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Fiction Page 18



Lawrence R. Dagstine

       The night on Argus was cold and gloomy, and Kruthers walked out from his cabin on the aerospace settlement to have a final look around.  He carried his blaster, in hopes that Syena would think he meant to shoot a kumar lizard or two.  He had left his laser belt on the hook beside the door, but sneaked the heavy weapon itself into the lining of his jumpsuit.  Syena was inside the cabin fixing the warp-drive circuit to the colony's primary vessel, a Valedictorian-9 earth cruiser.  He didn't want his wife getting all stirred up.  Not again.  Not until he could find out for himself what had caused the last 12 months of sheer terror for the rest of the settlement.
       "I'll be back, Syena," he called out from the yard. "Just checking the perimeter."
       "Make sure you've got your laser, Sam," she said clearly.  Her mind was occupied, but her eyes were on the belt where it hung empty in plain sight.  She shook her head and laughed.  That's what made Syena special, her insight: a fairly short woman of 34, who looked older than she was in some ways, and wiser.  But in other ways she was a lot younger; she could show humor in things other colonists thought weren't funny, so that often Kruthers could see the persona of the girl he had married some six years back; Sam was older than her by sixteen years.
       He grunted and left the yard.  His two assistants: Kylex, an interplanetary forester, and Fenzer, a scientific project organizer, were on the next property.  Kylex sat in the passenger seat of an old land rover, fooling around with its broken clutch.  The vehicles' tires were inflated beyond their normal size, making them more robust for traveling through the woods.  
       "Do you need help with anything?" Kylex asked dutifully.
       "Yes," replied Kruthers.
       Fenzer, who had spent most of the day checking off cargo entries on his clipboard, was stacking crates by the ammo shed.  He came forward with Kylex, but Sam insisted he stay and finish loading the ship.  Departure from the planet was going to take at least another 3 to 5 days.
       He went back to the shed and stood watching.  Something was up.  Sam and Kylex walked off until they circled the camp and left his sight. "Now where could they be off to?" he asked himself, scratching his chin in thought.  He hesitated to follow; he knew that Sam was after something, and he needed Kylex's forest-tracking skills to see him through it.  Poor Sam.  He was never the same since he witnessed that last murder…or disappearance…or whatever he called it.
       From Sam's cabin Fenzer heard a loud explosion.  He remembered that Sam's wife was fixing the V-9's warp-drive circuit.  He called out softly, "Are you all right, Syena?"
       Syena approached the doorway, burnt pieces of circuitry in her hand.  She met his eyes for a moment, a fierceness within her, but looked away without explaining.  She refused to show a creep like Fenzer her anger for failing to repair something as simple as a warp-drive component.  After all, it was her third try.
       Fenzer shook his head. "I guess we're going to be here a while." He continued stacking crates.  He was at it a long time.

       Meanwhile, Sam was in the forest with Kylex trying to show him something.  Kylex stared through the many paths of thin trees and mild underbrush, but was unable to see anything; even his nightspecs were useless.
       "They're out there," Kruthers said, eyes glued to the wilderness, "waiting for their next victim."
       Kylex was more spooked than baffled.  But he knew something did exist on Argus, because when the first two hundred colonists arrived, over a hundred and fifty had strangely disappeared. "I don't see a thing."
       Sam looked at his partner uneasily. "Oh, you can't see them," he said, "or hear them.  But they're out there…just waiting."
       "These things, Sam, are they superior to us?"
       "In a sense.  Smart little devils they are.  To them, we're hostile aliens with a different technology."
       "But time and again you've told me they're robots, mechanical creatures who roam the forests, perhaps looking for a technology similar to their own.  If this is true, why don't they join us in our research? Why must we be enemies?"
       "It's not a question of being enemies, Kylex.  We've intruded.  This is their turf, and just like the earthen cult movie classic Invaders from Mars, we are now the planetary trespassers."
       "I don't understand," Kylex said. "Earth specifically gave us leeway when it came to colonizing Argus.  The carbon dioxide levels are the same here as back home.  There was never anything in the reports about extraterrestrials."
