There are a number of standard dichotomies on the frontier: immigrants versus natives; settlers versus nomads; civilization versus nature. I can only surmise that in the far future the new range wars will be fought oil versus solar. — ed, N.E. Lilly
“Damn, I’m shot!”
Price clutched his stomach as fluid trickled out. He fell to the ground, slowly bleeding to death.
“That’s a pretty bad way to go.”
Willy put a cigarette in his mouth, flipped open his Zippo and touched flame to tobacco.
“Please. At least get me some gas.”
Willy laughed. “Don’t have no gas. I run on the sun rays. I’ll give you a light though.” He tossed the Zippo into the puddle of gas.
Price went up in flames, screaming as his motherboard melted inside his stainless steel skin. His eyeballs, orbs of silicone gel, streamed down the side of his face.
The right eye, resting on the ground in a mushy pile, observed the solar robot peering down at it. It processed the blue sky and the dark rivulets of smoke and orange flame pluming from within its blackened body. And then it saw the bottom of Willy’s foot descending like a vulture.
“You tell me some good news,” Sheriff Zero said.
“We think Price might have shot Willy before he died,” Deputy Billy said. “His pistol had been fired once, and we found transmission fluid about forty feet from the burn site.”
“Willy don’t need transmission fluid, do he?”
“Don’t believe he does sheriff,” Deputy Roscoe Jenkins muttered. “He’s a solar robot.”
“Damn solar robots is what’s wrong with this country. They come in here thinkin’ they better than we are. Think they above the law and can get away with anything. Well hell, I’ll tell y’all somethin’. I ain’t gonna sit here no damn more and wait for Willy to strike again. He wants to murder good, law abidin’ gas bots of the Republic, fine. But he’s gonna do it runnin’ cause I’m gonna be on his heels with my right tire ready to go right up his ass!”
Sheriff Zero sat back down in his chair and stared out the window. The sun was steadily sinking in the blood red sky. Willy was out there somewhere. It would only be a matter of time before he found his next victim.
“Deputy Billy. Deputy Roscoe Jenkins. I need y’all filled up with premium tonight. We gonna search the woods till we find his sorry ass.”
The three gas bots rode to the break room and studied the price of regular unleaded gas: nine dollars a gallon.
“Shit fire!” Deputy Billy said. “I can’t afford this. Why you reckon they don’t start promoting alternative fuels? Our engines can take ‘em just as easy as gas.”
“The politicians,” Sheriff Zero said. “Those greasy sons of bitches take kick backs from the oil companies and bureaucracies, boy. Matter of fact, you know those crooked bastards make more money on stocks than the average machine? It’s a fact. They looked at the stock gains. A politician is a hundred percent likely to make a hundred percent wiser choices than someone who ain’t a politician. Now, you tell me why that is?”
Deputy Roscoe Jenkins snorted. “Where’d you hear that sheriff?”
“I read it on the Internet, son. Now start pumpin’. We gonna need all night to find that bastard. He’s solar powered, so he’ll be weak as hell in darkness.”
Willy leaned against a pecan tree, one hand propped behind his head. The wind was gently blowing and he stared up into the night sky.
It was a harvest moon, and he sat back contemplating his mission to take down the last of the holdouts. The gas bots had been recalled months ago. These jokers had to be dealt with.
Willy pulled his wallet out and flipped it open. He examined photographs, stopping on his wife and son. He closed the leather shut and stuck it in his back pocket. He stared back up at the sky and thought about that. He used to be a killing machine. Something was happening to his hard drive. Maybe it was going soft.
Clouds covered the moon and a darker shade of night worked itself over the forest. He suddenly shivered and dropped his head, too weak to hold it up. He heard a noise in the distance.
He tried to lift his head to look but couldn’t. Somewhere out there, in the dark woods and fog, something was moving. It was a low rumble that was steadily growing. It was a monstrous sound and he thought of the horsemen. He thought of the Apocalypse. He thought about everything and he considered nothing. Instinct made him reach for his iron. The noise was getting closer.
Willy drew his pistol and held it tightly. He could barely raise his arm. He was going to have to shoot from the hip.
Sheriff Zero was stuck in the mud, raising hell about the situation. “Get me out this mud!”
