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Jester Steele - Android Detective (fiction)

Old Guy

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Not a lot of characters in this one.  Still, it may be entertaining.  :)

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Jester Steele, Android Detective
JR Hume


The bar-jockey looked fully human, but a casual sensor scan revealed that he was a droid.  Humans often have odd bits of metal-based skeletal structure, but they have neither the internal space nor the support elements for a fusion power plant.  His outer aspect hinted at inner angst, though I suspected the human body choice simply replicated his original, Mark One, Mod 0, homo sap configuration.

"What'll it be?"  His tone and accompanying sensor scan were borderline polite.  I took no offense.  Businesses on Level Eight had good reason for caution.

I flashed my Security ID.  "Know an organic named Slim Gherkin?"

His eyes cut left and right below rigid faux eyebrows.  He must have opted for the semi-mobile face structure.  I could see the advantage.  Bar-jocks have to listen to all sorts of sad and strange stories from paying customers.  Having immobile eyebrows would be handy.  My own plain metal visage, featuring only a pair of vision receptors and a speaker grille, might work for a bar-jockey, although a face capable of expressing reasonable sympathy could well bring bigger tips.

"In the back," he rumbled.  "By the window."

There was only one figure seated in front of the window overlooking Hooligan, the world we occupants of Caveat live with all the time.  Most volk get tired of the view, though I don't.  The face of the planet changes subtly over time, due to the hellish dust storms which have raged there for the last few million years.  Some can't abide the sensation of sitting with a few millimeters of window separating them from hard vacuum, even though the window is actually a view screen and several kilometers of Caveat separate this particular room from space. 

As I worked my way across the crowded bar three women and two men made explicit offers, which I turned down.  I'd never opted for the features required for such interaction, having led a fairly monastic life the first go-around.  My only addition to the basic military droid body is a speaker grille with a cigar receptacle.  The smoker rig came with taste receptors, a suction pump and bellows for the exhaust cycle.

At the window table, I extended my ID.  "Slim Gherkin?"  He was fully human.  I couldn't detect any repair parts or non-organic enhancements, which was unusual.

He took a moment to read the chit.  "Detective Jester Steele.  A random name choice or is there a message contained therein?"

The question comes up often.  "I was in the military when I went droid.  Jester was my tactical call sign in an armored assault brigade.  The Steele surname was my choice."  I took a seat opposite Slim.

"Names fascinate me.  I can't imagine why my mother named me a slender pickle."  He leaned forward.  "How does the Steele handle relate to your inner self?"

I wasn't interested in analyzing his mother or myself.  "You were in Level Eight, near the Tackle Shack when one Q'ung 322X was scragged?"

Slim signaled for a drink refill.  He may have been stalling -- or just thirsty.  I lit a fresh cigar and waited.

"I was in a side corridor near the Tackle Shack.  Someone cratered the Q'ung just before I rounded a corner about ten meters from the scene of the crime."  He frowned.  "Was it a private affair?"

"That's what I'm trying to determine, sir.  Med-teks were on hand within minutes.  The Q'ung had hardware and organic damage, but it was covered by Full Medical and Collision, so other than lost time and a little pain and suffering, it wasn't harmed."

"I see."  Slim toyed with his drink.  "Q'ung like pain and suffering."

"True.  It filed no complaint, in any event."

"So what is Security's interest?  Sounds like a good time was had by all."

"The insurance companies like us to follow up on these cases.  There have been a rash of scraggings lately.  Did you see who might have cratered the Q'ung?"

"No.  I looked at the victim first."  His face paled.  "It was awful!  Q'ung turn my stomach in the best of circumstances and this one was a mess."  All his reactions pointed to real distress.  Though Federation and Caveat laws frown on the use of active sensors before probable cause is established, no law can prevent passive scanning.  Slim's pulse, respiration, blink rate and thermal readings indicated truth or a pathological liar.  There is no reliable way to tell the difference, popular Tri-V to the contrary.  I moved to my next query.

"Any idea who might have done it?"

"No.  All the volk I saw in the corridor were armed, including me.  I didn't shoot the creature, but that's all I can tell you for sure."

Therein lay the problem.  Crater guns are the ultimate equalizer.  A crater charge will stun and immobilize any meat animal, organic sentient, or droid in Known Space.  It is adequate defense against most predators, though volk tend to rely on more lethal weapons when an encounter with a meat eater is possible.  Crater charges damage tissue and shatter metal and plastic out to fifteen or twenty meters.  Like the Q'ung in this case, most of the wounded recover if they receive prompt treatment from competent med-teks.  Practically every sentient on Caveat carries a crater gun and there is no method for matching specific weapons to damage patterns.

