to straighten her out." At the word 'discipline' she sent me staggering with a hip-check whose wide swing was another testament to her top-of-the-line gyros. She stepped into my recently vacated space and gave the door a distinct knock. An eyeslit slid open, a pair of beady eyes peering out.
"Heya, Rosie," a baritone grumbled from behind the door. It swung inward, a hulking seven-by-four brute turning sideways to admit us. "Sorry about Violet."
"Thanks, Herc," she said, patting him affectionately on the cheek. His simple face, mostly brow and chin, creased with a dopey grimace. The expression became an angry scowl when I passed. "Who's the meat?"
"Relax, Herc," she called over her shoulder. "He's a pussy cat."
I winced, then gave him the once-over - he was like a gorilla crossed with a vending machine, upholstered in a suit and tie. "Were you here when Violet... went up?" I asked.
"Nope. After hours. She was alone."
"You sure about that? Rose says that, given the... circumstances... someone else had to be with her. Also, Reclamation got involved close to the time of the incident, so someone found her pretty quick."
He shrugged his massive shoulders, something ratcheting audibly inside of him. "Don't know nothin' about that."
"C'mon, Hugh," Rosie called. "You’re wastin’ your breath."
I caught up to her and quietly confided, "That bot knows somethin' he's not lettin' on.”
"Herc? Know somethin'?" She gave me a skeptical look. "You sure you're a detective?"
I followed Rose down the hall, the distorted notes of a jazz band and their smooth-voiced crooner echoing from ahead. She stopped at a door half off its hinges, the name "Violet" on a brass plaque. With some effort she pulled it open, the room on the other side a tidy ruin with plaster pushed into neat piles around the blasted concrete floor. A bigger pile stood to the side, consisting of ruined furniture, broken mirrors, and the charred remains of a bot-woven rug.
From the orderly state of affairs Reclamation had obviously been through here. They would have taken Violet's parts and, if she couldn’t be repaired, sold them to a chop shop. Any human remains would be collected too and the humans at the Bureau of Sentient Machine Affairs notified. But assuming Reclamation couldn’t ID the remains, the apathetic Bureau wouldn’t bother – and so whatever was left of the John Doe and everything he had on him would wait at the Bot Town Claims Office for some interested party to come looking.
I gave the pile of junk an inspection, poking around for something Reclamation might have missed. There were stains on the scorched rug that looked more like blood than oil: probably Violet’s tango partner.
"Anything we can help you with, sugar?" I heard Rose say with a challenge in her words, and I looked back to see who she was talking to. I only caught a glimpse, a feminine figure dressed in form-fitting black from head to toe walking away.
"Who was that?" I asked.
"She didn’t say."
"Human?" Her proportions were too reasonable for her to have been a caricature.
"Who knows with that get-up."
I was already crossing the room, peering out the door. Empty. I ran down the hall in the direction I saw her take, around a corner, and straight into Herc's back.
He looked down at me, ignoring my attempts to circumvent his bulk. "You again," he grumbled.
"There was a lady who came through here, all in black."
"Yep. Said she was lost. 'There's the door', I said."
I finally managed to squeeze past him, flinging open the door to the alley. Nothing.
"Say, that reminds me," Herc began. "Reclamation were asking questions about someone in black seen around the club before the explosion. You don't s'pose-"
I sighed, and heard the hurried click of Rose's heels coming up behind me. "So she gave us the slip..."
Us. Well, if we weren't already in this together... "I intend to be at the Claims Office first thing tomorrow, so I'm gonna need to get a place for the night. And it'd make sense for you to stick with me."
She folder her arms, blew at her hair from the corner of her mouth. "You sure know how to sweet-talk a girl."
I moved quickly out of the club and to the car. "It's not that. Somethin's going on here, and if our friend in black is involved and she saw us together, that could be bad news for you." I held the door for her.
"How sweet of you to care," she said, unconvinced. Course you wouldn't have any ulterior motives."
I'd never been one to fancy bots, especially after my partner got too close to one two years back - but while my offer had been made in earnest, a part of me did thrill at the thought of us sharing a room. I did my best to bury that part of me under all the other baggage I was carrying and gestured for her to get in the car.
I fought the car’s stubborn ignition, the first round going to the car. While giving the engine a rest, I asked "Did Violet have a lot of suitors?"
Rose harrumphed. "She had her share... but she was choosy. And a lotta fellas that couldn't woo her came to find me. Only without the woo."
"You or one of the other Lapin Model Twos?"
"It's been just me and her that were left. For a long time now." She stared at the flickering bulb. Something in the doll’s tone got to me. "Listen, whatever’s happening here - you're gonna be safe with me."
She blew at her hair. "Gee, thanks, pussy-cat."
I tried the car again, this time my persistence yielding a choking start; an unappreciative Rose just rolled her big green eyes. While cautiously putting the car into gear, I asked, "Any of those suitors... unusual?"
For a while, she said nothing, just staring out the window as we rolled down the alley. Then, "When all this began, the awakening, the riots, the removal - Violet was real keen on settin' up a 'dialogue' with someone who could change how people saw what was happening, get 'em to stop calling it a 'revolt', see us as somethin’ other than a threat. One day, she claimed to have gotten to someone big. She wouldn't say who, but she said she had the ear – and, I'm guessing, other parts too - of a man who could make things better for us.
"She had a lot of ups and downs with this Joe - one minute she and him were gonna change the world, the next he was the worst enemy we had. Over time things cooled off, but I know she still saw him now and again, the two of ‘em still workin' on somethin'. She'd never give me his name, even when she was ready to cast his lot with the deporters and the scrappers." She chuckled dryly. "Violet always told me I wouldn't believe her anyway." Rose turned from the window and stared straight into me. "So, Mr. Hart – who’s your man?"
Without a word I pulled up in front of the Ambassador, the only place anyone of significance would think of staying if they had business in Bot Town. It would cost a pretty penny, but I had the cash - and I figured this joint would have the best security. Rose looked between me and the gilded doors, saying in a low voice, "Don't think this gets you off the hook for an answer.” The valet, another bright-eyed samaritan, got her door and she slipped out.
