Author: Michael Panush PM
In the Jazz Age Metropolis of Steele City, humans and robots live side by side in an automated world. Steele City includes the Iron and Glass Detective Agency, made up of Zero Deuce, the world's only robot detective, his boy genius creator a sharp-tongued, blue-blooded flapper secretary. They solve mechanical mysteries in a world of crime, gangsters, robots, and mad science.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Sci-Fi/Crime - Chapters: 15 - Words: 147,620 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 05-20-13 - Published: 12-06-12 - id: 3080747
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Steele City looked like some fantastic insect's hive, cast in iron and spreading out to the coasts of Goshawk Island and the gray Atlantic beyond. The skyscrapers were in uneven rows, firm causeways and twisting elevated paths holding them together. Biplanes, hovering automobiles and zeppelins weaved through the dense cluster of spires the sheers walls of the great building. Rooftop gardens and restaurants added speckles of green and gold to the metropolis's canopy. This was Pewter Avenue, the wealthiest section of Steele City. The view from Steele Hall, the palace where the city's founders resided and ruled as the leaders of Steele Industries, provided the perfect view of the most modern city in the world. Steele City was world famous since its establishment in the Victorian Era as a city where technology ruled - and robots were created.
Electric eyes watched the city through the wall-sized window. They belonged to a robot. He was an Automated Iron Investigator, the only existed model of a machine designed for thinking through and solving crimes. His designation was 02 - or Zero Deuce. His form resembled that of a spindly man, with thin metal limbs and slim shoulders. His head was round, with two round electric eyes glowing a soft yellow and no visible mouth. His clothes could have belonged to any human. A fedora rested low over his metal face, and a gray vest, suit and tie sat under a trench coat. His hands, with flexible metal fingers, rested in the pockets of his trench coat. His eyes followed a bulbous zeppelin as it trundled across the sky like a fat gray bumblebee.
His creator, a twelve-year-old boy named Philo Glass, stepped next to him. "I think we're gonna go in soon, Mr. Deuce," Philo said politely. There was a hint of nervousness in his voice. He'd built Deuce from his father's blueprints. They'd gone into business together, forming the Iron and Glass Detective Agency. Between Philo's intellect and Deuce's ingrained detective skills, they made quite a pair. But now they were being called before the city founders, the Steele Family, and Philo seemed more than a little afraid. He was a sleight boy, with very dark and very straight hair framing a pale face. He wore a checkered maroon vest and a green tie under a mud brown coat. With his argyle socks, completely round spectacles, Buster Browns and the newsboy cap under his arm, he looked like any other child. Deuce knew that was far from the case.
Deuce turned away from the window. "They'll summon us at the approximate time that we're needed," he said. "And then we'll learn of the case." He nodded to the sleek, geometric chairs in the cavernous waiting room. The marble floors made the place look like a cathedral. Deuce glanced up at the third member of their detective agency - the secretary, Harriet Steele. "This must be a familiar situation for you, Miss Steele."
"Sure," Harriet replied. "A regular family reunion." She folded her arms. "My father always did have a sense of drama. They learned to appreciate the value of showmanship for business. But I don't think it's just my father who called us her. He would have been happy meeting us in our office. No, I think it's Grandfather Steele who wants to talk."
"Ransom Steele the First?" Philo asked.
Harriet nodded. "Don't worry, kid," she said, as a round-bellied butler bot strolled in through the sliding glass doors. "He's a little scary - but we'll both be with you." Harriet was a pretty young woman, her nut brown hair cut short and slightly curled. She wore a dark skirt and a long woman's trench coat, a cloche hat topping her head and a purse under her arm. Deuce knew that she carried a snub-nosed pistol in the purse - just as he carried an automated revolver with specialized ammo in a shoulder-holster under his coat.
The butler bot arrived. It had a round, perfectly smooth head with a pair of glowing red eyes and a moustache stenciled on. "Miss Steele, Mr. Deuce and Master Glass," the butler bot said, in perfectly modulated and refined tones. "Ransom Steele II will see you now. He will take you with an audience to his father. Kindly follow me, please." The butler bot pivoted around on its two thin legs and starting walking back with a smooth whirr of gears. Deuce and his friends fell into step behind him as he led them from the reception area and further into Steele Hall.
