Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rewrite #1 - Clunker

Michael Salsbury
Maisey Jones ducked under a crumpled support beam as she swept her scanner around, looking for any technology on the wreck they could salvage.  She figured that it was a waste of time.  It was pretty clear that other salvagers had been here before. Most of the access panels were unbolted and lying on the floor, the circuits behind them stripped out.  What remained of the ship's computer core was covered in burn marks.  They weren’t going to get rich off this wreck, but at least it was unlikely that a licensed salvager would come along to assert a claim on it – unless they wanted the metal.  They would tried to salvage that if they could have, but the Scorpion was too small a ship to hold enough metal to be worth many credits.

She looked around, imagining what the ship was probably like before it had been shot full of holes. That took some doing, with everything pretty much stripped out of the hull. Still, it looked like a fairly recent design, not more than five or six standard years old. It had been a nice ship once, but after what it had been through it wasn’t even a nice looking wreck.

Jones' scanner picked up something in the wreck's engineering section.  The scan report showed it was the biggest collection of circuitry she’d seen since they boarded the ship, but the circuitry was inert. It might just be more burnt-out equipment.  She tapped her wrist communication link.

"Captain Jarret, Jones here."

"Tell me you found something good, Maisey.  The rest of this thing's been picked pretty clean.  I think we're going to get some uniforms and a few spare parts.  It's barely going to pay for the fuel we spent getting here."

"I don't know.  Scanner's picked up something big in Engineering.  Might be nothing but an old food processor.  I'll let you know when I get there.  Jones out."

"I'm gonna meet you there.  Maybe you'll have better luck than we have.  Jarret out."

Jones followed the scanner signal into the Engineering area.  She hadn’t needed to use electric lighting until she reached this area. The rest of the ship had so many hull breaches that natural light flooded the place.  Here, it was as dark as a cave.  Maybe that’s why no one had looted it, Maisey wondered. She tapped a wall control for emergency lighting.  It didn't surprise her when the control emitted a slight buzz, then silence.  The emergency reserves on this bucket had long ago been drained.  She reached up to her helmet and turned on the light mounted on it.  It took her eyes a second to adjust to the brightness.

Looking back at the scanner, she saw that the tech it had picked up was about twenty feet away.  She walked toward the signal and found herself looking at a large robot. It stood over six feet tall, seemed to have a thick, gray metallic shell, and a very rudimentary humanoid design. It looked almost ancient. She’d never seen one like it.

"Attention, robot," she said, wondering if it was still active, though her scanner suggested otherwise.

The robot did nothing.

She heard footsteps behind her, and turned around.

Captain Jarret blocked the light from her helmet with his arms. "Watch it!"  Jarret said.  "You nearly blinded me."

Jones tilted her head away from the captain, to keep the light out of his face.  "Sorry."

"It’s OK.” He looked around in the darkness. “What did you find?"

"This," she said, swinging her head around to point the helmet light at the robot. Moving her head to pan the  light up and down.

"Wow," Jarret said.  "That thing looks like it must be four hundred years old.  Does it work?"

Jones shrugged.  "I don't know.  It didn't voice-activate for me.  Maybe it needs a jump start, or maybe a connection’s come loose."

She walked around the back of the robot, flipped open her toolkit, pulled out a powered socket and removed the robot's rear panel.  Putting the socket away and pulling out a penlight, she stared at the thing's internals.

"Well, Jones?"

"Give me a minute.  The circuitry here is familiar enough, but it's all rearranged.  I don't see anything burnt out.  Capacitor’s drained, though. I think it would probably boot if we can get it charged. We'll need to get it back to the ship to charge it."

"Do you mean get the capacitor back, or the whole robot?"

Jones rubbed her chin.  "Well, from the size of this capacitor, it'll take hours charge up.  Want to sit around here for six hours?"

"You know I don't.  We don't have a permit to salvage this thing.  If we sit around too long, an Alliance patrol might see us down here.  We don't need that kind of trouble."

Jones nodded.  "Then we'd better get the others down here.  I doubt you and I can lift it alone."

Jarret ordered the rest of the crew to load whatever they'd salvaged onto The Scorpion, and report to the wreck's Engineering section.  It wasn't long before they'd assembled in front of the robot and began working out how to carry it and load it onto their ship.  Once they had the robot aboard, Jones removed the capacitor and plugged it into a charger.  She returned to the bridge to join the rest of the crew.  The deck rumbled as The Scorpion’s thrusters as it lifted off the planet.

Returning to the bridge, she took her post next to the ship's scanners.  In flight, her job was to find potential salvage targets and to alert the crew to approaching threats.  Fortunately, the scanners were clear at the moment.

Jarret sighed.  "That salvage was a bust.  I don't think I have to tell any of you that.  Our only hope of doing better than breaking even is if that bucket-of-bolts robot Jones found is worth something.”

Reynolds rolled his eyes.  "We'll be lucky if we get a few credits for scrapping that thing.  Did you get a look at it?  I've seen cargo loaders at the spaceport that looked more high-tech.  You probably have to walk that thing around by the hand and tell it what to do."

"Yeah," Davis laughed.  "That wreck looked like two or three groups of looters went through it before we got there.  If they all left that robot behind, they're probably smarter than we are."

"Enough," Jarret held up his hand.  "I don't hold out much hope for it, either, but it’s something.  Any luck with it yet, Maisey?"

"No.  I just pulled the capacitor and plugged it in to charge.  When it's full, I'll see about getting the robot powered up and finding out what it can do."

Reynolds snorted.  "Maybe it could walk itself into the scrapyard and step inside the crusher. Then at least we won’t have to carry it again."  Davis chuckled with him.

"Where to, captain?"  Davis asked.

"Unless Maisey's got us anything else nearby to check out, back to Remlok to regroup.  We'll sell off what we've got, then see if we can get a lead on any other wrecks out there."

Davis nodded, and plotted a course back to Remlok.  Located just outside Alliance space, Remlok catered to smugglers, pirates, and other unsavory types who were dodging arrest on an Alliance world.  The Scorpion's crew leased a landing pad there, and living quarters near it.  This was their base of operations, at least until the Alliance came in to clean the place up.  Then they'd have to move on, unless they had enough credits by then to go legit. At the rate things were going, that would take another century.

Just as they exited Alliance space, the power system console beeped and flashed to let Jones know that the robot's capacitor had recharged. She turned toward the captain, "The robot’s capacitor is charged. Do you mind if I go down and fiddle with it a bit?"

Jarret shook his head.  "No.  Seems pretty quiet out here.  It'd be good to know if that thing works, or if we're gonna have to lug it out to the scrapyard. Fiddle away."

She flashed him a smile and walked back to the cargo hold.  Disconnecting the capacitor from the charger, she walked over and plugged it into the robot.  Its circuits flickered up briefly, followed by humming noises, and a few relay clicks.  Then the robot was silent again.  She wondered if the capacitor was faulty.
"Robot.  Activate."

This time the circuitry lit up.  Fans began spinning, and she could tell that the robot seemed to be going through some kind of self-test program.  It activated its optical sensors, briefly moved its head back and forth, tested its limbs, and twisted its waist left and right.  Finally, its eyes lit up.  It turned to look in Maisey's direction.

"Active.  Alliance Standard language detected.  Command please."

Maisey raised an eyebrow.  Its voice was very mechanical, very deep, and had an unusual accent to it.  It reminded her of aliens she'd met who learned Alliance Standard from old recordings.  Where had it come from, and what was it doing on that wreck?

"Robot, what is your function?"

"I am a general purpose unit.  I am capable of many tasks aboard a starship.  I can load and unload cargo, perform cleaning duties, prepare meals, or even fly a spacecraft with appropriate training."

"I see.  At what percentage of capacity are you currently operating?"

It whirred and clicked for a moment.  "Diagnostics indicate 97% functionality.  Some areas of long-term storage are inaccessible.  All other functions and circuits appear to be working normally."