I lifted my shoulders in a stiff shrug.  It probably looks stupid, but I do it without thinking -- a habit left over from my flesh and blood days.  "We have video, but the closest pickup was inop.  I hoped you could tell me more."

Slim rubbed the side of his jaw and frowned.  Finally, he shook his head.  "Sorry.  Nothing comes to mind.  I still can't see the Security interest.  Is there any evidence that the med-teks are hiring scraggers?  I've heard of such practices."

"No, but some of the recent victims have been uninsured.  Several were sent to the forced labor pool so they could work off medical and repair bills.  Security HQ is afraid someone is scragging volk in hopes of filling the pool with low-priced labor."

Slim laughed.  "I see two problems with that idea.  One -- no sane person would want a Q'ung in the labor pool.  The things require several vile liquids just to remain in that quaint half-alive state.  Two -- crater enough volk and you'll end up killing a few.  Has anyone died yet?"

I nodded in agreement.  His logic paralleled my own thinking, especially about the Q'ung.  "A scragged droid deteriorated to clinical death a ten-day ago.  He required an emergency pattern re-plot.  I'm told he may have brain damage, but I don’t know how they'll be able to tell for sure."

"Why?  What was his specialty?"

"Miner.  Drill-jock."  We both chuckled.  Most volk consider miners, especially drill-jocks, as brain-dead carrion anyway.

Slim and I parted on good terms.  I still didn't have any solid information on a possible scragger ring.  HQ was not going to be happy.

The joy houses of Eclectic Avenue held no allure for me, so I crossed the street and followed Rewire Road as it wound past a succession of stim joints.  I had no solid leads -- in fact, no leads at all.  My steps were guided by blind chance.  Where craft fails, luck may suffice.  Level Eight moved about me, raunchy and splendid.  I lit a fresh cigar and watched the volk of Caveat. 

Part of an detective's training is to correlate disparate information and use the result to work toward solving a case.  No insights occurred to me as I idled along.

A bold female droid stepped from an alley.  "Looking for a good time, spacer?"

She possessed an exquisite face -- a work of art -- all in metal.  Below the interlocking chrome steel rings of her neck and obscured by the slightest wisp of fabric, she appeared human.  Fantasy and dreams for some, nightmarish horror to others.  Her slender steel hand touched my arm.

I raised an arm in greeting.  "Not I, sister.  Seek among those with proper equipment."

A metallic chime drowned out her reply.  My sensor array crashed.  I sagged to the street, electronics arcing, actuators aquiver.  Stunned!  Stunning a droid is dangerous.  Our circuits are so varied that a charge sufficient to put one down will kill another.  Someone had taken the trouble to measure my system parameters.  Slim Gherkin?  The steel and flesh harlot?  My mind pulsed with terror.  An image of her karg hide boots flashed and faded.  I spun into a void.

****
A blaze of sun forced my vid sensors into darkened mode.  I sat up.  Rock.  Bare rock in all directions.  Rock and a naked star overhead and a standard military cot with me in it.  One cot, one droid, one star.  I recognized the place at once.

Hooligan.

My sense of dislocation immobilized me for a moment.  Finally, I groped for the edge of the cot and swung my legs over the side.  Reality jerked and slid.  My brain, unable to reconcile what had been with what seemed to be, wavered toward madness, then settled for mere acceptance flavored with paranoia -- my normal state of mind.

My bare rock platform was circular in shape and perhaps twenty meters across.  I walked to the edge.  Down below -- far, far down -- a vast ocean of sand streamed from one horizon to the other.  The mountain below me stood aloof from this torrent, though the windblown sand would subsume it in some future millennia.  I hoped to miss that event.

There was little air at the level of my perch and no water, but those were of minor interest to me.  A fast self-diagnostic check came up nominal -- except my sub-space comm gear showed a fault.  I opened my jumper and popped an access panel.  The sub-space transceiver slot was empty.  My morale sank to an all-time low.

"You there!"

I crouched and turned.  One side of my brain went frantic at the thought of rescue.  The other side conjectured that I was hallucinating voices via low-hertz comm, even though my mental stability warranty still had at least five years to run.

"Below there!  Would you like a lift?"

Droids are often said to be recycled humans.  Some refer to us as people on overdrive.  But, regardless of labels, there is a price to pay for marrying organic impulses with machinery.  Surprise, for instance, sets off a series of human reactions that never work well in a droid.  I ended up flat on my back at least five meters from the cliff edge.  As luck would have it, I hadn't flailed around and fallen into the distant sand sea.

A great bulbous contraption hovered over me.  An android leaned over the rail of a strange boat-shaped affair slung below the bulbous thing.

I'm afraid my greeting was less than cordial.  "Who in the Nine Hells are you!"

"Sorry.  I'm alone, you see, and had to stay at the controls until I could stabilize my airship.  Didn't mean to startle you."

