“I do not believe this is our suspect,” Shadow observed as I approached them. The robot’s head peeked out from under the bear’s shoulder. Its forehead was dented, streaks of metal showing through the rended falseflesh.
“Came to that conclusion on your own? I’m no expert but I suspect bears are more meat eater than blood connoisseur.”
“You are correct,” Shadow said with more calm than I would have shown being buried under a bear. “More to the point, the bear is another victim.”
Too right. Victim of my kick-ass aim. Shadow must have read my mind again because it clucked and then with a mighty heave pulled itself free of the carcass — the eggheads had certainly underreported the robot’s strength in official reports. Before it freed itself it pulled aside the fur on the bear’s neck to show me pincher marks.
“Someone latched onto this bear and starting feeding,” Shadow said, “but must have been thrown away before it finished.”
“I’m not liking this,” I said, “we need to find the reporter.” Before something else did.
Shadow shuffled along behind me, making more noise than usual, it had sustained some damage after all… a tick-tocking in its leg, likely a bent muscle strand. I shushed it repeatedly and five minutes later we came upon her body in a second, smaller, clearing.
We were too late. The reporter’s red coat was spread out, like a picnic blanket, with her tucked underneath it. The moss around the crime scene was trampled but not as violently as in the previous clearing.
I nudged her coat with my toe, feeling nothing underneath just as a white flash of light filled the clearing. Shadow collapsed.
“Nearly froze my ass off,” the reporter said, swinging down from the tree where she had been hiding. “You two took your sweet time.”
At some point she had (unfortunately) changed out of her miniskirt and into more practical fatigues which I suspected were not standard issue for a Sensation reporter. The glasses were gone too, her hair drawn into a severe ponytail.
She strapped the pistol-shaped robot immobilizer she had used on my Shadow to her belt. I didn’t lower my weapon.
“What’s going on?”
She sighed, rather dramatically and then I noticed, too late, a slender cylinder in her left hand. Before I squeezed my trigger the cylinder extended into a narrow baton that Nora used to swat my weapon out of my hand.
Cursing and clutching my injured hand I ducked a second swipe as she danced around me. I glanced at my gun but decided against diving for it. She jabbed at me and I stumbled backwards over uneven terrain, ramming my back against a tree. Again I ducked in time, chunks of bark falling onto my head.
I lashed out with my arm, catching the baton as she pulled it back.
The reporter (who I was fairly certain was not really a reporter by this point) tugged back but I did not loosen my grip. I stumbled forward instead, she dragging me towards her.
“You should have stayed in town,” she said. “I have this under control.”
“Under control? Who the hell are you?”
“That’s classified, agent. You need to trust me.”
We were circling each another, a dizzying courtship. I was trying to steer her towards Shadow, hoping she might trip over the robot. I had the strength advantage over her; I needed to neutralize her agility.
What I hadn’t counted on was Shadow rising. My eyes shifted, my grip loosening enough for her to tear the baton free. She whirled backwards, striking Shadow as I charged her.
Quicker than possible she snapped her arm back and the baton caught me across the forehead.
I woke, cursing and groaning, pain tearing through my skull. By the sun’s position over top the trees I had lost more time.
Shadow stood over me.
“You haven’t died,” the robot said and I don’t know if it was relating a fact or speaking out in surprise. Immobilizers usually required an egghead to reboot the robot. I forced myself to a sit and asked about that.
“I’m a new model. I have a discharger that dilutes current immobilizer tech and I am able to reboot myself.”
“Well, Mr. Awesome, how about giving me a hand up. And where’s our friend?”
The robot hoisted me to wobbly legs as it explained that Nora had fled south but had also deactivated her phone. We were no longer able to track her.
“Why didn’t you stop her?”
“I tried,” Shadow said, “but she shot me a second time. We will have to resume our search for her tomorrow. If we leave now we’ll still make your son’s party.”
“She’s behind this somehow,” I said, “and whatever her plan is, its nefarious.”
Shadow cocked his remaining eyebrow. “You are the expert.”
“Don’t mock me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Shadow said, “I am merely stating fact. You’ve done what no other has ever done. I question your methods but I cannot argue with reality. You have saved the world once before.”
I would have blushed if Shadow had stopped there. It didn’t.
“Though hundreds of thousands dead, wasn’t exactly a flawless success.”
I said, “Might have been worse.”
I retrieved my blaster and my kid’s toy.
“Let’s move on,” I said. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Shadow shook its head. “I am afraid I cannot. I need an hour, maybe two, to charge, before night falls.”
I bit my lip. Waiting would mean missing the birthday for sure, would mean disappointing my son, would mean weeks of sleepless nights on couches. It was ridiculous that in our glorious age of endless technological advancements no egghead out there had developed a better way to charge our Shadows. I ordered my robot to climb a tree and wait for me.
“While you charge I’ll do a sweep,” I said, “If I’m not back in a hour, send for backup.” An hour to find her.
Turned out I wouldn’t need that long.
With the robot at my side the forest had seemed dark and disturbing. Without my Shadow, the tangled trees and coiled roots were downright frightening. Impossible to imagine how my ancestors had lived with this constant terror, this expectation of doom lingering behind every tree. Man needed walls around him. That was the way it should be.
Didn’t even have mosquitoes for company, though I passed the hulks of three more deflated bloodballs. I was searching in an ever expanding pattern, a rough circle, with Shadow in the center. I didn’t want to stray too far but I didn’t want to miss anything either.
