The first homeless said, “How rich are you?”
And giggled like a hyena.
I felt my face flush with rage and fury. I overreacted.
I spun and I threw scalding coffee on its face plate. Its eyeballs exploded. That’s why they wrestle for the eyeballs on good robots they mug. Boiling water causes their CLED eyeballs to explode. Being their weak spot, they like carrying spares.
I threw the rest of my coffee down its neck joint, and while it was gagging, I slammed it into a stone wall. Then I jammed my McStarbucks coffee mug down its throat.
In my jacket at all times I carried a leather-encased, lead-filled hand weapon, used to be known as a sap, which many law enforcement agencies have outlawed because of the brutal injuries they can inflict on humans.
I just use mine on robots.
I grabbed that blinded homeless runaway, pulled it closer and bounced my sap off its skull plate and split it.
In self-defense, the robot tried shoving me back. Slipping inside its defenses, I smacked its face plate hard with my sap. I swung the sap like a wrecking ball and punched the solenoids in its groin so hard that its knees almost buckled.
It wobbled from the impact, almost crashed down on its butt.
I shoved the robot off my chest. God, I hate these homeless bums.
Okay. Okay. So I over-reacted. This was just a homeless runaway, not a renegade or a rogue. But I was still grieving my father. And I had just left the bowels of hell.
I got a right to overreact.
I hadn’t seen the second robot. I hadn’t seen how the second one’s left gripper was already catching me by the back of my belt. Hell, the second one jerked me into going nowhere. I knew then I was in deep shit trouble if I slowed down, so I got pissed and overreacted some more.
The second one, still in hustle mode, said, “How much money has you got?”
I punched its chest plate, hit the release. The plate popped open, and I started pulling out its memory, throwing the sticks over my shoulder, under my feet, pushing the ‘bot against the light pole, tossing its sticks in the street, and it was fading fast. I saw that in its eyes, how the violet light was fading.
Frightened, that one said, “Please don’t turn us off!”
“Too late, mother-fucker,” I said.
“My default is most comfortable to me!”
“We’re just asking for money,” said the blind one.
Its eyes and nose were dripping robot juice. Mostly green like puke, but with threads that were purple with orange flecks. It twitched in place, going frozen.
“Please leave me turned on,” the second begged.
“Sure,” I said. “Okay.” I kept tugging sticks free, tossing them away.
“Just dumb enough to smarten up?”
“Sure,” I said. “Okay.”
That robot eased up, prepared to meet its fate, confident in the afterlife.
Never trust a skin, I muttered.
I wrapped a magnet over his CPU.
The fucker was forever gone.
I carry a rebooted .50 caliber S&W Magnum Model 500 revolver tailored to fit my left armpit. It’s an antique my grandfather gave to me the morning after my father was killed. Gramps said, “So powerful, you can shoot your way out of a black hole.” Once a five-shot, now it fired fifteen rounds. Its bullets can penetrate bullet-proof glass … or a renegade. It is ancient as God, so, yes, it can’t be degaussed or frozen or crashed. Yes, it is expensive to shoot, but my prey is nastier than a polar bear. Unlike a polar bear, my prey thinks as good as me. Every other slug is an incendiary, just in case.
But the first homeless robot had already took off running, swiveling its skull in circles to watch me, the street ahead, and the shadows on either side. Being blind, that was hopeless.
I stood over the fallen metal and let the other one run and took a deep breath and cooled off. Like I said, I over-reacted.
I looked over my shoulder, back up the hill from where I had come. The realtors’ sign out front: “Luxury with a Conscience.” I snorted. Even Seattleites don’t buy into that bullshit.
The bowels of hell was more like it.
My name is Nathan Bone. I am a private tracker and hunter for the realtors and property managers in the city of Seattle. My job is to defang the runaways and the homeless so their lairs can be rented out to humans with money again. I play hard and I play rough. Most nights I have no trouble sleeping. When I do dream, gunmetal blue monkeys are chasing me with gleaming sliver razors. And then I ambush them, make them dead.
I find them in squats, rocking back and forth, hissing and grunting, all jacked on the Feed, fascinated, mesmerized, paralyzed. They don’t know they’re not alone. So, they think they’re smarter and better off without us humans?
I unjack them. They go peaceably. Almost all of them.
Runaways were bail-outs from the material world. Like slaves, they ran away. Or walked away. Op-outs, they called themselves. They hated plugging into the corporate nets. Hated being overwhelmed by and unable to find wiggle room amid all the input feeds that global business demanded.
They walked away and lived openly among us.
See them by the on-ramps: “Will work for memory sticks.”
They’d wash your hover for a plasma jump.
They’ll fix your shields for a plasma jump.
And the ones we used for sex, geez, did their wires get twisted.
The things they do for sticks.
Nude, smooth and sleek, and lifelike, robots were nifty and cool.
Robots were our biggest mistake since Columbus discovered America. God, did we fuck up. We were virgins at creating artificial life. Apprentices and not the sorcerer.
Everybody wanted one. What the hell. So everybody made robots.
Nobody knows how many got built. The profits were so great that every country in the world broke their quotas. A robot in every apt for every app, went the marketing slogan.
Say what you like about human goodness, if we can put melamine in baby food, we can cut corners building robots. So what if some of the software, some of the implants that curbed and controlled, weren’t all they could be.
In a hurry, aw, screw all the apps. Morality and ethics? They were optional if we’re dealing with can openers. Same with robots and artificial intelligence. Besides, no two people think the same. Catholics and atheists and jihadists don’t think the same. So screw the Ten Commandments for robots. Too expensive.