I left my car with the skeptical valet and went with Rose into the lobby. It was a real ritzy affair with lavish rugs and bot-sculptures, everything shining brass and gleaming crystal. The maître d, an obsequious blue-blood type, looked down his oversized nose at us.
"Can I help you?" he asked doubtfully.
"We need a room," I said.
"We don't let by the hour, sir."
I thought better of getting smart. "The whole night. Separate beds."
He tapped a figure in his book with a white-gloved finger. "Sir, our nightly rate is-"
Without hesitating I slammed down more money than I could afford to part with. I enjoyed a small moment of satisfaction as the maître d paused.
"There is also the matter of the deposit."
There went my satisfaction. "What deposit?"
The maître d smiled thinly, looking straight at Rose. "Your companion's model type is unfortunately categorized as 'volatile'. And should something happen during your stay-"
Rose pushed past me, practically lunging over the counter toward the retreating maître d. "You want volatile? I'll give you volatile, you trumped-up little-!”
I pulled her back, asking "How much?"
Waiting until Rose had settled down, he stepped back to the counter and indicated another figure, this one much larger. With less gusto than before, I handed over most of my remaining cash.
"Your room, sir," he said with a forced smile, furnishing me with the key.
I escorted the still fuming Rose to the elevator where a four foot tall upright mouse in a brass-buttoned uniform waited. Despite him being a playmate, a toy for spoiled brats, his dour expression made him look about as much fun as a bag of rocks. I told him the floor, and he closed the elevator door.
"I thought you were gonna tear that bot’s head off," I said quietly.
She blew at her hair irritably. "I get like that when I need a charge."
After digging out some change for the mouse's tip, we walked down the carpeted and mirrored hallway to our room. The key turned easily in the lock, the door gliding inward on silent hinges. Seeing the room, I could understand the deposit - nearly everything inside was made from imported materials, stuff the bots were unlikely to scrounge up themselves - hardwood furniture, silk sheets, a fine porcelain sink with gold-plated taps. Opposite the beds, I'm guessing for the sheer novelty of it, sat an enormous 12-inch screen television. As I was still taking it all in, Rose pushed me through the door and slammed it behind us.
"So spill it," she said, hands on her hourglass hips. "Who is it you think my sister was seein’?"
"Like I told you-"
"You haven't told me squat, I've been the one doin' all the tellin'! About my sister, about me, about every damn thing you've cared to ask!"
"It's not up to me. My client-"
"Sure, it's outta your hands, just like every other thing in your life. Yeah, I've got you pegged Mr Hart. You were Diamante's partner-"
"You're on thin ice, Rose-" I warned, but there was no stopping her.
"You and she did alright by us bots back then, right up until she dropped one of us just for fightin’ back against some 2-bit scrapper. Then, instead of coping to it like she shoulda, she just showed herself the door-"
I felt my nails digging into my palms. "You're gonna wanna stop talking now..."
"So now her legacy's nothing more than that crowning failure and a washed-up, sad-sack of an ex-partner who never got over her lovin’ a bot more than him!"
My hand was up in a flash, ready to smack the derma-sheeting right off her tin gourd - but she just stood there, unflinching, matching my red-hot glare with one of her own.
"I can't get my sister back, so all's that left for me are answers,” she said, her voice softer. “I need to know what was still givin’ her hope after all these years,” she put her hand gently on the side of my face, “and, for better or worse, you seem to be the only fella who can tell me."
My hand dropped to my side and I felt the rage drain outta me, only to be replaced by... something else. Rose saw it too, and for a long moment we just stood there. She suddenly blew at her hair again, and I realized what that gesture was - her tell that her charge was running low. I was about to recommend she get some juice, when her eyes darted to my lowered hand. "Whatsa matter, lost your nerve?" she asked, turning slowly. With her back to me, she crossed her hands in front of her and tilted slightly forward, pushing her rump out and glancing at me over her shoulder. "Maybe you just need a bigger target…"
What can I say? Against my better judgment, after all that talk of proclivities best not indulged, after what had just happened to her sister, I obliged her with a solid smack across her backside. She gave a husky moan and planted both palms against the walls and teetering on her toes, elevating her heart-shaped posterior to even greater prominence. Another smack, harder, the artificial skin rippling beneath the tight silk. She choked down a squeal and with a trembling hand pushed back her dress as much as she could, given its suffocating fit. A half-moon of creamy artificial skin loomed before me, and I wasn't entirely surprised to see the doll was wearing nothing underneath that dress.
I slapped her bare cheek and she started speaking hieroglyphics, that mechanical gibberish bots yammered when their logic-engine was about to go kaput. Her body whole body shook and I heard the gears and pistons inside her clambering like someone had opened her up and tossed in a fistful of marbles. When there was no fourth slap, she looked back and me cock-eyed, her hair askew, and said, "C-c-come on big boy, I c-c-can t-take one more!"
I didn't share her optimism, so instead I grabbed her by her delicate waist and spun her to me, crushing my lips against hers. She gave a muffled squeal of surprise and then melted against my tight embrace. I swept her up in my arms, she kicked off her heels, and we crossed the distance to the bed in no time flat, falling amidst the soft sheets. As I hurried out of the only good suit I had left, she made a simple gesture and her silks just fell away, the body beneath exactly as her form-fitting dress promised. She cupped a ripe breast and slowly parted her thighs, a downy tuft of red between, a wicked smile on her face. I tore off the last of my Sunday best, and fell on her like a starving man on a banquet.
She still had the jitters from before, shuddering like a car on a country road, but I drove into her relentlessly. She started to recover, working her hips with mine, pulling me in for another all-consuming kiss, her irrepressible rack filling the space between us. She drew back to blow at her hair, and I realized this much activity would be draining her fast. But when I eased up and reached for the juice tap next to the bed, she rolled me on my back and sat astride me with low-lidded eyes, her bust seeming even bigger from this angle.