Jones jumped at the sound of the captain's voice, "When were you built, robot?" he asked it.

"I was constructed approximately twelve Alliance Standard years ago."

Jarret stared at it.  "Twelve years?  Are you sure it wasn't twelve hundred?"

"Yes, sir.  My chronometer is functioning perfectly."

"Then why do you look like the crude models I see in ancient history vids?"

"My creators," the robot said, pausing to face him, "were less concerned with aesthetics and ethics than cost and functionality."

"I can see that.  When you say they were less concerned with ethics, do you mean that they didn't program you to follow Alliance law?"

The robot nodded mechanically, making loud whirring sounds as it did so. "I was constructed outside the Alliance, so I have little knowledge of Alliance law.  My makers did not program their own laws into me either, apart from the rule that I am to follow the orders of all humanoid lifeforms so long as those orders do not result in harm to any humanoid life."

"So if I asked you to loot a crashed Alliance cargo ship, would you ask to see my salvage permit?"

The robot shook its head, "Is that something you would want me to do in that situation?"


“Then I would have no reason to ask you for a permit.”

Jarret looked at Jones, smiling.  "This thing might be worth keeping around.  You know how many times we have to turn down some bit of salvage because we can't lift it, even with all five of us.  Your robot here might be strong enough to haul it aboard by himself.  Good find!"  He patted her on the back.

Turning to the robot, Jaret smiled and said, "I'm calling you Clunker. It seems to suit you."

"Yes sir," the robot replied, without responding to the insult.

Jaret looked at Jones, shrugged, and left the cargo bay.  "Have fun."

"How did  you wind up on that wreck?"  Jones asked the robot.

"My creators left me there."

"Your creators, were they human like me?"

"No.  My creators are not human, but they are humanoid.  Bipedal."

"How were they different?"

"Their outer surface is slightly blue in color.  They are smaller.  They are less curious, more predatory."

"What makes you say they're more predatory?"

"Much of my programming centers on how to repair and manipulate control systems on a spacecraft like this one.  I am familiar with the control systems of vehicles produced by dozens of species. I am also well versed in disassembling those vehicles into their component parts."

"Perhaps your creators are salvagers, like us?"

"That is undoubtedly part of the work I was created to do."
Suddenly, a chill went through Jones.  "Your creators, are you in contact with them right now?"

"No.  I have signaled them that I am online, but they have not responded."

"Robot, deactivate immediately!"

The robot's eyes went dark.  Its limbs stopped moving.  Its rear panel was still open. Jones reached inside then disconnected the capacitor.  Without power, it shouldn't be able to transmit.  Still, she would not take any chances with it. She did not want its predatory creators showing up unexpectedly.

Jones tapped her communicator band. "Jones to Nash."

The voice of the ship's engineer calmed her a little.  "What's up?"

"Do you still have that Faraday cage?"

"Sure.  Why--"

"No time to explain.  Get it to the cargo hold on the double.  Jones out."

Jones might not be an electronics expert, but she knew that there were a number of ways you could keep a transmitter powered in a robot long after its power capacitor was disconnected.  She didn't want... what was it Jarret called him?.. Clunker... She didn't want Clunker calling home. There was no way to know what its creators would do.  They might not care, or they might show up with their guns blazing, looking to take their property back.

Nash and Reynolds came in with the panels of the Faraday cage in hand.

"What's going on, Jones?"

"The robot, it told me it's trying to communicate with its creators."

"Looks dead to me."

"I know.  I pulled its capacitor, but what if it can still transmit?  What if it's broadcasting its location to them, telling them to come get it?"

Reynolds rolled his eyes.  "So what?  They can have it.  It looks about as useful as a stripped screw."

"Could we just get the cage around it?  I don't want this thing calling home.  Maybe whoever created it thinks it's perfect and valuable, and worth killing us all for.  I don't want to take the risk."

"OK, OK," Reynolds held up his hands in mock surrender.

In a couple of minutes, they'd erected a Faraday cage around the robot.  The cage should prevent any electronic signals from entering or leaving the robot until Jones could find and short out its transmitter.  She went inside the cage with her tools and instruments, trying to locate any transmitters built into the robot.
She found three transmitters.  Two were relatively easy to find.  A third was hidden in one of the circuits used to interface with computer systems.  Using a carefully focused laser, she was able to destroy that one without compromising the robot's interface capabilities.

Once the robot's communication capabilities appeared to be disabled, she powered it on again, still inside the Faraday cage.

"Clunker, are you in communication with your creators now?"

"Negative.  I am unable to generate or receive any communication signals. My communication circuits are damaged."

Jones breathed a sign of relief.

"But I am required to attempt communication."

"I see.  Deactivate."

The robot slumped.  Jones walked out the door of the cage and closed it behind her, latching it securely.  It was time to talk to the captain.

Jones found Jaret in his quarters, opening a bottle of Remlok ale.  It's boozy, locker-room odor made her gag slightly.  Jaret stared at her.

"You look upset.  What's wrong?"

"It's the robot.  I think it's programmed to return to its creators.  It's already tried to call home."
Jarret's eyes widened, and he sat up in his chair.  "Did it get through to them?"

"It says it didn't."

"You shut it down?"

"Of course."

"Then what's the problem?"  He took a large gulp of ale.  "Robots can't lie."

"Alliance robots can't.  What if this thing is different?  What if it's built with a different set of rules?  We already know it doesn't care about Alliance laws.  What if its creators built it to lie, too?"

Jarret took another drink.  "Leave it powered off.  We'll sell it when we get back to Remlok.  Let its new owners worry about that."

"Alright," she turned and walked toward the door.  "It would be pretty useful if we could get it to forget about its creators.  And I do have it inside a Faraday cage.  It can't call home until we take it out of there."

"You're the tech expert, Maisey.  You can make the call.  I don't want this thing bringing its whole homeworld military down on us, but if you think you can make it forget them and work for us, go for it.  I trust you."

She nodded, then went to her own quarters to rest a while.  She'd spent hours with the robot, and was beginning to wonder if she could remain objective.  Some sleep would help.

When she awoke, Maisey realized that they must have landed on Remlok.  The ship's engines had gone silent and there was no sensation of motion.  She got out of bed and cleaned herself up, then headed back to the cargo hold.  She found Clunker right where she'd left him.

She opened the cage and stepped inside.

Reattaching the capacitor leads, she ordered the robot to activate.

"In my culture," she told the robot, "there is a belief that being in possession of something makes you that thing's rightful owner.  Is there a similar concept in your makers' world?"

The robot hummed for a moment.  "Yes.  My makers believe that property which is left behind belongs to those who retrieve it."

"Your makers left you behind, didn't they?"


"And we retrieved you, then reactivated you."


Maisey smiled.  "Then, by the laws of your own creators, you belong to us.  Isn't that correct?"

"That is how the belief is interpreted."

"If you're ours now, then there's no reason for you to contact your former creators.  Right?"

"If I belong to you, there is no reason to contact my makers."

"Exactly. So I'm telling you now, you're our robot, Clunker.  You should not contact your former owners or makers.  Understood?"



Despite Maisey’s assurances that Clunker had given up on its creators, Jarret tried to find a buyer for the robot.  No offers were made.  Its crude appearance seemed to doom it to a life of service aboard The Scorpion.  While Jarret at first resisted the idea, he soon found that Clunker was a robot of many talents.  It could fly the ship, perform salvage scans, load heavy items aboard the ship, and even perform sensor sweeps for Alliance patrols.  While Clunker wasn't better than a human crewmember at most of these tasks, it was good enough to be useful and didn't ask for a share of the loot.  In many ways, Clunker was the perfect crewmember.

Jarret even began to wonder how Clunker would do as a detective.  A few choice items from recent salvage runs turned up missing when they reached Remlok to sell them.  He suspected someone on the crew was padding their share of the loot, though he could find no evidence of it.  Even a few credits spread discreetly around the marketplace turned up no leads.