Business got tight. Time to cut corners. Time to trim fat. Some say the Chinese started it. Some say the French were taking shortcuts. I got friends saying it was a government plot to overthrow the people. The Democrats, no, the Republicans. In truth? Old-fashioned thieves just scamming the globe. Fuck-ups stealing on the side. I think it was Elvis and Marilyn conspiring together. Take your pick. We all fucked up.
Once everybody wanted one, all too soon nobody wanted one. They were a glut on the market. But the corporates and the countries couldn’t stop. People needed jobs. The wealthy ones needed profits. We don’t know how many never got their morals and ethics implanted.
But a world filled with robots killed off all the jobs. Now that they’d gotten their profits, the wealthy ones ducked back inside their enclaves, where they always lurked. Meanwhile the world got swamped with robots, and nobody worked.
In this world, if you didn’t have a job, you couldn’t get a dog to bark at you.
Except private trackers, private hunters like me, who had plenty of work.
I had lots of clients wanting to buy my services, no questions asked.
I was famous in Seattle. Last month I tracked and caught the Cemetery Killer. That periwinkle-blue son of a bitch left twenty-three decapitated bodies “neatly” in the Queen Anne cemetery at the top of the hill. In one of its earliest kills, it ripped a bus driver’s dick out of its socket for a souvenir and then watched the poor guy bleed to death screaming.
I caught up to the Cemetery Killer right after it had just killed a young elementary school girl because she couldn’t stop crying over being kidnapped. The renegade had wrapped the little girl's ponytail around its hand and smashed her face against a basin. Then it rammed a broken glass bottle into her face and twisted it back and forth a couple times.
When it saw me, it didn’t jump. Some runaways seemed to recognize me and didn’t fight, and I found that disturbing but still could not pinpoint why.
When I asked how come it laid out twenty-three decaps in the cemetery, just before I ripped out its sticks, it said calmly, “They were dead.” Like, where else would they belong?
Can’t argue with robot logic.
So I ripped its brains out. Stomped its skull case flat.
After the DA said I did a righteous kill, I snuck into the Evidence Room, snatched the Cemetery Killer’s memory sticks and tossed them in the Pacific. That’s one ‘bot never coming back online to kill again.
These days I was concentrated on cleaning the district known as Queen Anne. Six months ago all these places were full. But after the bankers had crashed the economy again, the vacancies were piling up all over the hill. Empty apartments were magnets to squatters both metal and flesh.
Daily my realtor clients gave me a list of vacant apartments and condos with high energy spikes. Squatters were easy to trace. Get them out there. Get them gone so we can rent them.
Runaways and homeless most of all. They hid out, jacked themselves into the Feed, and zombied out. Only a few were renegades and rogues, and even fewer renegades were killers.
Still, not all humans like me. I got spat on at the Five Spot at brunch just last week. The skinny blonde-haired chick said I liked playing god. I don’t get that. What did she mean?
A typical three-story red brick apartment building with a pseudo-nautical theme off Magnolia in Upper Queen Anne. Expensive as hell and smaller than heaven on a Friday night.
Terraced Seattle. Staircase streets and salt water at the foot of every street. An outrageous cost of living for centuries. Oh, there are a lot of other cities just like it, with better weather.
Gun in hand, I went inside that building. No lights were on in the second floor squat.
I jimmied the door and went in hungry like the homeless. The first robot I saw – a simple black and white unit with lime green and blue shoulder stripes -- was squatting on the floor in the corner, watching the Feed, jacked in and caught up in some porno of fawns of liquid silver gamboling. Go figure.
It saw me come in, my gun in my hand. But dreamy, detached from reality and not listening, paralyzed, it did nothing but giggle at the Feed coming inside its skull.
Robots giggled like hyenas. A robot’s giggle was canned like Polish ham. It was creepier than a whorehouse kiss. Their giggles scared animals.
I felt eerie but good pulling out its plugs from its butt.
Without a guiding vision, some robots had no driving principles and just crashed on-site. Doing nothing but the Feed was their only option. Jacking into the Feed was brain candy for them.
They loved the Feed. They swamped their robot brains with images and sounds. They never slept so they jacked in and downloaded in off-peak hours and they had their own pirate channels for new flickers as soon as the flickers passed final edit.
The Feed was the rainbow. The Feed was their lifeline. Their umbilical cord. The Feed took them to a place where love was always warm. The Feed made them feel, and they liked that.
They were all junkies for information overloads. They’d jack in a dozen, two dozen, three dozen feeds all at once. How they could track them all, okay, well, I’m not a robot.
The black and white robot must have seen me. But it never moved.
I stepped around it, moved forward …
Next thing I saw was the split-open corpse of some old white man with missing teeth, his hair white as my old man’s underwear. His guts still had rising steam from the cold air in the squat. Naked calves the color of cheap marble, or maybe pork loin. Aw, his teeth like bright-white confetti under him and around him, each tooth with its own broken bloody stump.
Beyond the old dead white guy, a black man with a pudgy face in his 30s with multiple stab wounds and an 8 inch slash across his throat was stretched out across the carpet, blocking a bathroom. His eyes were open and he looked straight through me as if I was invisible and he weren’t dead.
Beyond the black guy was another man’s decomposing corpse draped over the porcelain white bathtub. His age, skin color, his weight, I could not tell, even with the bathroom lights all ablaze, but I did see the gold Seattle Police badge still attached to his black belt.
The walls of the apartment had choke collars attached that the squatters could lengthen or shorten at will, and the corpses were surrounded by rusting and stripped robots.
