e x c e r p t
Samson ignored the jeer, focusing carefully on opening the box. He was twelve years old and did not want to screw this up. Being twelve was important, and people took the things you did seriously, so long as you did them well.
“Smellson, hey!” The Crowboy banged his crowbar on the dusty ruins of the factory line where they had set up the six crates from their haul that morning. “Don’t blow us up, okay? I don’t want to die with your stench clogging me up, yeah?”
Again, Samson ignored the other boy, trying to concentrate as he eased his longtool through the gap in the crate before him. He very well could blow himself up; he could blow them all up. Inside the GuaranTech crate he tinkered with was a copbot.
Copbots blew up all the time. If their main processors or power source were damaged, they blew up. If they were being captured, they blew up. If they ran out of ammo and couldn’t refill within about ten minutes, they blew up. When they blew up, they incinerated everything in about a hundred foot radius. The warehouse was not big enough for the Crowboys to keep their distance and still work in the role of protection as they had been hired. So they were in the blast zone as well as Samson.
The copbots, deactivated, were precious and valuable. Strangely, they were valuable precisely because they were so hard to deactivate. A copbot was made almost entirely out of self-healing nanotech, and with enough time, it could repair from almost any wound to its metal shell. So, to keep this sort of power out of the hands of the gangster conglomerate that ran Junktown, the Five Faces, and any other sort of competitor, the copbots had a very liberal self-destruct mechanism.
This is what Samson worked against. As far as he knew, he was the only person in the entirety of Junktown who could deactivate a copbot safely. He had done it twice before; after giving his notes to his boss Jackson Crash, the work had been outsourced. Crash was one of the Five Faces. He ran the tech in Junktown; he ran it because he had Samson working for him. Samson worked for Crash because he’d die before doing anything else.
Normally, Samson worked in his workshop in The Tower. But after Crash had outsourced the work for deactivating copbots, four warehouses in a row had blown up, all due to Samson’s successors doing shoddy work. Now he was back on the job in the middle of Junktown. The warehouse was one of many in the enormous slum, abandoned long ago after the water boom died down. You could argue there was a sort of system of illegal subsidies for the warehouses—gangsters paid to keep them from being demolished so that they could continue to use them for illegal activities such as what Samson was doing now.
Holding his breath, he rotated his longtool into the box a little more, waiting for it to catch.
A soft gasp, a sigh, and then then the box banged open on the line. Samson let his breath out slow. Underneath, the copbot was all folded up, accordion arms wrapped around its legs, head between its knees.
“Good job, Smellson! Just five more to go!”
Samson stepped away from the line a minute to wipe his face with a cloth. A great deal of sweat had gathered on his brow, his cheeks. Samson loved to work with tech, but usually it didn’t put his life in so much danger. He longed to be back up in the safety of his room in The Tower.
Is that what you sweatin’, baby? That you gonna die? Don’t sweat that, baby. We all gonna die. You could die just later today.
You won’t die, though? Right, Crash?
Nah, baby. You done me good. I ain’t gonna die.
That memory wasn’t doing him any good right now.
He flopped the cloth down against the line, glancing over at the Crowboys. See, he wanted to shout. I clean sometimes. Just when I need to, that’s all. Most of the time he was too busy to clean. There was so much work to do. So many people wanted to hurt Crash.
“Hurry it up,” said Garrett, their leader. “We don’t have all day.”
“Yeah,” said Samson. “I know.”
Samson hoped for a little more courtesy from Garrett. He had, after all, been the one who installed that tech eyepiece on Garrett’s head. With that eyepiece, Garrett could monitor heartbeats of people around him, see through walls, and perhaps most valuable, he could mask his identity from eyebot scans. It was professional grade, that work; it was masterpiece level, just like anything Samson installed. He installed bits for all the Five Faces and for a great deal of the boys in the corps underneath them. That was part of his employment.
Samson’s tech, through Crash, got outsourced to the other Five Faces to help their business. To Harry Bones, Entertainment; to Punchee Wallop, Labor; to Nicolai Petrov, Enforcement. Not to Drugs, though. Samson didn’t make anything for Max Bones, and Max didn’t need Samson’s help anyway. Drugs sold themselves.
The copbot’s head was spherical. From a distance, it didn’t look like it was made of many pieces, but it was. You just had to tilt it until the light caught it correctly so that you could see them all.
“Come here,” he said to Garrett. “I need your help.”
Garrett hesitated, but not very long. Couldn’t show weakness to his whole Crowboy corporation, after all. He was the CEO. The Crowboys were a sub-corp, but a sub-corp to the Tower direct. Not one of those damn regular gangs running around like the Hooters or the Argentines—the Crowboys had a real bookkeeper and everything, were listed in the Five Faces directory of sub-corps.
The Five Faces weren’t a corporation, of course. They didn’t need to be. They were sort of like the Tri-American of Junktown, except that Tri-American was also the Tri-American of Junktown.