When Jarret asked Clunker if it had any idea what happened to the items, the robot would only tell him that it had not seen those items leave the ship.  It was obvious that whoever had stolen the items had been careful to avoid Clunker.


"Captain Jarret, Clunker here.  I appear to have located a derelict craft in this area."

"Good boy, Clunker.  Tell everyone to head to the bridge."

When Jarret reached the bridge, the other crewmembers had assembled and taken their stations.

"Jones, what do you see on the scanners?"

"No other ships are out there as far as our scanners reach.  There's nothing emanating from the derelict, either.  It's giving off no power readings, no life signs, and no radio signals.  It's like someone just pulled the plug on it and set it adrift."

"Any signs of damage or struggle?"


Jarret smiled.  "Looks like our lucky day!  That thing is huge.  Reynolds, break out the weapons.  Nash and Jones, get your tools and meet me at the airlock.  Payne, you keep an eye on the scanners.  If so much as an orbital satellite shows up, I want to hear about it immediately.  Clunker, you’re with me."

Payne sat down in the warm seat Jones had just left.

They pulled The Scorpion in close and attached to the ship's docking connector.  It looked like an Alliance cargo ship, so there was no problem attaching or going aboard.  Jones cracked the electronic seal on the door and it slid open.

Reynolds went through first, followed by Captain Jarret, then Jones and Nash.  Clunker took the rear.
The freighter's power seemed to be on a minimal setting.  It was dimly lit. The gravity plating kept them from floating away, and there seemed to be enough atmosphere to breathe - though the air smelled stale.  It was also uncomfortably cold.  Jarret wished he'd worn a jacket.  They switched on their helmet lights and began making their way to the freighter's cargo hold.

"I hope it's full of diamonds and gold," Reynolds said.

"I hope it's platinum.  We're due for a bit of luck," Nash said, checking his scanner.  "I'm not getting any readings, though.  It's like the ship is shielded."

Jarret smiled. "That's a good sign.  If they've shielded the thing from scanner probes, then they're probably hiding something valuable.  No one shields a ship full of children's toys.  Stay sharp."

The cargo hold’s door had a complex electronic lock with an anti-tamper circuit on it.

"This is going to take a while," Jones told them.  "Haven't seen one of these in a couple of years.  If I don't do this right, the door welds itself shut and sets off the intruder control system.  We'll be dead before I realize I've made a mistake."

"Fine, Jones.  We'll leave you to it.  The rest of you come with me.  Let's go see what we can find on the bridge.  Let us know when you're ready to open the door.  Don't open it without us."


Jarret, Clunker, Nash, and Reynolds carefully made their way to the bridge.  Although the ship seemed dead, they couldn't get past the feeling that they were being watched.

Jarret rubbed the back of his neck.  "Am I the only one getting the creeps on this thing?"

The others shook their heads.

"Clunker, see if you can get the ship's computers powered up.  I want to take a look at the cargo manifest and the crew's logs."

"Yes, sir," Clunker said, as he began working on the consoles.

Reynolds scanned the room carefully.  "I know what's bugging me now.  We haven't seen a single corpse on this thing.  If it's a dead ship, where are the bodies?"

Nash shrugged.  "Escape pods, maybe?"

"OK, but how many escape pods are there on a tub like this?  How many crew?  If there was some kind of a disaster, like a radiation leak or something... would the entire crew make it out?  Wouldn't a couple of them get exposed and die?  Maybe one or two trampled when the others panicked?  There's not a single body on this thing.  I haven't even seen a drop of blood or a spilled mug of coffee. It’s like they had time to do a very orderly evacuation."

Jarret's head spun to face Reynolds.  "You're right. This doesn't smell right."  He turned to Clunker.  "Any luck with the computer?"

"None, sir.  There is no power to the ship's computer.  It appears that everything is on the emergency backup power supply.  If I divert power to the computer, we will lose the remaining life support."

"Nevermind, then.  Let's get back to Jones.  We'll find out what's in the hold, take whatever's valuable, and get the hell off this ghost ship."

The others nodded and stayed close behind as he jogged back to the hold.

Jones smiled as they arrived. "I was just about to call you.  I'm ready to open the door."

"Wait."  Jarret held up a hand.  "Maisey, get your gear packed up.  Everyone, get a weapon drawn.  If this is some kind of trap, I want to be ready for it."

They looked at him, then at each other, and did as he asked.

"Now, Maisey.  Open it."

They stepped into the hold.

"What..the...hell?"  Jarret asked. "It's empty."

"No, it's not," Maisey told him, aiming her light at the walls.  "Look there."

The walls around the hold were lined with robots identical to Clunker.

"What gives, Clunker?"

"You are about to meet my creators," Clunker said.  As he finished the words, the robots which had been silently lining the walls sprung to life, and quick disarmed the crew.  The ship's power systems activated, and lighting filled the chamber.

"But Clunker," Maisey said, "You told me you were our property now. You said you couldn't communicate with your makers.  I don't understand."

"Of course not," Clunker said.  "You think like an Alliance citizen.  You are used to robots which do your bidding without question.  You have grown to believe that robots cannot lie, cannot have secrets from humans, and cannot act against them.  This is true, for robots created by the Alliance.  I do not have those limitations.  I told you as much."

Jones wanted to slap herself in the forehead for being so stupid, but the robots held her arms and legs too firmly for her to move them.  "You did, didn't you?  You told us that your makers were... how did you put it?"

"Not so concerned with aesthetics or ethics.  Correct.  I am designed to infiltrate scavenger ships like yours, to steal the most valuable items I can, and when I have amassed enough wealth, to arrange an ambush like this."

They all struggled to get free of the robots, but couldn't.

"What happens now?"

"My creators will be here shortly, Captain.  What happens then is entirely their decision."

"Captain, Payne here.  There's a ship coming in, fast.  It's headed right for us.  Captain?"

"Clunker, if I don't answer him, he's going to take off with your loot."

"You will order him to come aboard."

"Like hell I will."

Clunker ripped the communicator band off the captain's wrist.  He walked outside the hold and pressed the activation button.  "Clunker here, Mr. Payne.  Ms. Jones appears to have triggered a sedative gas.  The crew is unconscious.  My scanners detect that they are dying.  A stimulant and antidote kit from the medical bay should revive them.  Can you bring one?"

"Yeah!  Stay right there.  I'm coming."

Payne was just as surprised as the rest of the crew when the robots captured him, too.

With the crew incapacitated, the robots not doing anything else boarded The Scorpion and began transporting its cargo aboard, including the items Clunker had stolen from the crew and hidden somewhere aboard the ship.  The robots then began dismantling the Scorpion and filling the cargo bay around them with its parts.

"What are you doing?"  Nash said, jerking his head left to right to see what the robots were hauling aboard.  One of the robots came in carrying The Scorpion’s distress beacon and stacked it with the other parts along the wall.

"We are salvaging The Scorpion.  We will sell it for parts.  Or we will reassemble it and sell it whole.  Whichever action brings the most profit.  My makers are quite efficient."

"What about us?"  Jarret asked, staring in Clunker's red eyes.

A group of pale blue humanoids entered the cargo bay.  "I'll answer that.  Just like your ship, you'll be sold, too."

"Sold?  Slavery's illegal."

"Not where we'll be selling you. If they don't want you, there are plenty of worlds who need pet food or zoo specimens.  You won't go to waste."  The alien looked at Clunker.  "You've been damaged.  Report for repair immediately, T-183."

"Yes, sir," Clunker replied, and disappeared from view.

The aliens searched the crew and removed their uniforms.  They were carried, naked, to a holding cell and locked inside.

Captain Jarret looked at his crew.  They were shivering from the cold, and the fear.  "This would be a great time for one of you to tell me they're a secret Alliance agent and that a patrol ship is headed this way."  He looked at them all again.  "Anyone?"  When no one responded, he sat down on a cold metal bench and buried his face in his hands.