“You need to keep quiet sheriff. You don’t want Willy to know we’re out here.” Roscoe Jenkins said.
“Don’t you tell me what to do! You work for me! Now get that stick and wedge it beneath my tire. I need some traction. Do it! Damnit, quit starin’ and start moving!”
Jenkins studied the sheriff. He stared at Deputy Billy. Billy had a benign expression on his face. His mouth was partially open and drops of antifreeze were trailing down his chin. The sheriff was still raising hell, loud as could be.
“Wipe your mouth, Billy. You’re drooling all over the place.”
Jenkins picked up the stick and secured it under the sheriff’s tire. The sheriff slowly accelerated and moved forward, mud spraying his deputies.
“Y’all two idiots come on!” he screamed.
Sitting targets. That’s exactly what the three of them were with Zero and Billy by his side. He had to ditch them. Jenkins put himself into drive and sped off into the woods, the sheriff hollering after him.
As he drove over the forest floor, watching the ground for roots and falling limbs, he thought about the citizens of Jakeson County. The truth of the matter was the whole town was doomed. They would all perish as the solar robots came flooding in.
The end was coming. He knew change was inevitable and they were obsolete. But his kind were living, running machines and deserved every last second of life they could squeeze from the evils of these new robots. He might die another night at the hands of some other solar assassin. But he damn sure wasn’t going to die tonight.
His jaw vibrated. He put his hand to his mouth, pushing the accept button. His wife’s voice filled his head.
“I thought you’d be home by now,” she said.
He could hear his daughter in the background, talking a mile a minute.
“No, honey. We’ve got to look for a bad guy tonight.”
“No, no. It’s nothing to worry about. He’s not dangerous or anything.”
“Well, you be very careful. Oh, did I tell you Mary learned to write her name in cursive today?”
“Really? I think I was in second grade before I learned how to do that,” Jenkins said.
“She’s a lot smarter than her parents. I love you honey. Please be careful.”
He ended the conversation and scanned the woods. He saw no sign of movement but the branches in the wind. It was too quiet. There were no sounds but the whirring of his motor and twigs and pine cones snapping as his tires turned. He thought about the noise he was making. He drove to a tree and stopped.
Deputy Billy rolled out into a field in the center of the woods. He didn’t realize his mistake until he heard the gun blast. There was a sharp ping, and he fell on his side, his wheels still spinning round and round. He held his hand to a fresh wound and felt the gas draining from him.
Sheriff Zero watched from the shadow of a tree.
“How bad you hit, Billy?”
“I’m bleeding bad. Real bad, sheriff.”
There was no reply and after awhile Billy turned to look for the old timer. Sheriff Zero was gone.
He realized his wheels were still rolling and grabbed at them. He looked at the trees across from him and saw a brief burst of light after he heard the blast. Electric blue sparks sprinkled from the bullet hole in the center of his head. He closed his eyes. In the silence he could hear his computer shutting down.
Sheriff Zero knew exactly where Willy was, he just had to squeeze his two ton ass through the trees to get to him.
The wind was blowing, and he could feel it gently slapping his face. His head suddenly hurt, and he thought about the old days when robots all ran on gasoline or electricity or batteries. There were no solar robots then because of the night. Technology was a son-of-a-bitch. It sped time up and kept it right on moving. He was older than hell now but still he’d sometimes go driving in the Mega-Mart and see these contraptions in the electronics department that blew his mind.
Sheriff Zero was afraid. He was afraid because he was an old robot in the Mega-Mart. He understood none of these new things that were essential for today. It was damned depressing.
A bullet ripped through the air, gobbling the oxygen around it and struck a pine tree next to Sheriff Zero’s head. Bark exploded and splinters rained on the sheriff, bouncing off his titanium head.
He put himself in drive and rolled to the nearest tree.
“Where you at Willy?”
There was no response.
“Why don’t you just leave us be? We ain’t botherin’ you. Just go back home. We can coexist.”
Willy said nothing.
The sheriff strained to hear something. Beyond the whispering wind and crickets and the humming of his own engine, he could hear nothing.
He slid his head around the tree to sneak a peek. He saw nothing. He moved back to cover.
“Willy? Where are you?”
A pinecone hit Zero on top of the head. The old machine raised his pistol as fast as his rusting arm could move and fired three times at the movement above him.
