Last time in The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK: Baxter and ROEBUCK are mercenaries and partners, one man, one machine. They ride around the deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest, guns for hire to whoever can afford them. In Baxter’s hometown, they join a convoy to escort a freighter full of ethanol to Rock Springs, and help defend her from a roving band of raiders. While catching up on some ‘r and r’ at one of the local watering holes, they met Doc D’Angelo, a scientist on the run from the Corporate Security Force, para-military police also known as C.S.F. Baxter and ROEBUCK help her evade her pursuers, and learn she knows the key to unlocking ROEBUCK’s past: the files of his memory are locked away in a base in the desert of Los Alamos. ROEBUCK decides it’s time to remember what he’s forgot. Baxter and the Doc decide to do everything they can to help him.
The rain fell over everything. It ran down every curve and bend of smooth rock and blighted tree. Each footprint formed a puddle. Baxter looked up from the muddy ground into the gray slate of the clouds. Their thick, saturated mass covered the sky and bled onto the earth.
His ankles were submerged. Then his knees. Baxter climbed onto the hood and roof of a car. The town was washing away. Bits of garbage and refuse followed the flood’s current like a tiny flotilla. In a canoe, ROEBUCK washed up next to Baxter’s refuge. His black suit was soaked. The bot put his oar inside the craft, then held his hand out to Baxter. Baxter took it, gripping the cold, metallic fingers as he stepped off the car and into the canoe. The boat rocked as Baxter stepped inside, bearing his weight with a gentle bounce.
ROEBUCK began paddling as Baxter settled in. An ostrich looked up at them from the street, only its head and a few inches of skinny neck poking up from the surface. The storm waters pulled the canoe along a rapid torrent, until nothing else could be seen above its choppy waters except the tops of scraggly trees, a few stubborn leaves still clinging to their branches.
In the distance, a bolt of lightning forked the sky. Thunder rumbled, a loud and distant roar. Then the wave formed. A wall of water, sixty feet high, coming at them with grim inevitability. Some of the trees that stood in the wave’s path were pulled from the earth and brought along the water’s fury. As its crest reached their canoe, it picked Baxter and ROEBUCK up with it until they were balanced along its peak. The wave dipped, and Baxter looked down to see the water fold in on itself, he and ROEBUCK about to be caught between...
Baxter woke with a start. He sat up from the pile of clothes he’d gathered on the floor, a thin blanket falling from his chest. Doc D’Angelo looked down at him through the steam of her coffee cup. “Not a morning person?” she asked.
“I had a dream,” he told her. “About a flood. It was raining, and the water was washing everything away. ROEBUCK found me, and brought me into a canoe he was paddling, but then we were caught up in a gigantic wave, and just when we were about to come back down from it—“
“You woke up,” Doc D’Angelo finished for him. “I know the feeling. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good night’s sleep.”
“Got any more of that coffee?” Baxter asked.
D’Angelo handed him a steaming paper cup. “Drink up. ROEBUCK says our caravan is leaving soon.”
Baxter blew ripples into the coffee, took a sip, and wiped some of the sleep from his eyes. He stepped outside and saw ROEBUCK working on his cycle. The bot looked back at him. “Making some last minute adjustments. One of the tires came slightly out of alignment when I took that spill last night on Slate Street. It’s fixed now. At least to a hundredth of a degree and well within the margin of error.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be ready in a minute,” Baxter told him. “I need to go back inside for a sec and talk to the Doc.”
“Make it quick,” ROEBUCK said glancing behind him. “The’re almost ready.” Nearby, the other members of the fuel caravan primed their vehicles for the voyage back. Already, engines were revved one after the other in a primitive display of horse power.
“Be right back,” Baxter told him.
He went back into his hotel room to see Doc D’Angelo cramming a few meager possessions into her backpack. “Before we go,” Baxter announced, “we need to get our story straight.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, hooking her thumbs beneath the pack that rested on her shoulders.
“It won’t do for people to know who you are. So we need to figure out a story for you.”
D’Angelo nodded back at him. “To throw Corporate Security Force off my scent. So who am I? Some kind of long-lost aunt?”
“That’ll do. You’re my aunt Angela. And you’re not a scientist,” Baxter said, buttoning his shirt and pulling his sleeves through his leather jacket. “You’re a school teacher. Coming back with us to look for work.”
“Plausible,” D’Angelo said.
“Alright, good. C’mon, we gotta go before we’re left behind.”
D’Angelo followed Baxter out the door. ROEBUCK sat on his cycle. He nodded, and rode toward the rest of the caravan. They surrounded the freighter that had brought fuel to Rock Springs. Now it was full of Rock Springs wheat to bring back to the distilleries.
Baxter followed him over. Lester looked out from the passenger seat of one his pick-up. “Good to see ya, Baxter. Worried we’d have to leave you behind. Who’s she?”
“Lester, this here’s my Aunt Angie. She’s a school teacher, coming back with us to help raise the little hellions back home,” Baxter told him.
Lester looked at D’Angelo and nodded. “Just hold on tight. Might be a bumpy ride.”
* * * * *
Doc D’Angelo gripped Baxter’s torso and held on. For dear life, she thought to herself, clichés be damned. The desert’s scenery sped by at nearly a hundred miles an hour. The horizon was fixed; blue sky over gray rock and the desert’s deep brown. Closer, cacti and tumbleweed blurred. Nearly half a mile away, a jackrabbit glanced up at the speeding juggernaut of the freighter, thumped one its hind-feet a few times, and ducked into a small warren tucked underground.