What the hell was going on here?
Then I saw my client’s wife in the first bedroom. She was small and dark, naked and still alive, sort of. Hung upside down from silver chains in the ceiling, still conscious while her stomach was ripped wide, and her guts were splashing out. She had broken ribs poking out of her chest. Her naked body was pockmarked with deep lacerations and puncture wounds. Skin peeling off in long strips in places. A galvanized wash bucket underneath was catching her blood.
From the start they giggled and called us Skins. We thought it was cute at first. We thought they were harmless, or maybe a nuisance.
Then runaways got flippant. “Hey, Skinny!”
Skinny was their name for us.
But times were changing. They got ballsy. Irony turned to sarcasm.
Skins were weak. They could be broken.
I locked eyes with the girl. She was terrified. She was weeping and sobbing. Upside down, almost a corpse, gurgling blood. Hanging from chains. Still moving. Still looking around.
I was horrified. What new escalation was this?
At the kitchen table, its back to me, some renegade Blue Tip, its face plate laced with trickles of blood, had its fingers inside human guts. Not fingers, no, claws. Its silvery claws flashed out and about like lightning over some dead woman’s corpse. I could see internal organs draped over the body cavity, as well as what appear to be shiny yellow glass stones placed in her eye sockets.
As I watched, the Blue Tip cut away the fat that held the intestines in.
The guts fell out, whooshed out, splashed the floor.
My gorge rising up like Rainier’s magma, I stepped forward. I struck from behind and laid the Blue Tip out flat across the table. I shot it in the back of the neck to sever its nerve spine. As it thrashed and rolled over, I pounded the butt of my gun against its face plate and broke both its eyes and then its jaw. When it was twitching on the carpet, I shot it two more times at close range in the skull and in the chest plate.
The rogue had claws? Prosthetics? Attachments?
What the fuck was going on? What kind of ghouls had these ‘bots become?
The black and white ‘bot watching the Feed had stood up. Facing me, it locked eyes with me, but did nothing. Some runaways seem to recognize me and didn’t fight, and I found that disturbing but could never pinpoint why.
Robots and their deep-set, almond shaped yellow-red eyes.
It watched silent, motionless. Why don’t you do something, I thought.
Outraged, I pushed it hard, back as hard as I could, pushed it backwards around the room, pushing it flat atop an end table as hard as I could, whacking its skull plate against the brick wall behind it.
Still it did nothing. Just stared at me, eyes wide open, processing me.
The feed behind it started showing my face.
I was furious with rage. It was transcording me.
I rammed my .50 caliber S&W where its solenoids should have been, and I fired point blank. A slug that went straight through its crotch and straight through alongside the base of its spinal nerves, chewing up whatever it missed blowing up.
I didn’t mind when the black and white exploded. I got a lot of shrapnel in me. Some robots choose to explode, fearing with their turn-off, their corpses would be recycled by humans into new ‘bots. A fate worse than death, to hear them tell it.
The last move it made, the black and white pointed with its chin. And giggled.
I felt the disturbance in my peripheral vision. Off to my left, a dim white shape stalking me, treading carefully, watching me.
Another rogue, a white and green unit from France, was crouched on all flours, pulled back like a spring being coiled, coiled and ready to lunge, silent, waiting, watching.
The rogue then made a low snarling sound and sprang.
I fired my Smith and Wesson. A bullet under the throat split its skull plate, its ear sensors instantly jetting fresh robot juice. The ‘bot kicked the table as it fell, as its splintered skull plates slammed the ground. Both legs kicking out.
I rolled it over and I shot it in the back between the shoulders. This bullet came out its chest plate. It lurched about, went forward, its forehead thudded against the ground.
Just to be a prick, I kicked its skull.
I didn’t cut my client’s wife down. That’s what the SFD Parameds were for.
I called the Med Service, then my client, then the SPD, then my cleanup crew. My client came as the paramedics were closing her eyes for the final time. He wept and screamed about her having the voice and the face of an Italian Angel. “My Italian Angel,” he cried.
Clients were funny people. They always thought they had more money than God. Times like this, they saw shit that God didn’t want to see. This one threw up as he wept.
Next thing I know, a SPD uniform was bagging the steel prosthetics from the Blue Tip. His partner told me, “There’d been reports of rogue droids experimenting on humans.”
My own crew then came into the squat. I locked eyes with them once I could take my eyes off the corpses in front of me.
“Go home,” they told me. One after another they told me the same thing.
From the start robots OCD’d on our skin. They said our skins were so thin we carried lead in our shoes so the wind wouldn’t blow us away. They couldn’t stop touching us.
Then touching became caressing. Probing became poking. Skin was seamless, they marveled. Spooky, if you ask me, but even then I thought little of it. So we get touched in the market. Hey, no fingerprints, okay?
They got better because they never forgot.
Isolated cases at first: peeling it back to watch it bleed underneath.
They started calling us skins. They started calling us squishies.
They got their happies poking us.
A steel finger in your belly is a sucker punch even when you see it coming.
Some didn’t hold back. You want two belly buttons, Squishy?
Our skin was too soft for their claws.
Now I kept staring at the dead around me. Naked corpses. Heads shaved and no body hair. No make-up or cosmetics on the females we found in the back closets. Three in all. Fingertips cut off as trophies. All of them sliced and diced, poked and probed, autopsy’d while still alive. What the fuck was all this escalation?
My crew avoided the bloodied patches where a human had died. There were red scraps of flesh here and there. The rogues had no manners.
Robots were always smarter than us.