I got up.  Some salient facts worked past my surprised anger.  Number one -- I was not alone.  Two -- this new person had transport.

His craft turned out to be a semi-rigid airship.  I learned the details of its construction and methods of lift (hydrogen plus anti-gravity generators) over the next few days.  My benefactor bore a plain droid body, with no organic features or other markings at all.  Not surprising, since he lived alone and conducted research at altitudes absolutely hostile to living matter.

His name was Duey Gherkin.

"Do you have a relative?" I asked.  "Slim?"  We were sitting at ease in the main cabin, located in the aft section of the gondola.

"My cousin.  A deplorable sort.  You've met him?"

"I have.  In fact, I strongly suspect his involvement in my arrival here."

"Not surprising.  Did Caveat Security suspect him of something?"

"No.  At least not when I met him."

"He's usually under suspicion for something.  Nothing proved."

Duey, with his airship as a base, was carrying on a very long-term research project having to do with Hooligan's atmosphere.  His explanation wandered into the realms of physics and other esoteric subjects until I fell asleep that first day.  After that, he worked at his work and I stayed out of the way.  Unfortunately, his library collection ran to history, biography, science and mathematics.  Of classic detective tales and space opera, he had none.  Mostly, I waited.

Once a year, his university sponsors sent in a ship to provide what little fuel and supplies he needed and to collect any physical samples he might have.  That ship was due in five ten-days. 

Though we had little in common, we did speculate about my predicament.  Cousin Slim occupied a prominent place in our discussions.

Duey told me he and Slim had been raised by their maternal grandmother.  He turned away as he said it.  "Such relationships are preserved at home.  Or they were when I was a child." 

I couldn't look down on him for the circumstances of his upbringing.  My own family has a conservative bent.  Mom and Dad were formally married for nearly thirty years.  The genetic makeup of my organic body had been a mixture of theirs, with no customization.  In spite of that, I coped.

"What world was that?" I asked.  No sense dwelling on the deprived circumstances of our long-ago youth.

"One Hit Wonder.  Have you heard of it?"

I said yes, though I'm not sure he believed me.  Once, long ago, due to an unfortunate juxtaposition of events, I spent a year in a medium security prison.  The experience left me with a liking for burned meat and gravy poured over blackened bread and the ability to recite the names of every Federation planet then known -- all 103 of them.  One Hit Wonder was on that list as a Found Planet.  Our forebears had a penchant for losing themselves in the vastness of the Galaxy only to be found after interminable periods by their ever-questing offspring.  The reunions were not always desired or desirable. 

He fell silent for some time.  I remained still, assuming him to be occupied with memories of a happy youth.  Eventually, I grew restless. 

"You lived with this -- ah, this grandmother?"

He started.  "I'm sorry.  Solitary life has left me unfit for company.  I was thinking of the experimental sequences I must run tomorrow."

So much for childhood ruminations.  "How were you orphaned?"

"Our mothers had no binding relationship with our father or fathers.  We never knew if a living person was involved or if our paternal side came from a specimen jar.  The subject never came up, that I can recall."  He hesitated, then continued:  "A local worship society sponsored a cruise to a star they considered divine, for reasons I've never been able to fathom."

"A common problem," I murmured.

"My mother accompanied a society member on the cruise.  Slim's mother was hired as an actress to play a role in a dramatic reproduction of their God's martyrdom.  She often played such parts and was in constant demand by various societies.

"Something went wrong with the ship.  I have long suspected Slim's involvement, but as with other suspicions relating to Slim, nothing has ever been proved.

"The Qua-Coil engines failed in a catastrophic manner.  The starship and all within it was converted to unsynchronized FTL particles."  Duey sighed.  "Some maintain that the people could be recovered by a properly constructed receiver.  Theoretically, my mother is still alive.  Be that as it may, the insurance companies paid all claims.  Pragmatism triumphed over theory, as usual."

I offered condolences.  "But surely you should have been taken to a crèche?"

"The local crèche refused us.  There were reasons.  I was ten and my cousin two years older.  He was suspected of complicity in a data alteration scheme which stripped local residents of a large quantity of credits.  His accomplices went to prison, but he was too young to be charged.  We were given into the care of our grandmother.  She and Slim had a tense relationship."

"What of the stolen credits?  Surely they could be traced?"

"The funds were never recovered."  Duey assumed a posture of amusement.  "When it came time for Slim and I to train for an occupation, credits were available."

I thought back to my encounter in the bar.  "I took Slim for a businessman."

"He has been that, but it is a sham.  His outward appearance is always innocent.  He studied anything that aided him in fraud.  Mechanics, ethics, qua-space navigation, oceanography, faro, landscape design.  I don't know the extent of his knowledge."

"But what does he do?  You hint at theft via chicanery.  Describe a typical scam."