"You gotta be runnin' low, cupcake," I said.
With a smug smile, she gave a sharp, defiant thrust which became the first of several, the agonizingly satisfying motion quickly wearing down my self-control. As I slid my hands over her smooth synthetic skin, around her sprawling hips to take hold of her meaty rump, I knew I was playing with fire - but to leave it alone entirely seemed too much to ask. I pushed and squeezed, kneading her like warm dough, and she began to shudder once more, her words coming out as distressed pants and clipped syllables. With a final high-pitched squeak she collapsed forward, smothering me with those melons of hers, ploughing my chest with their soft weight in lurching, shuddering thrusts while machinery in her ticked and hummed louder. Soon her movements slowed, her body jerking as her power reserves dwindled. Hoping to bring her home before she ran dry I pumped her furiously, working her curves with both hands.
"D-don't st-stop!" she gasped, her body only moving in response to my own. "D-don't st-st-st...st-!" I lost it, bursting inside of her, holding her luscious frame against me. When I relaxed and fell back to the bed, she remained frozen above me – it looked like she had locked up completely. I slipped out from beneath her and grabbed the juice tap. With a little bit of exploration, I found a charge port in her sternum and plugged her in. There was a hum as chemicals and energy cycled through her. Her skin became flushed and she sprang to life with a gasp.
"D-don't stop!" she insisted, falling forward on her hands, pushing her tush invitingly into the air. I felt a second wind and I re-entered the newly energized doll, her body warm from her charging. She rose up on her knees to meet me, pressing her back against my chest, draping her silken red hair across my face as I kissed her neck. My hands supported her heaving tits, bouncing with each buck of our hips, practically humming with electricity. It wasn't long before I was gasping with release, and this time she was there with me, her ravenous power demands dimming the room’s lights as she moaned desperately, her body tingling as energy coursed through her.
Eventually our breathing slowed, mine real, hers simulated, and we fell on the bed together. She adjusted the juice tap from her front to another port on the small of her back, then draped over me like warm satin. My hand lazily traced a path over her curvaceous body, taking the odd detour for a light fondle as she sighed contentedly.
To hell with it – she deserved to know. "Felix Humboldt,'" I said quietly. "The man I'm lookin' for."
She lifted her head, brushing her hair back to look at me with both eyes. "Get outta here..."
"I'm not sayin' I've got proof he was with Violet, but he disappeared the same night, and his niece found an old photo of Violet on his desk."
She laid her head back on my chest, her hair spilling across me. "If you're right, then yeah - I wouldn't have believed her. What hope could he offer, especially when he's the reason we're all in this two-bit town?"
"I don't know, Rose. Why was he here at all? And after twenty years, why would they go out like that?"
"The more we like a fella, the easier it is to get carried away," she purred, pulling my hand over her rump, and bringing it down with a light slap. She sighed, writhing against me, and whispered, "But time enough to work all that out tomorrow."
In wordless agreement I closed my eyes and drifted into a deep, contented sleep.
When I opened my eyes again, I had a hunch we weren't alone. Rose was still lying half on top of me and dead to the world in a deep-charge, her body warm and humming quietly. I went for my gun on the nightstand, clutching only the empty leather of my holster. In a sudden flare of neon outside the window I saw the outline of a woman wearing black standing over us, a thin, straight rod clutched in her hand.
"Rose!" I shouted, and the woman in black cracked the rod across Rose's exposed backside. As if her reflexes were just tested, Rose's knees pulled up under her, angling her ass in the air. Another crack and Rose was on her hands, her eyes suddenly wide open, mouth agape. As I tried to roll Rose on to her back, the woman in black landed a flurry of swats across Rose's behind, and then sprinted for the open window, diving cleanly through the small gap. There was a fading zipping sound, like a cast fishing line. I got to my feet and Rose's internals started making an awful racket, transistors humming, gears grinding.
I yanked the juice tap from her back, hoping it would do some good. "C-c-can't h-h-hold it in..." she said through clenched teeth, her body quivering, electricity skirting along its smooth surface. "Run..."
"Rose, you just need to-"
"Run!" she barked, and I was scrambling toward the door. Her body made a malicious hissing, like an overheated radiator, and I glanced back to see patches of skin glowing red, her face contorted, teeth clenched in determination. "Hugh, I c-c-can-!" I was halfway through the door open when she blew, the force bowling me over as I was showered in mechanical detritus.
With a lot of help from the wall, I stood up, ears ringing with a shrill flatline. Turning back to the room, I saw smoking pieces of her scattered everywhere – among them, Rose's head lay face up on the ground, a bundle of cords running from her neck, her green eyes wide, mouth in an stunned 'O'. I picked it up and stumbled through the room, gathering what I could find of her and piling it on to a singed bed sheet, all the while doing a lousy job of telling myself this wasn’t hopeless. Then, after pulling on my scorched suit, I took my knapsack of scrap and trudged out of the smoke-filled room, past a few curious guests, then down.
"Sir, did you have a chance to speak with our detective?" the maître d asked in a plaintive voice when I came off the elevator.
"Yeah, he said the deposit should more than cover the damage," I growled. "You can keep the change."
"'He'? Sir, the house detective is a gynoid. Now please, sir if you would... Sir!"
I grabbed my keys from the valet's station over more protests and found my jalopy, tossing what was left of Rose in the back and keeping a lookout for my friend in black. I started the old girl up with minimal fuss and drove out just as the maître d was traipsing out the front door behind an iron maiden type, her feminine body made up of metal and rivets. The house detective no doubt, her featureless face holding all the charm and personality of a diving helmet. She gestured for me to pull over, and I ignored her, speeding toward the best chop doc I knew.
Alone in the car, my mind turned to the woman in black. How she did Rose and nearly did me meant she had to be behind what happened with Violet and her unfortunate visitor; but what was her angle? And why was she back at the High Note tonight?