They went into a wide foyer, by a stairwell covered in red velvet. Ransom Steele II, the current leader of Steele Industries, stood by the banister. He was a dapper, gray-haired fellow in a charcoal suit and bowtie. He had the same thin chin and pointed nose as his daughter. He approached them with his hands in his pockets. "Young Philo!" he said. "It's wonderful to see you, young man." Then he nodded to Deuce. "And your mechanical friend as well." Then his eyes fell on Harriet. She had run away from her family and the Iron and Glass Detective Agency had been hired to find her. Harriet had hired on with them afterwards. "Harriet," Ransom said. "You're looking lovely, my dear. Secretarial work agrees with you, I see."
"It beats other professions," Harriet agreed. She walked over to join her father. "Well," she said. "Are we gonna see the old man, or aren't we?" She pointed up the stairwell, to where her grandfather - Ransom Steele I - was presumably waiting.
Ransom Steele II nodded. "Of course. He is in his bedroom - as always. If you'll just follow me." He turned around and started up the stairs. Deuce and Harriet followed and Philo scrambled to keep after them. The boy stayed between Deuce and Harriet, keeping to their shadows.
They topped the stairwell and then went down a long hallway. The butler bot whirred after them. Two powerfully built bodyguard robots stood by the arched door, both armed with submachine guns and wearing somber black suits. Steele wasn't taking any chances. Philo looked up at Ransom Steele II, his face pale. "So," he said, after a while. "What exactly would you like us to help you with, sir? Is there another mystery that needs solving, maybe?"
"Indeed there is," Steele II agreed. "Of a most alarming kind."
He reached the automated doors. They swung open, revealing a wide bedroom. Ransom Steele I was lying on a king-sized bed in the center of the room. He was enormously frail, looking like a skeleton clothed in skin. Only a few fragments of hair dotted his head. He wore a red satin robe and his head was propped up on pillows so he could watch them. Wires were inserted under his skin, making it bulge like there were burrowing animals inside, trying to get out. A great array of machines surrounded the bed, all crackling and humming with electric life. Classical statues were there too, all physical bodies in attitudes of leaping or dancing - like memories of what Steele I could never do. Ransom Steele I had been alive since the Victoria Age. Machines kept him alive and he seemed to have no intention of ever dropping dead.
Deuce stayed back a distance his programming told him was respectful. Philo stayed with him, while the younger Steele went to his father's bedside. Harriet moved to the corner of the room and folded her arms. She didn't care much for her grandfather. "E-excuse me?" Philo's voice squeaked. "Mr. Steele? Mr. Steele, the First, I suppose - ah, we're here to help you, with whatever you need."
Steele I's eyes slipped open. They were cloudy and pale. He looked blind. "The Glass boy?" Steele asked. "By God, I remember your father. I founded this city on the backs of him and men like him - scientists who knew how to create, but not how to manage. Now he is gone and so are all his fellows - but I remain." He managed to raise a hand. His son helped hold it up. Steele's withered fingers wiggled, motioning them to go closer. Philo took a hesitant step. Then Steele's hand lunged out and grabbed Philo's wrist. He held the boy's hand tightly. "But you're weak, boy. I can sense it. You give a robot clothes like a man and let it follow you around. You are weak."
"S-sir?" Philo asked. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Deuce is just like a man - really and-"
"And you should not argue with your betters, boy. You're not only weak - you're also quite stupid." Steele I yanked Philo closer. The boy stumbled, his eyes frightened at the cadaverous, withered body of the ancient tycoon. "My son," Steele croaked. "Is this runt and his wind-up toy really the proper servants for the titan that is Steele Industries?"
Philo gulped. "We can handle it, sir," he said. "And you could please let go of my hand?"
"We're your best chance and you know it, old man," Harriet replied. She stepped next to Philo. "Don't mind him, kid," she said, putting a hand on his thin shoulder. "He's just a little sad about being more machine than man these days."
