Copyright © 2013 W.H. Mitchell


Detective Crawley was about to have a bad day and the growl in his stomach told him so. All he really wanted at the moment was a decent sandwich, but in Ashetown, a decent sandwich was nowhere to be found. The red-headed step child of the Imperial city Regalis, the Ashetown district teemed with the unwashed denizens that the rest of the Imperium had forgotten or merely ignored when passing them on the street. Cyberpunks and the homeless called this place home; a cesspool of burned out apartment blocks surrounded by garbage-strewn alleyways. And not a decent sandwich anywhere.
Crawley’s stomach grumbled louder as he spied a street vendor down the sidewalk. The sign on the cart read “Gyros and Falafels – Real Meat!” The vendor was a Tor, a minotaur race from the labyrinth cities of Rochan. On his home planet, the Tor would have been a successful craftsman, hammering ruddy iron into intricate shapes and selling them to the off-worlders who came to gawk at the sweaty spectacle. Here, he shoveled carved meat into pitas and sold them for 2 creds apiece.
Knowing this was probably the best he could do, Detective Crawley made his way toward the xeno and his cart, passing walls the local youths had decorated with gang tags and unflattering caricatures of the Emperor. You could get yourself shot for that, but nobody really cared too much around here. Mind your own business was the rule of the day.
The Tor towered a good foot or more above the Human cop. The tip of one horn was missing and the ring hanging from the bovine’s nose looked brown with tarnish. Like most of his race, he wore a leather kilt and not much else. Perspiration zigzagged down his bare, hairy chest, dripping into the row of pita breads sitting in the cart.
“You got any beef in that cart, cud-muncher?” the detective asked. He had left open his coat just far enough that the Tor could see the badge on his shirt and the strap of a shoulder holster.
“Yes, officer,” the big brute replied in a slow, baritone voice.
“That’s “detective” to you, xeno.”
“Can I get you something, Detective?”
“Isn’t it kind of strange for a cow to be serving beef?”
“It wasn’t anyone I knew,” the Tor said.
Detective Crawley smiled wryly. “Then I guess it’s safe to eat.”
“I didn’t say that.”
The Human heard a warble coming from deep inside his coat pocket. He reached in and pulled out a small datapad. The image of his lieutenant, a middle-aged woman with grey hair, winked open on the screen.
“Crawley!” the woman said. “There’s a possible homicide at the Greenwood Towers on the West End. I’m assigning the case to you.”
“West End?” the detective queried. “That’s not my usual beat, Lieutenant.”
“Just do what you’re told, Crawley.”
The display went blank, revealing Crawley’s reflection and the questioning look on his face. He rolled his eyes and popped the pad back into this coat. The vendor was handing him the gyros. The detective took the sandwhich, without offering to pay, and turned on his heel. He headed back down the street where his gravcar hovered silently.
The bufferbot didn’t know anything about Imperial society, but it knew a great deal about polishing floors. It knew exactly the right combination of cleaner and abrasive compound, enough to brighten the fine marble without scratching, and the precise amount of torque to keep its cylindrical body moving steadily without getting pulled to one side or another. The bufferbot had no idea, however, that the floor it was polishing was in fact in the West End district, literally on the west end of the city, across the Regalis river opposite the slums of Ashetown. The robot would’ve been perfectly happy doing its job in either location, although marble in Detective Crawley’s corner of the woods was even harder to find than a respectable ham on rye. The robot would do its best no matter what the conditions. It didn’t mind. In fact, its mind wasn’t partial as long as it provided a service, appreciated or not, in line with its corresponding protocols. Coincidentally, the Robot Freedom League abandoned trying to liberate janitorial bots for this very reason. It was frustrating to say the least.
When the bufferbot sensed the apartment manager of the Greenwood Towers crossing the freshly polished lobby floor, the robot’s circuits nearly jumped with glee at the prospect of redoing what he had just finished. The manager, a Dahl named Eadan, barely acknowledged the bot’s existence as he trotted anxiously past. His mind was on the oddly misplaced Human standing just inside the lobby entrance. Slight of build with pointed, elf-like ears — a typical Dahl in every respect — Eadan approached the stranger with the trepidation of a host encountering someone crashing an otherwise wonderful party. The Human, in his late forties, wore clothing of someone who gave up on making a mark in the world long ago. His coat was a synthetic blend, probably made by cheap labor off planet, and his shirt, tie, and pants were hopelessly outdated. The manager noticed one of the large potted planted plants to one side and momentarily considered dragging it over to the man, blocking the view of him from outside the entrance, but thought better of it. The Dahl’s frame was too slight to move such a heavy pot and, anyway, the Human wouldn’t be staying long with any luck.