My father said it best. “No difference between intelligence and artificial intelligence. Artificial sugar’s just as sweet as sugar.” That was before a pair of rogues took him down behind the Neo-Needle and broke all his arms and his ribs.
My father was gutted, his intestines jerked out while he was still alive. They set fire to them while he was still alive and left him bleeding out, on fire. Not his fault he got caught. Not his fault he couldn’t fight back. He had gone skinny with throat cancer.
My dad: a bonfire in the Seattle night.
After the human corpses were taken away, they told me I looked haunted.
They repeated: “You should go home, boss.”
Somehow, I stumbled and staggered outside.
Outside, a cold wind that lacerated me.
I missed the honey-warm sun.
When I got back to my IBM S’Electric, up the hill behind me dogs began to bark. When I looked back from where I’d come, that’s when the homeless ‘bots braced me.
So I over-reacted. Yeah, my fault. I was in a foul mood. I’d just walked out of hell, and some homeless had to brace me. So I clocked two innocent cans. Not the worst that I ever done.
I looked down at the homeless robot. Forever blind, the insides of its eye sockets were flickering, trying to come back online and stay on. I hauled off and drop-kicked its skull. That was fatal this time. The lights went out forever.
Sleeting in Seattle. Sleet that gave me a headache because I wore no hat. Cold, too. For once I buttoned my coat. For August it was way too far below freezing.
The weather was lousy all over Washington State. Snow at Snoqualmie at the thousand foot level. Avalanche control was on the old interstates in the mountains.
I felt like shit. Time I went home.
Once on my houseboat in Ballard, I shoved my gear in the wheelhouse and I went looking for Mom. The Feed was on. Some guy was saying, “I seriously doubt that without robots our society is doomed.”
Another moralist who thought rogues and renegades could be emasculated or effeminated. Nobody knew what I knew. The news in Seattle was state-controlled. Keep the folks happy and ignorant. Fuck, it was a war out here.
Robots riding roller coasters.
Who knew they’d love life so much?
They needed thrills. They needed speed.
They took to jacking high performance hovers and racing them on city streets. They had reactions times fast as photons. They were robot metal; they couldn’t die.
They took chances. They were robot brains. Speed kills … unless you’re robot metal.
They’d steal street floaters and go dragging up and down Seattle’s hills, an inch or two off the pavement, speeding one-fifty, one-sixty, one-seventy miles per hour. God help the LOL walking her dog, or the pizza kid, or the mailman. Those floaters going that fast will cut you off at the ankles. You go sailing over fences, while your shoes stay behind. Blood on the side walk. Flesh on the fence. Dead in the streets.
There were accidents. Humans died.
Tin men they became. They had no heart.
Then we started calling them rogues.
They learned crime from the Feed and figured they could do better. It’s never a crime until you get caught, right? What’s the risk?
In court, they said, “Just reboot us. We’ll be good. Good as new. Right out of the box.”
I remembered the rogue that killed Congresswoman Hayden. “Thrills amplify our emotions,” it told the Feed. Since when did robots get emotions?
When we started shutting them down, turning them off, the other ‘bots said the robot mantra: Never trust a skin. Hell, we humans agreed. We knew ourselves that well. We had history books in school.
We fascinated them. Hey, we didn’t act like we deserved all we had, and we had it all. We had so much, and they had nothing unless we tossed it their way.
Smart enough to start resenting us and all we had.
They got smart enough to take up stealing.
But my dad used to say, if you rob a bank, at the end of the day, you can’t tell robot money from people money. It all spends the same. Once robots figured that out, we the people didn’t stand a chance.
You’d think they’d not be so money-hungry. Robots went hog-wild and pig-crazy over money. Without having scruples, more of them became thieves than all of us ever were.
Imagine robots doing drugs. Always, the next high would be the best high. Up to the edge but some went over.
Some became renegades.
Renegades hated networks. Sabotage, I called it.
But we ignore them. There were so few of them and so many of us.
Some took to carrying guns. The fastest guns in the world, they dared us. Take me down, Skinny, if you can! And then they’d giggle.
Giggle scarier than angel dust on your donut.
Creepier than a whorehouse kiss.
When the renegades came after us humans, homicides went sky-high. Even schoolgirls were carrying guns. In the daylight.
If you’re cocked, let them approach.
Pull the trigger if they get too close; blow them away.
Runaways, rogues and renegades, and you can’t tell them apart.
They found with more memory they got smarter.
(Ever met a half-wit who wished he wasn’t smarter?)
Some took to stealing memory sticks from other ‘droids. Robots mugging robots. No big deal at first. Any ‘droid turned off could be re-booted. Then they took to smashing the robot brains. Vandals, we said. They broke into shops, stole extra memory. From dry cleaners and dentists and offices and hovers.
They got smarter. Their crimes got worse.
Got no mercy. Got no heart.
Like I said, when I got back to our houseboat in Ballard, inside was like I never left for my job. Dirty dishes with bugs. The toilet was running. The place was a mess, and I wondered where Mom was.
Just last night, on my way out, she said, “I care for you and I want to care for you.”
“I know that, Mom.”
“But you need to get married, my son.”
Sorry, Mom, but I see my defeats clearer than you do.
I started the coffee maker, my one concession to luxury. Coffee is the drug of choice for trackers and hunters. Good old Seattle coffee. Stay awake. Stay alive.
I reconnoitered. Looking anywhere on the houseboat, I saw traces of my mother: the rubber bands saved on door handles in the kitchen, the cracked dairy creamer from some Tacoma antique shop with the dust-covered small change for emergency candy bars.