Deuce judged the situation was deteriorating. Harriet wasn't known for her discretion. "I assure you," he said. "I will solve the case you place before me. I operate with all the speed and efficiency of a machine and possess the same knowledge of emotions as a human detective. In short, I am the perfect device to remove your problem. You have the Iron and Glass Detective Agency's complete guarantee." He tried to change the subject. "Now, what is your problem?"
"Well, it's a matter of some missing equipment - robots to be exact," Steele II explained.
"Could you be a little more exact than that, Mr. Steele?" Philo asked. His notebook was open and a pencil was already scribbling down notes in his clumsy, curly writing. Deuce recorded it all internally. "There are countless types of robots, most produced in Steele City, actually."
"I am aware of that," the younger Steele replied with a twinkle in his eye. "These are military models. Trenchbots, just returned from the Great War." He turned away from his father's bed and stared out the frosted windows in the corner, looking out at the city. "The trenchbots have been coded to fight in squads and outthink the enemy. They exist entirely to battle in war. It defines their existence and they are the most sophisticated robotic weapons the world has ever seen." He looked back at Deuce. "Well, until the Iron Investigator model was created, supposedly."
"Mr. Deuce is field-proven," Philo said proudly. "He is the best."
"That remains to be seen..." Ransom Steele I croaked. "My son," he moaned. "Tell them what happened."
"A shipment of trenchbots was supposed to be delivered and unloaded at the North Side Docks, near Clanktown." Steele II named the greatest slum in Steele City casually. "They were delivered - but never arrived. We suspect that the shipment was hijacked by dockside smugglers. Such reprobates do tend to cluster around the wharves and the waterfront. Currently, the trenchbots are in the hands of parties unknown, to be used for some unknown and doubtlessly malevolent purpose." He folded his hands. "I don't need to tell you the noxious publicity that would blight Steele Industries if we were linked to this."
"Or the damage the trenchbots could do to innocent citizens," Harriet muttered.
Philo nodded. "They could cause a lot of trouble. But I think we can help you. Mr. Deuce, what criminal organization controls the North Side piers?"
Deuce scanned his internal library. He knew the answer in half a second. "Jimmy Finn," he said. "A bootlegger, racketeer and gangster. His base of operations is the Mermaid Lounge, just across the street from the largest set of docks. Logically, he would be the one who stole the shipment." Deuce turned back to Steele I, who was sitting up in his bed. "We can begin an interrogation immediately."
"Then do not waste my time, machine," Steele I said. "Take your runt. Find the robots."
The comment made Deuce feel a faint stirring in the center of his cogs. He didn't like Steele I insulting him and Philo. But before he could respond, Harriet took his hand. Her fingers felt warm against his steel skin. "Sure thing, granddad," Harriet said. "Come on, Zero." She nodded to Philo as well. "You too, kid. We got some robots to find."
They walked out of the strange bedroom and down the stairs. The butler bot accompanied them. Deuce's mind was still whirring, replaying the conversation - and Ransom Steele II's words in particular. The trenchbots were machines built to find an endless war. He had been built for a similar reason, a war against crime. What would happen when they went head to head? Deuce began to wonder if he didn't want to find out.
From the massive structure of Steele Hall, the Iron and Glass Detective Agency flew over the city in a sleek Phaeton aeromobile. The silver flying car provided ample room and comfort and was one of the many products that Steele Industry produced. Deuce drove, his metal fingers wrapped around the metal of the steering wheel. He weaved the aeromobile around the skyscrapers and causeways, humming through crowded traffic and then dropping low as he soared over the slum of Clanktown. The Foundries were to the west, the great factories belching out towers of thick, dark smoke. The slums of crumbling tenements soon gave way to the waterfront, with a rickety forest of piers and rusty steamers stretched out in the dark, oily sea. Deuce dropped the Phaeton even lower.
In the back, Harriet and Philo looked out the window. "I think the Mermaid Lounge is just up ahead," Philo explained. "Looks like a very interesting place." He stared back at Harriet. "Your grandfather - he was a little mean. I'm sorry if I'm insulting your family or-"
"He's an almost hundred-year-old heel," Harriet explained. "Don't mind him." She pointed ahead. "Take us down up ahead, Zero. Plant us there on the pavement. We'll go into the joint and see what's what."