A twinge of nausea fluttered through D’Angelo’s gut, so she took her eyes away from the road and burrowed her face into the back of Baxter’s leather jacket. She wore a helmet borrowed from one of the bikers in the convoy. He’d cracked the helmet he considered ‘lucky’, but D’Angelo decided it would be better than no protection at all, so she smashed it onto her stubborn curls, grown into a mass of tight corkscrews since her time on the run. First things first: a haircut. Even if I have to shave everything off.
The back of Baxter’s jacket was warm and mostly smooth on her face. A few patches and stitches provided texture. Wind from the road whipped tears from her eyes. She wiped them off on the jacket, leaving behind slightly darker spots where the leather was moist. Her breath caught in the bandana she wore over her nose and mouth, but it kept the dust out, and that’s all that mattered.
As the horizon blazed by, D’Angelo let her mind wander. She remembered the long days spent in cold, sterile laboratories and reflected on how far her current situation was from her life as a scientist. ROEBUCK reminded her of the lab itself: cold, metallic, precise. Of course, the bot had been changed by his time outside the lab just as she had. Escape. An independent variable if one ever existed. A dozen what-if’s flashed through her mind, but she was pleased with her new-found freedom. Even though her scientist’s mind craved consistency, D’Angelo was glad she couldn’t see any of the other possible realities that could have existed with her still trapped in the lab like any other mindless instrument. Like a mouse in cage.
The convoy began to slow. The feel of crunching gravel vibrated through the tires and into her body. Baxter leaned his bike over, and killed the ignition. The rest of the convoy did the same.
“Yeehah! We’re back boys. Stand in line and get your scrip. Congratulations on a job well done,” Lester roared to his men.
“Rather jubilant for one who lost a crew member to a raider mine,” ROEBUCK remarked.
“You gotta look at the odds, ROEBUCK. Almost everybody came back from Rock Springs. We delivered our payload. Lost one man, but not the cargo or the whole escort. Gotta say, that’s pretty damn good,” Baxter told him.
“I understand ROEBUCK’s point of view,” D’Angelo remarked. “Some of us tolerate nothing but perfection.”
“There’s a recipe for unhappiness,” Baxter said with a grunt.
* * * * *
Baxter and ROEBUCK parked their cycles, and went inside a rickety wooden office with a world-weary woman sitting behind a window. A circle had been cut from the glass for her to speak through; underneath there was a small space she could use to slide paperwork.
When it was Baxter’s turn, she told him in a tired monotone, “This scrip is good for one hundred Benny bucks at the Los Bonitos Distillery company store. It cannot be replaced. Thank you for your service to Los Bonitos.” She placed a heavy red stamp on a square in one of the corners of the coupon and slid it through the window.
“Much obliged,” Baxter said with a smile.
ROEBUCK got his share in just another moment. The pair walked outside to meet the Doc. “Scrip from the company store?” she asked with a smile. “Not much you can do with that if we’re leaving town.”
“That thought had crossed my mind. What should we do, Baxter? Save them?” ROEBUCK asked.
“Nah,” he told them. “We’ll exchange it. Might lose a bit of their value, but I prefer more universal currencies.”
“And what would those be?” D’Angelo asked.
“Ammunition. Ethanol. Non-perishable food items. You know, the basic building blocks of life in this crazy world we live in,” Baxter explained.
With these words, the trio got back onto their bikes. They visited Mac near his ostrich burger hut. He was just closing up. “Hey, Baxter! You came just in time. Let me take you back to storage. Got a few things I’d like to show you.”
Mac shared some of his unsold leftovers with Baxter and D’Angelo. D’Angelo ate hungrily. Baxter munched slowly, taking swigs from his water canteen and passing it back and forth to the Doc.
“Who’s she?” Mac asked.
“This is my aunt Angie. Angie, this is Mac. He’s an old friend. Angie’s come back with us from Rock Springs to be a teacher,” Baxter explained.
Mac chuckled. “Good luck.” He’d brought them back to what looked like a large, outdoor freezer. Inside, only a small compartment was actually refrigerated. The rest was full of armaments, ammunition, and black market ethanol. It was crowded inside, so only Baxter entered. ROEBUCK and D’Angelo waited outside.
“Ninety bucks worth of nine millimeter bullets will do her just fine,” Baxter instructed.
“I can do that for you. Got one more thing I want to show you before you make up your mind,” Mac told him. He and Baxter carried out a couple of ammo cases that could be carried on Baxter’s and ROEBUCK’s bikes.
“C’m’ere,” Mac instructed. He brought Baxter back outside and led him, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK toward a large object covered in canvas. “Saw you ride in on the back of Baxter’s cycle,” he nodded at D’Angelo. “If you have any more passengers, Baxter, this might come in handy.” Underneath the canvas was a gleaming black sidecar. It had a comfortable looking maroon leather seat inside. ROEBUCK let out a low electronic whistle.
“Looks nice,” Baxter said. “Might make her hard to maneuver.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it for combat,” Mac told him. “Unless you add some armaments. That being said, it might make for more comfortable transportation for your passengers.”
Baxter nodded. “I’ll take it. If I don’t like it, I’ll trade it for something else.”
“Excellent!” Mac said. He took a case of bullets back from ROEBUCK. “Pleasure doing business with you, Baxter.”
“You too, Mac. And if it’s all the same to you, don’t mention my Aunt Angie to anybody that passes through,” Baxter told him.
“My lips are sealed,” Mac mimed locking his lips and threw away the key.
* * * * *
“Are we ready to get this show on the road?” ROEBUCK asked. “According to my internal navigation system, it’s a long way to Los Alamos.
“We’ll leave tonight,” Baxter told him. “Camp on the road. Sound good to you, Doc?”
“A tent and a bedroll would be more comfort than I’ve been used to in a while. And it would be good to see the stars again. You’re picking up idioms,” she said to ROEBUCK. “Interesting.”
Baxter grinned. “Alright, let’s go.”