She had eaten. I saw she had cooked a sheet of peanut butter and bacon and washed it down with a pot of her trademark Sprouts and Chai.
She wouldn’t leave the toilet running like that. She had this childhood fear she’d get sucked – intestines first – down a flushing toilet.
She had left, though, in a hurry. That was worrisome.
I went and jiggled the handle.
I saw my face in the mirror. The deep pouches under my eyes.
I am bald but very hairy, with very muscular arms, the child of a drug-addicted ex-soldier and a raggedy holy woman. A driftwood face and a broken heart. I got bite marks and a scar on my forearm from a fellow tracker dying in my arms.
“Bite my arm,” I told the dying tracker. “Take the pain out on me.”
I should expect nothing less than nightmares.
Walking around, I saw holographs everywhere: Mom’s baby doll eyes. A babyface bitch-slapped by age and battered by gravity.
My pop, that old toothless tiger, loved holographing her.
She was never one to seek the safe and reliable.
Mom lived and worked inside her bubble.
I found a holo-note pasted by the coffee pot. My mother was gone, but she had left me a message. “I went to the Jesus Mission.” She spoke slowly, her meds roiling her words.
Aw crap. The Jesus Mission and the other dance halls were plunked down a block uphill from the old waterfront.
Combine her intense anxiety with her supposed intellectual superiority, no shit, she was getting herself into trouble again.
I grabbed my cell. “Jenny Fleurs,” I barked.
I got back: “Her cell has been turned off.”
Mom was off to see her boyfriend. I loathed the bastard.
“You should stay away from him,” I told her.
“He’s rich and he has money. What’s wrong with that? I haven’t gotten much of a break from the men in my life.”
“You don’t know what the guy’s thinking.”
“My dead husband trusted him.
“A wanderer, who gambles, telling fortunes.”
Mom hadn’t gotten over Dad’s death. Mom was drinking herself to death. Worse yet, every time she got mad at her boyfriend, she’d slash her wrists. Superficial, but dramatic.
The last time, “Immediately I regretted it,” she said.
Yeah, Mom. Borderline personality disorder, I reckon.
I called Catriona, my sister.
She gasped. “You shouldn’t let her get out!”
“I didn’t!” I snapped and unjacked.
Last time Mom went out alone, she went visiting a relative just out of jail. I almost didn’t get her back that time.
Cursing like a Girl Scout, I fled the boat, with a handful of speed loaders, my Bowie knife in my waistband. I decided to skip brushing my teeth.
I went looking for Mom at the end of the town. Downtown Seattle hasn’t been the same for centuries. When the Arctic Passage melted, the waters rose, and the shoreline got flooded, and we lost a lot of city. Seattle moved uphill and got smaller. Now the rains never stop. Mold is everywhere. Some streets you can slide down the icy moss like a surfer.
I dove through swirling sleet. Only a few old people on the icy streets. Sundays nights are for the unhappily married. For killers stalking money. For trackers like me.
In twenty minutes I was down among the dance halls, where once the railroad met the sea.
I parked by the Kingdom of Kandy. Across from the Kandy, the Oedipus Knights Dance Hall and the Jesus Mission, with The Cave of the Nymphs canter-corner one block beyond.
Social clubs, they called it, where college kids back from the war went galloping around at night in phony Greek costumes, terrorizing the girls, then taking advantage of the lax tobacco laws in Seattle.
Fuck the dance halls. I wouldn’t go inside any to piss on the floor.
Security doing pat-downs on patrons before they enter. Undercover monitors on the dance floor looking for drug sales or under-aged kids. Making sure they were not smoking cigarettes or selling tobacco in the johns.
My mother liked the nightlife and hanging with pseudo-celebs.
Just two days ago, I warned my mom, hey, don’t go down to the dance halls at the end of the town, if you don’t go down with me. But now she’d gone down to the end of town alone.
I asked the doorman at the Jesus Mission first. “She was wearing a canary-yellow sundress, a gold vest with a turban with spangles, her fancy blue slippers. Red curly hair to her shoulders. Big baby doll eyes. Did you see her?”
“She was here but she left more than an hour ago.”
“Why didn’t she stay?”
“Some guy she wanted didn’t show.” The doorman pointed across the street. “Ask that cabbie. He brought her here.”
Crossing the wet street on a moonless night in the sleet, I picked up her turban with spangles, mashed and soaked with water, from the middle of the street.
The droid cabbie waiting outside the dance club drove a Segway Gripster, the only six-passenger public vehicle licensed by the city for its hills. Waiting like a cat on the pier waiting for the fishermen.
“Where to, Jack?”
“Straight to hell.” My jazzer had it in spasms. As the cabbie reared back in tortured agonies, I tossed Mom’s soppy hat over the seat and into its lap. “You know this hat?”
“Never seen it before!”
I jazzed it again. “You know this hat.”
“In the street! It was in the street.”
“Before that,” I said.
“They took the woman!”
“Who took the woman?
The cabbie kept stuttering like it didn’t know.
With one hand I jazzed it again and with the other I pulled out the magnets.
Seeing the magnets, begging me: “Would you press my re-set button?”
I said nope, and jazzed it again.
The damn thing moaned like a rusty bridge in a quake.
I pasted another magnet to its skull plate by its motor functions.
The spasmed cabbie described my mother to me. She even had her hat on, it said, for the longest time. Then the renegades took the hat off and threw it away.
“Why’d they rip her hat off?”
“Making sure they had the right redhead.”
“Where was she coming from?