Duey spread his arms.  "The thing is beyond me.  We've seen little of each other in the past decade or longer.  I don't wish to know his schemes."

I judged that he knew nothing.  My own training included a thorough grounding in illegal schemes designed to separate individuals from their credits.  Most require some degree of greed on the part of the victim.  Upon my return to Caveat, there was little doubt that I could penetrate Slim's fraudulent undertakings and bring him to justice.  The supply ship was due in another ten-day.

*****
We boarded the supply vessel upon its arrival.  The ship captain was unimpressed both by my Security chit and my request for transport to Caveat.

"I ain't goin' back to Caveat," snarled the creature, one Bossi, a six-legged werecat from Engine Failure.  "I just two-jumped from there with Gherkin's supplies.  The station won't have no more cargo for out-system destinations for at least four ten-days.  Docking fees would kill me.  You wanna charter the ship?"  He named a figure approximately ten times my annual salary.

Orbital dynamics are of little interest to me, but I knew that Caveat orbits Hooligan at no great distance.  "It's just a short hop, sir.  You can drop me off."

Bossi spat a couple of were-words and turned toward Duey.  "Are all cops born stupid or do they wipe their upper registers at hiring?"

"He's a specialist," said Duey, in a soothing tone.  "A detective.  I gather that such cops require an eclectic mix of knowledge."

"Eclectic or moronic?"  Bossi waved away my protests.  "Lock down your speech center, Pester.  I've cargo to move."  He scrabbled off into the bowels of the ship. 

"That's Jester," I called, but he was already out of sight.  "He has no respect for officers of the law."

Duey was sympathetic.  "An all too-common defect of character, I'm afraid."

"I must have said something wrong.  Is there really a problem with making a little jaunt over to Caveat and dropping me off?"

Duey brought up a system display.  "Sub-space engines require a lot of expensive fuel.  Plus, there's the time required."  The vid panel produced a simulation involving Hooligan, Caveat and a multitude of curving lines.  Duey ran a finger over the loops and whirls.  "Unless one has unlimited conversion mass available, Hooligan to Caveat requires a transit of about four or five ten-days.  You can't micro-jump this deep in Hooligan's gravity well.  Most freighters carry only enough fuel for maneuvering between an in-system nav point and their destination station.  The university pays heavily for the fuel required on these supply runs.  That's why they only occur once a year.  And even with extra fuel for descent and departure, the trips are only feasible if the supply vessel jumps out-system, then back in."

My business and computational registers began to signal overload conditions.  I planted my rear end in a seat and fought off a sudden wave of vertigo.  Duey kept quiet while I administered soothing jolts of raw electrons to various parts of my brain.  By the time Bossi finished his cargo handling, I was my old self.

He shucked his worksuit and climbed onto a padded platform surrounded by ship controls and displays.  Grooming was his first order of business.  For this he used a glittering steel comb with teeth that moved as if seeking prey.  In fact, after a couple passes through his flowing mane (black with two white stripes down the back), Bossi picked a small, pink wiggler out of the comb and ate it with apparent relish.  I thought I heard a tiny scream.

Other than in Tri-V training films, I had never seen a werecat before.  Shaped like an elongated Terran weasel, the creatures are carnivores, with the usual binocular vision, sensitive sight and hearing, oversize skull and multi-purpose teeth.  These last are arranged in a lupine-like snout.  Werecats move about on their short middle and rear legs, which are equipped with ripping claws.  The front legs are equipped with a pair of fingers opposed by a shorter, thumb-like digit, each with a ribbed inner surface and a chitinous outer sheath.  I resolved never to needlessly anger a werecat.

Old Garn, our "Know Your Federation Volk" instructor back at Shamus Academy, told us werecats have a vile temperament.  He claimed they tend to end up as criminals or intelligence officers.  Fortunately, he pointed out, only one in a thousand develop cognitive abilities.  The rest, though just as rotten-tempered as their smarter kin, have the intellectual capacity of meteoric iron.

"You can come along," rasped Bossi. "But the return trip to Caveat will be by way of Genetic Drift, Engine Failure and Zeno IV, with other detours possible, depending on available cargo."

"How long will that take?"

Bossi snarled something.  "Caveat won't have out-system cargo for four ten-days.  Does that give you a clue, Detective Pester?"

"That's Jester," I said, with as much stiff formality as I could muster.  Four ten-days!  HQ would not be pleased with me.  But, what choice did I have?

"I have no choice.  What accommodations can you offer?"

"None!  I have no room for idlers.  You'll work your way or remain here."

"But -- Security will pay any reasonable expenses, once we arrive at Caveat.  In fact, I'll send a 'gram from Genetic Drift and obtain a purchase order covering my accommodations."