D’Angelo put her hand on Baxter’s wrist. “One minute. Do either of you cut hair?”
“I’ve barbered Baxter for the past couple years,” ROEBUCK told her.
“Good,” D’Angelo said. “Cut it all off.”
“You’re sure?” Baxter asked.
“I’m tired of these curls. Too damn hot under a motorcycle helmet. Besides, it’s hair. It’ll grow back,” D’Angelo said.
“Give me a moment,” ROEBUCK instructed. He brought D’Angelo with him to a dark spot beneath a tree a few feet from the dusty street. Baxter sat on a curb next to Mac’s and sipped one of the weak beers his friend sold.
ROEBUCK poured some water on D’Angelo’s hair and ran his fingers through it. Even though his fingers were metallic, ROEBUCK had a surprisingly human touch. For the bot, the experience was strangely intimate, especially since he didn’t know the Doc near as well as he knew Baxter. He used one of Baxter’s knives, a small switch blade, to cut her hair.
“I guess we put some barber code into your CPU before we reactivated you. You’ve got a nice touch,” D’Angelo said quietly.
ROEBUCK let out a few electronic warbles D’Angelo took for laughter. “Baxter taught me how to do this. He was tired of using his mirror. He helps me with my own maintenance from time to time.”
Once he’d chopped most of the hair from D’Angelo’s head, ROEBUCK added some more water and a bit of soap. Then he began sliding the blade against her scalp. “Do you have a first name?” ROEBUCK asked.
“Doc,” she told him. “I might tell you. Some day.”
“Understood.” ROEBUCK finished the haircut, leaving D’Angelo bald. Her pale scalp looked strange to him, but she placed her helmet back onto her head.
* * * * *
The ride to their campsite was pleasant and peaceful. The sidecar worked well. D’Angelo relished seeing the landscape open up in front of her, and felt more secure buckled into the sidebar than she had clinging to Baxter. Mac gave her some goggles, so along with her new helmet (not that cracked, old relic she’d inherited from the caravan) and one of Baxter’s bandanas, she felt much more suited to motorcycle travel.
ROEBUCK and Baxter rode alongside each other. Once the sun began to set, they found a good place to make camp. They didn’t start a fire, just in case D’Angelo was still being followed. Instead, Baxter cooked a can of beans with his hot plate and a miniature propane tank. He shared the beans with D’Angelo, washed their meal down with water form their canteens. Full and sleepy, she and Baxter collapsed on their bedrolls while ROEBUCK stood watch.
* * * * *
Baxter must have had too much water with those salty beans, because his bladder woke him in the middle of the night. He sat up on his bedroll and looked down the barrel of a gun.
“Good morning, Baxter,” a gruff voice spoke.
“Max. Good to see you,” Baxter said. “Leroy with you?”
“Leroy! Say hello,” Max yelled behind him.
“Hey, Baxter!” Leroy spoke with an enthusiastic twang. His right arm held D’Angelo in a headlock; his left hand held a gun to her head. ROEBUCK stood nearby, but his optic sensors were dark. He was powered off.
“What did you do to my bot?” Baxter asked.
“E.M.P.,” Max said.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Electro-magnetic pulse,” D’Angelo explaind. “Deactivates electronics. Briefly.”
“Shut up,” Leroy dug the barrel of the gun into her temple.
Baxter leapt up while Leroy was distracted. In one quick movement, he grabbed Max’s wrist, twisted his arm, and forced him to fire his gun in Leroy’s direction. The bullet fired wide. Leroy threw D’Angelo to the ground and aimed his gun at Baxter. Baxter tugged Max’s gun from his hand, and hit him in the back of the head with the butt of his pistol.
He and Leroy locked guns in a stand-off. D’Angelo made a motion to stand up, but Leroy pulled another gun from his hip with his left hand and pointed it back at her. Baxter pulled his own gun and aimed it at Max, Max’s gun still fixed on Leroy.
“How you want to settle this, amigo? This is your last chance. We can pretend this never happened, walk away friends.” Baxter offered.
“Ain’t gonna be that way, Baxter,” Leroy spoke. He cocked the gun he had aimed at D’Angelo. “Drop ‘em.”
Beads of sweat peppered Baxter’s brow. That E.M.P. had been a dirty trick. Maybe he could shoot Leroy first, take Max prisoner. Leroy must be thinking the same thing, Baxter thought. Beneath him, Max rolled on the ground, swept his feet around, and tripped Baxter’s legs. Max put a knee into Baxter’s gut, grabbed his gun back, and stripped him of his weapons, except for a boot knife that remained hidden under the cuff ofhis pants leg. Sloppy, Baxter silentlycritiqued, but good for me.
“Alright, Baxter,” Max spoke. “You’re a son of a bitch, but I can’t blame you for trying. This lady and the bot are the only ones we’ve been hired to find. We’ll let you go if you promise not to follow us. Have to keep your guns of course.”
“Can’t do that,” Baxter spoke. “ROEBUCK and I been through hell together. And the Doc’s important too.
“ROEBUCK?” Leroy asked.
“The bot,” D’Angelo explained.
“I see,” Max said. “Well, we got a couple pick-ups parked a half mile out. We’ll take those cycles with us, should be good trade. But we’ll come back for ‘em. The bot’ll be out cold for a couple more hours.”
* * * * *
Baxter perked up when he saw the lights from the compound in Los Alamos. He’d been dozing, his head leaning against the passenger window, conserving his strength for the struggle he knew was coming. The facility was surrounded by a high security fence topped with coils of barbed wire. A search-light flooded the truck with an invasive beam that blinded Baxter, but Max honked his horn, and the light moved on.