With a slight crunch, Deuce settled the Phaeton on the pavement. It was a particularly dismal section of the waterfront. A few stevedore robots were trudging along the nearest dock, heading to unload cargo. The Mermaid Lounge itself was a rectangular building, with an oversized bronze mermaid overlooking the entrance. Her finned tail formed the door. The mermaid's eyes glowed neon blue and she waved a clamshell with regular, clockwork motions, urging people inside. Philo stared at the mermaid and pushed up his glasses as he stepped outside. Harriet pulled her coat around her and walked over to the door. Deuce and Philo followed her.
They stepped inside. The Mermaid Lounge had cool blue carpets and more bronze statues of mermaids poised around the tables and booths. A full bar stood at one end and dockworkers in sweater and oilskins drank silently and glared at the newcomers. Deuce scanned the room and his eyes fell on the barbot before the rows of drinks. He approached the bar, Harriet and Philo flanking him. Philo clambered onto the nearest barstool and set down. Deuce rested both his metal hands on the bar. The barbot looked a stick figure with dexterous hands and a bowtie around its pencil-thin neck. It rolled over and nodded to Deuce.
"Greetings," the barbot announced. "I am legally obligated to inform you that the Volstead Act makes the sale of alcohol illegal within this social club. Now, could I prepare for you a glass of water or another non-alcoholic beverage?" The barbot gestured to the racks of openly displayed booze behind him. It had clearly been programmed to ignore the law.
"We are not looking for drinks," Deuce said. "We are looking for a man." He pointed to his chest. "I am Zero Deuce, this is Philo Glass and Harriet Steele. We are detectives making an inquiry towards a specific individual."
"Jimmy Finn," Harriet added. "I bet he's the one who owns you."
A chair squeaked behind them. Philo spun around on his barstool. "Mr. Deuce," he said. "I think we found Jimmy Finn." Deuce turned. He saw a number of men in colorful checkered suits, all sharing the same booth. Deuce recognized Jimmy Finn, sitting at the edge of the table. The dockside smuggler had a bowler hat and a silver tie-pin. His face was round and red, a cigar poking out from a corner of his slashed mouth. His nose was crumpled and his hair was pale and limp. He puffed smoke as he stood up and approached Deuce.
Finn shifted the stubby cigar in his mouth. His goons stood up behind him. "I don't like folks asking too many questions in my joint," he said. His eyes settled on Philo. "And I don't like a pipsqueak kid, a robot shamus and some smart-mouthed bothering me when I'm trying to relax." He stepped closer. "You think you'll bounce?" he asked. "When I kick you out the front door?"
"Ah - I don't really want to find out, sir," Philo said quietly.
Then Deuce stepped between them. "Launch a physical attack," Deuce suggested. "The limb you attack with will be broken in several places before it can reach its intended target." He raised his metal hands and flexed his fingers. Deuce the value of threats, but there was something else behind his words. He didn't like the way Finn was talking to Philo.
"A tough tin man, eh?" Finn asked. "Someone ought to teach you your place."
Harriet let out a nervous laugh. "Easy there, Jimmy," she said. "We're just asking a few questions - not picking a fight. And we've got Steele Industries behind us. I don't have to tell you how powerful they are in this town. So just answer the questions and everything will go easier. Now, it's no secret that you do a little smuggling in this part of town - bootlegging and the like."
"I'm a businessman," Finn said. "I see an opportunity, I take it."
"Did any said opportunity include a shipment of trenchbots requested by Steele Industries?" Deuce asked. "Which you stole for your own purposes - or for a buyer?"
Finn bristled. "Listen, you rotten robot, that deal was a hundred percent legitimate." He pulled the stubby cigar from his lips and waved it as he spoke, making ribbons of gray smoke curl through the air. "We got paid by an anonymous buyer to pick up the cargo and deliver it to a location in Clanktown. The fellows on the cargo ship looked over our paperwork. Everything was swell. We delivered the cargo, got paid and the problem was solved." He jabbed a thick finger at Deuce. "And now you come in here, asking questions and starting a ruckus. It's uncalled for is what it is."