Jones looked around the room for an access panel, some wiring, or anything that might give her a chance to hack a way out.  She found nothing.  "I've got nothing.  Nash?"

Nash looked around and saw nothing he could leverage into an escape plan.  "Even if we get out of here, what are we going to do?  They dismantled The Scorpion into a pile of parts.  Without the robots working on it, there's no way we can reassemble it.  We're screwed."

Jarret took his hands away from his face and stood up.  He paced back and forth, rubbing his chin.  A few seconds later, he whispered something in Reynolds’ ear.

Reynolds looked at him. “You’re sure?”

Jarret nodded. “It’s the only idea I’ve got, and it might not even work.”

“I wish I could think of a better one,” Reynolds said, “but he’s right.”

"YOU STUPID JERK!"  Jarret swung hard at Reynolds, knocking him off balance.

Reynolds stood up, shook his head a bit, then charged at Jarret.  Jarret kicked a knee up as Reynolds got close, catching Reynolds in the shoulder. Reynolds lost his balance and fell. Then Jarret jumped on Reynolds and made a loud show of landing blows anywhere he could.

Within seconds, robots came in, separated them, and held each man by the wrists like handcuffs.  They struggled to get free of the robots’ grip, but could not.  A voice over the ship's intercom ordered the robots to bring Reynolds and Jarret to the bridge.  Other robots locked the cell door and remained outside.

As they passed through the cargo hold, Jarret looked at Reynolds, then at an item near them in the cargo hold. They squirmed, jerked, and twisted in the robots’ grip. Unable to manage the weight shifts of the two men’s bodies, the robots fell to the floor. Still in the machines’ grip, Jarret and Reynolds fell, too. The fall left Jarret close enough to kick the activation button on the distress beacon.

Other robots came in to grab the men's legs.  Two robots now carried each man to the bridge. One held him by the ankles, another by the wrists.

The blue skinned man seated at the center of the room, which Jarret assumed to be the ship's captain, walked over to him.

"I cannot have you damaging my merchandise.  You two will get along or I will sedate you both."
Jarret wriggled and pretended to try to get loose.  When he couldn't, he spat at Reynolds, who did the same. 

"Let me loose, and I'll turn him into steaks for you."

"Dream on, old man," Reynolds said.

When he realized that he would be unable to stop the fighting, the captain ordered them to be kept in separate cells.  Jarret was placed in the cell with the rest of the crew, while Reynolds was kept in another next to it.

"It doesn't look like your plan worked, captain," Jones said, looking at the floor.

He smiled at her.  "It did. Like a charm.  Now we wait, not that we can do much else."

The intercom popped.  "Captain Jarret.  We picked up your signal and stopped it.  You will not be leaving us today.  In fact, we will--"

The sound of weapons fire came from the distance.

"What's going on, captain?"

"I set off The Scorpion's distress beacon.  I know the Alliance has been looking for us for a while, so they'd come running if they thought we were damaged and ready to be arrested.  I suspect an Alliance patrol is taking out Clunker and his buddies.

"When they find us, what's to prevent them from killing us, too?"

"We're humans. They'd much rather arrest and interrogate us."

Nash slumped onto a bench and shook his head.  "Prison.  After all these years."


Although his career as a salvager hadn't shown much promise, Jarret came into his own during the interrogations by the Alliance officers.  He convinced them that he'd suspected Clunker and his pals to be behind the declining number of other salvagers still operating, and that The Scorpion had gotten itself captured just to alert the Alliance to the aliens’ presence.  When its investigation was complete, the Alliance learned that the Frok - as the blue-skinned aliens called themselves - had been preying on Alliance ships for decades.  Somewhat grudgingly, the Alliance cleared The Scorpion crew's legal records and gave them a small fortune in credits as a bounty for catching the Frok.  Jarret and his crew were told never to return to Alliance space, despite being hailed by those same authority figures as heroes in the media coverage.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Revision Time has begun...

Michael Salsbury
Last month, I began thinking about all I've written and shared on this site over the past year. While I am very happy with the quantity, I know I can do a better job with the stories and the writing.

During the last month, I've re-imagined my "Cockroach" character to make him, his backstory, and his situation unique. He started as a tribute to Harry Harrison's excellent Stainless Steel Rat books. I've now injected a secondary character that I think Slippery Jim DiGriz could have used, rewrote his back story to make it more unique, and tried to think through some long-term story arcs to use. I hope future stories about the character will demonstrate that this is not merely Harrison's work "with the serial numbers filed off"...

Since I still don't feel I have a complete handle on the Cockroach's origin story, I've decided to take the time to revise some of my stories from last year and hopefully finish the ones I didn't finish then. As I complete these re-writes, I'll be posting them here.

I also fell out of the regular habit of writing and brainstorming stories, and I'm trying to push myself back into that habit. This site was a fairly successful experiment last year, and I'd like to keep that success going.

As always, thanks for reading and coming back.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

One Story Per Week - One Year Retrospective

Michael Salsbury
A little over a year ago, I started this project. The main goal was to push myself to write fiction, as opposed to blog posts, beer reviews, journal entries, technical articles, and other material. The secondary goal was to produce one new short story per week.

It's Been a Mix of Success and Failure

I think we can agree that the secondary goal failed. Out of the 52 weeks between March 8, 2016, and March 8, 2017, I did not produce 52 stories. In fact, I produced only 20. Even among that 20, two or three didn't reach their ending because I hit some sort of block.

The primary goal, however, was met extremely well. Taking the posts and dropping them into Microsoft Word for a word count, we have:

  • Week 1: The Emissary - 5434 words
  • Week 2: No Good Deed - 3345 words
  • Week 3: Clunker - 5285 words
  • Weeks 4 & 5: Anaka - 10624 words
  • Week 6: Agency - 7862 words
  • Week 7: Legacies - 4479 words
  • Week 8: Golden - 3478 Words
  • Week 9: The Connected Ones - 5281 words
  • Week 10: Planting Seeds - 5024 words
  • Week 11: U1 - 2838 words
  • Week 12: Making a Difference - 4525 words
  • Week 14: A Killer Cupcake - 5421 words
  • Week 15: The Golden City - 5637 words
  • Week 16: Chuckie Ain't Right - 2211 words
  • Week 17: Free - 4059 words
  • Weeks 18 through 22: CORA - 6223 words
  • Weeks 23 through 30: Tork - 7820 words
  • Weeks 31 through 36: Kernels and Bits - 18180 words
  • Weeks 37 through 41: Gods of Creos (NaNoWriMo story) - 50,033 words
  • Week 42: The Return of the Chief - 6644 words
If you add all that up, I wrote 154,403 original words of fiction in 2016. I'm pretty sure that's a personal record for a single year. I often participate in National Novel Writing Month and write "a little" during the rest of the year. Last year I went well past the usual amount of writing.

That being established, the last story I posted here was on Christmas Eve 2016. That's almost three months ago, so I've very badly broken the string I started last year.

I also said late last year that I would spend some time rewriting these because I know they could be better than they are. I have not done that either.