“Can I help you?” Eadan said doubtfully.
“I’m Detective Crawley, Regalis PD.”
“Yes, of course, I was told to expect you, but I was expecting something…else.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Crawley blatantly lied. He didn’t trust Dahls; they tended to be psionics and he didn’t like having his mind read without permission. He thought of a racial slur, but the manager didn’t flinch. A non-psi, apparently.
Eadan motioned toward the elevator. “This way.”
Once inside the lift, the manager attempted a more cordial tone, failing miserably. “Obviously, we’re very concerned about appearances,” Eadan said. “The thought of one of our tenants being murdered could damage our reputation. That just wouldn’t do.”
“That’s not my problem,” Crawley replied.
“All we ask is a level of decorum in your investigation. There’s no reason our other tenants need to know a murder has occurred.”
“Well, I guess that all depends on you.”
The manager’s eyebrow rose slightly. “How so?”
“I normally canvass the apartments near the crime scene, you know, to see if anybody heard or saw anything unusual. I’d have to explain to the neighbors the circumstances of the questioning, the murder that is, during the canvassing process.”
“Is this canvassing really necessary?”
“Not if I concluded the murder was an open and shut case.”
“Is that common?”
“Not particularly,” the detective said matter-of-factly.
“What if you were motivated to consider it such a case?” the manager asked.
“Well, I can’t imagine what kind of motivation that would entail.”
The Dahl fumbled awkwardly in his pocket and produced a small, plastic chip.
“Would this suffice?”
Detective Crawley took the chip. The tiny LED display on the cred stick read 500. “Yeah, that’ll be enough.”
“Good,” the Dahl replied as the door to the elevator spread apart with a rush of air.
Outside in the hallway, an android waited patiently, its casing painted black except for a silver trim and the lettering FU42 stenciled in yellow. “Detective Crawley, I presume?” the robot asked, holding out his hand.
Briefly taken aback, Crawley shook the machine’s hand but immediately felt stupid for doing so. “Yeah, who are you?”
“Forensic Unit 42,” the bot said. “Please come this way.”
The detective left the elevator and the manager behind and followed the robot down the corridor.
“Aren’t there any other detectives here?” Crawley inquired.
“No, sir.”
“Not even a green shirt?” he asked incredulously, referring to the uniform worn by regular policemen.
“I was the only unit sent to the crime scene, sir,” Unit 42 said in a clear, monotone voice. “Do you require another officer? I could request another FU bot if you’re dissatisfied with my performance.”
“I just got here,” Crawley said. “I don’t know if you’ve been satisfactory or not.”
“Except for preliminary scans, I’ve left the crime scene as undisturbed as possible, sir. I hope I can fulfill any FU needs that you require.”
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
Unit 42 opened the door to an apartment and walked in, its gait mechanical yet steady. Without pausing, the robot took the Human through the main living room, down a short hallway, and into the bedroom. On the bed, a nude woman was lying with the sheets covering her lower body. Her left arm hung over the side. Her cold, dead eyes greeted the detective with sharp indifference. Crawley heard someone talking, glanced around the room, and saw a large shimmering holodisplay next to the far wall. A man, some kind of news anchor, was speaking. “…more about the retirement of Duke Tertulla after these messages.”
Video: Camera up on a man and woman, their backs to the camera, sitting on folding chairs on the beach as they look out on a brilliant azure sea. Between them is a small wicker table with an ice bucket sitting on top.
(Sounds of the ocean and sea birds in the background.)
Video: Cut to the front of the couple. The woman looks hot and uncomfortable.
Brad: Hey, Linda – what’s the matter?
Video: Cut to woman.
Linda: Oh, Brad, it’s so hot out here and all this exotic food is making me constipated!
Video: Cut to man. Smiling, he reaches into the ice bucket and pulls out a can of soda.
Brad: Well then you should try this!
Video: Cut to soda can. Label facing the camera.
Brad (OC): Spastic Cola has a refreshing cold taste AND it’ll keep you regular!
Video: Cut to woman. She takes the soda can and drinks from it.
Linda: Mmmm, I feel better already!!
Video: Cut to product shot .
Announcer: From MoFoCo, enjoy a delicious can of Spastic Cola today! Now with 20% less anal leakage!
“Holodisplay off,” Detective Crawley ordered. The apartment AI obeyed immediately and the floating soda can disappeared. “That shit gives me gas,” he said.