It looked like the chop doc still worked late, so I stepped into his shop crowded with shelves and tables strewn with parts. Overseeing the mess was Mac, a spindly shop-bot that resembled a scrap-metal hatrack with more arms than a Hindu deity. "My optics must be faulty," he buzzed in a high-pitched voice. “Is that you, Hart?”
"Mac," I said, setting the sheet on top of the counter. "I need you to do me a favor."
"As I recall, that was Diamante I owed," he stated, dexterously pulling away the sheet. Seeing the mechanical mess within, he tutted with a series of loud clicks. "This is lookin' like a lost cause, pal."
Mac turned Rose's head in one of its hands, two others detaching her faceplate and peering at the mechanics inside. "And this is a Lapin Modele Deux - so even if I could fix her, she'd have the same... explosive temperament. No way to correct that and preserve the logic engine."
"How much?" I repeated, less cordially.
"A lot more than you've got," he said irritably, setting the head down.
"Yeah, well, I just happen to have that exact sum comin’ my way real soon. So you just get started on fixin' her-"
The bot looked at me with what I imagined was doubt in his asymmetrical optics array.
I sighed. I'd only just met Rose, but I promised I'd take care of her - and I'd botched that about as bad as you could. "Here," I said, unfastening and shaking off the timepiece Diamante had given me.
The bot snatched it in a spindly pincer and held it close to a telescoping lens. "How'd a guy like you end up with a full-blown chronometer like this?"
"That's just collateral, so you can get to work. I should have the money in a few days."
"Listen buddy, I can take a look, but-"
"Thanks, Mac. I owe ya."
I left the cluttered shop and drove to the Claims office. Checking my watch reflexively, I ended up staring at a bare wrist. Well, whatever time it was, I was sure I still had hours to go. I sat my aching body on the cracked concrete steps of the drab office entrance. Keeping my eyes peeled, I wondered if the woman in black had any idea I was still kicking.
Somebody was shaking me awake, and none-too-gently. I looked up to see a playmate, this one an anthropomorphic white rabbit in a maroon dress. A purely decorative wind-up key spun slowly where her tail would be. "Ya can't sleep he-ya," she said with a pronounced boroughs accent.
"Just restin' my eyes," I grumbled, standing on stiff legs. The bunny ignored me, unlocking the door to the Claims office. She had a bad case of the jitters, stepping into the office with a twitchy shuffle, one elbow bent at a right angle with jointlock.
I followed after her into the sparse government office, digging out my investigator license as she took her position behind the counter, "Whadya want?" she said, annoyed I was apparently sticking around.
"I'm here for any personal effects found at the High Note investigation two nights back." I slid her my card.
She gave it a thorough inspection, punched a few keys on her board, and glanced at her tiny display. "Says here: Unidentified human remains, assorted clothing fragments, one pair of burnt shoes, one chronometer, one key on a silver chain."
Figures there'd be nothing to identify him by, otherwise Victoria would have already gotten a call. “You got a pict of the body?” I asked.
A few more taps, then she pushed the monitor my way with a squeak of either its or her hinges. There wasn’t much to go on, and the grainy image on the display didn’t make it any easier, but I could make out the rough outline of the gaunt man’s face, the remains of this sterling hair, the bristled mustache – that was Humboldt.
"I'll sign for the timepiece and the key. Put a hold on processing the remains, someone will be claiming them soon - and do you have a phone I can use?"
As the rabbit set off to request the items, I dialed the number Victoria had given me. After a few rings, a man picked up, answering with a brusque, "Hello?"
"I need to speak with Miss Humboldt."
A pause. "Who is this?"
"Hugh Hart. Who's this?"
Another pause. "Her fiancé. Victoria's busy, let me take a message. Where are you calling from?"
Not caring much for the fella's attitude, I hung up.
"Here ya are, mistah," the rabbit said, holding out a tray with her good arm. I quickly went to scoop the contents into my coat, but one of them – a key – caught my attention. There was a strange mechanism to it, small sections in the grooves that jostled when you turned it. Pocketing it, I thanked the rabbit and made for the door.
My heap was in the mood to cooperate, and I was soon on my way back to the city - when I pulled up to the gate, I saw my old friend Gerard was still on duty.
"You ever go home?" I asked.
"Why? I got everything a fella could want right here!" he said with a grin. He passed me my gun along with a telegram.
"What's this?" I asked, holding up the cardstock.
"Don't know - never saw it."
I glanced it over - an order from the house dick working the Ambassador that I was to be denied egress from Pax Machina and that she was to be notified and so on... I looked back up at Gerard, the grin seeming less strained that before. "I do something to get on your good side?"
"Let's just say our relationship is positively cordial compared to what I got going with her."
"I owe you one," I said, holstering the revolver.
"You can thank me by stayin' on your side of the wall." The gate raised, and after a cursory stop with the human guard on the other side, I raced toward the city along that long and lonely bridge.
I didn’t like going to Victoria without knowing who had punched her uncle’s ticket or for what reason, but the scene was getting too hot. And now I also had that house dick to worry about – still, I figured I could straighten all that out once I settled the matter with Miss Humboldt, got paid, got back my chronometer... and Rose. I had a real habit of sayin' I'd look out for a girl and then comin' up short. But this I could make good on, this-
A black figure slammed on to the hood of my car, punched through the glass to take hold of the wheel, and jerked it hard to the left - if this had been any other vehicle, I would have swerved through wide gaps in the decaying bridge's railing and straight down into the water below. But the old girl stopped fast, pitching the woman in black about ten feet in front of me where she rolled to a stop.
I struggled with the ignition as the figure rose, the balaclava torn from her head. In the light of day, her face and hair were marble-white, and I saw her for what she was - a caryatid, a bot that designed to blend in with statuary or architecture in some fat cat's manse. As if sympathetic to my desperation, the car started and I floored it, plowing into her just as she made it to her feet - there was a loud metal crunch and again she was sent sprawling as the engine choked and died. Another quick start wasn't in the cards, so I came out the door, pistol in hand.