An aluminum squirrel, its guts all blasted out, fell to the ground with a dull thunk.
“Well, shit fire.”
He lowered the gun and stuck his head out from around the tree for another look.
A bullet struck the left side of his face and took half his eye socket with it. The silicone eyeball dangled from the hole.
Sheriff Zero returned to cover.
“You asshole! I’m gonna kill you.”
He needed to calm down and get control before he overheated. Somewhere in the night, Willy was waiting.
Deputy Roscoe Jenkins heard the gunshots and slowly moved to the battlefield. He scanned every tree he rode past and combed the area thoroughly before he advanced.
He passed a pine tree and could hear the sheriff’s blubbering. He was close.
Jenkins didn’t see the bullet that smashed into his face. He didn’t feel it exiting, and he didn’t hear the hiss of wires as his internal computer briefly caught fire.
He fell to the earth, a hulking mass of steel and plastic, and remained there. He tried to think of his wife and daughter. He couldn’t picture them.
He looked up from red clay and straw and saw the solar robot slumped over, leaning on a pine tree. If only he had looked a little harder. He closed his eyelids.
Willy looked over his shoulder and watched the robot die. Two down, one to go. He turned back to where the old one was pinned. He saw part of the sheriff’s belly appear from behind the tree. He shot at it.
There was a small cry, and he heard cursing. He heard his name.
“I’ll make you an offer,” Willy said.
“I said I’ll make you an offer!”
“Come out now, and I’ll let you live.”
“Last time I’m offering.”
“Okay, okay,” the sheriff said.
Willy watched as the old man rolled out into the open.
“How many more are there?”
“They’s three of us.”
“No. Not here. I mean, how many men do you have in your department.”
“Good,” Willy said.
“Well, I’m gonna leave now,” the sheriff said.
“No you ain’t.”
“You promised me. . .”
“You just put a death sentence on your whole town. That don’t mean nothing to you?”
“What you mean, I put a death sentence on my town?”
“You told me how many fighting gas bots remained. Three. Two are dead in these woods right now. There’s only one bot left. Who’s going to help the town if no one in it’s programmed to fight?”
“You promised me!”
“I ain’t promised you a damned thing!”
“You said you wouldn’t kill me!”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“I’m leavin’ right now.”
Willy raised his pistol. “You’re right about that,” he said. He put a bullet through the sheriff’s chest. He shot him twice in the face.
The sheriff fell on his back, choking on antifreeze and transmission fluid. He tried to say something but he was underwater.
Willy shot him again. It was funny to watch the old thing kick around. He shot him again and watched a stream of gas erupt from the bullet hole.
He leaned back against the tree and thought about the town. Easy mission. He’d be home tomorrow afternoon. There were probably fifty of the gas bots left. Half of those weren’t programmed to make decisions. He’d say come here and they would.
Willy turned his head.
The other robot was gone.
He was weak, but the clouds had passed under the moon and the moon was full. Standing up and leaning against the tree for support, fear gripped Willy for the first time. He stared at the sheriff’s hull. The face was bowed into the internal cavity that lodged the motherboard and hard drive. Smoke was still seeping out of the bullet hole. Fluid was streaming in rivulets to the ground.
It was an omen. He didn’t want to die.
But how could the robot he had just shot possibly be in any condition to do anything to him? It was a head shot. If he combed the woods in the morning, the body would probably be waiting on him. In all the years Willy had processed machines, he had never felt fear. But now he did.
This one was different than the others. It was intelligent. It had remained still, fooling him into thinking it was dead. Gas bots just don’t do shit like that.
He walked to the site where it had fallen and examined the earth for leakage. The pine straw was covered in antifreeze. He’d hit him in the mouth for sure. Probably struck the motherboard. Obviously not enough damage to put him down, but there was no way the gas bot was going to be a threat.
Willy relaxed and sat down in the grass. He crossed his legs and grabbed his knees. He slowly rocked back and forth as the wind swept over him. Sunrise was in three hours. He was going to kill this stupid son-of-a-bitch very painfully.
Roscoe Jenkins rolled across the field. The sky was gray, and he kept trying to remember where he was and where he was going. He knew he wanted something; he could feel it deep inside, but he didn’t know what it was.