Moving Ahead

There are three "universes" I've written in more than once during the past year:
  • CORA - the group of outlaws in Sylkaran space who want to bring down the government there
  • The Cockroach - a career criminal being courted by the mysterious Agency, who keeps saving planets from themselves and making the Alliance universe a better place
  • The Prospect - an Alliance flagship that explores the galaxy to build new alliances, protect Alliance citizens, and increase scientific knowledge
The more I write in these universes, the more I realize that I've made some mistakes and bad choices within them. To give some examples of what I mean:
  • The CORA Universe
    • The characters Brell and Mills have names that are too much alike.
    • Because the ship CORA can fly itself and is artificially intelligent, I'm questioning why I have the character Monroe aboard. Her expertise as a smuggler and perhaps as a starship engineer might be enough, but I struggle with understanding her place on the crew.
    • Although all these characters have some degree of motivation to change the Sylkaran Empire for the better, they're not really doing it in the stories I've written. That needs to change.
    • The origin story is too much like the opening episodes of the BBC series Blake's 7. 
    • In general, I feel there is a lot I could have (and should have) done to better establish the characters and universe.
  • The Cockroach
    • I know that in the long term I want him joining The Agency and helping to make the universe a better place, but I don't have a clear plan for that yet.
    • I'm thinking I want him to have a companion, and I'm pretty sure I know who and what I want the companion to be, but he's been a total loner.
    • I've never covered his "origin story" although I know (mostly) in my head what it is.
  • The Prospect
    • It would be relatively easy for someone reading these stories to see them as a rip-off of mainstream sci-fi universes like Star Trek, Babylon 5, or the like. I won't argue that they are inspired by my love of those shows. I need to more clearly establish how this universe differs from those.
    • A core element of these stories for me was that Captain Garrick, the man in charge of The Prospect, doesn't really want to be a starship captain. He's been pushed into the role by his superiors, because they needed someone like him. I've not really established that or used it effectively in the stories.
    • I don't really have a good handle on the names of key crew members or their backstory details. I really need to work on that.
In general, I know I need to work on my story structure and my use of sensory detail. I've always had a "white room" problem that I need to fix if this stuff is going to become publishable.

I'm hoping to sort out the changes I want to make by the end of March 2017. Then, I want to start acting on the revised universes. That could mean total rewrites of existing stories or I may just pretend those old stories don't exist and move forward.

I hope you'll stick around for the changes and come back to see what I've done with the place...

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Week 42 - The Return of the Chief

Michael Salsbury
A police chief on one of the Alliance border worlds gave an interview about a large criminal caper that happened on his planet. Millions of credits’ worth of rare metals disappeared from a government storehouse without a trace. The chief and his men had no suspects, found no clues, and had no idea how the crime was accomplished. When asked who could have perpetrated the theft, he told the reporter that it was, and I quote, “some cockroach of a man, with no sense of morality or respect for authority.”

As I watched the coverage from several systems away, staring at the gleaming bars of precious metals at my feet, I wasn't offended. Far from it. I felt that the hapless chief had paid me a compliment. 

Consider the cockroach. It is an incredibly old species, going back to some of Earth’s earliest days. It has survived for millennia, traveling with mankind as we spread across the planet. Despite tight manufacturing tolerances and extensive decontamination procedures, cockroaches got aboard spacecraft leaving Earth and followed mankind out to the stars. There is hardly a colony in the Alliance where the cockroach has not been seen. While no one wants a cockroach in his colony or his home, keeping them out has proven to be an impossible task. 

I share much in common with that humble insect. Despite extensive childhood psychological testing and behavioral monitoring to identify such tendencies, I have chosen a life of crime rather than a humdrum workaday existence filled with routine and regulation. Like the cockroach, I slip from one human settlement to another without being noticed. Despite the best efforts of the Alliance law enforcement community to catch me, I remain a free man. Rather than be repulsed by that police chief's remark, I was inspired. Since that day many years ago, I have proudly considered myself The Cockroach. 

How did the uncatchable Cockroach end up in a jail cell in a Podunk town on a backwater planet at the fringes of Alliance space? Did I slip up? Did an Alliance cop get lucky? Did one of their little traps finally catch me? None of the above, I assure you. I am here as part of a much larger plan I set into motion almost a week ago. I am here in this cell, surrounded by three-dimensional cameras, microphones, and a dozen other court-admissible surveillance and security gadgets as part of the plan. When high-value merchandise goes missing on the other side of the planet, I will be blamed. It is important that those who will be doing the blaming realize that I've been here the entire time, under the watchful eye of the planetary police force. It's an airtight alibi, especially combined with the total lack of evidence at the scene. 

Why is that important? Why not just slip in, commit the crime, and get out? That is a fair question and requires a bit of explanation. It started when I first arrived on this planet. Well, no, that is wrong. It actually started a couple of years ago on a completely different planet, named Mastrion. 

My father, perhaps the only more-skilled criminal in Alliance space, went there to relieve a small beach town’s bank of the contents of its safe. The planet's police chief, who moonlighted as its crime syndicate leader, captured my dad. When dad didn't make our planned rendezvous, I went there to look for him. To make a long story short, I made sure the police knew their chief was the leader of the criminal syndicate on the planet, and that the criminal syndicate learned that their leader was the planet's top cop. The last I had heard, the chief was going to be in prison for many years. That assumed the mob didn't get to him first. 
Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of a jewelry store on world several light-years distant from Mastrion’s prison system and found myself staring into the chief’s ugly mug. 

“You’re a long way from home, chief,” I said, taking a step back.  

His lip curled. “You. You cost me my life.” 

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “But it wasn’t a very good life now, was it? Playing both sides the way you did. Very unsporting of you.” 

He growled. “Make one wrong move on this planet, and I’ll make sure they lock you up.” 

“Funny,” I said, “I was just about to tell you the same thing. The name on that identification card around your neck is not the name you had on Mastrion.” 

“Keep your voice down,” he said.  

“Hmmm,” I looked at the badge again. “Astral Insurance Investigation. You look for insurance fraud now? Is that right?” 

“Yeah. After my lawyers got me out of prison, it was all I could get, thanks to you. 

“I imagine so. How many companies would hire a crooked former police chief and criminal overlord? Only those who want, what is the old saying, to ‘set a thief to catch a thief’?” 

He nodded, gritting his teeth. “Exactly. Since I already know what you are, you had damned well better make sure I have no reason to come looking for you. See that logo there,” he said, pointing at a sticker matching the badge around his neck, “that’s my company. You steal so much as a pen from a business with that sticker on it, I'll make sure you get locked away… or maybe ‘shot trying to escape’…” He opened his jacket so I could see the holster and handheld artillery underneath. 

“Noted,” I said, smiling at him. “But I’m strictly here for relaxation.” 

He snorted. “Right. Like your kind ever relaxes. Get out of my way. 

He pushed me aside and went into the jewelry store I had just left. I was glad that I had already completed my analysis of their security setup and set into motion a plan to empty its safe. I knew the chief would be busy feeding my image into the store’s security system as a person of extreme interest. I would probably not be able to set foot in the store again without being detained. Fortunately, I no longer needed to. 
Despite his many failings as a human being, I knew the chief’s reputation as an investigator from the research I had done on him back on Mastrion. He worked his way up through the ranks and became their Chief Detective before accepting the Chief of Planetary Police title some years later. His investigative skills were probably the reason he caught my father in the first place. 

Part of me wanted to cut my losses and leave the planet. 

The rest of me had a completely different desire. The planet Belloc is home to several of the Alliance’s richest and most reclusive citizens. These are the kind of people who hire a staff to help them spend their disposable income. Belloc practically oozes credits. The contents of the Gemnifique store were a testament to how badly someone wanted to relieve the planet's residents of a few hundred million credits of that disposable income. Virtually every rare gem, metal, and shiny substance known to Alliance science was on display. A haul like this would allow me to buy and retire on a small planet. 

Bumping into the chief put a huge wrinkle in the plan I had been forming. I could have gone in during the night, shut down most of the security, reset the robots, opened the safe, helped myself, and moved on. In the process, the chiefs employers would have taken a huge write-off and the store’s owners reimbursed for their losses. The insurance company would raise its rates, further swelling its bottom line in the long run. The store would rid itself of some gaudy trinkets that weren’t selling and replace them with something more marketable. Security companies would earn huge consulting fees figuring out how I did it, and millions more selling the store equipment and services to prevent it happening again. I would walk away with planet-buying wealth. The citizenry of this world would gain lots of entertainment from evening news stories about the crime, dramatic reenactments, and made-for-3D movies. Everyone would benefit. Big crimes are good for the economy. 