“Hold this here.” Samson handed Garrett a flashlight.
With the light, Samson could see easy now—line, line, another line, and each line a segment of the copbot’s skull.
It took some effort and elbow-grease to crack open the cranial compartment. He was cautious with it at first, so hesitant to break anything. It could kill him, and then who would protect Crash?
You won’t die, though? Right, Crash?
But as it always happened when working with tech, he found his rhythm and his pressure, intuitively knowing just how much to push and prod and pull. Most things were built, especially when built by mega-corp engineers, with a sort of proportion. The way the finger joints moved would not be all that different from how the head tilted, or the elbow ratcheted, and so forth. And as he explored the copbot, he found this to be true of its cranial parts as well. It was much as the same as the other two he had explored.
His fingers worked through the wires and liquid meshes layered in the head cavity. Wires, nanos, wires, nanos. Each with a color, each with a purpose. It was above Samson’s knowledge, still, but not beyond it.
Intuition guided him as it had the previous two times he made this happen, and without Samson knowing which of the little clicks and small tugs made it happen, the robot began to hum slowly. The bot’s eyes and mouth opened, and the warm, off-green light of a scan washed over Samson.
Garrett, thrilled at the early success, let out a shout and clapped Samson on the back. From the force of that, though, Samson’s hand plunged deeper into the copbot’s cranium. Some hot goo spilled on his hand, wires clanged together. A brief shower of sparks erupted, burning Samson’s wrist.
“Attaboy, Smel—er—Samson!” Garrett coughed. “Nice one. Really.”
The other Crowboys clapped appreciatively. Samson pulled his hand out as quickly and as gently as he could. When he had done this before, the copbot’s eyes would go green, scanning for friendly interactions, and then wait for instructions. If no one said anything within a few minutes, it would power down to idle. But this one’s eyes had turned yellow, and now blue, now red. It stood up on the assembly line and fell backward like a drunk, its arms willowing about as it bumped hard into the assembly line, bending the steel.
Garrett let the flashlight follow the copbot around. “The hell is going on, Smellson?”
Samson sighed. Already back to that.
“I don’t know. When you hit me, my hand, it just—”
“Don’t blame this on me. What did you do?”
“I don’t know.”
The copbot’s eyes had turned bright red—it opened up its coconut-shell mouth and let out a long, piercing wail. It was calling for help.
“Oh no,” said Samson. “I can fix this.”
He rushed to the flailing copbot, grabbing on its back. He stuck his hand into its cranium again, pulling and tugging, slipping his fingers through every kind of wire. He pulled and pushed, hoping for change. Finally, the copbot seemed to power down—but then it collapsed on top of Samson.
No one came to help Samson. Outside, tires screeched. Shortly after that, the distinct metal clump of copbots could be heard. And not just copbots—voices. The voices of hacks. Cops in copbot armor. Triumphant music blared out from the speakers carried in their tech.
“You are goddamn kidding.” Garrett slammed his crowbar down. “We got to get out of here.”
The Crowboys all started to run. It was too late.
The hacks and the copbots busted through the walls, big metal hockey players layered in guns. Firing holograms filled the warehouse, readying all trajectories. Samson, trapped under the copbot, prayed it didn’t suddenly turn on and give away his position. Given enough time, he thought he could squirm free—but only if he had enough time.
The hacks and copbots fired bullets and force pops out at the Crowboys. Garrett splattered across the wall in a wet spray, body liquefied. The rest of his compatriots were gunned down in less than five seconds—torn in half by the firepower of the hacks.
And that was that. Stomping and whirring, the hacks and copbots swept back into the truck they arrived in, leaving the cargo behind. Samson heard them confer for a moment before leaving—they were worried about the rooftops, about being exposed. They had firepower but not numbers, and even a hack’s force gun ran out of charges eventually. Samson knew this—had reverse-engineered one or two of the guns in his time working for Jackson Crash and the Five Faces. That was how Crash had one in his tech suit, now, the same suit that Samson had developed from the two copbots he had activated and then stripped down and reassembled. So long as he could, Samson would keep Crash safe.
You won’t die, though? Right, Crash?
The hacks pressed some kind of button and all the crates started beeping. Cold realization swept over Samson. Without time to load up the crates, the hacks were just going to blow them up.
Their truck squealed away over the sidewalk barricade, leaving Samson in the warehouse, alone with the beeps and the corpses of the Crowboys. He struggled and twisted under the copbot, but he couldn’t get free.
Faster and faster, the beeps approaching their end. This was it. Gone in a fire.
The only thing left that he could reach was the inside of the copbot’s open cranium. Maybe he could make it get off him. One wire angled around. Nano gel shoved into one edge. Circuits scratched, twisted. Maybe he could…
The copbot on top of Samson powered on. Green light scanned the whole warehouse, its head swiveling.
“Hey, Citizen-in-Peril!” Its voice warm, mechanical. “Stay still!”
And then it fell on top of Samson once more.