The werecat and Duey expressed an unseemly amount of mirth.  "All right," said Bossi.  "I'll rate you as Unskilled Deckhand for the first leg.  Then we'll see."

Within the hour I bid farewell to Duey Gherkin and embarked on a hell voyage.  My tasks included cleaning the heads, chipping tube mold, polishing ports and scrubbing a century or more of crud from deck plates.  Bossi's crew was small, as befits a marginal operation.  Monk, a Green Gridge, lived and worked in the engine room.  He seldom left the power section when in transit and never when we were docked at a station.  I came to believe he was wanted by the authorities or by swindled confederates.

Monk made me clean and polish gigantic shaft bearings and other machinery to a mirror-like finish.  He often stalked the power rooms, crater gun clutched in one grasping member, muttering in a strange mixture of Standard and what I took to be his native speech.  I gathered from his raving that he sought certain jodies in the dark spaces behind the fusion bottles and in the shadows of his mind.  I found work in other parts of the ship during these episodes. 

The only other crew volk was Alias Baker.  A shady character, of apparent human origin, Baker told me several tales of his past, none of which tallied with the others.  To my sensors each story registered as truth.  His eyes had that peculiar ruby glitter indicative of an enhanced visual suite.  I once tried an active scan on him and discovered that his body and inner workings were protected by an All-Over Sensor Shield (pat. pending).  I'm sure he knew of the scan, though no mention was ever made of it.  All-Over shielding is expensive, not to mention difficult to acquire.  The installation and integration process is painful in the extreme.  I asked no questions of Baker.  Curiosity seemed dangerous. 

Bossi required me to stand bridge watches during my rest periods.  "You can monitor the ship sensors while you sleep," he snarled.  The partial neural activity stretched my daily rest period from four hours to six, but the werecat liked it that way.  He evidently didn't have to pay me when resting, not even if I were engaged in monitoring sensors.  I resolved to inquire into spacer guild membership.

(tbc)
 

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(continued from previous post)

Genetic Drift offered no opportunity for communication with HQ.  The station was a simple platform, open to space.  The squat inhabitants of the planet wanted no contact with outsiders and, the Gods know, we outsiders desire none with them.  Outside of Q'ung, Drifters are the most nauseating entities in Known Space.

At Engine Failure, I was given leave and allowed down to the surface.  Since the planet was Bossi's home, he intended a half ten-day stay.  He paid me wages earned to date, minus an exorbitant fee for two scrubber brushes I'd worn out during my enforced servitude.  He waved away my protest.  "You're lucky I ain't levying the normal oxygen and rations charge.  Law says I can collect it per capita.  Makes no mention of exempting androids." 

"I wore out those brushes doing work you assigned!  Does a servo-mechanic or drive tech supply their own tools?"  His ferocious grin gave me the answer. 

"They do.  Don't they teach cops anything about spacer guilds?"

"Blast!"  I trudged toward the gang-tube. 

He called after me.  "We lift in half a ten-day, Lester."

"That's Jester." My response was automatic.  I never intended to see Bossi, Monk or Baker again.  With any luck I would soon be headed back to Caveat on a passenger liner, in reasonable comfort.

I spotted a Galactic North Union office just off the main cargo bay.  A slender clerk-bot lay across a faux-marble counter.  I tapped the bot.  It made a hissing noise and collapsed to the floor.

"'ep ya, zur?" slurred the mech.

"I need to send a message to Caveat."

"'ep ya, zur?"

A thin copper wire led from a black box on the bot's hip up to a comm port in its chest.  Stim-prog.  I looked around for another employee.  The mech was as useless as all its kin.  Like all employers, Galactic North Union had to keep a certain quota of stimmed-out bots on the payroll.

"Is there anyone else about?"

"'ep ya, zur?"

Without further delay, I headed for the downside transit section.  Once on the surface, I could send my message.

The surface trip took just under eight hours.  I debarked and walked into the downside terminal, looking for another GNU office.  Seeing none, I stopped a passing droid and asked for directions.

He assumed a position of studious concentration.  "I'm fairly certain that the only GNU office serving this planet is up at the station."

I told him of my encounter with the stimmed-out bot.

"Happens all the time.  The Law, you know.  But it doesn't matter.  No one ever sends a Qua-space message.  Why not just write a letter?  Postal rates are cheap."

Without going into detail about my current employment, I explained that it was necessary that I return to Caveat immediately.

"Buy a ticket."  He glanced at a scrolling message board.  "There's a passenger ship leaving in two hours for Caveat via Sang Froid."

Now I had to be more forthright.  I displayed my Security ID.  "It’s a question of credits.  I must contact Caveat Security HQ for the funds."

"Well, bub, you're screwed, blued and stamped Reject.  That's the problem with working for local companies and municipal governments.  If you were Fed Security you'd have a Known Space credit chit."

