The Bot Factory Killer
“Berserker virus.” I wrinkled my nose and nodded toward the approaching white transport. Two bolts of lightning crisscrossing a red skull emblazoned the hovercraft’s flat front. Biotech hazard. It glided toward us, slowing for the security check point.
“That’s got to be Kromanski from the school incident this morning," my shift partner Stewart said. "What’d I tell you? I knew they’d bring that cyborg here for an implant debugging.”
I swallowed a glob of saliva to loosen the clenching muscles in my throat. I’d never seen a BT emergency transport, but I’d heard tales of their ominous human cargo. I tightened my grip around the electric prod on my belt. Days like this made me question my career in bot factory security.
Stewart chuckled and leaned toward me. “You’d better watch out Cyril. He’ll rip you limb from limb!”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m not afraid.”
“You ought to be.” Stewart stared into my face. “A deranged killer driven mad by a virus in his neural implant? You should be very afraid.”
I waved him off. “I’m sure he’s well-secured and sedated. Like I said, I’m not afraid. I just have too many questions to be careless.”
“Ha! You question everything, Cy.” He swatted my shoulder.
“And I follow the answers.”
Stew rolled his eyes. "You’ll follow them out of a job if you’re not careful.”
“Fine, maybe I will,” I said. “Frankly, I don’t believe it’s a virus.”
The hovercraft gave a sideways wobble. Odd that.
“What? Not a virus?” Stewart smirked. “Dude, I’ve read all about this. It supercharges the implant, sends an energy bomb to the adrenal medulla. Super-strength… murderous rage...” He snapped his fingers. “Pure science.”
“Then why does it only happen with the Symthot devices?”
Stewart shrugged. “Poor design. Malware vulnerability.”
“No,” I said. “It’s because they use deep programming. They’ve gone beyond biotech, Stew. They’ve opened a door to the nether realm!”
“Oh, come on!” His shoulders dropped. “Don’t tell me you believe all that demon crap.”
“Demons are not a consp—”
BANG! The hovercraft slammed to the ground, its driver slumped against the cracked, bloody window. The passenger door opened and the med-tech tried to exit. She shrieked as someone pulled her back in by her hair, then dragged her out of sight.
Stewart hit his comm-link control. “Police and ambulance! Physical assault with injuries. Bot Bits and Beauties Factory, 828 Math Street.”
The rear doors on the transport swung open and a huge, half-naked man with a wild nest of hair leaped out. He flexed his scar-crossed arms out to the sides and loosed a monstrous roar.
I stepped back against the factory doors and grabbed my prod. “We can’t let him past, Stew. There’s a tour today! Josh Kristoff’s here! If a celebrity’s killed on our shift...”
His face twisted. “I know that! Hit him behind the ears with a full blast. Maybe it’ll short out his implant.”
The big man saw us and charged, screaming threats and profanities.
Stewart ran to meet him. He swung his prod at the brute’s neck, but Kromanski knocked it away. He lifted Stewart and hurled him into a charging station.
“Stewart!” My heart pounded like a drum solo.
“I’ll kill you!” the cyborg cried as he ran at me. “I’ll kill you all!”
I hit my comm-link twice to signal a lockdown. I’d barely pressed confirm when the cyborg picked me up by the throat with one hand, the other raised in a fist. I placed the prod at the base of his skull and zapped him. He screamed and threw me into the brick wall, then smashed through the glass lobby doors.
“Come on!” Stewart helped me up and we ran inside to give chase. What I saw from the lobby sickened me.
The tour group gathered at the end of the hallway. Kromanski sprinted toward them bellowing profane threats and gibberish, waving his bloodied arms as he ran. The factory guests screamed and scattered, trying desperately to open the doors, now secured due to the lockdown. They cried for help, banging on the exits in a frenzy, fainting or curling up in fear. Except for one man.
Josh Kristoff stood calm and alone, hands folded. Kromanski stopped his manic sprint right in front of him, chest heaving, arms at his sides dripping crimson pools. They faced each other for a long moment, then Kristoff said, “Come out of him.”
Kromanski howled, then fell to the floor in a seizure. “P-please… don’t t-torment us.”
Stewart and I stopped a few feet away and gawked.