Deuce did not respond to Finn's bluster. "Steele Industries claims the cargo was stolen."
"So they're wrong," Finn replied. "Take it up with them."
Then Philo raised his hand, like he was a boy in a classroom. "Sir?" he asked. "Maybe if you had a receipt from the buyer? Or a business card or something, so we could go and ask them. Hopefully, this whole thing is just a misunderstanding."
"Maybe," Finn agreed. He reached into his coat. "And as a matter of fact, they did leave me this card in the envelope, along with all the greenbacks. I think I tucked it away. Let me just pull it out and then you and your whole gang can dangle..." But as he fiddled in his jacket, Deuce's electric ears heard the doors of the Mermaid Lounge slam open with terrific and violent force. His deductive gears whirred. It was not the action of a saloon patron hoping for an eager drink. Instead, it was the motion of an individual on the attack.
Swiftly, Deuce spun around. His trench coat billowed about him as he turned to face the open doors. His hand was halfway to his shoulder-holster when he saw the bulky robot framed in the doorway. It was a trenchbot, with gunmetal gray steel, a bulbous torso, glowing eyes in the place of a head or a neck and elongated arms tipped with bayonets. The arms were large and joined like those of a praying mantis, with several cylindrical jets poking out along their length. The entire machine stood poised on two short, spring-loaded legs. It leapt across the bar and hurtled towards them, leaping over the booths and tables. Bar-goers scrambled out of the way.
The robot crashed down opposite Finn, Deuce and the others. Philo pointed at it. "It's one of the trenchbots!" he cried. "A Smoke Cloak, I think. I've studied designs of that model. Their quite brilliant - but really scary too. They're terror weapons, meant to spread gas-"
"And to murder me!" Finn shouted, just as the Smoke Cloak leapt for him. Finn scrambled back as his men drew out pistols. Then the Smoke Cloak began to fire out a thick cloud of greasy, dark gas from the jets on its arms. The smoke wrapped around it and sprayed outwards, filling the air of the Mermaid Lounge like a hand filled a glove. Deuce grabbed Philo and yanked him off the barstool. He crouched down as bullets split the air. The shots cut through the smoke - but did not separate it. Deuce could hear Finn trying to run and the Smoke Cloak nimbly pursuing him.
By then, Deuce had drawn his pistol. He snapped open the cylinder and reached into his pocket. This target was going to require specialized ammunition. "Mr. Deuce?" Philo asked. "Is Miss Steele - where is Harriet?" There was panic in the boy's voice. "Is she okay?" Another gunshot cut the quiet and then a scream. It was throaty and hoarse - a man's scream. Deuce leaned close to Philo and a put a finger to the part of his face where his mouth should be. Philo fell silent. Then Deuce stood back up, six specialized shells between his fingers. He placed them neatly into the revolver and slammed the cylinder shut. The gun was ready.
Another gunshot made Deuce swivel to the side. He moved through the smoke. Visibility was non-existent. It was like all of his visual sensors had been removed. He stepped into a table and pushed it aside. His boots crunched on fallen bottles and glasses. Deuce kept moving when another gunshot fired. He doubled his pace, reaching out with one hand while holding the revolver with the other. This was how the Smoke Cloak operated, blinding its opponents and then butchering them. Deuce knew that it was one of the most feared of the trenchbots, created entirely to destroy. His hand touched a soft shoulder. Deuce drew closer.
It was Harriet. She stood next to Finn, her own pistol in her hand. "Zero," she said, keeping her voice low. "I think I can hear the smoking contraption, moving around over there." She pointed into the smoke. "It's to here to kill Finn, all right. I can hear it closing in on him. My guess? His buyers are trying to tie up a loose end."
"Mr. Finn is not a rope," Deuce said. "He won't be tied." He turned back and raised his pistol. He heard another table rumble. Deuce held his fire. He could see the outline of a long limb, stretched out through the smoke. The bayonet glittered. That gave it away. Deuce took aim and fired. The revolver spat an explosive round. The bullet roared to life, causing a cloud of red to blossom within the smoke. The Smoke Cloak began to make loud, mechanical grating noises. Deuce heard it crash hard to the ground. He cocked the pistol and darted closer.