"Yeah, thanks for the useless advice.  I didn't plan on being assaulted and hauled off to the local dirtside locale with only my ID and waist pack."  I did my stiff version of a shrug.  "A quick Qua-space message would fix everything."

He eyed my metalwork.  "Ex-military, eh?  Marine?"

"Marine.  Armored assault.  So what?"

"Military types often don't understand reality.  For instance, I'll bet your average assault carrier had Qua-space comm capabilities.  You probably even used it more than once."

"Sure.  It was our only link to Sector headquarters."

"So it never occurred to you that multi-million credit Qua-space message units might not be available to every organic and droid.  Understandable.  The rigs are an adaptation of Qua-space engines.  Did you know that?"

I did not.  With a polite touch of my bald dome just above my right vid receptor, I took my leave.  His lecture was beginning to sound patronizing.  My benefactor called after me, "Get a hat."  He flourished his own red beret.  "You look out of place without one."

I walked without purpose for some time.  This trip was turning educational -- a concept that made me dizzy.  Passing droids glanced at me, usually with that lifted chin signifying anything from active dislike to mere disdain.  I needed a hat.  And since most volk seemed to sport a bandolier with rectangular pouches instead of a clipped-on waist pack, I decided to get one of those, too.  My jumper wasn't in conflict with local style, but it had suffered during my head-cleaning activities.  It was time to find an apparel shop and maybe get a good body scrub and checkover.

Some hours later, poorer by most of my accumulated pay, I caught a transit sled into Cogston, the closest metro area boasting a Fed Security office.  Perhaps the Feds could help, since I'd been droid-napped.

None of the droids or organics I encountered paid any attention to me.  I seemed to blend right in with my new fedora, bandolier and off-the-rack, slightly used jumper.

Federation Special Agent Doltmeyer listened to my sad tale with little interest.  He was shaking his head in advance of my plea for help.  "Can't, Steele.  The budget goons would be all over me.  Besides, it ain't a Fed crime."

"But I was taken to Hooligan.  That's well outside Caveat."

"All within the same planetary system.  Not. My. Problem."  He ushered me to the door.  "Always good to see a fellow security officer.  Have a nice day."

There was nothing for it.  It was time to go back to Bossi's ship.  Liftoff was not for another three days, but I hadn't the credits to stay dirtside.  An hour later, I disembarked from a transport sled and headed for the terminal up-transit section.

My passage on the down-transit side included a return trip, so my last few credits were still mine.  I boarded a shuttle and waited for departure.

A second shuttle began disembarking passengers on the down-transit side, just across the dock.  I watched the volk stream across the deck.  One couple caught my sensors -- a plain-bodied droid, arm-in-arm with a voluptuous female human clad in a semi-respectable low-cut/high-cut singlet and wearing a hood and veil.  As they turned and headed for the exit, I caught a glimpse of bright metal below the veil.  A silver necklace?  The droid drew my attention.  He looked familiar, but his body bore no unusual markings or custom gadgets.  It was a standard unit, though not of military origin like mine.  Duey Gherkin's was the last one I'd seen like it.  Maybe plain bodies were coming into style.

Then, trailing the last few volk off the down-shuttle, came Bossi and Baker.  The werecat moved rapidly for all his diminutive stature.  Both were armed and not with crater guns.  I knew the weapon.  It was an over-and-under energy rifle/grenade launcher.  Nothing your ordinary volk would carry, unless they were intent on murder or at least armed robbery.

Volk scattered as the two headed for the exits -- Baker in a dark suit and Bossi in his fur.  On impulse, I got up and stepped off the shuttle.  A uniformed attendant held up a hand.  "We're under a Security lockdown, sir.  Back to your seat, please."

I flashed my ID chit.  "Security.  Let me pass."

He shook his head, but stood aside.  "A little out of your territory, aren't you?  Be my guest.  Don't complain if you get shot."  Company disclaimer, no doubt.  I rushed down the ramp and made my way outside.

No sooner had I stepped onto the ground transit plaza than a hot orange bolt flashed overhead and exploded above the exit doors.  Bits of ferro-concrete sprayed outward.  Pieces pinged off my torso, shredding the back of my new jumper.  My fedora fluttered to the ground.  Organics went down all around me.  I snatched up my hat and ran for the cover of a statue.  Another bolt sped into the sky.  The shooter was either wounded or firing blind.

Baker stood behind the statue.  He smiled as I slid to a stop beside him.  "Decide to join the party, Jester?"

"I was curious.  Now I wish I'd stayed put."

"You're a cop.  Following hunches is part of the job."

I decided not to mention my decided lack of hunches or any other insight.  My reasons for leaving the shuttle and following Bossi and Baker remained murky.