Max and Leroy had known Baxter from years past. Once, they had both been in the same security police precinct, and deputized Baxter from time to time to help them hunt raiders, but they were eventually fired for incompetence and excessive force in an illegal weapons raid that turned sour. Max and Leroy became mercenaries, like Baxter, often taking jobs Corporate Security Force were reluctant to do themselves.
Max and Leroy had become gloves when C.S.F. didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so Baxter knew that was likely the reason they’d been sent after ROEBUCK and D’Angelo after the chaos that erupted in Rock Springs when they first encountered Doc D’Angelo.
Baxter peered out his window into Leroy’s truck. D’Angelo was still sitting in the passenger seat next to Leroy. Each pick-up had a motorcycle in the back, including D’Angelo’s side-car, attached to still attached Baxter’s Harley. ROEBUCK was also tied down in the back of Leroy’s truck next to his Kawasaki. Was that a glimmer of red I saw in ROEBUCK’s sensor? Baxter wondered. Wishful thinking, I bet.
An armed guard came from the security gate and approached the vehicles. Max rolled down his window. “Got an acquisition for the missing equipment and personnel report you released,” Max explained as he passed a sheet of paper through his window.
The guard examined the document. He had an assault rifle strapped to his back, and wore black military fatigues with a short-billed cap. “Who’s this guy?” He nodded in Baxter’s direction. “And what’s with the motorcycles?”
“This here’s my prisoner. Captured in the course of our operation. The bikes are spoils of war,” Max explained. “We’ll trade ‘em elsewhere if you ain’t got a use for ‘em here.”
Leroy held down his horn for a few seconds. “Your buddy seems kind of antsy,” the guard told him. He alright?”
“He can be a little shit sometimes,” Max explained. “But I understand. We been on the road for a hell of a long while, and we ain’t had the chance to unwind for too damn long. So he’s a little high-strung, that’s all.”
“Alright,” the guard said. “But he better be on his best behavior inside the base. Major Monk doesn’t put up with any shenanigans. But everything here looks to be in order.” He waved them through, and the wooden arm of the security gate rose to admit them. Behind the gate, the compound seemed mostly empty. A few hangers stood here and there near some runways that seemed to stretch on forever. That was it. But then the road inside the base began to split, and a ramp formed, leading down into some kind of hidden subterranean base.
“Never thought I’d be back here,” Baxter grunted.
“Didn’t know you’d been to Los Alamos,” Max said.
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Baxter told him. Max ignored the comment.
Leroy’s truck followed them down the ramp into a bright, gleaming underground military facility, glowing with fluorescent light. A few troops were running drills in the massive space, at least a half a mile in length and width. Wide corridors split from this main space to other sections of the base. Some tanks, humvees and other military hardware shone under the lights. Some looked brand new. Even experimental. Others were pre-war, but well-maintained, even if they were more than a hundred years old.
A guard approached Max’s window. “Park your truck here. Everybody out,” he ordered. Max and Leroy parked their trucks and killed the ignitions. Guards led Baxter and D’Angelo from their seats. D’Angelo looked distraught, almost broken. At second glance, Baxter realized it was a ruse. There was hatred in her eyes, an intensity he’d rarely seen before. She met his glance for a moment, and Baxter understood her meaning: ‘Help me, and I can get us out of here.’ Baxter nodded, ever so slightly.
An entire squad came into the bed of Max’s pick-up and brought ROEBUCK down from the truck. A team of scientists had gathered, and one of them restored partial power to the bot to make him easier for them to move. They looked to be wearing the same kind of lab coat as Doc D’Angelo, but of course theirs weren’t torn and tattered. A few soldiers led D’Angelo and ROEBUCK away with the scientists. Another guard approached Baxter, Max and Leroy.
“The Major wants to see you,” he announced. “He needs to decide what to do with the prisoner.”
“Understood,” Max nodded.
Max and Leroy followed the guard down one of the corriders, bringing Baxter along with them. Baxter still wore Max’s handcuffs. The guard knocked on a wooden office door emblazoned with a seal of a white eye staring out from a black pyramid. “Come in!” a voice barked from inside. The guard led them inside, saluted the Major, spun on his heel and stepped outside, letting the door close behind him.
“Uncuff him, boys,” the officer commanded. He was a thin, bald man with a horseshoe of brown hair wrapped around his skull and eyes that seemed locked in a perpetual squint. He wore a heavily decorated officer’s uniform of olive and khaki, covered in medals and insignia. He gave Baxter a squinty glance, then his eyes widened in a double-take. “I remember you. You’re that sum’bitch stole the bot in the first place, ain’t ya?”
“Guilty as charged,” Baxter admitted.
“Hell boy, I don’t know whether to kill you or hire you,” the man roared with a grin. “I’m Major Monk. What’s your name?”
“Baxter,” he said.
“Just Baxter?” Monk asked.
“I don’t know my dad, and my mom only ever called me Baxter,” he explained.
“We only ever called him Baxter, sir,” Leroy told him.
“You know this man?” Monk asked.
“He used to partner with us from time to time. Deputized him into a few posses. We’re ex-C.F.S. After we got canned, they’d still get contracts from time to time, under the table. Baxter helped us with a few of those,” Max explained. “But we ain’t since him before tonight coming on five years now.
“Damn, son,” Major Monk squinted at Baxter, “you got one hell of a reputation. I’ll tell you what, boy. I’m going throw you in the brig, and in the morning, we’ll have a little fun with you. Then I’ll decide what to do next. Guard!” he roared.
The same guard who escorted Baxter into the office came back in to retrieve him. He brought Baxter to his feet and cuffed him again.
“You boys can bunk here if you’d like,” Monk offered. “Got some spare beds in the barracks. And help yourselves to the Mess. Requisitions Officer will compensate you for your troubles.”