       "No, nothing like that," said Kruthers, descending from a rock bed.   Kylex followed steadily behind. "You don't know what I'm talking about."
       "Then what are you talking about?"
       "Xenophobia, Kylex.  We're foreigners to this world, and they somehow feel threatened by that.  Over the last 12 months they've developed a fear and hatred for us, and because of the missing colonists, we have fear and hatred for them.  Think about it."
       Kylex wanted to make an inquiry, but he couldn't.  His attention was drawn elsewhere.  The young man found himself face-to-face with a steel figure of immense size and power, standing only a few feet away.  The figure loomed over him.  Parts of its body were composed of lugnuts, pistons, wheels and gears, and a special steam cylinder that ran up the side of its back.
       Sam grabbed Kylex and ducked for cover. "Do you believe me now?" It was one of those things, what Sam was talking about all this time.
       The robot launched a heat-seeking dart from its arm.  Amazingly, it split into two entities while in midair.  They each struck a tree in the forest close to where Sam and Kylex were hiding.  Both trees burst into a blaze of orange fire; the flames, unlike regular flames, consumed the plants within seconds.
       "We've got to get away from here," Sam said, looking through a clump of bushes to see where the robot was positioned.
       "Let's make a run for the camp," suggested Kylex.
       "Are you nuts? That's what it wants, for us to lead it back to our settlement.  We'd endanger the lives of the women and children."
       "Then what are we supposed to do? That thing just took out the trees we were using for cover." At least he believed Sam now.
       Kruthers put his hand over Kylex's mouth. "Shhh, not so loud.  What I want to know is how that thing found us.  We're still in the safety zone."
       "Maybe it can sense body heat," said Kylex, thinking to himself. "But if it can do that, who's to say it can't trace the vibrations of our voices as well?"
       Very silently, Sam stood up and drew his blaster.  He waited until the robot was perfectly aligned in his treeless path.  He knew he had to be careful in his moves, otherwise it would be "game over".  He aimed for its chest, just like he would a human.  He figured that his chest unit controlled the entire body, and firing at it would render the machine inactive.
       He centered his gun perfectly and fired.  The shot missed the robot's chest, but cut through its right arm instead, making it scream in agony.  
       A machine that feels pain?
       How odd.  The robot retaliated with a blast from its left arm, and scuttled off into the deepness of the woods.  
       Kylex knocked Sam down and the heat-seeker passed them.  It ended its flight at a circle of trees a few feet away and exploded. "It's retreated," he said, helping Sam back up. "Do you think we should follow its trail?"
       Sam dusted himself off and walked over to the spot where the destroyed arm was lying.  He saw that the blast was a clean shot, because cool smoke still surrounded it.  He picked it up and agreed that it was a fine piece of steel, welded from cyranium. "I'd like to meet the automaton engineer that created this," he said ruefully.  He then saw something engraved on the side. "Now what do we have here? Model ID-X310…. Manufactured on Argus by Jolly Engineering."
       "What's Jolly Engineering?" asked Kylex.
       "I guess it's the name of the facility where the robot was built.  With a name like that there must be humans involved, especially if that thing was manufactured."
       "And only humans can build robots in the first place, unless they're programmed to produce duplicates.  You injured that one, so he must be on his way back to the engineering plant for repairs.  I'd pursue this, Sam.  It'll only take a few minutes to return to the ammo shed for weapons and supplies, and---"
       "No!" Sam insisted. "You'll only alarm Syena if you go back.  I don't want her coming after me.  I wonder if this nonsense has anything to do with that old hermit's tale, the engineer who visited this planet years ago and moved into the mountains."
       "Who?" Kylex was confused.  He felt as though Sam was just babbling.
       "Nevermind.  I have enough charges in my blaster for about twenty rounds.  What about you?"
       Kylex opened his belt pouch. "Just three flash grenades."