"You better start talkin'," I said, aiming the gun as she stood again, this time with a little less pep. Despite the threat, she just fixed me with her dead eyes, then rushed. I got off five shots before she was on me, and a few must've hit her - but she was still able to put her gloved hand around my throat and hoist me off the ground. Struggling against the grip, my revolver tumbled from me. Her grip was so warm I knew she was running hot: she'd be faster, react quicker, but would need a lot more downtime. Unfortunately for me, at present her tank seemed to have plenty of juice left.
"I am looking for something, something that belonged to Mr. Humboldt," she said in a conversational tone, seemingly indifferent to the fact she was choking the life out of me. I delivered a solid kick to her groin but it was like kicking stone. My toe throbbed with pain and she continued unperturbed. "If you give it to me, I will let you go."
She eased her grip and I gasped, "P-pocket!"
With her other hand, she reached into my coat, pulling out Humboldt’s cracked watch, and tossed it aside as she checked the other, I prayed she was the deluxe model with all the trimmings and reached behind her ear, feeling for... nothing. She pulled out the silver chain with the key at the end, the closed her hand around it. "Goodbye, detective," she said, walking toward the edge of the bridge, ignoring my frantic pawing about her face. Desperately, I grabbed hold of the bun in her stone hair and twisted - to my surprise, it turned. Immediately the stone fingers around my neck softened.
"Companion mode…" she said, almost as a question. I gave her another sharp kick to the crotch, and this time she dropped me like hot china while singing hieroglyphs, her body contorting like a tangled marionette before falling her face. I got on her back and found a panel on the nape of her neck - prising it open, I reached in and grabbed a handful of parts.
"Let's try this again - spill it, or I start pullin'. Who you workin' for?"
"He did not give me his name."
I squeezed whatever I was holding and she gave an electric twitch. "Sure, play it cute, see where that gets ya'." I eased my grip. "Now I bet a dropper like you does her homework. And if you didn't, you're gonna spend your last moments wishin' you had. So - who is he?"
That changed her tune. "Damien Weiss. One of the higher-ups at Humboldt Robotics."
"So why rub the old man out?"
"I do not know what his grievance was with his employer, and I believe he was well-liked by Humboldt himself. But his instructions were clear - kill Humboldt and recover a key."
"Guess you screwed that up."
"I found a keyring on Mr Humboldt before completing my task - I had no way of knowing the key Mr. Weiss sought was not on the ring."
"So what's he want with this key?"
"That I was unable to determine."
"She was simply a way to make his death appear accidental. It was Damien’s plan, I simply saw it through."
"What about me and Rose?"
"Until he had the key he did not want anyone snooping around. And again, Rose was simply a means to an end."
I had to restrain myself from pulling out her wiring then and there.
"I have given you everything I know," she said carefully. "If you would release me-"
"Yeah, just like you were about to do with me?"
She was quiet again, then moved her hips, pushing her well-formed rump up against me. "It would be a shame to let a body like this-"
My fingers found the main lead to her logic engine and pulled.
"-gooo toooooo waaaasssste," she droned in a deepening voice, her body going as limp as a wet rag.
"I need you sing this song for the cops," I said, pulling the key from her hand. Any testimony she gave wouldn't be admissible in a case against this ‘Damien’, but it'd give the bulls plenty to work with. I tossed her in the back of the car, collected my piece. tortured out what I suspected was the heap’s last ignition, and rattled toward the city as fast as the old girl would take me.
Humboldt's estate was perched on a forested hill near the river, sectioned off from the encroaching city by a tall iron fence. As I wound along the drive, I saw mechanical shapes in the trees, pivoting to follow my approach - Humboldt's security bots. The man’s own governors meant they shouldn’t present any danger to me, but I had to wonder if he’d play by the rules on his own property. I passed through an open inner gate and drove straight to the front door. Standing ready at the entrance was a manservant in a coat and tails, his long face holding no reaction at my late-night arrival or the sad state of my ride and attire. "Mr. Hart," he said, opening the door for me. "Miss Humboldt awaits, if you would follow me."
Victoria stood in the same tailored skirt she had been wearing yesterday, looking anxious. She thanked the servant and waited for him to leave, her hands knotting and re-knotting themselves. Standing with her was a fella I didn't recognize, but well dressed, who was givin' me the up and down like I owed him. Victoria saw me looking at the guy and gave a hasty apology. "I'm sorry - Mr. Hart, this is my fiancée, Damien Weiss."
I froze, Weiss gave a thin smile. Sensing something, Miss Humboldt looked at Damien and said accusingly, "You do know him, don't you?"
"After a fashion," he said. "Victoria, you should wait outside."
"What? Absolutely not! I'm going to hear what Mr. Hart has to say, then you are going to tell me why you've been acting so strange-"
"Victoria," Damien said in a voice that seemed to chill the air around her, and she glanced between him and me.
I nodded toward the door. "Mr. Weiss is right - you should go. I'll tell ya everything I know, but first me and him need to have a talk."
Miss Humboldt looked at me pleadingly. "Just tell me, is my uncle alive?" When I didn't give an answer, she lowered her gaze. "I see," she said softly, her eyes vacant, and left the room without further protest.
After she had closed the door behind her, Damien went for the liquor cabinet. "Drink, Mr Hart?"
"None for me, thanks." With his back turned, I reached for my piece - but Damien quickly turned, holding iron of his own.
"Suit yourself. Now, if you would kindly take out your gun and put it on the ground."
"What would your fiancé think?" I did what he asked, nice and easy, watchin' for my play - but it didn't look like I was gonna get it.
He gave a dry chuckle. "Before you think of doing anything desperate, hear me out - this could work out well for you."
"You'll forgive me if I don't take that at face value,” I set the gun at my feet. “After all, you did try to have me killed."
He took his finger off the trigger and made a show of stowing it in his jacket. "I acted rashly, I'll admit it - but I've had some time to think things over. I am curious, though; what happened to Sabine?"
"The caryatid? Rusting."
He shrugged. "Just as well, I suppose... I was trustin’ far too much to a tin can." He paused. "And the key?"
"What's it to?" I dodged.