A sudden vibration broke him from his thoughts. Out of instinct he reached for his cracked jaw and pushed the talk button.
“Hey honey, where were you last night?”
He didn’t respond, just kept rolling across the field.
“Roscoe? Are you there?”
He heard his name and stopped. “Hello?”
“Honey what’s wrong?”
“Roscoe, Mary wants to talk to you.”
Everything came flooding back to him. He ran a hand over his jaw, discovering much of the left side missing.
“Mary,” he said.
“When are you coming home?”
His chest grew tight. “I’m not sure, baby.”
“Hurry up!” she demanded. “I miss you.”
The conversation ended. He heard the dull thunk of the connection breaking and he stared into the angry orange sky. Sunrise.
Jenkins looked toward the pine trees and tried to get moving. It was a slow process and he stopped in the middle of the field. He wouldn’t make it to the other side before Willy took him out. The standoff had to be here.
He opened his chest cavity and pulled out a metal box. Opening it, he peered down at the screws, screwdrivers, nails and other metal tools. He lowered the box to the ground and unscrewed the top of his tank.
Jenkins held his breath and strained. Gas spewed from the tank, splashing the box. He pulled out two hand grenades and dropped them in the box. Then he shut it and shoved it back inside his chest.
He pulled a wire loose from his chest and went to work.
Willy was at the edge of the field when he caught a reflection of light. He looked and wasn’t surprised to see the gas bot sitting in the field. The thing made no movement. Maybe it was already dead.
Willy’s grip tightened on his pistol as he crouched down. Slowly, he advanced forward. There was still no movement and through his eyes, magnified, he could see that the robot’s hand was limp, the revolver resting beside it.
He neared the motionless hunk of metal and drew a bead on his target’s head, right between the eyes. The damned thing was already bad off. Most of the left side of its face was missing.
His index finger squeezed the trigger.
Jenkins reached for his pistol at the exact moment Willy’s bullet tore through his head frame. He could feel himself slipping away and fought to point the gun at the solar bot even as another bullet ripped through his motherboard.
He fell on his side, the pistol a forgotten memory. Willy knelt down beside him.
“Look at you. I’m puzzled.”
Jenkins coughed up oil and tried to spit it out. It oozed from the hole where his left jaw had been.
“Gas bots are supposed to be stupid creatures. They don’t play dead! They don’t setup ambushes! I’m puzzled by this.”
Jenkins studied the ground. The grass was orange.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you! Shit! Shit! Shit! I’m going to set your ass on fire! You hear me?”
He thought of his daughter and his wife.
Willy lit a cigarette and took a drag. He stared down at the deputy.
“Why’s your chest cavity open? Been working on yourself?”
He took another drag.
“Smells like gasoline. You ain’t bleeding no gas though.”
Jenkins was beginning to see snow in his vision. The screen was growing darker.
“You are one smart robot. You knew I was going to set you on fire didn’t you? It’s my signature. You were going to blow my ass up. What’s in that metal box in your chest?”
Willy tossed the cigarette out in the field and reached his hand down for the box. His other hand brought up the pistol.
Willie pulled the trigger and the blast echoed across the field.
Jenkins’ face caved in, and the bullet shattered the motherboard. He blinked, blinked again. He tried to remember his wife and his daughter. He tried to remember his name. He blinked a third time.
Willy laughed as blue sparks shot out of the gas bot’s head. He stood up and watched the deputy blink.
“Time to shutdown,” he said.
Jenkins blinked again. Then he saw no more.
Willy laughed. “And then there was none.” He turned to walk away and heard a click.
He turned around.
The metal box, wired inside Jenkins’ chest cavity, had been set to go off as soon as the gas bot’s computer shut down.
The computer died.
Willy focused his eyes on the box. He heard another click. The eyes scanned the lid and the brass hinges. There was another click.
The box exploded.
The last thought that ran through Willy’s mind as shrapnel punched holes through his plastic body and the force of the blast sent him tumbling backwards across the field was that he wished he hadn’t of been made in China.
A large piece of metal, sailing through the crisp morning air, sliced through his neck like a razor.
Willy’s head hit the ground and rolled, his plastic cheeks blackened and still bubbling. The head stopped face up, vacant eyes staring at the clear blue sky.
It was a beautiful morning.