“Much obliged, sir,” Max said with a nod.
The guard took Baxter out into the hallway and began walking him down a different corrider than Max and Leroy. Baxter leaned his head toward the guard, and spoke conspiratorially, “Word to the wise, kid. It’s about to get real ugly. I’d fake a stomach ache, lock yourself in the infirmary.”
The guard scowled, but said nothing. At the end of the hallway, he opened a barred cell and pushed Baxter inside. “Keep your eyes on that wall,” he ordered.
Baxter obeyed. He heard the click of the handcuffs, and in one swift motion, brought a hoop of the metal bracelets into the man’s temple. The guard stumbled backward. As fast as a cobra, Baxter had his boot-knife in the guard’s throat. “Tried to warn you, kid,” Baxter whispered as the man’s eyes rolled back into his head a second bloody grin seeped blood down his neck.
He stripped the guard of his uniform, and stuffed his own clothes into a canvas bag he’d found folded up in a nearby closet in the outside corrider. Baxter examined himself in the cell’s mirror, a metal square that offered a warped reflection of his grizzled face. “Won’t pass a close inspection. But maybe I can sneak into the lab.”
* * * * *
Major Monk paced back and forth in front of the scientists he’d assembled in the Robotics Lab. “We’ve gathered today to welcome our prodigal Doctor D’Angelo back into our fold. Doctor Dee, welcome back,” he winked as he said this. “I understand why you left. It was my fault. I pushed you too hard. Your brilliant minds are simply too fragile and I’ve been far too. That’s why I’m increasing your rations by twenty-five percent. And you’ll be getting the good stuff. Canned pineapple with your spam, the freshest ostrich meat, and apple juice full of vitamin C. I’ve made your schedules more flexible to give you more time for rest and socialization. Our Pleasure Officer has even offered full use of her Morale Corps in whatever capacity you see fit.”
“What I’m trying to say is, we want you to be happy. Doctor D’Angelo, I can’t tell you how terribly our research has suffered in your absence. It wasn’t your fault ROEBUCK was taken from us, and I shouldn’t blame you for not being able to help build us a new bot. Hell, ROEBUCK’s creators must have had a few hundred million years of evolution on us! But now he’s back, you’re back, and our little project can continue. Under my supervision, of course.”
“ROEBUCK, I know you can hear me. Your aural sensors and CPU have been momentarily reactivated so that you can understand my offer. You’ll have your own privileges. Access to research materials. Time outside. You can even show us some of those tricks you learned on that Jap bike you brought back with you.”
“I want you all to know,” Monk said to the assembled scientists and their subject, “that my generosity comes with one condition. If my good will does not make results, you’ll begin losing these new privileges one by one. And if I am betrayed, I’ll kick you out into the desert to fend for yourselves. You can fight the coyotes for your dinner.”
“Or you can stay here with me. And I promise, once we have a working bot comparable to ROEBUCK, he’ll have his companion and you can all retire. You can go wherever you want to, or stay here with us.”
The scientists nodded quietly. Doctor D’Angelo stood with a quiet fury in her eyes the Major found unsettling, but the rest appeared cowed. “Good. Doctor D’Angelo, a word. The rest of you, get back to work!”
Doctor D’Angelo approached Major Monk as the other scientists returned to their experiments. “Yes, sir?” she asked with cold formality.
“You’ve been with the subject. How is he?” Monk asked.
“He’s…different. He’s learned so much. And I don’t think he’ll be under our control for very much longer,” D’Angelo said.
“Leave that to me.”
* * * * *
ROEBUCK woke slowly to full awareness. He felt his circuits fire one by one. His optic sensor powered on. Above him, a blank ceiling with fluorescent lights glowed white. He concentrated energy on his bio-sensors, but there was too much activity in the base, so he couldn’t find Baxter. Dr. D’Angelo was near him, her pulse steady, blood pressure slightly elevated. Alert. Good.
ROEBUCK began to play a recording from the library of music he had stored inside him. “Been away so long I hardly knew the place! Gee, it’s good to be back home. Leave it ‘til tomorrow to unpack my case, honey disconnect the phone. I’m back in the U.S.S.R.! You don’t how lucky you are, boy. Back in the U.S., back in the U.S., back in the U.S.S.R.!”
“What the hell kind of commie propaganda is that?!” Major Monk snapped.
“Mid-20th century rock and roll music. He’s become a fan,” D’Angelo explained.
“Very well,” Monk sighed, reluctant to surrender even a shred of his generosity, “but turn it down, godammit.”
ROEBUCK turned the music down. Monk made a curt nod. D’Angelo came over to ROEBUCK, still lying prone on the table. She grasped ROEBUCK’s fingers, her hand shielded from Monk’s view. ROEBUCK felt her touch, and coiled his fingers ever so lightly. Inside his circuits, he felt warmth, a war, maternal happiness that came from the Doc. She pretended to inspect him with a small magnifying glass. ROEBUCK felt her gaze into his optic sensor. He was able to see deep into D’Angelo’s eyes, through her pupils, into her lenses, tangled forests of capillaries.
“I’m going to make a few repairs on ROEBUCK. He’s incurred some damage in the field. I’ll need access to my instruments,” D’Angelo explained.
“Fine, fine,” Monk replied. “Do whatever you need to, but no funny business. I have other duties to attend to. Let me know as soon as there are any breakthroughs.”
“Yes, sir,” D’Angelo replied.
ROEBUCK remained immobile, though his systems were fully restored. The E.M.P. Max used interrupted some of his functions, but only for a short time. Where did a pair of drifters get access to that kind of tech? From Los Alamos, of course. So C.S.F. has melded with the remnants of the American military. I must remember that.