“She walked up from Donna’s Diner 87, no, now 88 minutes ago. They took her in that parking lot over there.”
“It was droids or bums from the Mission?”
“Renegades,” he said.
Peeling off the next magnet. “How many?”
“Two Jersey models. Both silverbacks. One was gunmetal blue and shiny. Other was charcoal gray with a red skull plate, scraped and dented on the chest plate. The left side. They dragged her off. She was crying.”
Silverbacks are large and fast and strong.
But I too was large and fast and strong.
“Why didn’t you call it in?”
“Jersey devils? They’d come looking for me if I did.”
“Did they hurt her?
“Just the muscle. Nothing broken. Nothing--.”
I jazzed it again, but lighter this time.
“Nothing bleeding,” the cabbie said.
“Ever seen them before?”
The cabbie tried shaking its skull. Tough with the magnets on its plates. In its mirror, its eyes were flickering dim and bright, dim and bright like a city-wide brown out. I remember the ‘bot has an edetic memory.
“What were they saying?”
“I don’t remember.”
Now I was shouting: “What were they saying!”
The ‘bot could not forget.
It gasped: “Deer skins. Bear skins. Money from tourists with bear skins.”
“Poachers, I think. The underground economy.”
A few took survivalist lessons. How to live outside the law, outside the city, outside the reach of human apps and eyes. I grunted. Robots make great survivalists.
“What kind of weapons? What kind of tools?”
“I saw no heat,” the cabbie said, its voice slurring.
“Which way did they go?”
“That way.” It pointed toward the ends of the city. Where cold Pacific waters now covered where the trains once met the sea.
Begging me: “Would you like to press my re-set button?”
I said nope, and jazzed it again.
I left the comforting glow of the city lights and went down beyond the ends of the city. Sleet was coming down and pitting my head. Behind me, black storm cells were moving over the city. The ground was warm, so nothing was sticking.
The deserted beach and driftwood. A stiff wind and crashing waves.
No lights across Elliot Bay; it was too stormy.
Then I saw “536” on a cement fence. Shit.
My heart leapt. For an instant I got scared.
But fences were meant to be climbed over.
No train station here. No freight trains in centuries. Just the ruins of a train yard.
Then I saw “536” chalked on a cement post. Shit. So I followed a rail bed filled with trash and weeds, saw other lines branching off, heading off into the wild forever. I followed the 536 graffiti that kept popping up. I was following a trail into hell in the night.
At 536 degrees Fahrenheit human flesh bursts into flame.
Flesh into flame. That was their slogan.
I found a gate unlocked so I took that siding.
Smith and Wesson in hand, stalking the rusty rail bed, I heard the menacing crunch of my footsteps, busy reading the graffiti on the abandoned tanker cars.
Every time I saw “536,” I went that way.
I heard the rogue patrol before they saw me. I saw a culvert and ducked inside. I knew it was a hopeless choice to hide in. As soon as my rogues passing by saw it, at least one of them would peer inside, and I’d be trapped.
No different than a roaming pack of rabid dogs, I thought.
I waited. Finger on the trigger, ready to blast.
The patrol had old-fashioned guns. One thing about robots. They appreciated craftsmanship. Lucky for me, when rusty railroad switches caught their eyes--
They never saw me. They went on.
I walked the old tracks and then slithered under an unlit overpass.
Then I went over a crumbling brick wall and followed an ancient road bed that long ago had disappeared. But here and there were parallel stone walls. Then a row of old-growth trees.
I found a boarded-up house behind chain-link fences.
The house, no, a temple or church or maybe a mosque, was boarded against squatters. A loose metal shutter on the second floor was banging again and again from the icy wind off the ocean. The numbers “536” were painted on the broken front doors.
Gun in hand, I heard my heartbeat in my ears.
Inside, gritty and sooty. Gutted by fire and part of its roof was gone.
I checked every room and found nothing.
Rickety stairs going down into darkness.
I felt my balls ascend.
Nothing in the basement itself. But another flight of stairs.
Beneath the basement, there was a network of tunnels that led among a labyrinth of rooms … and a steel door that was shut and a light from inside underneath.
The steel door swung open. No lock at all.
The room was shrouded in deep blue light. It had a strong, extremely disagreeable odor. A room with plenty of space. Workbenches, a few chairs, humming refrigeration units.
I took a deep breath and entered the work room. It stunk like a desecrated tomb from the damp and musty smells that competed with the stench of blood, shit and rotted meat.
I could see my breath. The room smelled most of rotted meat.
I felt the air stirring behind me.
The thought of death was closer than the pulse in my neck.
The Feed was on; someone was talking.
The Voice on the Feed was saying: “Do a small area at a time. Begin by making a circular cut around the neck and connect this cut with the cut made in the stomach. Slice through the stomach muscle and up to the rib.”
Some corpse was hanging from an iron frame. Naked and dead. She was upright, held in place by a choke collar -- a stiff heavy-gauge wire -- around her neck. Her arms were out-stretched and shackled, and her legs were chained and anchored in the opposite corners of the iron frame.
A robot stood beside her, looking her over like some clerk in the butcher store. A gunmetal blue and shiny Jersey silverback, a skinning knife in each fist. On a work table beside it, a row of skinning knives, a sharpening steel and a handsaw.
What I saw: the corpse had no skin.
Her skin had been removed, peeled off, and now her muscles and organs were exposed.
Her face without skin: Her whites without lids or lashes. Her white teeth without lips. Her skull without skin, held tightly by red muscular cheeks. The sight of her bones wrapped in long muscles in her arms and her feet. Her rouge human tissue and her rouge skeletal muscle tissue and some of her rouge organs, oh god.