The gastrointestinal tract of organic creatures fascinated Unit 42. The forensic robot was amazed by its complexity and how easily variables, like the kind of food that was ingested, could throw the entire system off kilter. Granted, organics required sustenance to create internal heat and build biomass, but an internal fusion reactor and a mechanical prosthesis was infinitely more dependable. There was much about organics that Unit 42 simply didn’t understand.
Ignoring the body, Crawley strolled over to a black lacquer dresser and pulled open the upper drawer. He reached in and casually removed a pair of pink woman’s underwear with white lace.
Unit 42 watched the police detective attentively, unsure what purpose the undergarment served in the investigation. The robot noticed that Humans often depended more on their intuition instead of hard facts. Perhaps this was a piece of evidence that his own cybernetic brain could not comprehend?
The detective slipped the panties into his coat pocket and turned toward the corpse. “Can you imagine living like this?” he asked. “This bedroom is bigger than my whole apartment.”
“I live in a closet,” Unit 42 remarked, hoping to create a friendly rapport.
“Shut up and tell me what you know about her.”
Unsure which of the opposing directives the Human actually wanted, the robot hesitated momentarily. “The manager told me that the woman’s name is Jolana Valeria, a 38 year old from Middleton,” Unit 42 stammered.
Middleton was the third district of Regalis, for those not wealthy or blue-blooded enough to live in the West End, but still better off than the unwashed masses of Ashetown.
“How could a middle-class girl afford to live in West End?” Crawley wondered aloud, considering the options. She could be a mistress or a sugar daddy’s kept woman or even a prostitute, although a lot classier than the whores the detective normally encountered.
“Cause of death?” he asked.
“Asphyxia,” FU42 said. “Her hyoid bone is broken, indicating she died from manual strangulation. Also, after examining the bruises on her neck, I’ve concluded that the murderer was a male, approximately 180 centimeters tall.”
“Okay.”
“One more thing, the murder appears to have occurred either during or shortly after coitus.”
“Ahhh,” the detective’s attention perked up. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I bet she’s a prostitute and the john didn’t want to pay. I see that crap all the time in Ashetown, though you’d think the guys around here could afford it. Cheap bastard.”
“I took samples, but I’ll need the lab at the station to test them.”
Detective Crawley stood near the woman’s body. The blood vessels in her eyes had burst, red tendrils filling the white like the strands of her auburn hair strewn over the pillow.
Unit 42 examined the detective while he was doing the same to the body. Of the two, the robot found the corpse far less puzzling. A dead organic was infinitely more understandable. They decayed at a set rate – this particular one expired precisely eight and three-quarter hours ago. They no longer suffered from bouts of uncontrolled emotions like anger or sadness. Living beings, at least the non-cybernetic kind, were often unpredictable based on their moods or intuitions or what kind of sandwich they ate for lunch.
The robot heard a faint warbling from the detective’s coat. The Human removed a datapad from the coat, snagging it for second on his shoulder holster, and looked at the screen. Instead of a video feed, only text appeared. Unit 42 didn’t know why someone would only send text, but organics were apt to do strange things from time to time. Perhaps it was a joke somebody thought was funny enough to share with the detective. Humor was another thing the robot found mystifying. Sarcasm was especially lost on the forensic unit. It must not have been a joke, though, or at least Detective Crawley didn’t seem to “get it.” He had a strange look on his face as if he didn’t entirely understand what he just read. Then, he glanced at the body.
“You haven’t uploaded any of your findings have you?” he asked Unit 42.
“No, sir,” the robot replied. “I was waiting for your authorization.”
“Good.”
Detective Crawley held the datapad in his left hand, leaving his other hand free to pull an energy pistol from his shoulder holster. He pointed the gun at the robot.
This was curious behavior to say the least, thought Unit 42. He wondered, for perhaps a millisecond, whether this was another example of organic humor. He waited, calmly and without moving, for the detective to put away the weapon, smile and then laugh. Instead, Crawley squeezed the trigger, sending a flash of superheated plasma across the room.
Very odd indeed, Unit 42 thought just as the energy bolt impacted the outer casing between his eyes. The plasma continued, melted plastic and fusing circuits, until it reached the back of the casing. A fountain of sparks, smoke, and bits of formerly expensive electronics showered over the furniture. Unit 42 took a step forward and fell to the floor with a loud, metallic crash.
Detective Crawley returned the blaster back into the holster and erased the message still showing on his datapad.