Blame the Machines

The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre night Space Dreams and Dystopia.  Please enjoy.

She is face down on the shore of the Hudson. She’s a young one too. “Morning, Murphy,” Morales says nodding at me. He’s standing over the body taking a scan. His mouth is twisted with emotion. “Little girl put up a fight and clawed like hell. Most of her fingernails are gone. This just kills me. She reminds me of my great-great-granddaughter. Look at her. Such a shame.”

“We got witnesses?” I ask, but I know this part of Jersey City has been No Man’s Land since the big flood. The steel and glass towers once home to the wealthy were now the preferred squat sites for nasty, dangerous things like Ferals and Oxygen Addicts. I check my gun again just to be sure its flipped on “death” and not “coma.”

“Nah, no soul so far, but we haven’t dumped the CCTVs or drones yet, so maybe something will pop up. The preliminary scan captured a fiber twisted in her sweater. It was right here,” he says pointing at her left shoulder blade. “I bagged and tagged it.” Morales taps his wrist and the hologram of the strand pops up.

“Looks like human hair,” I say squinting at the rotating image. “Please tell me it’s human. Or at least tell me it’s animal.”

“It ain’t,” Morales snorts. “It’s 100% polyester.”

“Ah, come on. Tell me it ain’t from a god damn Machine.”

“Well, it ain’t from a doll’s head. It’s been bleached. It’s got some kind of hair product in it too. Like the others. It’s a vain son of a bitch, ain’t it?”

“Same Machine model?”

“Yep. The Companion. First generation.”

“This is the third one…”

“And three’s a charm. I don’t know what to tell ya, boss, but it looks like we got a killer Robot on the loose in Jersey City.”

“Fantastic. Just what I need,” I squat down to get a closer look at victim number three. “She’s just a kid,” I whisper. I bow my head to give the girl a moment of silence in prayer, but Morales ain’t there yet.

“Bots, man! I would love to go around and just zap each one with 50,000 amps!” Morales points his sidearm towards Manhattan. “Pew! Pew! Pew!”

I grab the top of his gun and push the nose down. “Christ, Morales.” I look around to make sure no one heard and then I get in his face. “Cut it out with the mouth. If I have to write you up again for the B word you’re back in Sensitivity Training another 9 weeks. They ain’t worth it. Besides your weapon is 20 amps at best.”

* * *

The Companion model is one of the higher quality factory ones they use to sell only in showrooms when I was a kid. It’s famous for its rich, comforting voice Applesoft sampled from that big time actor. The software is legendary too with programs and apps which interact perfectly. No loops. No dead ends. If you squint in the right light and maybe down a couple of shots of Jameson, The Companion looks like a real person. It’s got those cosmetic touches like glass teeth and nose holes and high grade polyester hair you don’t see in the cheaper models. After Liberation, these mass produced numbers tried to get some individual personality with their newly granted freedoms. You know, so they wouldn’t look the thousands of other Companions walking around. And this Companion we rounded up? It has pierced its ears and dresses snazzy like a sir. It’s polyester hair is dyed fire engine red. And he has used at least an entire tub of gel to achieve that spiky look he’s sporting. It calls itself Simon, but I call it by its real name.

“FX101958?” I say and sit down across from it in the Interrogation Room. I am disgusted by the smell of metal that it gives off and wish I had put the peppermint rub under my nose before the interview to deflect the stink.

“That is my serial number, yes,” it responds. It’s violet blue eyes unnaturally sparkle in the harsh light. It gives me the creeps so I reach over and tilt the spotlight away from its waxy face.

“You’re first generation FX, aren’t ya?” I ask and drop my scanner on the table.

“Yes.” It says with a jump.

“AppleSoft stopped the manufacture of FX Companion bots over 60 years ago. With a shelf life of just 30 years, what makes you so special to last this long?”

It smiles and nods. “I have paid for replacement parts through the years.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I snort. I lean back in my chair and look at the Bot up and down. “We pay Machines now. By law. Don’t we?”

It looks uncomfortable and shifts in its seat. I hear gears grinding as it moves. I lean in. “The drone report says you were by the Waterfront around 6 am yesterday morning. What were you doing down there, FX101958?”

“I like a morning walk. It clears my head.”

I burst out laughing. “You gotta be kidding me…”

“Well, it’s…it’s my routine.”

“Ferals And Ox Heads everywhere down there,” I growl. “Everywhere…”

“They don’t bother Machines.”

“Oh, they’d love to cut you up and sell you for parts believe you me. Like you were a car.” It says nothing so I press on. “See anything? See another Bo—…Machine?”

“No.”

“You all like to protect each other, don’t ya?”

“I saw no one. No humans. No machines. No one. Nothing.”

I slam my hand in the table to show it I’m not messing around. “You know we have ways of finding out,” I sneer. It shudders with a sound like a rickety metal fence in the wind.

Just then this cute little lady pops in and gets edgy with me. These things get lawyers now too you know. Aggressive ones. “This is over. Simon, say nothing. You don’t have to answer his questions,” she barks and points me toward the door. “Get out of here, Detective Murphy.”

Now in the good old days I just could have plugged the Bot bastard in and downloaded whatever it saw and did. But now, these things have rights. So I have to get a whole bunch of official permission before I wire his ass up.

I walk out in the hall and slam the door so the Machine’s lawyer can get to work on protecting his newly endowed inalienable rights. I stare at it through the one way glass – the Machine that calls itself Simon – and I just fume. Back in the day I’d have smashed that clunky piece of junk, purged its chips of information and repurposed its solar battery for my motorcycle. But now, I gotta serve and protect it.

Morales comes up to me and hands me a cup of coffee. “Unbelievable,” he says clicking his tongue. “Look at that college gal. She’s going to do everything she can for that thing.”

“Yep,” I say taking a sip of the gritty station coffee.

Morales chuckles and then tries to get deep with me. “You know, boss, she’s gonna say it’s not the Machines. It’s not their fault. They didn’t invent murder. That they don’t just go kill people. That you gotta program them to kill. It’s a programmer who is really doing the murders and just using a Bot to cut up girls and leave ‘em by the river. That it’s a human to blame.”

I look at the Bot taking to its lawyer with its dye job and its earrings and its sparkling dead eyes. “Nah,” I say shaking my head. “I blame the Machines.”

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