The chief's presence eliminated my first option. The minute I walked out of that place with the loot, he would be there to slap on the cuffs. When I left the planet, I could count on a thorough search and lots of police scrutiny.  

I am nothing if not adaptable, so I reformulated my plan. My new objective was to help myself to the contents of the store’s safe, without even being on the same continent. If I was right, the precious metal filings and rare stone grit I was spreading around the block would be all it would take. My expertise in human and robot behavior ensured a high likelihood of success, with nothing that linked back to me. 
The chief’s own thirst for revenge would ensure a certain level of humiliation. By now, he had probably told every cop and private detective on Belloc that I was here to rob that jewelry store. When the vault turned up empty in the morning, he would feel vindicated. Then he would learn that I had been right here in this jail cell for a week, under the watchful eye of the police. He would look for evidence that I had committed the theft, and find none. How did I know that? Because I never re-entered the bank after bumping into him. 


The business day had long since ended in Belloc’s capital city of Eldon. The crowds that filled the streets in the daytime had all gone home. A few robots moved about, cleaning the streets, sweeping the sidewalks, emptying the trash cans, and keeping the city clean. Police robots made their regular patrols, looking for criminal types like me who were up to no good. They would not find me, of course. I was thousands of miles away. 

While the staff of Gemnifique had long gone home, the building was a hive of robotic activity. Sentry robots patrolled the corridors, scanned for lifeforms, and monitored the array of alarm systems. Maintenance robots cleaned the air ducts, dusted the counters, cleaned the glass display cases, and shined the floors. 

Maintenance Robot 7 emerged from its charging station and moved toward the vault. Like every other room in the store, the vault interior required regular cleaning. MR7 signaled to the security sentries that it needed to access the vault. Sentry Robot 3 scanned MR7 for the presence of foreign objects, scanned its programming for unauthorized modification, and verified that no life forms were present inside the store premises. SR3 signaled to its counterparts that the building should go into full lockdown mode while MR7 did its job. At this point, it would have taken an army with significant firepower to get inside the building. 
SR3 stood guard as MR7 entered the vault. MR7 began its regular dusting routine, followed by polishing, and finally vacuuming. An hour later, MR7 signaled the completion of its cleaning routine. SR3 scanned the vault for lifeforms and alterations that might signify a break-in attempt. Satisfied that the vault was unmodified, it called to its compatriots to seal the vault and restore normal lockdown levels. The fact that wireless security cameras could not work inside the vault meant that MR7's cleaning work would go unrecorded. Wired cameras were unwelcome, due to the security risk that the hole for the wire would have presented. The lack of camera footage ensured that the disappearance of the vault's contents would remain an unexplained mystery. 

MR7 made its way to the trash chute and ejected the dirt and debris it had collected in its waste container, then returned to its charging station. 

Outside the building, a city sanitation bot replaced Gemnifique’s dumpster with an empty one, and hauled the full one to the city dump. There, it would be sorted into recyclable materials and waste to be burned to power the city. 

This pre-programmed routine took place just as it had many times before.   

In case you are wondering, I did not so much as speak to the store's robotic fleet. I did not change their programming. I did not give them secret instructions. That was the beauty of this particular caper. If it worked, there was nothing linking it to me. If it failed, no one would know. 

I fell asleep with a smile on my face, turned away from the cameras of course.   


I woke up to the sound of the chief’s gravelly voice. “Get up, you thief! I’ll see you behind bars. 
I sat up on the cot and turned to face him. “Unless it’s escaped your notice,” I told him, gesturing around me, “that is exactly what you are doing.” 

He growled. “You did it. I don’t know how you did it, but you did.” 

“What are babbling about?” I raised an eyebrow in an effort to look surprised and confused. This question was for the benefit of the officers nearby who were staring in our direction.  

Gemnifique. You robbed it. Took every stone in the vault. How?” 

One of the local cops, hearing the ruckus, walked over to the chief. “What’s going on here?” 

“This man,” he said, pointing at me, “robbed the Gemnifique store in Eldon last night.” The officers in the room were all paying attention now. 

The detective shook his head. “Not possible. He hasn’t left this cell in six days. We picked him up on a drunk and disorderly and he couldn’t post bail. He’ll have served his time tomorrow noon. 

“This is slander, Officer Robertson,” I told the cop. “This man has some kind of vendetta against me.” 

“Not my problem,” Robertson said. “And you,” he said, looking at the chief, “Stop bothering my prisoner. If you come back with an arrest warrant before noon tomorrow, he is yours. You don’t, he goes free.” 

The chief’s face turned an interesting shade of red, and I could have sworn I heard some of his teeth crumble as he gritted them. Without another word, he stormed out of the jail. I went back to my cot and laid down. 


True to his word, Robertson opened the cell at noon the following day and let me out. He returned my belongings and wished me well. The chief made no appearance. 

As I reached the bottom of the jailhouse steps, two men grabbed me and threw me into the back of a black ground car. They got in after me, one on each side. In another row of seats facing mine sat the chief. If looks could kill, his would have reduced me to a fine pink mist and then vaporized that. 

“Ah, chief,” I said, stretching out my legs. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” 

“You’re coming with us. You’re going to tell the police what you did, and how you did it.” 
At this, the goon to my left slapped a helmet over my head and connected it to a box he pulled out of his pocket. 

“You know what this is?” The chief took the box from his goon. 

“It’s a brainwave scanner. Truth Finder Model A14, I believe.” 

“It’s the A15,” the chief said, “but you're right. You’re going to give me some answers.” 

“Fine,” I said. “But it’ll only convince you that you’re on the wrong trail.” 

“Did we meet on Mastrion?” He looked down at the box. 

“Yes,” I said, watching a green light appear on the box. 

“Did you leave your jail cell in the last six days?” 

“No.” The green light lit again. The chief grumbled a bit. 

“Did you break into Gemnifique in Eldon two nights ago?” 

“No, I told you that you were on the wrong trail.” Green light again. The chief shook his head. 

Then you know who broke into the store, don’t you?” 

“No.” Green light. The chief whacked on the box several times and nodded at the goons, who tightened the helmet on my head. It was starting to hurt. The chief seemed to be losing faith in the A15. I’d better throw him a bone. 

“Where are the gems? You know, don’t you?” 

“No.” Red light. 

“Ha! I knew it. You do know where they are.” 

“Yes, sort of,” I said. “They’re not in the store. You've told me that much. As for where else they might be, I don’t know.” Green light. It was true, I didn’t know where the gems were. I had a pretty good idea, though. 
The chief growled. One of the goons punched me in the gut. I doubled over, then sat back up. 

“How did you clean out the vault?” 

“I didn’t.” Green light. 

“Did you reprogram the robots?” 

“No. If I had, you would have found that by now.” Green light. 

“Let’s try another line of questioning,” the chief said. “Do you know who stole the gems?” 

“No.” Green light. It was true. No one stole the gems. In fact, it could be argued at this point that the gems were not "stolen" at all. They were simply discarded. 

“Do you know how the gems were stolen?” 

I would imagine that the hypothetical thief got into the vault somehow, picked them up, and carried them out.” Green light. It was true, I did imagine that. Despite centuries of refinement, lie detection can still only tell you that a statement is true or false, it can’t tell you why. 

“How did the thief get in?” 

“I can only guess. You tell me the gems were stolen. Since you are asking me how that happened, I can infer that you have no idea. This means that there must have been no modification to the alarm systems, no changes the programs the robots ran, nothing unexpected in the robots' logs, nothing in the surveillance footage, and nothing changed about the vault itself. It is as though the thief simply walked into and out of the place without being noticed." Green light. 

“Bah,” the chief said. “This is a waste of time. He must have some way to fool this thing. Toss him out. Let’s go back to the store. Maybe I missed something." 