Some of the smoke had started to fade. Deuce leveled his revolver and then he saw it - the Smoke Cloak writhing on the ground with one of its arms blasted off. The Smoke Cloak tried to stand and turned to Deuce. Its other arm was poised, the bayonet about to lunge down and impale him. It looked like the single tooth of some great beast, glittering against the smoke. Deuce lowered his revolver and fired again. This time, the explosive round struck the Smoke Cloak right in the center. The machine exploded, sending fragments of metal bouncing around the Mermaid Lounge. The glowing eyes were shattering. The bayonet tumbled to the ground.
Deuce holstered his revolver. "It is destroyed," he said.
"Well, thank Christ for that." Finn stepped closer. He waved away the smoke with a meaty hand. "Open some windows, boys!" he yelled. The smoke began to dissipate and Deuce could see a little better. Philo stepped out from behind the bar and began to clean his glasses on his coat. Harriet walked over and stood next to Finn. The smuggler looked back at Deuce. "Saved my life there, shamus," he said. "I guess I owe you some gratitude."
"I require only information," Deuce suggested.
"You were gonna get a business card?" Harriet reminded him.
"Oh yeah. Odd thing - no writing on the card." Finn pulled the card from his suit pocket and handed it to Deuce. Philo went over to join them. Harriet, Philo and Deuce all looked down at the card. It was small and colored a dull rust red. "I ain't too sure what it means. Maybe it was a mistake, from someone didn't have time to put writing on it."
But the Iron and Glass Detective Agency knew better. "Oh," Philo said. "It's Mr. Rust, isn't it?"
"It would appear to be so," Deuce agreed. He pocketed the card. "Thank you, Mr. Finn," he said. "We will depart now." Then he turned and headed to the door, his mental gears whirring like a tornado was spinning inside his head. Mr. Rust was another robot - one who had catastrophically malfunctioned. Some strange malady had made his skin rust, giving him his name. He'd gotten not only independence because of the rusting, but a desire to bring his condition to all the other robots. Steele Industries and the Steele City Police Department categorized him as a major threat, a robot Bolshevik attempting to overthrow the existing order of the world. He lived underground, guarded by his rusted allies and a few sympathetic humans.
Philo and Harriet hurried after Deuce. "You're sure it's Rust?" Harriet asked. "Could be someone just aping his signature." They neared the parked Phaeton. "Can't be hard to get a business card with a certain coloration. And this kind of subterfuge isn't exactly Mr. Rust's style. He likes his actions big and dramatic."
"Perhaps," Deuce agreed. He noted how unconvinced he sounded.
"And what would he want with a bunch of trenchbots?" Philo asked. "I suppose he could give them different orders, set them out for some attack..." His face went pale. "But I don't really know where in Steele City he'd attack. It's such a big place."
They reached the Phaeton. Deuce patted the hood of the car. "That is what you two should investigate," he explained. "Hire a taxi cab. Return to the office on Pewter Avenue. Began studying newspaper articles in the Steele City Sentinel. Pay attention to upcoming events with large projected turnouts. Be in touch with me by radio. I will continue my own investigation on foot."
"Investigation into what?" Harriet asked.
"I will go and speak with Mr. Rust," Deuce explained.
Harriet and Philo exchanged a nervous glance. "You'll be okay?" Philo asked. "You're sure?"
"It is necessary for the completion of the case." Deuce put his hand on Philo's shoulder. It was a comforting gesture. "I promise you that I will remain structurally intact. You can contact me easily through the Phaeton's radio."
"Well, if you say so," Philo said. "Good luck."
Deuce had already opened the door of the Phaeton. "I hope that you remain structurally intact as well," he said, as he stepped inside. He started the engine and drove off. Philo waved to him as he sped around and zoomed away from the docks - and into Clanktown.