I almost passed Nora, not noticing her at first, too preoccupied with worry, as if expecting all the critters to rise up and overwhelm me. Too busy looking at ground level. But a glint in the trees caught my eye and a few minutes later I stood under her body.
This time she really was dead. The shaft of the baton was shoved through her chest. She was impaled, pinned to the tree, her toes at my eye level. In the undergrowth were the crushed remnants of her immobilizer; her blaster still strapped to her belt.
I was baffled. If Nora was not the culprit, who was? I was going to have to call in, tell Marianne that I wouldn’t make it. Three dead women, a rabid bear, and pilfered robots? What the heck? I’d rather have had another mad scientist bent on destroying the world from his moon orbital than this bizarreness.
She was not drained either. I reached for the baton and tried pulling it free but it was stuck firmly into the tree. I’d have liked to see her neck, see if her attacker had tried draining her blood but without Shadow’s strength she was not going anywhere. Couldn’t even search her clothing, find out who she was. I needed my robot.
Twilight’s shadows were pressing against me by the time I returned to the clearing where I had left Shadow.
“You were right,” I said as I approached the tree Shadow had climbed. Only the rustling of wind-caught branches answered me. I glanced up, confirming that the tree was empty. The coward! It must have returned to town, without me.
A branch cracked and I paused. Every tree seemed to be leaning towards me, dusk-dusted fingers stretched open, snaky tree-roots toeing the leaf cluttered surface, the trees shuffling forwards.
Shadow peeled itself out from the gaps between the monstrous trees.
I never finished my demand because Shadow pulled its blaster free and fired. Years ago I had argued against the robots being given weapons; they were intended to be decoys, defensive tools only. But the muckity-mucks had disagreed and so here I was throwing myself to the ground, my chin smashing into an exposed root. Blood filled my mouth, more of it dripping down my chin. Ah, this is where moss grows, I thought, snorting it out of my nostrils.
I rolled several rotations before springing to my feet and slipping behind the cover of the nearest tree. It shook, taking Shadow’s next blast, the stench of burning wood filling my nostrils. I braved a glance and ducked back in time to avoid Shadow’s third shot. The tree gave a mighty death roar, the trunk cracking in two and I raced away, firing blindly until I found new cover, the next sacrificial tree.
Minutes trickled past and no more shots were fired and I braved another glance. This time I did not duck my head back. Shadow’s arm sat in the middle of the clearing, smoldering, one of my wild shots had hit it.
“And that’s how humans do it,” I muttered just as metal fingers clenched my forearm and squeezed the blaster from my grip. Then I was spinning through the air like a figure skater whose partner had quit mid-throw. The tree that caught me lacked grace and poise, a wayward branch almost skewering my brain through my nose.
Shadow was a burst of trouble rushing towards me and despite bruised ribs and the shaft of wood up my left nostril, I extracted myself with much haste, tearing the branch from my nose, along with a spray of blood and snot. Shadow raised its blaster and in that ever long moment before he fired I realized the robot was no longer my Shadow. Not only missing an arm, it was also missing the lower part of its face, the jaw replaced with a steel plate, that chomped up and down.
A plate covered with fangs. Not a standard after-market mod. I spun away, Shadow screaming out a train of profanity while I evaded it. Playing a lethal game of run-around-the-tree with my murderous robot wasn’t my first choice for a late afternoon lark but with my blaster out of range it was the last plan remaining in my detective’s play book.
So I rushed around the tree, Shadow following me. Then I stopped, ducking below the aim of its blaster, and rammed my head into its chest. Which is exactly like ramming your head into a concrete wall. Except it hurts more.
Still it surprised Shadow and the robot staggered back as I stepped to the side and launched a kick at its knees. Shadow gasped as its outer leg bowed inward and it fell against the tree. Pressing my attack before it could swing that blaster towards me I high-kicked it in the head.
That tore the crotch of my pants out but it also rammed the robot’s head into the tree. Shadow whirled on me, shedding falseflesh and bark.
“Listen here, partner,” I said, gasping for breath, “let’s talk this out.”
“Why bother?” Shadow said, its voice identical to mine still, which made it all the more creepy. “You never listen.”
The robot shook and rattled. I backed away, as it advanced, but I was smart enough not to confuse its injuries with weakness.
“Well, how about we settle this the old fashioned way?” I raised my fists, adopting an exaggerated pugilistic stance. Shadow’s fanged mouth opened, presumably in amusement, hopefully not in hunger.
Shadow tossed its blaster to the side, raised its remaining arm and mimicked my stance. Immediately I abandoned my suicidal charade (as if I’m going to play at fisticuffs with a robot). I fell to my knees and barrel rolled, knocking the robot onto its stomach.
I scrambled over Shadow and grasped its head, tugging and twisting until I popped the robot’s skull out of its neck socket. The body crawled after me, blindly, when I scrambled away. I dusted myself off, ignoring the scuttling corpse behind me.
“I’m going to be reprimanded for this, you know.” Fifteen robots lost. I hoped I wasn’t starting to get a reputation.
The robot head chomped at me and with a sigh of resignation, knowing I’d squeeze no answers from it, I punted it into the forest.
I didn’t need to be an egghead to realize what was going on. Some lunatic was modifying robots to drink blood.
I had to admit it. The case was too big to solve tonight. If I headed back now I could still make the party; the night shift could finish this investigation. I picked up my kid’s gift from where I had dropped it and with a final glance at my dead partner, started back into the woods.
I didn’t get far.
“Silly man,” a voice whispered from behind me, right before I was hit across the back of the head.