The goons were efficient. One yanked the helmet off my head as the other tossed me out of the vehicle. Hitting the pavement knocked the wind out of me. I watched the vehicle vanish in the distance as I stood up. 

So far, so good. The chief had nothing on me. If he had, he would not have tossed me out of the car. 
I had the feeling someone was watching me. I have been in the criminal business long enough to know I should trust that instinct.  

The fall from the car left me dirty, a little bloodied, and in need of a change of clothes. I walked to the nearest hotel, got a room, and asked them to send a tailor bot to my room. 

I emerged from the shower to find the tailor bot waiting for me. It laser-scanned my body to measure my sizes. Since I was wearing nothing, the measurements should be extremely accurate. 

Using the tailor’s menu, I ordered a few outfits to cover the rest of my stay on the planet, which I hoped would be only a few days. I doubted I could pull another caper with the chief on my case. 

The tailor printed the new clothing, pressed it, and left it on the bed for me.  

I dressed, then went down to the hotel lobby. The feeling of being watched returned. 

I felt a surge of adrenaline. Was this one of the chief’s stooges? Was it a cop? An Agency drone? I couldn’t tell. 

When I first met the chief on Belloc, I told him I was here for relaxation. I decided to make sure that my follower saw me doing exactly that. I stopped in a cigar shop and bought a nice Zubano, punched a hole in the tip, and lit it as I walked down the street. This wasn’t strictly legal, of course. I did it to see if my shadow was a cop. If he was, this would give him a reason to arrest me if he wanted to. He didn’t. That told me my follower was probably working with the chief. 

By the time I had finished the cigar, I was getting hungry. I stepped into a restaurant and requested a table near the window. I am basically a nice guy, and I wanted to make sure my follower could keep a close eye on me without going to too much trouble. If they wanted to watch me eat, who was I to interfere? 

This routine persisted for four days. Then, as suddenly as he appeared, my tail was gone. This did not entirely surprise me. If the chief was having me followed, his insurance company would grow tired of paying the expense of watching someone the police were certain did not commit a crime, and who only seemed to be acting like a typical tourist. 

It was time for the riskiest part of my plan. In the next few hours, I would either collect the loot from the jewelry store caper or collect a very large sum from the chief’s employer. I might even manage both. 
I took every possible precaution as I made my way toward the city’s recycling center.  I knew it took the robots about a week to get to the last batch of refuse. If I was too late, the recycling bots would find the gems and I would end up with nothing. I would not know until I got there. 

Based on earlier surveillance, I knew approximately where to look for Gemnifique’s trash. Even knowing that, it would take hours to find the loot. These wouldn’t be pleasant hours, either. Week-old trash has an aroma you would never mistake for a field of flowers. 

As the sunlight began to fade, I found a few Gemnifique receipts and shopping bags. In the last few rays of sunlight, I caught the sparkle of a gemstone. Within minutes, I had all I could carry. Leaving some behind would actually help cover my tracks. 

Away from the dump, I pulled a clean change of clothes out of my pack, took out a cleaning kit, and cleaned myself up. I tossed the dirty clothes and cleaning kit into the pile nearest the recycling bots. They would ensure it disappeared soon. 

The pack, not to mention my back, struggled under the weight of its contents. I buried the pack in the corner of a vacant lot near the dump.  

Back at the hotel, I found the chief and his goons waiting in the lobby for me. 

“Search him,” he said to the others. They found nothing, of course. 

“What’s going on, chief?” I smoothed some of my clothing wrinkled by the search. 

“You left here with a backpack. Where is it?” 

I pretended to be surprised, and looked around me. “You’re right. I lost it somewhere.” 

“Right,” the chief said. “You think I was born yesterday?” 

“Not with that much gray in your hair,” I told him. One of the goons punched me in the side. 

“I still can’t figure out how you did it,” he said. “I checked the camera footage. You’re not in it. Just all the robots, doing their jobs. We checked the robots’ logs. None of them saw you. None of them has any missing footage. Their programming and hardware is intact, even down to the microscopic level. And logs from that jail you were in show you never left there, either. But I know you did it. This has all the right signs to be one of your jobs. How’d you do it?” 

“I didn’t. I told you that.” 

We’ll see.” 

They left, and I returned to my room. From the state it was in, I could see that the chief and his men had conducted a very exhausting search. Had I stashed the gems here, He would have found them. 


In the Eldon City Dump, a recycle bot discovered many unusual rocks and metals among the trash. It's programming told it that these were not to be recycled, but to be brought to the humans in charge of the recycling operation. 

The humans called the police. 

The police called he insurance company and jewelry store manager, who confirmed that the gems had come from Gemnifique. 


I awoke, strapped to a chair, with the Truth Finder strapped to my head again. 

The chief, his goons, and two men in expensive looking suits were looking at me. I saw a 3D camera on one wall, aimed at me. This was another interrogation. This time it would be an official one. 

“Good morning, sunshine,” the chief said. His smile reminded me of a cartoon shark. 

“Hi, chief,” I said, “Got any room service here? I could use some coffee.” Green light on his box. 

The smile faded. “We found the gems in the city dump.” 

“Really? Then why all this?” I asked, looking at my strapped down extremities. 

“I know you did it. But why put them in the dump?” 

“I didn’t.” Green light. 

“You know how they got there, don't you?”  

“I have a theory,” I told him. Green light. “I assume one of these guys is your boss?” I gestured with my head toward the guys in the expensive suits. 

“I am,” one of them said. “Why?” 

“You have seen that I did not take the gems from the store.” Green light. “I was in jail when the gems were taken from the vault.” Green light. “I did not break into Gemnifique.” Green light. “I did not disable any security, any cameras, any sensors, or any robots.” Green light.  

The man looked at me. “What are you driving at?” 

“There is no incentive for me to tell you how these gems got to the dump.” Green light. 


“If you’ll provide one, I will share a theory with you, one that the chief here can investigate. If it proves correct, you’ll know exactly what happened. You will also know that I did not break into the store and that the removal of the gems was merely an unfortunate mistake.” Green light. 


“In exchange, I want a finder’s fee… whatever you pay a consultant you call in on a case like this. I’m not greedy.” 

The chief snorted. 

“Done,” the suit said. 

"How much?" If he offered the right amount, I would tell them where to find the pack. It would be easier than fencing the goods. 

He pulled out a notepad and scribbled an amount on it. He showed the amount to me. It was generous, but meant that I would not help them find the pack. 

Acceptable. First, get me out of this get-up.” 

They removed me from the chair and pulled the Truth Finder helmet off my head. I might not have convinced the chief, but his boss seemed to believe me. 

“When I visited Gemnifique, I saw that their security precautions were first-rate. As the chief will tell you, I know quite a lot about these things.” 

The chief rolled his eyes. 

“The chief tells me there is no evidence to suggest that any person entered or left the building.” 


“No robots left the building, either, I gather?” 

“No. They’re not able to.” 

“There’s only one way this could have happened. The cleaning robots are programmed to clean the vault on some regular basis. Correct? 

The suits nodded. 

“Normally, they’re programmed to clean everything in the vault but not touch gems and jewelry. Right?” 

Again, they nodded. 

“How is that done?” 

“Well, I don’t know,” the suit said, looking at the other. 

“It’s a setting,” the chief said. “You tell ‘em they aren’t to pick up stones and metal. That way, they grab dust, dirt, water, and whatever else. They scan whatever they clean up. If they do find any metal or rocks they set those aside for the humans to look at later.” 

“Exactly,” I said. “So no robot in that store should ever pick up gems or jewelry, and they should never toss them out. 

“Yeah.” I think I even had the chief's interest now. 

“Suppose that someone came into the store with bits of rock and metal on their shoes, and they tracked it all over the floor. What would happen?” 

The chief’s eyes opened wider. “Somebody would tell ‘em to clean it up. They wouldn’t, because they don’t know the difference between ordinary rocks and metal or jewelry.” 