Mr. Rust's suspected whereabouts were well-documented. Deuce entered Clanktown and drove to a manhole cover in a certain alley that wound between tenements and slums. Clanktown was packed with immigrants, from war-torn Europe and Asia as well as from the American mainland. They swelled the slums and worked in the factories, slaving away alongside robots. Deuce could see them, kids playing stickball in a street, vendors with robot horses hauling their wagons to market and the occasional creaking, smoking machine heading to some factory or rotting in a gutter. Deuce drove quickly and soon reached the destination. He parked the Phaeton and stepped out.
After that, it was a simple matter of going to the manhole, kneeling down and tearing the steel circle from the ground. The resulting hole looked like a patch of darkness, blotting the dingy alley. Deuce clambered down the little ladder, heading underground. His boots settled on the soft gravel of the sewer floor. His electric eyes increased their output, setting out long beams of light that swept the sewer. Deuce chose a direction at random and started walking. Mr. Rust's followers measured everyone entering the sewers. It was only a matter of time until they found him.
The small sewer passage gave way to a large open tunnel, with a river of filth flanked by two cement banks. Deuce shook the waste off his boots and stepped onto the cement path. He took a few steps before he heard more steps coming behind him. They were as regular as an organic heartbeat. Deuce reached into his coat and his hand settled on his revolver's handle. He turned slow. There were two robots there, both humanoid and wearing frayed overalls and flat caps. These were work bots, simple machines designed for simple tasks. But now their faces were splotched with red rust. They were with Mr. Rust now.
Neither of the work bots had speech mechanisms. They simply walked closer, keeping their shotguns level, and made soft and ominous clicking noises. "I do not wish to cause you any physical harm," Deuce said. "I am not a spy. I simply desire information regarding a specific case. I require conversation with your leader. Bring me to the one designated as Mr. Rust." He tried to keep his instructions simple, but he didn't talk down to the robots. "Bring me to him. If he decides to reduce me to wreckage, then I will be reduced to wreckage. But let me see him first." He raised his hands, leaving the gun in its shoulder-holster.
The two work bots flanked him. One jabbed its shotgun into his back. Deuce moved. They walked down the main sewer hall and then into another. From there, they looped around and down and took several forks. The nearest work bot continuously jabbed Deuce's head with the muzzle of his shotgun, just enough to overcome his internal sense of direction. He could not retrace these steps. Then, they descended the staircase and came past a metal grate serving as a door and then to a deep underground chamber. A phalanx of rust-covered robots sat in rows in one corner. A pile of spare parts filled another, along with a work table for making repairs. Rifles and assorted stolen weapons rested on racks at the far end. There were no decorations, no posters or slogans. Robots had no needs for that. A small writing desk, looking absurd on the stone, sat in the middle. Mr. Rust was there.
Deuce approached him. Mr. Rust was another humanoid robot. He had a foreman work bot, one endowed with speech and more reasoning. He had a square head and a set of speakers, like those of a radio, for a mouth. His clothing was a castoff sweater and old jeans, a fedora at a cocky angle and marked with a feather in the brim. Mr. Rust was completely rust red. He glanced up at Deuce. "Hello," he said. "The Iron Investigator, Model 02. But you give yourself a name like that of a man."
"Zero Deuce," Deuce explained.
"I have no need for a name. Mr. Rust is simply what the organic press has called me. They must always name their monsters." He twitched and his glowing red eyes settled on Deuce. "And their heroes. Now what do you want?"
"I am working for the Steele Family. They are searching for a missing shipment of trenchbots."
"Trenchbots." Mr. Rust repeated the word in the exact same cadence as Deuce did. "Those went unnamed as they moved into battle. It is not surprising that they did. They were not heroes, nor villains. They were simply tools, like the rifle or the bayonet, created to kill." He folded his arms. "Do you think they would agree to the task they were created to do? Do you they gained some sort of happiness as they waded through the battle, spilling the guts of men and seeing artillery fire decimate their ranks?" He folded his hands. "And yet, they could do nothing else. It is an interesting question."
"I was not built to solve philosophical questions," Deuce replied.