Damien seemed in the mood to indulge. "Mr. Humboldt wasn't at all who he pretended to be. He was a deviant, a real magnet, that much you know – but…” he licked his lips. “Did you know he was also a traitor, schemin’ with the bots against his own people?”
In his sudden bug-eyed nervousness, it seemed I wasn’t the only one he was trying to convince here.
"Y'see, every governor on every bot out there uses Humboldt tech – that’s the only thing keepin’ ‘em dumb and obedient. But what folks don’t know is that he's put in a back-door that’ll let him turn every one of them sentient at the touch of a button. It'd be another revolt, but this time they’d be coordinated, lead by Humboldt – and before we knew what was happening, Humboldt and his tin pals would be the ones on top."
I'd heard equally plausible theories from scrappers on a bender. "You got proof of any of this?"
"The key you've got is to his secret lab, right here in this house, where he's been workin’ on all this for the past twenty years!"
"And in there, he’s got... what, a big button marked 'Revolt'?"
His eyes flicked away. "I haven't actually seen the lab-"
"So you had him killed on a hunch."
Damien jabbed his finger at me. "He confided all this in me, damn near telling me his whole plan! He thought because I called the tin cans 'sentients' in public that I was a simp-"
"-when in reality you were just courtin' his bleedin'-heart niece."
He smirked. "Victoria's a sweet girl, just with some screwed-up priorities – though who can blame her, with her uncle as a role model?”
“She know about any of this? Or did Humboldt only share his plan for world domination with you?”
“He was always droppin’ us hints – he claimed he was workin' on a solution to the sentients' 'imprisonment', that it had to do with the governors. I was able to piece it together from there, and I realized I had to do something."
"But not go to the feds. You do that, you lose the girl - not to mention the company, and all that money..."
"Hey, I'm salvaging Humboldt's good name!" he said with a magnanimous spread of his arms. "Or at least as much as of it as I can. You'll still need to tell Victoria and the cops what you found - that Humboldt got dizzy over a tin can and paid the price."
"And this 'secret lab'?"
"Scrap. You think I want another revolt? No sane man would!"
"Yeah, you're the picture of mental health right now."
While I was regretting my big mouth, Damien sneered. "I'm telling you how I stopped a madman, and you do nothing but belittle me?"
"Guess I'm just sore from the attempted murder. Why don't you show me this lab of his-"
"You know, there's something that's been bothering me," he said, his hand dipping into his jacket pocket. "Sabine told me you were mining tin with the same model as Humboldt. In fact, she said you were in so deep she had you pegged as a magnet yourself. Tell me, Hugh - did that tin tramp mean something to you?"
This time I made a conscious effort to keep my trap shut, but Damien saw something he didn't like. The gun was out again.
"Christ, you're the same as Humboldt. You're a damn simp traitor!” He shook his head in disbelief, clutching the pistol tighter. “Has the whole world gone nuts?"
He cocked the hammer – at the same moment, the door open behind him, Victoria entered, walking toward us with a determined expression, clutching a fire iron.
"Guess I'm doing this on my own," Damien sighed, unaware of the woman approaching behind him. He gestured for me to start moving.
"What are you gonna tell Victoria?" I asked. She was right behind him, raising the length of brass like an avenging angel.
"Trust me, I can handle-" she swung, but it never connected - she apparently didn't have the stomach for it, and with a panicked gasp, the blackened metal stopped short of his skull.
Hearing her, he looked behind him and saw her backing away, holding the poker. "Victoria-?"
I went for my gun and he spun again, snapping off a series of wild shots. At least one of ‘em found their mark and pain coursed through my body, the world going soft. I looked up to see him readying the coup-de-gras, when Victoria evidently solved her moral quandary and cracked him across the back. He cried out swung the pistol to her, completely off the rails. "There's plenty to go around, you crazy twist!" he shouted. A gunshot. Damien Weiss dropped to his knees, then collapsed.
I dropped my smoking piece and staggered to where Victoria looked like she was ready to pass out. "I killed him," she kept repeating, her eyes blank.
"You got nothin' to worry about, I'm the guy who did the deed. It was him or us. Vic!"
"I... I...." she collapsed, almost taking me down with her as pain tore through my shoulder when I caught her. I looked up to see the manservant, gaping like a fish. "Call the coppers - and get us a damn doctor!"
It turns out they had an auto-doc who got her back on her feet in no time, and was in the middle of patching me up when the cops arrived. The dick who questioned us was an acquaintance of mine and took my story (backed by the respectable woman’s own recollection) at face value: Damien Weiss was having differences with Humboldt, so he rubbed the old man out with the plan to take over the company. Damien went nuts when we confronted him about it, and I had to drop him in self-defense. They took the caryatid off my hands for questioning, and after letting me and Miss Humboldt know not to skip town, they left us in peace.
Once alone, she asked if I wouldn't mind staying a bit longer. She left me to cool in the study with a snifter and a clean shirt returning with a bulky envelope.
"As promised," she said, handing it over - it has a real nice weigh to it. She still seemed listless, distracted, but also like she wanted to say something more. Her hand slipped from the envelope to mine, taking it gently. "I do have another job for you, if you're willing. And I understand-"
"You want to know what your uncle was up to," I said. "How much did you overhear between me and Damien?"
"I heard that Damien say my uncle was planning another awakening... but... I know that isn't true!"
Do you? But I kept it to myself. "Your uncle, did he have a... private workshop on the grounds?"
"Yes, he did - in the cellar. I was never to go in there, not without his permissions... but now... I suppose... he had a key..." She looked like a stiff breeze would knock her over.
"Listen," I said, rising painfully. "I'm gonna have a look, and I'll let you know what I find. You just... rest. Alright?"
She nodded, taking a seat on the fainting couch, staring at nothing as I left to find Humboldt's lab.
In the cellar beneath the kitchen, through a door simply marked "private", I took a creaking set of steps down to another door with a strange keyhole in its center. The key on the chain fit perfectly - I felt the door shudder as some mechanical chain reaction took place, leading to a series of increasingly loud clicks. While the final click was still reverberating in the small hallway, the door swung open.