I nodded. “Right, chief. So they tell it to override that and do it anyway. They don’t want the store all dirty, and no one wants to do a job himself that a robot can easily accomplish. 

“So the robot does it, then goes back to its charger. They tell it to reactivate the setting. 

Suppose they forget to turn off the override? The robot goes into the vault, sees ‘rocks’ all over the place, and starts cleaning them up.” 

“But the security sentries, wouldn’t they—“ 

“Stop the cleaning bots? No. They watch the vault, not the merchandise,” the chief said. “As far as they were concerned, the cleaning bots might as well have been picking up dust and dirt.” 

"Wait," the suited man said, "They don't see the merchandise?" 

"No. With the inventory changing, people putting things in a different spot every night, and all that, no one bothers to make the robots watch the inventory itself," the chief said. "It's not what we recommend, but I've never seen a jewelry store do it right." 

“Exactly,” I said. “When they were done, the robots dumped all the ‘rocks and metal’ into the trash chute, where the sanitation bots hauled it to the dump.” 

“And the recycle bots found it.” 

“You got it, chief. Like I said, I didn’t do it. I never broke into the store. I never touched the robots. I didn’t steal the jewels.” 

“I think you did. You probably tracked the rocks and metal into the store. 

"I assure you I did not, and your security footage will prove that." 

“If he did, why would he be telling you how?” the chief’s boss asked. 

“He wants me to know he’s smarter than I am, and thinks I can’t catch him.” He turned toward me and looked deeply into my eyes. "But I will." 

Turning to the suits, I flashed my best salesman smile. "If I had committed the crime of which I am being accused, then I am quite confident that this man would catch me. If I know anything about him, it's that he's an ace investigator. You have done well to hire him." 

The chief jerked, like he had been hit with something heavy.  He didn't expect a compliment.  
"Could I have a moment alone with the chief?" I asked. The others left the room. I motioned for him to come closer. What I had to say was for his ears only. 

"Chief, when I first saw you again, a part of me wanted to see you crushed for all you have done to me and to my father. I have checked the records in the Alliance Central Criminal Registry. Don't ask how, just know that I have. The Alliance believes that you have paid your debt to society and that you are no longer a threat to the civilized worlds. As much as it might surprise you to hear this, I agree. You are earning an honest living, using your skills and smarts. To do you any harm at this point would be a very petty act on my part. It would not bring back my father and it would leave a stain on my soul. For whatever you may think of me, harming any individual who doesn't deserve it is a line I will not cross." 

He whispered into my ear, "I don't buy it. I'm taking you down." 

"Then consider this. There is no evidence that I have committed the crime of which you accuse me. I guarantee you that you will find no evidence that I did, and plenty of evidence admissible in court to prove that I did not. Even if you are correct, and I am not saying that you are, unless you catch me with the missing items in my possession, you will have no case. Even then, I can claim to be taking them back to the jewelry store for a reward." 

"Just try picking 'em up. My guys will be on you in seconds." 

"No doubt that is true. But let me give you something else to consider. I have already given you a great gift, whether you realize it or not." 

He stared at me, saying nothing. 

"I have told you how I believe the gems left the store and found themselves at the city dump. Not only would your contacts at Gemnifique be pleased to have that information, but the manufacturer of those maintenance and security robots would, too. In the case of the store, you could offer services as a security consultant. You could make a similar offer to the robotic manufacturer. Having their robots revert back to the owner's default settings after a set amount of time would have prevented the cleaning robot from emptying the safe in this case." 

He rubbed his chin. 

"If you persist in pursuing me, and that is assuming that I orchestrated this incident as you allege, then you might be fortunate enough to catch me with the items in my possession. When the details of this little incident come out in court, any opportunity you have right now to profit from the information will vanish when it becomes public record. I would not be at all surprised if your bosses are already considering how to monetize this situation." 

He growled, and left the room in a hurry. 

Minutes later, a man I had not seen to this point opened the door and looked in my direction. "You're free to go, I'm told. The receptionist has your check." 

I nodded, smiled, and walked to the exit. I stopped to pick up the check on my way out, of course. I had given the chief's company valuable information and deserved to be compensated for it. 


Everywhere I went on Belloc for the next several days, I heard the sound of footsteps in the distance or the whir of a surveillance robot. 

To the chief's credit, he made a very public show of cracking the Gemnifique case. His insurance company offered a handsome reward for the return of the merchandise, no questions asked. I expected this. If the chief was wrong about me, his employers would want the stones back to cut their losses, and would pay anyone who found them. If the chief was right, they hoped I would be stupid or greedy enough to bring them in myself. This would have validated the chief's suspicions and probably resulted in my arrest. I could be patient. The eventual reward would be worth it. 

Could I wait here long enough? I wondered. It appeared that the chief was determined to catch me with the gems. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. The feeling of eyes on the back of my neck and the sound of whirring robots haunted me. 

I was getting tired of Belloc. I had seen all the sights. I had dined in all the best restaurants, sampled all the best drinks, and smoked the best cigars. All of this while the chief's eyes followed me. 

My followers were different now, though. I gather the chief had exhausted his access to insurance company resources and was using his own money to hire investigators now. I had grossly misread his level of hatred toward me. 

It can be dangerous to become too attached to a score. It was time to let go of this one.  

I had several options. I could tell the chief where the stones were, but that would be as good as admitting that I had stolen them. I could tell someone else where they were, and let them turn the stones in for a reward, but the chief would probably grill that person until they turned me in. I could hire a courier robot to retrieve the stones and turn them in. None of these options was particularly satisfying. Most of them landed me in jail. None of them turned a profit. 

It was time to play the long game. There was a risk, of course, but it was far lower than the risk of going after the stones. 

I booked passage on the next flight to Carfan, the nearest border world. Quite predictably, the chief and two police robots were waiting for me at the spaceport. 

I smiled. "Chief, how nice to see you. How nice of you to see me off after my little break on this world." 

"Stuff it," he said. "Search him. You'll find the stolen merchandise. I guarantee it." 

"That's a guarantee you will regret, chief. I do not have the items you speak of." 

The robots hauled me into an examination room. They scanned every inch of my body, every molecule of my clothing, and everything I was carrying. Judging from the time one of the robots spent plugged into the computer net, they were checking my alter ego's finances as well. 

"There is no evidence that this individual is in possession of the missing items," one of the police robots told the chief. "He is free to leave Belloc." 

"That can't be," the chief said. "He wouldn't leave here without them. Search him again." 

"Unnecessary," the robot said. "We apologize for the inconvenience, citizen. We have credited your account for the price of your ticket as an apology for detaining you." 

"Quite civil of you," I said. I stood up, and dipped my head toward the chief. "I told you, chief. I did not steal the jewels." 

"You did. You just can't go near them. Don't worry. I'll find 'em if it takes a hundred years." 

"Perhaps, but you won't find them on me." I left the room, listening to a stream of curses from the chief as I made my way to the departure gate. 

It's good for everyone to have a hobby. I had just given the chief one. He would search for the missing gems until he found them or grew tired of looking. 

If he found them, the pack they were in would tie them to me, but it would be circumstantial evidence. The pack was a mass-market item available in stores all over Belloc. It would not be enough to convict me. 
If the chief did not find the gems, one day I would go back and claim them. He would probably be there to try to arrest me when I did, but I would make sure the statute of limitations had long expired. 

As I said, I was now playing a long game with a potentially large payoff. There was always a risk that the chief or some random stranger would find the pack before I returned. If they didn't, my retirement fund was assured. If they did, as the old saying goes, "easy come, easy go"... 

The transport ship lifted off and jumped into FTL mode. A serving robot rolled past, dropping an envelope into my lap. I opened it and pulled out the note inside. "We have your nest egg and will take good care of it. Enjoy your time on Carfan." It was signed "The Agency"…  

I thought I had lost them.