D’Angelo put the magnifying lens near his aural sensor, a very small hole where a person’s ear would be. To an observer, the hole would appear as a pin prick, but the sensitivity of ROEBUCK’s instruments made him a superior listener compared to humans, and most other life-forms for that matter. Only bats and dolphins could rival his auditory skills.
“I know you can hear me,” D’Angelo whispered. ROEBUCK felt her breath against his face. “We need to get out of here. And once we’re gone, we’ll run far, far away.”
ROEBUCK beeped an affirmative. One of the other scientists glanced over. “His systems are still coming back online. The beeps are an uditory indicator.”
She continued, “Baxter will be trying to escape. If he doesn’t come for us within the week, you and I’ll break out of here together or die trying.”
* * * * *
Baxter walked down the Los Alamos hallways with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw. Act like you belong here, he told himself. He still had the duffel bag hanging from his left shoulder. He kept his right side clear in case he needed to fire the rifle, a 21st century assault model that seemed to be standard issue for the armed soldiers on the base.
The doors to the robotics lab stood closed. No guards were nearby. Good. I’m in time. Once the body’s found, the alarm’ll sound, and I’ll need to shoot my way out. If I’m not in the lab by then, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK will have to fend for themselves. Baxter made these mental calculations as he stood outside the metallic sliding doors of the lab.
He held the guard’s access card up to the door’s sensor. The sensor glowed red for a brief moment. The door didn’t open. Guess knocking is out of the question. Baxter studied the door’s sensor and keypad. If ROEBUCK were here with him, he’ hack into the electronics and have them inside in a matter of seconds. It frightened him how much he’d come to rely on his partner. If he lost ROEBUCK, he’d be just another gunslinger. Maybe he’d have cut it as a mechanic. Enough. Can’t think like that. Not yet. Baxter studied the door, as if the answers were woven into the steel.
Then suddenly the doors parted with a mechanical hiss, and a man in a lab coat walked outside. Baxter hurried through the open doors. “Hey, you can’t go in without authoriz—“ but the scientist’s words were cut off as the doors shut behind him. Baxter hit a button near the lab’s entrance to activate the mechanical lock.
All the scientists inside the laboratory paused what they were doing and looked in his direction. Even the music coming from ROEBUCK’s speakers stopped with the sound of a skipping needle. Wise-ass. Baxter beamed the thought in the bot’s direction. “Dr. D’Angelo. Major Monk wants ROEBUCK in his office, pronto. You need to bring him.”
D’Angelo heard Baxter’s familiar voice and recognized his disguise. ROEBUCK perked up too, sitting up from the examination table. “We’ll be conducting some field-tests, so we’ll be gone for a day or two. Bring your things,” he ordered.
“Wait just a god-damned minute,” a dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair stood up from his work. He was older than Baxter, probably in his sixties, but he carried himself with the confidence of a man half his age. “Dr. D’Angelo and ROEBUCK only returned an hour ago. I’m Chief Scientist in the robotics laboratory. Why didn’t Major Monk clear this with me? I have important experiments scheduled for tomorrow. ROEBUCK needs to be here. Dr. D’Angelo too.”
“You’ll have to take that up with the Major, sir. I’m just following orders,” Baxter told him. D’Angelo already had her backpack hanging from her shoulders, while ROEBUCK stood next to her, naked and gleaming.
“Let me see your requisition report,” the chief demanded. “I’m not authorized to let any equipment leave the lab without signing it. I’ll need to keep a copy too.”
“I didn’t receive one, sir,” Baxter explained. “I’ll have the Major send it as soon as I get back to his office.”
“No,” the chief said. “I’m calling Major Monk right now. You’re not going anywhere.” He began to reach for his phone.
Baxter pulled up the rifle that and aimed from his hip. “That ain’t a good idea, chief. You pick up that phone, things’ll get real messy.”
The man’s eyes widened for a moment, and he sat down. “Very well. But I won’t be bullied. Your days of strong-arming us are over. Even Major Monk says so.”
Baxter lowered his rifle and tipped his hat in the scientist’s direction. “Much obliged. I’ll bring the doctor back with ROEBUCK in a few days. And I’ll make sure the requisition order is delivered retroactively.”
“Hmph. Very well. But I don’t like this one bit. This whole deal has a stink about it. Like some catfish left on the counter overnight.” He peered at Baxter above his reading glasses.
Baxter gave him a half-hearted salute, unlocked the door, and led ROEBUCK and Doc D’Angelo back into the hallway outside of the lab. “ROEBUCK, nearest exit? There’s a body in my cell, ain’t wearing these clothes no more. ”
“Calculating,” ROEBUCK said. For a few moments, his optic sensor flared a bright ruby. He said, “There is an access panel to a garbage chute located sixty feet north of this section of the corridor. It leads to a compactor that has access to the sewage system. It’ll be the easiest way to avoid personnel.”
“Is that safe?” Dr. D’Angelo asked.
“Safer than staring down a few dozen armed guards,” Baxter said. “Let’s go.”
ROEBUCK led them down the corridor, his feet clanking on the metallic floor. D’Angelo and Baxter followed him. As Baxter predicted, an alarm began howl when they were only a few dozen feet from the lab’s exit. Red light flooded the corridor, spinning from a couple siren bulbs placed at each end of the hallway.
“We’re here,” ROEBUCK announced. He stood in front of the access panel, pointing at it with his right hand. The bot’s fingertip separated along a horizontal crease, and the end of a screwdriver emerged. As ROEBUCK studied the bolts, the end of the screwdriver changed subtly until it matched the size and shape of the gaps in the bolts that held the panel to the wall. He placed the end of the screwdriver into the first bolt, and it began to spin, unscrewing the bolt from the wall. The bolts clattered on the floor, one by one, until the panel slid open.