“What is your name?” Josh asked.
“Hordes,” came a chorus of voices.
I shuddered at the sound. Stewart buckled. He gripped my arm to keep from fainting.
“Please,” a gravelly voice begged, “don’t send us back to the nether realm.” Kromanski scanned the room, then settled his view on the massive sales floor display. He turned to Josh, pointed to the room, and said, “Send us into the bots!” A chorus echoed out of him. “Yes! Send us into the bots!”
Josh nodded in that direction. “Go.”
As Kromanski collapsed, the entire collection of Beauty Bots powered on and attacked one another. They kicked, and punched, and ripped off plastic limbs. They smashed each other’s molded heads and tore each other’s circuits out until there wasn’t one robot left functioning. The crowd watched in shock.
Stewart gasped and stared at me. “That’s impossible. How d-did…”
My jaw hung open. Though I had a suspicion, all I could do was shrug and stare back.
Josh helped Kromanski to his feet, holding him until he could regain his balance.
“I’m so grateful,” the man sighed, his face now serene, his eyes like the sky.
Kromanski beamed. “Gone.” He gave a sniffle. “Finally gone.”
Josh embraced him. “Rest for now, my friend. Be refreshed. Then go, and tell everyone what happened.”
A tear inched down Kromanski’s cheek as he nodded in agreement.
My own eyes welled. Whatever’d happened to Kromanski was no mere implant repair. Even Stewart seemed transfixed, staring at Kromanski in awe.
Mc Kinsey the security manager stormed down the hall, his shoes clomping, his tie askew. With his twisted face hard as granite, he barreled up to Josh. “I saw you on the video feed," he said. "You killer! You murderer! You destroyed all our Beauty Bots! Do you even begin to realize how much money you’ve cost this company?” He spun towards us. “Stewart, Cyril… detain this man!”
“Detain a celebrity?” I glanced at Stewart, then stared at Mc Kinsey. “Are you cert—”
“Cuff him now,” he growled, “or you are both out of here.”
My shoulders slumped as I sighed and reached for my cuffs. Stewart grabbed my arm and slowly shook his head. Wonder filled his eyes like a sunrise. I’d never seen such a look on his face. Was this the same man I’d worked with for three years?
Mc Kinsey leaned into Stewart’s face and pointed his finger. “This is your final warning, mister. I want those cuffs on his wrists or I will fire you, and prosecute you as well. Cuff him now!”
My heart skipped. Mc Kinsey never made idle threats. If Stew didn’t follow orders he’d be fired on the spot, or worse. As panic seized my limbs, I turned my eyes toward Josh.
The peace in Josh’s face was arresting. His gaze took command of my emotions and slowly, gently, brought them down to a tranquil calm. Something in Josh’s countenance seemed to come from another realm. A higher realm. I suddenly grasped what had so powerfully transformed Kromanski. It wasn’t just the absence of the demons, it was the presence of Josh.
A warm grin broke out between Josh’s cheeks as he peered as if into my soul, then raised an eyebrow to ask what I would do. What could I do? I glanced at my partner.
As police sirens sounded outside, Stewart took out his cuffs and winked at me. He dropped them at Mc Kinsey’s feet with a clatter, nodded at Josh, then turned and walked away. What? The company man, the skeptic, was actually… walking… away?
Mc Kinsey cursed and screamed with berserker-like madness, bellowing threats at his former employee, as well as at Josh and me. I watched Stewart heading for the demolished exit, then looked back at Mc Kinsey. Behind him, Josh stood as placid as ever, his gaze fixed on me.
“Cyril,” Josh said. “You have your answers.” He held out his wrists and waited for my response.
My response? Breathing a sigh I stared at the steel handcuffs between my fingers. The choice was clear. With a parting, grateful wave to Josh, I dropped them onto the floor next to Stewart’s… and followed him out.
Stew looked over his shoulder and his face lit up. He stopped and waited. "Hey, Cy! You hungry, buddy?"
"Sure am," I said. "If you'd like, there's that new place out on Legion Avenue. I hear they've got a great pork BBQ."
Stewart sucked in a deep breath, then gave a hearty nod as I caught up. "I wonder if they're hiring."