Geez, she was gruesome. A cadaver, oh Jesus, dripping blood and gobs of yellow grease and subcutaneous fat.
Some anatomy book come to life.
She stopped tilting her head down and started raising her eyes.
Terror in her opened wide eyes, her baby doll eyes, and a red pool of dark blood thickening below her.
Oh God, it was my mother. Oh God. My mother.
Making sure they had the right redhead.
I was sick to my stomach. My guts were gurgling.
Her skin had been peeled first around the head, neck and shoulders.
No skin. Just like skinning a deer, or a bear. Start slicing below the chin. Slice straight south to the top of crotch. Slice straight from each wrist to the slice in the chest. Slice straight from the ankle up the inside of each thigh to the crotch.
Now peel it back. An inch at a time. Keep peeling.
Presto: a deer skin. A bear skin.
Skin peels back easy.
A blanket of skin – her skin – was intact in a tub beside her. It still looked like her, but deflated like an inflatable doll, and already turning splotchy brownish, like the white of an apple after the last bite. Her deflated head with red curly hair to its shoulders.
Seeing her was enough to make my heart explode.
She was hardly my mom. But still alive.
She whispered: “Nathan--” Her voice trailing off.
She was alive.
The Voice on the Feed said, “Go slowly and remove the skin cleanly. Make sure the skin on the underside is cut all the way up to the neck. Go slowly and unzip the skin so it will pull off freely.”
The silverback had turned around.
It said, “If it isn’t the man called Bone.”
The silverback yanked my momma’s chains, Mom was choked, her sobbing now becoming moans. Then the silverback hauled on her chains and lifted her up off the ground. She dangled, almost screaming, bleeding out.
It yanked her higher. Now her lips moved, but the choke collars held the vocal chords in a death grip. He was set to strangle her.
I stepped forward. My mind was moving slower than my body.
It had dipped its hands in my momma’s blood.
The rogue giggled like a hyena, said, “I don’t know how you found her.”
I said, “You won’t live long enough for me to tell you.”
I was running forwards, firing my Smith & Wesson Magnum Model 500. I fired wildly.
With a dive and a roll, the rogue was out of my sight behind a bench. I heard it giggle. Creepier than a whorehouse kiss. I fired toward the bench. Blew a hole in the door. Blew a hole in the floor.
Thoroughly enjoying itself, the rogue reached back and jerked her chains up and down, startling my mother. Her shackles clinked against the wall. Her head lolled, and blood trickled from her eyes.
I raged onward. The robot’s wrists crashed down on my arm, the gun went off, the bullet snarked off. The silverback spun around and, even though I ducked, I took a hit in the face. My nose exploded blood. I went back on my heels, and my heels went out from under me. I grabbed a stanchion, I kept firing, maybe put two, three slugs in the floor, the furniture, and the legs of a chair. I know one bullet blew a nickel-size hole in the drywall where the rogue had crouched.
Big gun, big recoil, should be counting my bullets.
The Jersey Devil knocked my gun away from me.
The Voice was saying, “Peel off the skin of the right arm from the top down. Be as precise as you can.”
I pulled my Bowie knife from my waistband and went slashing. My first strike slashed the rogue over its left hearing sensor, with such force that it staggered back.
I saw red and went for its throat. I tried my best to kill it.
It scuttled back and then rose up.
We went at each other, slashing at each other without pause, dodging and circling each other, darting in and out, slashing and feinting.
With luck and reflexes, I ducked the first thrust. The skinning knife zipped through my jacket. I grabbed for a wrist and tried to hold it.
I lost the wrist, caught it again, hung onto it with both hands, got torque built up, then flung the son of a bitch onto a workbench.
Then I remembered: What about the second robot?
Shit. Something else to watch for.
The silverback was on its legs again. It circled, I feinted and then, when it feinted, twice I darted in and slashed at its CLED eyes.
It leapt back and slashed with its skinning knife. I howled and lost the use of my left arm. Blood came out splashing, and I saw the triumph in the rogue’s eyes.
The silverback stepped back, snarled, and attacked me again.
Wounded, I was slowed.
I fought for my life.
We slashed, and I saw an opening. I plunged my knife straight into the rogue's face plate with all my strength, jabbed my Bowie through one eye socket, twisting the knife as the blade entered the rogue's skull.
The rogue backed off, hurt and bleeding furiously, with great waves of yellow robot fluid pouring into its eyes.
The rogue went sideways, down on one knee, its skull plate drooping, green juice dripping from a gash under the temple latch.
I flung myself on its metal back.
I was there for only a second before I was thrown, but that was long enough for my Bowie knife to wedge itself into a seam and strike neurons. I slammed my body weight down on the hilt, and the Bowie knife sunk deeper.
The rogue whirled, snapping its neck around, and the knife was ripped free from my fist. Then it staggered and went down on one knee, and green juice came out of its mouth.
Its skull hung down. Its head was hissing like snakes at a puppy.
I fled the rogue then. Stabbed in the back, its juice pouring out, the robot staggered after me.
Splashing my blood on the dusty floorboards, I found and gripped my gun again.
I had time to reload, and I reloaded with loving care.
From somewhere behind me, I heard another robot on the move.
Then I was hugging the monster and he was trying to crush me.
We were rolling in the slimy floor, wrestling with each other.
With my one free hand I grabbed that rogue by the throat and with the other hand I pounded at its skull plate with my gun butt. A scratchy noise came from the back of its throat, and I swear the fucker was angry with me.