       "That's good enough," Sam said. "Better than causing a panic throughout the settlement.  We'll just have to be careful.  Come on, let's go meet the face behind Jolly Engineering."
       They followed the tracks of the injured ID-X310, and arrived just beyond the crest of a hill of short trees.  From atop, Kruthers could see for miles most ways, the full moon of Gerax acting as a light in Argus's clear sky; but the faint darkness from the underbrush was deceptive.  A whole squadron of robots could probably hide themselves for hundreds of yards, in a place that looked as camouflaged as an Amazon rainforest.  So he searched for something else...a trail of blowing animal's voice...a kumar lizard's nest disturbed.  He didn't see anything that meant much.  Not for a long time.  It took his mind off the robot and the idea that, this deep in the woods, he could get Kylex and himself permanently lost.

       Syena paced up and down the front lawn of her cabin.  She could hardly believe that Sam had been gone so long.  Kylex wasn't on the next property either; still with Sam, she thought.  She feared what could happen to her husband if he traveled too deep into the forest at night.  He wouldn't return, like the others, who had vanished without a trace.
       Yet Argus hadn't looked so dangerous when they first arrived, for the Federation had told them that opportunity awaited amongst the stars, planets with oxygen levels the same as earth---and of course water, which was another important element.  And she knew it didn't make sense to give up waiting.  She had already come this far, the wife of a determined survivor, and one herself; but she would have gladly sacrificed her soul for the rest of the colony, just so they could be on a safer planet.
       Fenzer finished loading the V-9 and came over to comfort her. "Don't worry," he said, putting his arms around her.  Her face told a different story, that she was beyond worry.
       "It was stupid of me to let him go," she said, "especially this late."
       "He probably went to check things out, like he said.  I know Sam.  He's too strong to be taken in by some forest creature."
       "But I just can't sit around here and think the worst.  Maybe I should take the land rover and look for him."
       "I don't think it's a good idea to leave the camp at night," Fenzer said. "Besides, your job is to fix that warp-drive circuit, so we can hightail it off this world."
       "There must be something we can do in the meantime," said Syena, a fear lying in the back of her mind that her husband was dead.
       "Listen, if it makes you feel any better, I'll go look for him."
       "But that's dangerous! You'll be risking your neck out there!"
       "I've taken risks before, Syena.  You just finish up on the warp-drive.  I'll be back with Sam before you know it."
       Fenzer hopped into the land rover and drove off, Syena not questioning it.
       She didn't have a chance to.

       By now, all treeless paths had led in the same direction, a circle of overlapping hills.  But as Kruthers wanted to try again, Kylex froze at the sight of what stood on the crest beyond…
       "Holy…," Sam shuddered, unable to finish his sentence. "There must be a hundred of those things in the field alone.  What mad scientist created this?"
       Kylex put on his nightspecs and checked the surrounding area. "Perhaps we should meet him," he said, pointing his finger at a metal barrack along a ridge. "I guess we can both agree that that's the facility where the ID-X310 was built."
       Sam grunted with anticipation. "Should we knock first?"
       "Any means of entry would be suicide, Sam." Kylex was being pragmatic.
       "Maybe not.  You've got timers on those flash grenades, right?"
       "Of course.  The detonation sequence is ten seconds.  Countdown starts when you pull the silver ring."
       "Good," said Sam deviously.  He charged up his blaster, as if he were preparing for the worst.
       Kylex gave him a strange look. "What are you planning?"
       "A little diversion.  You're going to set off all your grenades at once, while I fire off a couple of random shots in the opposite direction.  Hopefully, we'll be able to slip by all those robots."
       "How's that?"
       "The strength of the blast should be enough to blind every robot in the field for at least fifteen minutes.  If a robot can feel pain from a laser wound, he can just as easily be blinded."
       Kylex removed the grenades from his pouch. "Well, don't count your chickens before they're hatched," he said. "Won't the blast blind us as well?"
       Sam handed his partner a strange visor. "Here, put on these aluminum goggles."
       Kylex shook his head. "Boy, you've thought of everything, haven't you?" Sam just grinned.