Off to our left a grenade launcher thumped.  Baker scrambled to the right and rushed forward.  "Come on!" he cried.  I hesitated, then went after him. 

Grenades exploded in the roadway below the plaza.  Energy rifles flickered white flame left and right.  Bossi and Baker.  No orange bolts came in reply.  I knelt behind a burning potted plant.  Baker stood up and walked down toward a heap of twisted wreckage.  Bossi scuttled over from the left and fetched up next to me.  He flashed a feral grin and eyed the mess on the road.  "Fun, eh?"

"Fun?  How many people are dead down there?"  I could see several still figures lying near the smashed vehicles.

"Ah, two, at least.  The two in the limo.  Most of the others will probably recover.  If any die, their next of kin will receive a generous settlement from the Federation, along with a letter of condolence from the High Commissioner."

"And if they have no kin?"

"Recycling of body parts at Federation expense."

It was maddening to admit that he was correct.  None of the wounded and almost-but-not-quite dead were likely to die.  Already I could hear e-med units approaching.  Two local Security cruisers dropped out of the sky.  Neither had aural, visual or neural emergency systems going.  The officers got out and began directing traffic around the smoking wreckage.  It was surreal.

A small service bot wobbled up a ramp and bumped into me.  Dents covered one side of the thing.  "Zorry, zur ur mum," it croaked.

I stood to one side.  The bot lifted a hose and watered the plant, wetting an area at least a meter  below the fire.  Satisfied, the bot retracted the hose and continued on its appointed rounds.  A human stepped up and tossed a jug of water on the fire, extinguishing it.  He rolled his eyes.  "It's the Law.  What can you do?" 

Baker climbed the steps and nodded to Bossi.  "Let's go."

The werecat tugged at my sleeve.  "Back to the ship."  I looked back at the limo and the two still figures within.  Several loose ends tied up of a sudden.

"Duey Gherkin and a steel and flesh harlot?  Right?"

"I knew you were smarter than you look," exclaimed Bossi.  "Let's go.  The local cops don't like us hanging around."

When we boarded the up-transit shuttle most of the other passengers got off.  I joined Bossi and Baker in the bar.  Their weapons lay on a corner table.  An attendant came to take our order.

"Beer for us organics," growled Bossi.  "And a cigar for the droid."  Service was prompt and we were left to ourselves.

"The harlot in the limo was the one who stunned me back on Caveat," I said.  "How did she and Duey get here?  I last saw him on Hooligan."

"Private ship," said Baker.  "You have heard of private cruisers, eh?"

"But -- he was on Hooligan.  He explained all about fuel requirements and micro-jumps and two-jumps and . . ."  I shut up and lit the cigar.  My thoughts were too chaotic to express properly.  It was a good cigar.

"We been after that clag for a long, long time," said Bossi.  "Not us personally.  Fed Security."  He showed me his ID chit.  Baker flashed one like it.

"Fed Security.  That explains some stuff.  Especially there at the end.  But what was Duey up to?  Was it some sort of scragging scam?"

"What wasn't he doing?"  Bossi lit a slim black cigarillo.  It stank horribly.  "Our old pal Duey was part of an insurance scam on Caveat -- hence the scraggings.  He was also involved in a protection racket over on Zeno IV."

"And numerous other criminal activities," added Baker.  "That was his undoing."

I began to get a glimmer.  "Too many plots and plotters?"

"Right," said Bossi.  "Too much comm traffic leading back to Caveat and then to that airship poking around on Hooligan."

"The university study was legit?"

"Completely.  It was his cover.  The harlot -- name of Daha, by the way -- was his Caveat contact and his comm tech."  Bossi blew smoke at the ceiling.  "We got onto her some months ago.  But Baker only managed to figure out the transmission scheme about the time you got onto them for the scragging operation."

I didn't mention that I hadn't 'got onto' anyone.  Nor had I figured out how the scragging scheme made any money for Duey.  I'd look into that later.  "They stunned me because I was getting close?"

"Evidently.  We didn't know you were on the airship with Duey," said Bossi.  "He knew I was a Fed agent.  We flew the supply run to let him know we were investigating."

"Why did you want him to know that?"

"Well --,"  Baker looked around.  He leaned forward.  "Some of the evidence against him had come via tainted methods."  He made a fist.  "You know -- beatings, rubber hoses, electric shocks -- that sort of thing.  We needed him to break cover, so things could be finished in a gun fight.  No sense involving the courts in a messy and expensive trial."

"Sure."  I wondered what happened to local cops who knew too much about Fed Security operations.  "Ah -- what's next?"

Bossi slid a credit chit across the table.  "Next, you join Fed Security.  We like your style, Steele.  You'll make a good agent."

I was stunned, to say the least.  Ever since my time in the Marines, I'd wanted to be a Federation Security Agent.  "What's the credit chit for?"