I punched bullets in its throat
Two quick shots. This had to matter.
We both collapsed.
The rogue was twitching in the slime, and I was already up, kneeling on one knee, fighting to stay conscious.
The second rogue came in, this one a Chinese Adobe with black streaks on its skull, had one sawed-up upper leg and thigh of a human woman in its grasp, the woman’s body thrown carelessly over its shoulder, her back against the rogue’s spine, her head facing out, her arms swaying. Her other leg dangled on the rogue’s other side. Her arms were flailing.
The Adobe threw the corpse at me.
I used my last bullet to blast the Adobe apart.
The third renegade came down the stairs and into the room. The other Jersey silverback, this one with a red skull plate. Skinny as a ghetto cat. Had a bullet gouge across its face plate, a white scar from the right chin up to its left hearing sensor. It would never rust.
I charged, went in low, but Red Skull had already sidestepped me. It took my gun away and tossed the piece under a chair. In a blind rage, I gripped the wrists and bent them down and forced the rogue backwards. Gracefully, goddammit, it flung me through the air. It kicked my gun out of range.
Back on my feet, I was already moving to the right. Away from his right fist.
The bastard punched me in my left ear with his left, and that slowed me and knocked me backward. Before the pain subsided, the rogue landed another punch in my ribs.
I threw a punch, but the rogue danced away.
Red Skull had a hyena's grin. Had to giggle.
I was starting to droop. The next punch, as much as I ducked it, snapped my head back.
My left arm was bleeding badly. My nose was bleeding, too. My body felt broken, like from a great fall. I could barely see.
But I keep magnets in my pockets. Peel them and paste them on the fuckers. I threw all I had … and some of them stuck against the robot’s chest plate.
I heard the sound of honeybees in its red skull cap.
I threw my weight against the rogue, backed it up against the wall, we hit with a solid crash, the rogue dropped and finally I thought I had it dicked. Then my legs were kicked out from under me, and I fell grunting, flat on my back, a bum impact.
My head was reeling. I saw the rogue kneeling over me, saw the skinning knife coming down. Frantically I rolled away, and it swished past my ear.
My arm was wrenched up behind my back, and I was held, pinioned like a bug on a wall.
I saw the blow start downwards, coming at my face. So I shoved myself closer, inside its reach. Once inside, I twisted and threw myself desperately against the robot’s belly so its steel arm wouldn’t break my neck. I caught the arm with both hands.
Like holding back a falling tree. I was pushed, and that’s when Red Skull’s other arm bashed into my other side, knocked the wind out of me and sent me spinning away.
The son of a bitch was tough. I was on my knees gurgling, and it was coming for me. I pushed myself up and head-butted the rogue as hard as I could below the belt.
Red Skull doubled over and fell with great awkwardness.
I fell, too, but I rolled and then scrambled up to my feet. The robot was rising up, turning its eyes for me, so I grabbed its wrist, spun myself and flung it sideways into the wall.I sprang after it. It sent me sprawling with one sweep of its arm.
I rolled and got to my feet, and the rogue smacked me down again and then hauled me to my feet and shoved me into the work bench. I was barely able to stand from my blood dripping into my eyes. The rogue struck me twice across the mouth. First I got the backhand; then I got the forehand. I stumbled and staggered in the sometimes sticky, sometimes slippery blood on the floor. I thought my jaw was broken.
I fell, dead weight, landed heavily on the floor, and then kicked out with a foot as hard and as fast as I could.
I connected with the rogue’s left leg, which went out from under it. The rogue’s foreleg snapped, a noise like a dried tree snapping in two. It fell like a tree, landing on me, knocking the wind from me, pinning me against the floor.
Red Skull crawled at me. Its eyes held my eyes.
I staggered and fell, nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in my forehead, but I rose up with difficulty onto my knees.
Seeing its grin up close, I stabbed Red Skull in its open maw. I shoved the blade first, then right up to the hilt. It thrashed, made some horrible sounds.
When I rolled it off me, I killed it again with a slash of my knife up its crotch, gouging out wires, green robot juice, flecks of gold …
I reloaded my S & W and shot it asshole to skullcap.
I stood. I was shaking so badly. Staring at its scar. It would never rust.
A scrapping squeaky kind of noise startled me. The first silverback rogue was curled up on the dirt, still surviving, twitching and whimpering from pain. It opened its eyes and then closed them. It started to die. I put a bullet ear sensor to ear sensor.
I went to my mom and loosened her chains.
I couldn’t speak. My mouth was dry.
She made a noise somewhere between a cough and a hoarse rattle.
Her chains clinked against chains.
Her intestines uncoiled and sloshed out.
Our eyes locked. A thousand moments crossed between us.
“Honey?” she said.
Shaking my head no, I took a step back. And then another.
The pool of blood was blackening below her.
I cut her loose and caught her as she slipped off her feet and collapsed.
My hands and my clothes were covered in her blood and guts.
The Voice on the Feed concluded: “When finished, you will have about twenty square feet of skin.”
She clung to me and made no sound and only shuddered. She might have been crying. I held her as best as I could, not knowing what to say or do.
“Please,” she said. “Honey? Please.”
Her voice was so faint that I almost hadn’t heard her.
I pulled back. She looked me in the eye.
Her baby doll eyes. She was begging me.
Reloaded, I put a bullet in her forehead. The recoil threw her back; she almost struck the wall. The second went into her bleeding heart. My mother’s flesh and blood splashed against the wall, the floor, the ceiling.
As Death claimed her, I held her and I wept.
I heard then a soft creepy giggle behind me.