The punchline comes to me a few minutes later. A cop and his robot walk into a bar… and start a fight.
We finish it too.
The last patron to stay on his feet was a tougher son of a female canine than the rest. A meaty fist full of punch sent me staggering into the bar.
Before the brawler capitalized on his fortune Shadow tackled him, the two of them crashing into a table that promptly collapsed. Thoroughly pinned on the floor beneath my robot the man nevertheless kept on trying to dislodge Shadow.
“Haven’t fought a robot before, have you?” I asked, kneeling beside his face. Six of his buddies were punch-napping on the floor around us. I wasn’t sure where the bartender had scuttled off to.
“You shouldn’t have said what you said,” the man muttered, “Jane, she’s my… she was, my sister.”
I sighed. How was I suppose to have known that? Shadow glared at me, mouthed: Research.
Yeah, whatever. The man talked a bit more and it became clear I had veered completely off the right path and landed us in a thorn bush of epic proportions. We beat a hasty retreat, stopping only to retrieve my kid’s toy from where I had set it inside the doorway.
“Which of you rednecks killed the lesbians?” Shadow said, repeating what I had said earlier upon entering the bar. “I think you need a refresher course on interviewing.”
I shrugged as we crossed the street. Sometimes you had to gamble and besides, while I might receive a reprimand for the bar incident, my wife would kill me if I missed Daniel’s party. Priorities, right?
Shadow rambled on (robot’s liked their lecturing) but I was more or less lost in thought. I couldn’t understand why towns like this lingered. What kept them going? How could sensible folk handle living out here, so close to all those frickin’ trees? A veritable forest of old growth surrounded the town like an army laying siege.
Really, it wasn’t right, wasn’t sane. Nobody in their right mind would-
“It was her legs,” I said.
“I went right for the motive and ignored the facts when Nina-”
“Whatever. I wasn’t thinking. Why would a redneck drain the corpses — and the bloodball — of blood? It had to be an animal.”
“There’s no animal that does that.”
“There’s a bat that does. Saw it on a doc I watched with Daniel.”
Shadow said, “They don’t kill people.”
I might have argued the robot more on that but I was starting to put two and two together. “She sent us to that bar. She set us up.”
“I hardly think-”
“She’s trying to scoop us,” I said. The only reason I had read the local paper was because she had been. Shadow was shaking its head but knew better than to continue arguing.
I said, “Back to the platform, we’ll figure out where she headed.”
“No need,” Shadow said, “I copied her phone’s gps-identifier. I’m transmitting her location to you now.”
“Creepy,” I said, glancing at my watch. A blip on the map dial appeared, pulsating, “You trace everybody you meet?”
“Only the hotties.”
The blip led us out of the town and into the forest. I hated the woods. The deeper we penetrated the more the forest thickened, as if it were a lime green stew simmered too long.
At least I hadn’t eaten a mosquito since leaving town; the few bloodballs we found were drained.
“Didisic, might I ask you a question?” Shadow said, using my name and not sir as I had requested. Was it possible that the egghead technicians were punishing me because I kept on wrecking their robots?
“Well, I’ve been examining the death rattles of your prior Shadow units.”
Death rattles. I grinned, liking the term. These were the black boxes, like from an airplane, but for a robot instead.
“Well, fourteen of my predecessors have been killed in action but there are only thirteen rattles.”
“Cause one quit. Said I was an ass, wandered away.”
“Did not know that was possible.”
“I know! I mean, I’m abrupt sometimes but I’m never an-”
“I meant, sir,” Shadow said, “that I find it unusual for a robot to quit. I have no difficulty at all imagining why it did so.”
Before I could follow my scowl with words, the robot hushed us. The reporter was near, not more than a half kilometer away. We followed her trail into a narrow clearing.
My stomach sloshed about as we stepped into carnage. If it had just been dead robots I might have reacted different but scattered among the corpses of decapitated, delimbed, robots, were dead squirrels, fawns, and even a handful of feral kittens. I clutched my kid’s toy tight.
Shadow strolled into the center of it all, studying the scene, though pragmatic enough to extend a sun catcher from its left arm, gathering a trickle of energy from the sun.
“These are from the All-Natural,” it said, pointing at various digging and planting robots. Even a cashier.
“So whoever killed those gals, brought these here?”
Shadow shook its head. “Whomever killed the women led these unfortunate robots here.”
“Led?” I repeated, imagining a pied piper whistling his tune, a merry train of robots trailing him. I had noticed the lack of robots earlier but had not thought much of it, assuming they must have been hiding in their charging hovels.
I examined the dead animals and was not surprised to find them drained of blood too. No sign of Nora, Shadow explaining she was still ahead of us. Still moving.
I frowned. These woods were dangerous. Did Nora understand the danger?
I started to rise but Shadow reached out and shushed me.
“Listen,” it said. The robot had super sensitive hearing and so I needed to wait a few moments before I too heard the rustle of heavy feet trampling the undergrowth, shoving past trees. I looked up and watched tree tops sway. Whatever it was, it was big.
“Heading our way,” Shadow said.
By all accounts I’m headstrong and reckless but I am not a killer; I seldom need to draw my weapon. Still all of us in the Agency carry standard issue revolvers with enough stopping power to down an elephant. Or, hopefully, the sage brown bear marching into our clearing.
Shadow was the first to shoot but the robot’s blast tore a thigh thick limb from the tree above the bear instead (robots in general have shitty aim). I took a deep breath, firing once but the bear leapt to the side, dodging it. Or I missed. Not sure.
Regardless I kept calm, breathed in, and locked my eyes onto the ivory white orbs of the panicked beast in front of me. Its great chest rose and fell, its paws tearing the ground, its mouth open, acorn yellow teeth gleaming…
Shadow fired, tearing a chunk of meat from the bear’s flank. The wounded animal turned with more grace that I might have predicted, no longer bearing down on me, its snarling muzzle now pointed towards my partner instead.
I fired my second shot, hitting it in the neck. It shrieked but it had been running with such determination that its momentum still carried it into Shadow. Flesh, steel, and bone collided with a sickening crunch.