"Travel expenses.  You'll have to go to Fed Central to be sworn in.  Then there will be a training course.  How to fill out travel vouchers and expense accounts -- that sort of thing.  When you finish with the training, maybe you'd like to be assigned with us -- out here on the edge of Known Space, catching bad organics and droids."

"I'd like that.  But -- one thing.  Is Monk a Fed Agent?"  I had visions of some hooded technician scooping out my brains and making me into a droid version of the paranoid Green Gridge.

"Nah.  He's just a wacko we picked up to run the power room.  He's probably wanted in tens of jurisdictions."  Bossi puffed on his cigarillo.  "Poor old Monk can't go anywhere.  We can depend on him."

"I'm in," I said.  "But I'll need to make a trip to Caveat -- to turn in my chit."

"Sure.  No problem."  Baker made some entries on his comp unit.  "Your reporting date at Fed Central will be open.  Finish your business and then check with them."

*****
I didn't really need to do anything at Caveat.  I could have returned my ID by mail.  It just seemed fitting to report to HQ and explain my absence and brag about the collaring of Duey Gherkin.  Besides, I knew just who could explain the whole thing to me before I reported.

He was at the same table, below the viewscreen.  Hooligan hung there, unchanged, except for being just a touch different.  I sat down across from him.  He didn't seem surprised to see me.

I summarized the situation.  "Duey Gherkin and one Daha, a steel and flesh harlot who used to frequent an alley in Rewire Road, were killed in a limo outside the Engine Failure space terminal."

He blinked.  "Indeed?  I knew the harlot, of course.  On occasion, she passed messages to me from Duey.  I never answered them."

I described my encounter with Duey in the rarified air of Hooligan and told of my own journey across Known Space, ending with the shootout on Engine Failure.

"Tragic," sighed Slim.  "But inevitable, given his criminal career."

I nodded in agreement.  "I have a question for you.  We discussed the scraggings the last time we met.  My question is simple.  How was Duey profiting from that?"

"Your own headquarters could tell you that.  The scheme fell apart when Duey and Daha left the system."

"Um -- I'd rather know about it from a more reliable source, if you don't mind."

"Duey finagled insurance company data.  He created and paid for policies on individuals with no insurance.  His bank accounts were specified on those policies.  Then he had the individual scragged."

"But -- they weren't killed.  How does that profit him?"

"Pain and suffering.  Caveat has a unique requirement that insurance companies must pay a set amount for pain and suffering, no matter how the insured was injured.  Duey received all those payments."

"Wouldn't the insured volk know they were due the credits?"

"The individuals were amazed to have their damage repaired at no cost.  None of them were about to complain about not receiving the pain and suffering credits."

I sat quiet for some minutes, digesting Slim's information.  "I see it now.  And he had some volks scragged who had no coverage at all, just to hide the scheme."

"Sure.  The Q'ung you talked to me about was one.  There were others.  Some, as you know, wound up in the Labor Pool."

"Well," I sat back and lit a cigar, "a smart scam for sure.  He had others going in systems across Known Space."  I laughed.  "Too bad he's finished."

Slim stared at Hooligan.  "But is he finished?"

"I saw them killed.  Nothing left but crisped organic matter and melted hardware."  The image replayed in my mind.  "The remains were still burning when we left."

"He was a droid.  So was she.  Have you ever heard of precautionary replication?"

"I have.  Every droid has heard rumors about it.  It's . . ."

"Practical immortality.  A replication of a droid brain made at regular intervals will contain all memory and experience to that date.  Placed in stasis, such replication could be activated upon the death of the original.  Events that happen after the last replication are lost."

"It's an abomination," I murmured.  Yet the idea had a powerful appeal.  "It's never been done."

"Of course.  Not that we know of anyway.  But I doubt Duey felt it was abominable."

"Gods!  If he did it, he could be anywhere.  Maybe even still running his criminal enterprises."

"I doubt it," said Slim.  "He'd want to make a clean break.  Make the law think he really was dead."

My good mood vanished.  Duey still alive?  It was just the sort of thing he might do.  I wondered if Bossi and Baker had considered the possibility.

I told Slim about my invitation to join the Feds.

"I'd congratulate you," he said.  "But your prospects appall me."

We parted at that.  Two days later, on the ship that would eventually take me to Fed Central, I realized what he meant.  I might spend the rest of my days chasing replications of Duey Gherkin across Known Space.  In the end, droid cops with the most knowledge about replicated android criminals would have to be replicated themselves, just to avoid losing their experience. 

Replicants doomed to an endless game of cops and robbers.  The ramifications relating to identity, heredity and double-jeopardy boggled my mind.

"Nah," I thought.  "That's Tri-V clag.  It'll never happen."


End
 
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