ROEBUCK nodded to his companions, climbed into the open chute and slid down headfirst. He ended up in a pile of muck and waste, rusted military hardware, spent motor oil, empty glass bottles, and old fruit and vegetable peels. Baxter slid down behind him, grunting as he collided with the bot’s hard exterior, and again a moment later when Doc D’Angelo fell on top of him.
“Get up!” Baxter said as he pushed her off. She rolled over into a puddle of grease and cursed. ROEBUCK lit a bright cone of red light from his optic sensor so his human companions could see in the darkness. “Okay, ROEBUCK, where the hell are we?” Baxter asked.
“We’re in one of the garbage compression chambers.” ROEBUCK explained. “The solid waste is compressed, and any liquid falls through the floor grates into the sewers below.”
“We need to get the hell out of here then,” Baxter said. “We didn’t exactly close the door behind us. And it’s only a matter of time before that open access panel is discovered. If we’re still down here when they find it…well, we’ll all be a lot skinnier, that’s for damn sure.”
“Agreed,” D’Angelo spoke as she attempted to wipe the muck from one of the sleeves on her lab coat.
“Here’s the exit,” ROEBUCK pointed to a rusted metal door with a spinning wheel handle attached to it. “This leads to some steps that go down to the sewer system.” The bot reared back on his left leg, and kicked the door with his right. The battered door flew off its hinges and clattered down a few concretes steps. “Poor structural integrity,” ROEBUCK explained as he walked through the open portal. “Oxidation with the iron in the door. Common in a moist environment.”
Baxter nodded as he followed ROEBUCK through the portal. D’Angelo crept behind them. They walked down the concrete steps and found a flowing river of waste leading through the sewer tunnels. Fortunately, narrow concrete walkways followed the waste through the tunnels, so they wouldn’t have to slog through it. But the smell was impossible to avoid.
“More olfactory interference,” ROEBUCK complained.
“Ain’t exactly a spring meadow, but if it gets us out alive, that’s all that matters.”
* * * * *
“Here,” Baxter handed D’Angelo one of his spare pistols. “You shouldn’t be unarmed. Just in case we run into anything unexpected. You ever fire one of these before?”
“Never had the need to until very recently,” D’Angelo said. “Point and pull the trigger, right?”
“That’s the basic idea. Hold the gun straight in front of you. Both hands, like this.” He molded D’Angelo’s hands and fingers around the grip and trigger of the gun as he stood behind her. “Line up your target in the sight. Keep a tight grip; you’ll feel a kick. Make sure the safety is off before you try to fire,” Baxter explained. “Keep this lever up,” he said as he indicated the safety on the pistol D’Angelo now gripped, “until you’re ready to use it. Push it down when you want to fire. Or any time you think you might need to.”
D’Angelo nodded and tucked the pistol into the waist of her pants. The gun was cold and heavier than she expected it to be. She brought her hand up to run her fingers through her hair only to find that the curled bush she was used to was gone; only the sandpaper of her shaved scalp remained. D’Angelo brought her mind back to the moment. Her eyes followed the beam of light ROEBUCK cast in front of them.
“How much further?” Baxter asked.
“Shouldn’t be more than a mile. The sewage lets out into a creek bed outside the base,” ROEBUCK explained. “One moment.” The bot stopped so suddenly, Baxter almost walked into him. “Electronic interference. Coming from behind us. Fast. And large. More than one. They may be vehicles.”
“We need to take cover. Try to stay out of the way, Doc,” Baxter yelled behind him.
“You don’t need to tell me twice,” D’Angelo told him. She flicked the safety’s lever just in case.
ROEBUCK leaped over the guardrail of the walkway they’d been travelling on, over the sewer’s tunnel and onto the opposite concrete path. He transformed his right arm into its gatling-gun form and aimed in the direction of the pursuers he’d detected. On the other side of the tunnel, Baxter knelt in a crouch with his rifle aimed back toward the path they’d followed. D’Angelo hunkered beside him, and peered through the guardrail, gripping her pistol with white knuckles.
The hum of motors grew, their rumbling cacophony amplified by the hollow tunnel. A white light blinded them, and in the next moment, bullets flew and chipped concrete bit into Baxter’s hands and cheeks. He fired his assault rifle in the direction of light speeding down the tunnel. The guns firing at them stopped, and a blur of machinery flew past.
Baxter could see some skids beneath a low-flying vehicle hovering above the water. There was a miniature jet engine in the rear of the craft that propelled it above the water. An inert propeller hung from the craft just below the engine. Must be amphibious, Baxter thought. As it turned around, he could see the craft was small, about the size of his own motorcycle. A pilot sat enclosed in a framed glass canopy. Doors enclosed this space. A deep olive metal frame protected the machinery underneath. An identical vehicle also maneuvered the tunnel and now both were headed back in their direction. Machine guns mounted beneath the cockpit fired from guns mounted beneath the cockpits.
ROEBUCK and Baxter returned gunfire as the machines zoomed by. Glass shattered and sprayed behind them in a bright, glittering plume. “Yeeeeehah!” one of the pilots roared as he turned the craft around.
“Sounds like Leroy,” Baxter grunted. D’Angelo was quiet beside him, but peered over the guardrail as the machine turned around.
As the trailing craft was about to fly past, ROEBUCK jumped from his side of the walkway and gripped the vehicle from the skid on its starboard skid. The vehicle rocked to the side he gripped, and the pilot pulled back on his stick to bring the craft level and rise higher above the water. It rose a few feet, but ROEBUCK’s legs still dangled in the muck. He pulled himself up onto the skid and ripped open the cockpit’s door. The pilot roared in alarm and fury, but ROEBUCK threw him out into the sewer. The craft veered down for a moment, but ROEBUCK pulled back on the control stick to regain its balance and commandeered control.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back,” Baxter told D’Angelo. He lowered himself from the walkway and into the muck. He lit a flashlight attached to the barrel of his rifle. It cast an eerie spotlight on the sewer’s rippling surface. He wanted to know what had happened to the pilot ROEBUCK threw from the craft.