       The two men slid down a dirt patch and silently folded into some bushes.  Sam gave a small sigh of relief.  He was finally going to find out who was responsible for the disappearance, or murder, of a hundred and fifty innocent people.  In the event that the robots' creator did turn out to be human, the "Jolly Engineering" manufacturers' imprint would be nothing more than a pseudonym.
       He gave Kylex the signal to throw the grenades, and started firing off random shots himself.  The radiance from the explosion kept the robots occupied, as they scrambled blindly in the field.  They were well aware of the intruders, but could do nothing.  Helpless, they jostled shoulder to shoulder, like sheep in a shearing.  
       "Now's our chance!" Sam yelled, as he made his dash.  Kylex trailed by a couple of feet.  Sam slowed down and waited until his partner caught up.  Together, they mounted a long ramp, heading for the entrance in distress.  They were halted by a sentry robot, which had thermal heating lasers for arms.  The automaton held its weapons out at them awkwardly, wondering what was their function.  Kylex tried to speak with it on his terms, but still wasn't allowed to pass.  The other robots in the field stirred uneasily, and were visibly relieved when the mist of light disappeared.  They too approached the entry ramp, but from other angles.  
       Sam and Kylex were cornered.
       "What now?" whispered Kylex.
       Sam was motionless; practically wooden. "Uh--um…Take us to your leader?"

       After traveling for some time, Fenzer couldn't see anything outside the settlement that meant much; maybe the rover's headlights weren't bright enough, or maybe the underbrush was playing tricks on him.
       On an impulse, he grabbed his weapon and cut his journey short.  He jumped out of the vehicle and looked around for something, anything.  There had to be a clue.  A bitter chill crept along his back and shoulders.  The ground seemed to drain heat from his blood.  His stomach dropped, and he was filled with a horrible fear: the fear of an underprivileged child, deprived, disturbed, and alone in the night.  Through a rift in the forest he noticed a line of trees that were badly burned.  They led up to a clearing of charred stumps. "So, they did come this way," he said under his breath.  The evidence in the forest didn't seem to come as a surprise.  He was expecting a firefight.... He was hoping Sam was dead, along with Kylex, who deserved to be just as much, since all he did was interfere a lot.  
       Of course, there was a reason to Fenzer being deprived and disturbed: a woman, and Sam deserved to die because of this woman.  Sam was a bossy character who stood in the way of Syena and himself.  He loved her as if she were his own wife.  And he would do anything to have her.  But no bodies were at the attack site, which meant they were probably still alive, and on their way to see a man who closed himself off from the rest of civilization.
       Fenzer started to remember the Argusian legend, the tale of an old hermit...a human who came to Argus to leave the rest of humanity's troubles behind.  This hermit was at least 100 years old, and he was known for building strange contraptions and infernal machines.  
       Fenzer was furious.  He let his anger out by blasting other trees in the area.  He fell to his knees and threw rocks and dirt, as if he were a small child having a tantrum.   
Then he saw something that brightened up his night.  A giant lugnut; and another, just a few feet away from the first one; and several more within sight after that.
       There was a whole trail of them leading deep into the wilderness.  He smiled and ran back to the land rover.  He knew that Sam would have followed that same path.  Now he would follow search of him.

       "Very impressive what you did back there," Kylex said.  He was commending Sam on his ability to fast-talk the sentry robot.
       Sam was surprised himself. "Yeah, well, the perspiration's still dripping down my shorts," he said. "It was luck."
       They walked a narrow hallway until they reached a cellar door.  It must have led downstairs to some kind of workshop.  It had to, because there was nothing upstairs but rows and rows of computer processors.  They descended the metal stairs.  The engineer was at the bottom, just as they thought, hard at work on another robot.  He was old; very old and shrunken with age, and he couldn't have been more than five feet tall.  His outfit was strange, an earthen pilgrim's garb, like the kind they wore on the Mayflower, and he had a gray wavy-looking mustache and beard to go with it.  His work area was covered in spare parts, tools, microchips, robotic arms and legs, and countless wires; it looked like Dr Frankenstein's laboratory, but in a futuristic setting.  