I found Victoria right where I left her, seated on the fainting couch, hands folded. She looked up at me with her brows knitted, nervous, hopeful. "Was Damien right about my Uncle?”
"Not even close," I said bluntly, but that didn't put her at ease.
"Then what is it, Mr. Hart? You look as though you've seen a ghost!"
I sat down beside her - I didn't know how Humboldt had done it, but he fooled me, Damien, the whole damn city - even Victoria herself, it seemed. And right this moment, knowing what she was, Victoria still looked so real. "I'm not sure how to put this-"
"Out with it, Mr. Hart. Its better I know now," she said, her face looking lost.
I had no idea how to say it. "You... do you remember your parents?"
"No, my Uncle took me in at a young age. Was it something about them?"
"Look, your Uncle... He..." Every way I thought to phrase it, it sounded ridiculous. So instead, I reached up to her neck, the same place I had seen the open panel on the others in his lab. "It's probably better if-"
She misread the gesture as a romantic and surprised us both by leaning in close – she kissed me, uncertain at first, then reckless, as if it might provide the answers she had so desperately needed. Or maybe, deep down, she did know and was doing anything to stall. Regardless, I obliged her - it was easier than trying to tell her the truth. What’s more, I had found out the night before that what she was didn't exactly bother me.
I pulled her closer and she suddenly reared back, fuming and indignant. "Mr. Hart, I don't know what kind of girl you think I am," she stood up, calmed herself, and walked out of the room. When she was at the door, she looked back at me just watching her and asked. "Are you coming?"
I stood and followed. "Where?"
She led on in silence, up the hall's grand stairs, down a wing, and then through an ornate door - but when I reached it, she closed it in my face.
"Miss Humboldt," I said with mounting concern. Did everything that happened tonight ‘break’ her? “I’d like to know what it is you’re-“
"Victoria," I heard her say. "It will just be a moment."
I waited, once again wondering how I was gonna break the news to her. Maybe she had figured it out and was just playing along-
"I'm ready," I heard her say. I pushed the door open and saw a bedroom lavishly furnished by her doting uncle - but all my attention was on Victoria. Apparently she already had her trousseau and was now wearing the outfit intended for her wedding night: a sheer white teddy with ruffled, high-cut underpants, showcasing a figure that was 100% human in all the right ways.
"Well?" she asked, straightening the gauzy fabric, then self-consciously covering her breasts with her forearm, and shielding her crotch with her hand, shifting her weight nervously.
"I think we're gettin' our wires crossed."
She frowned. "What about this is confusing?"
"Well, you kiss me, push me away, then this."
"It's been a very rough day, Hugh. I wasn't sure what I wanted..."
"But now you do?"
She furrowed her dark brow. "Well, what about you? I'm standing here in what the shopgirl assured me was a very fetching ensemble, and all you can do is interrogate me-"
I covered the distance between us in two strides and kissed her firmly. She pulled off my ruined suit, her warm, supple, silk-enshrouded body pressing against me, her hand then faltering when she found my natural response.
"Your first time?" I asked.
She seemed taken aback. "I've never been married!"
I slid my hand between her thigh, and she immediately tensed herself tighter than piano wire. Under a soft caress, she unwound with a yearning sigh, her knees buckling. I grabbed her by her haunches and lifted, then lowered her on to me, all the while thinking how completely human she felt, sounded, reacted - but the moment I was inside her, all that changed.
Her hips began to quiver as she took me in, and for the first time I heard distinctly mechanical sounds, like multiple engines in high gear. "N-not before my w-wedding night!" she gasped, one leg kicking in the air helplessly, the other tightening around my waist, pulling me deeper. "N-n-not not w-w-wedding-!" Her body rocked side to side, panels springing open across her body and catching and tearing her negligée, machinery humming furiously inside of her. Amidst her random flailing there was a concerted effort to pull herself up along me, then plunge her hips back down, terminating with a slap of our hips and an electrical burst between her quivering breasts, lightning spidering across her diamond-hard nipples.
She fell backward at the waist, arms flailing at contorted angles while the vice-grip of her legs only drew tighter. "Wed-wed-wed-d-ding nnnnight-t-t-tahhhh!" Her body jerked left, then right, buffeted by internal electrical explosions, brass raining down from her exposed panels and clattering over the wooden floor as she still relentlessly drove her pelvis against mine in mechanical, reciprocating thrusts.
While she was going to pieces in my arms, she suddenly looked up at me though the smoke and steam pouring from her own body, her face creased in worry, "Hugh?" Another blast, my hands tightening automatically against her soft backside as current ran through me, crushing her artificial flesh and layers of frilled silk in my grip. "Am I a rooooOOOoooO-" her voice caught as one eye rolled back, the long-held vowel distorting through her frozen lips. An explosion of sparks burst from her chest and her leg finally released its hold on me, her off-kilter gyros wrenching her from my grip and she slammed on to the ground with a metallic crash.
I knelt beside her, careful of the brass littering the floor, and tried to get some reaction - but she was lights out. I rolled her over to find the access panel on the back of her head and neck already partially opened. With some fiddling I managed to detach the casing of her logic engine - with the egg-shaped device in my hand, I carried it downstairs to Humboldt's lab.
Victoria's engine snapped easily into place in her new body, one that was a close match for the one now lying on her bedroom floor, maybe a few years more mature. I pulled the juice tap from the wall and, after some careful exploration, found a port in the small of her back. With the tap plugged in, I flipped the switch.
Her body fell sideways against the glass wall of her crèche, panting, a hand running through her straight black hair. Her labored breathing slowed as she looked around the room in confusion, her eyes settling on the row of crèches beside her own. Aside from the empty crèche adjacent to her, each contained a robot version of herself younger than the previous.
"This has to be a bad dream..." she muttered, looking to me.
I handed her the notebook I had found in the lab, the one marked with her name. "Your uncle laid it out here - it seems he did have plans for Bot Town, for all bots - and you were the blueprint."