Baxter’s gun-light reflected on the dark sewage, but other than the languid flow of the water itself, he couldn’t detect any kind of movement. But as he scanned the water, a few bubbles finally emerged from the depths of the muck. Baxter kept beam of his gun’s light fixed on one of the bubbles that trailed along the current.
From beneath the muck, a pair of arm’s erupted from the water, and in a fraction of a second, Baxter was on his back, the pilot on top of him, pinning him down beneath the rifle which Baxter and the pilot each had a grip on.
“I’m gonna finish you off for good this time, Baxter!” the pilot spat through the grime coating his face. Baxter couldn’t hear Leroy’s voice, but had recognized him even under all the filth that covered him. Max must be on the craft ROEBUCK is chasing, Baxter thought. He grunted as struggled to push Max away from him while still holding onto the gun, and gasped as he got his head above the water.
In one moment of tremendous effort, Baxter shoved Max off and wrenched the rifle away. He aimed his gun, but before he could pull the trigger, he felt a thunderous pain in his temple that spread through the rest of his skull. Baxter’s vision went black, as if his head had been dunked into an inkpot, and his mind surrendered itself to oblivion.
* * * * *
D’Angelo watched Baxter’s fight with Max from the darkness of the walkway. D’Angelo recognized Leroy’s voice, and knew the man from their ride into Los Alamos together. He’d been driving the pick-up that brought them into the base. Now Max stood over where Baxter had fallen into the water, reaching into the shallow muck to pull the rifle from him.
“Back off!” D’Angelo roared, her pistol aimed at Max. Her hands were shaking slightly, but they were both holding the gun. Max was lined up in her sight, just as Baxter told her.
Max looked up at her with a grin. He brought his hands out of the muck and held them up. Then he began to walk toward her.
“Lady, you might hurt yourself with that gun. Don’t look like you’re used to it. Why don’t you hand it over so nobody gets hurt?” Max stretched his left hand out to her. His right hand crept behind his back.
“Not another step closer!” D’Angelo yelled. “Not another step!”
Max’s grin transformed into an angry scowl, and he lunged at D’Angelo with a crowbar he’d hidden behind his back. D’Angelo pulled the trigger. The kick of the gun pushed her back and the flash of the muzzle nearly blinded her. She kept at it until the gun’s clip was empty, the boom of the shots followed by the hushed click of an empty chamber.
Max’s momentum carried forward, so he fell facedown at her feet. D’Angelo was stunned for a moment, silenced in disbelief, until she noticed the smoky haze of the exit wounds and the pool of blood that spread out beneath the body.
* * * * *
ROEBUCK flew back into the sewer’s entrance, his metal body pocked in places from the shrapnel of Leroy’s grenades, scorched from the flames and smoke of the explosions. Damage was superficial. The blackened areas were mostly scorched carbon from dust and matter that had collected on his body’s surface. The shrapnel’s small dents looked as if a child had thrown a handful of pebbles into a figure made from sand. ROEBUCK rather liked the effect his battle-scarred body presented. It would intimidate most humans, and the feeling of nakedness he had inherited from his companions had been replaced by the robes of war.
Leroy’d made it out alive. ROEBUCK would’ve chased him out into the desert for the sake of tying loose ends, but his aural sensors had detected gunshots from inside the sewer. That meant Baxter and D’Angelo could be alive, dead or dying depending on who fired those shots. And if ROEBUCK could provide triage, which he had been programmed for in Los Alamos (and probably even before if D’Angelo’s speculations were true), it was his responsibility to save them.
The light from the tunnel’s exit slowly dimmed behind him, and ROEBUCK found Baxter and D’Angelo where he’d left him. Baxter’s head had a knot near his temple nearly three centimeters in diameter. D’Angelo was peering into his eye with a small flashlight she’d brought with her kit from the lab. She frowned slightly as she watched his pupils dilate and constrict.
“He appears to be concussed,” D’Angelo said without looking up at the bot.
ROEBUCK made a cursory analysis of his vital signs. Still strong, but thrumming with the effects of adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins. “Do you mind?” he asked in a gentle voice.
D’Angelo stepped aside. She was still numb from the gunshots. The fact that she’d fired in self-defense salved her conscience, but barely. I killed a man. I crossed a line. Eat or be eaten. The law of the jungle. That’s the world we inhabit now.
“He’ll recover,” ROEBUCK spoke. “But we need to leave. Immediately. They know we’re down here.”
“Agreed,” D’Angelo said.
Baxter grunted an affirmative, and stood up, a bit wobbly at first. He leaned on ROEBUCK for a moment, sighed deeply, collected himself and looked down the sewer tunnel. “Shit…” Baxter cursed.
The water was rising. Quickly. Its level rose a half a foot in about thirty seconds, as Baxter, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK clambered back onto the amphibious flying craft they’d stolen from Max, and they sped away. ROEBUCK piloted the craft, and D’Angelo and Baxter each stood on one of the skids, hanging onto handles that were attached to the top of the cockpit’s canopy for that very purpose.
It was all for naught. The gate outside the sewer tunnel was sealed, a metal portal completely closed so as to dam the water and flood the tunnel completely. ROEBUCK stopped the craft by turning it one hundred eighty degrees, and accelerating in the opposition direction until their momentum stopped. Of course, now they were facing the brunt force of the water head on.
“Hold on to me,” ROEBUCK told Baxter and D’Angelo. “Don’t let go. Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you—“