       "I guess this comes as a great complication to your efforts," said Sam vindictively, taking his blaster out.  It was something the sentry robot had overlooked. "I've waited almost a year for this.  What did you do to my colony? And why?"
       The old man stared at him.  He didn't say a word---just stared.
       Sam squeezed gently against the trigger. "Not talking? Perhaps I can persuade you to talk.  Now, I'll only ask you once more…What did you do to those colonists?"
       "Why, I killed them," said a strange, but familiar voice.  It wasn't the old man.  His lips were still.  He was motionless from the start, almost like one of the robots in the field.  Sam and Kylex turned around to see Fenzer, holding a blaster at them. "Drop it, Sam." Kruthers slowly put down his blaster.  
       This came as a great shock.  The whole time there was a traitor living amongst the colony, and Sam and Kylex were not even aware of it. "But why, Fenzer? Why?" Sam asked him, feeling somewhat betrayed.
       "Because this planet's full of potential and profits," Fenzer replied simply, "that's why.  Jolly Engineering has been shut down for years, but the manufacturing equipment still exists, and amazingly, it still works.  So I decided to take advantage of this equipment, and used that old Argusian legend about the hermit to benefit myself.  Just look at him.  Isn't he perfect? It seems the legend really does exist.  Well, somewhat anyway.  You see, this place really did belong to the hermit.  I killed the old man and had his vital organs taken out and replaced with mechanical ones, just to keep the legend alive.  I had to, Sam.  I needed a cover.  And after all, I am now the beneficiary to Jolly Engineering.  I own the robots and I was responsible for the killings, and the hermit over here is just a big thermonuclear computer who's good at building machines."
       "Why you son of a---," said Sam angrily, about to pounce on him.
       Kylex cut his leader off and held him back. "I don't think you should antagonize him, Sam.  The odds are currently against us."
       Fenzer grinned. "Wise words, tracker.  Just hold him there like the dog that he is.  I would have eventually eliminated you all, and turned Argus into a bio-electronic engineering world, a planet where I can sell recycled robots at full cost.  But you had to snoop, Kruthers.  You had to put your nose where it didn't belong.  Now your deaths can't be put off any longer."
       "I don't think you'll really kill the remainder of the colony," said Sam. "They'll catch on."
       "I doubt that very much," said Fenzer confidently. "I'll also keep it in mind to exterminate or bribe Federation inspectors that come by every few months.  But as for your wife, Sam…she'll be well taken care of."
       A moment later, a woman came walking out of the darkness holding a remote control in one hand and a gun in the other.  The old hermit, whose brain had been replaced with electronic parts, was standing next to her obediently, also with a gun in hand. "I can take care of myself, thank you very much," she said.  
       It was Syena.
       Fenzer slowly edged toward her. "How did you find me? How did you find this place?"
       "I took the other land rover and followed your corrupt trail and---"
       Fenzer quickly interrupted by knocking the gun out of her hand.  Sam ran up from behind and punched him in the back of the head.  He fell face first to the floor, only to get back up and shoot Kruthers in the leg.  
       As the struggle between Syena's husband and Fenzer ensued, there was still the obedient hermit to think about.  Syena held up the remote and said, "So who's your beneficiary, Fenzer?"  With the press of a button, the hermit looked at her and then glimpsed over his shoulder at Fenzer, almost as if there was a psychic link between them.  It seemed he was just following orders, for a moment later he started blasting holes into Fenzer's body.  When it was over, Kylex rushed to Sam's side and helped him with his leg. "We have to notify the Federation right away about this."
       But all in all, everyone was relieved.  Not only because Fenzer had been dealt with and the mystery behind Argus's mechanized killings and disappearances solved, but also because Syena had come to the rescue with a big surprise.  She had the warp-drive circuit in her other hand, all fixed and ready to hook up.  Standing proud, she announced that it was her fourth try.