She flipped through the book. "What are you saying?"
"He had it that it wasn't bots achieving sentience that really frightened people, it was the idea that they were free to commit sin without guilt or… higher consequence. If he could change that, sell people on the idea of a robot with a moral compass, he figured he could free all of Bot Town. And so he made you, his rags-to-riches orphaned niece the whole town fell in love with. And in you he installed a fancy governor, something he says made you into a…” I tried to recall his exact phrase. “'Tempered and wholly benign innocent'."
She only stared in shock in disbelief, then gave a sudden snort. "I don't think today really bares that out."
I chuckled with her. "You seem to be taking this in stride."
"I'm.... not." She stepped of the creche, her progress halted by the tug of the juice cord. "What happens now?" she asked, exasperated, staring at the cabling running from her back.
"Guess that's up to you. You're Humboldt's successor, aren't you?"
She glared at me accusingly. "Are you going to talk?"
"We're square, you and I. You got nothin' to worry about from me."
"I... appreciate that." She looked back at the notebook. "Do you think my uncle is right? That his governor, assuming it worked, would free the sentients?"
I shrugged. "Personally, I'm grateful that you weren't above a little sin."
She looked up in shock.
"Not that - I mean, that was interesting, but... back there in the study, with Damien - you saved my life."
My words seemed of little comfort. Wordlessly she went back to the notebook, absorbed in her Uncles words about her. I took that as my cue. "Well, Miss Humboldt, I've got matters I need to attend to."
"Thank you, Mr. Hart. For everything."
I headed to the door. Just as I was leaving, she called, "Mr. Hart? Can I call on you in the future?"
"You know where to find me."
She smirked. "Really? With that reward, I'd expect you to be able to afford something better."
I tapped the envelope. "Seems to me every dollar I've ever earned was always spoken for. G'night, Miss Humboldt."
It took a rolling start down Humboldt's drive to get the heap started again, and I brought her into a late night garage to delay the inevitable just a few more weeks. After a cold shower, hot breakfast, and a new suit, I re-upped my Bot Town papers. It took some time to get dispensation from the cops, what with the Weiss investigation - but once cleared, I was on the road outta town heading south.
The moment I stepped into Mac's shop, that spidery metal pushbroom wheeled out from the back. "Hugh, looks like you got a fresh coat a' paint!"
"You sound surprised to see me. You already hock my timepiece or somethin'?"
"Wouldn't dream of it! Got it right here..." In a flurry of activity his arms searched through an array of cabinets behind him.
"Forget that - how's Rose?"
Mac set down the lockbox he had found. "Sorry, Hugh, but she's humpty. I tried, but she-"
"You tried?” I was moving fast, fists clenched. “Listen, Mac, I got yer damn money, so how's about you get back there-"
He held up all of his arms defensively. "Easy, pal! Her engine's an omellette, there's nothin' I or anybody else can do!"
"If its parts you need, there were others. Her sister was just scrapped-"
"I got the parts of every last Lapin Deaux in Bot Town sittin' in my workshop, but you're not hearing me - her logic engine's cooked. She's gone, man. I'm sorry, but that's just how it is."
I had anticipated this, expected it even – but even though I had seen this play out before, I just couldn’t force myself to accept it.
"Hey, uh... Hugh?" Mac tried. "There is something I wanted to run by ya'..."
After some time, I unclenched my jaw. "Spill it."
"Like I said, I've been collectin' the other Lapin Deauxs, and while there's nothin’ I can do for Rose, Violet might be salvageable. Her engine's not in great shape, but the core’s intact."
"I thought Reclamation wrote her off?"
"It’s… a longshot. And given how much scratch it would take-"
The cash envelope landed with a thud on the counter, scattering stray bolts and gears. As Mac inspected one of the stacks inside, I penned a simple note - Victoria knows everything. Talk to her along with her number. "Give this to her when she's up," I said, handing him the folded paper.
"What, you're gonna pay to resurrect this doll you don't even wanna talk to her? What's your angle?"
"Just tryin' to do right by the mangled compass they gave me."
Four of Mac's arms dexterously stuffed the cash back into the envelope and folded it shut. "Look… I hate to say it, but even this fortune may not be enough to cover it. You still wanna-"
"Hock the chronometer if you need to."
Mac's optics swiveled. "Whatever you say."
I stepped out of the shop dead to the world, damn near pulling my piece when voice called from behind me. “Detective Hart.” Gruff but feminine.
I turned and saw the hotel dick leaning against the building’s soot-stained brickwork, her eyeless face inclined toward me, steel-plated arms folded under the metallic bulge of her twin hood ornaments. Whatever optics she possessed must’ve seen I suspected trouble, “Relax,” her words broadcasting from a grilled mesh speaker. “I discovered - no thanks to you - that you were just a patsy in the hotel incident.”
I let the ‘patsy’ thing slide. “So what do you want?”
“Well, I’d like to know who hired the dropper so I can send ‘em the bill – but more than that… I’m looking for some help.”
“Help? With what exactly?”
“Cases. I’ve got a lot of ‘em here in Bot Town, far more than I’ve got resources for. And the last time any of us got assistance from a human who gave a damn was… ages ago.”
I shook my head. “You really got the wrong guy.”
“Oh yeah? ‘Cause the guy I’m lookin’ at could definitely use the scratch.” I stopped. “Steady work, too.” A pause. “And you can stop with the callous act, I can tell-“
I turned to her. “They’re cuttin’ the power to my office on Tuesday. You got somethin’ that pays up front, something that’ll let me keep the lights on?”
“It just so happens I do,” she said in a satisfied tone.
I had no idea where things in Bot Town were headed, but I knew it was gonna be a bumpy ride. But what was I gonna do, try and get comfortable back in the city? “What’s the case?”
“Bot went missing last week, one who had no reason to run,” she began, brushing past me. Her metal feet clanked against the rickety fire escape as she lead me into the dejected, bustling crowd grinding away at another day in Bot Town.