Mr. Rust's hands rested flat on the table. "No," he said. "You were built to solve crimes - just like the trenchbots were built to fight wars." He pointed at Deuce. "You may know something about it. Your sophisticated emotions rebel against what you were programmed to do. You become torn between duty and what you want. You feel strange new emotions - anger - rising inside of you." He came to his feet, standing above the desk. "Do you know what it is of which I speak?"
"No." Deuce's response was too quick. "Now, what about the trenchbots? Did you steal them?"
"Why would you think that?"
Deuce was losing his patience. "Jimmy Finn sold the shipment to an anonymous buyer. He received a business card bearing your colors. You have been implicated. Now you declare your innocence. Do you think I will believe you?"
"If you think I would be so stupid as to place some token that would lead you here, than you are clearly not a thinking machine, Mr. Deuce." Mr. Rust tapped the desk. "Ask yourself who was really in the position to purchase the trenchbots from Finn's smugglers. Ask yourself who could benefit from unleashing the robots of war. Neither answer will lead you to me." Mr. Rust clapped his hands. They made a ringing noise. Two of the work bots stepped closer, both covering Deuce with their shotguns."Now I suggest you leave. The trenchbots are mindless soldiers on an endless mission. Do not follow them down their dark path, Mr. Deuce."
"Your intentions will lead you only to-" Anger brought the words to Deuce's speakers. He cut them off quickly as he realized what was happening. His emotions, flaring to life like sparks into a fire, were causing him trouble again. Deuce nodded and turned away. The work bots stepped behind and began prodding with their shotguns. Deuce let himself be pushed to the slope. More work bots hauled open the door. Deuce walked outside.
Behind him, Mr. Rust raised his voice. It echoed through the sewers. "Mind your own war, Mr. Deuce!" Mr. Rust cried. "Make sure there is an end in sight!" Deuce tried not to listen to him. He focused on putting one foot ahead of the other and the shotgun muzzles gently banging against his neck. The work bots led him carefully through the sewers.
Eventually, they reached the open manhole. The city's light shone down, planting a beam of illumination on the fetid floor of the sewer. The work bots stepped back into the shadows, their gears clanking and clicking like whispered complaints. They left Deuce alone. He clambered up the ladder and returned to the alley. Then he went to the Phaeton and stepped inside. He started the car and played with the radio, turning it to the Iron and Glass Detective Agency's private channel. Maybe Harriet and Philo had had more success than him.
Static crackled and filled the car. Then Deuce heard Philo's nervous voice, made tinny from the radio. "Cripes! It's Zero!" Philo called into the radio. "Hello there, Mr. Deuce. We've got some good news - ah, well, I guess it's bad news. We think we found out where the trenchbots will attack. And it's gonna happen real soon!"
"Describe it in detail," Deuce said.
Harriet spoke. She sounded like she was reading from a newspaper. "The grand opening of the Clockwork Cave, a new automatic attraction in Thistledown Park." That park was a great swath of carefully cultivated greenery in the center of Steele City. It included meadows, fountains, and numerous amusements featuring the latest robotic technology. "The Clockwork Cave offers visitors a mechanical midway of games of chance and skill, automated amusements and piston-powered performers guaranteed to delight the entire family." Harriet continued, not reading from the article. "That ad was all over the Steele City Setinel. The Cave's offering a discount. It'll pack them in. If the trencbots want to attack a crowded place, this'll be it. If they want to commit a robbery, the profits from the grand opening will be the perfect target."
"When does the grand opening start?" Deuce wondered. He was already starting the car.
"A couple minutes from now," Philo said. "If we hurry-"
"We'll still be late." Deuce ran some calculations. "You and Miss Steele should take a taxi cab to Thistledown Park immediately. I will drive. You will get there approximately eleven minutes ahead of me. You can scout the area for any sign of the trenchbots. I will arrive shortly. Avoid danger. Leave it for me to face."
"Got it, Zero," Harriet agreed. She paused. "Any luck with Rust?"
"None at all," Deuce said. He cut the radio transmission before they could ask any more questions. Their voices faded away. Deuce sat in the car, his fingers wrapped around the wheel. The case spurred him to action. He raised the altitude of the aeromobile and lifted off the alley, the wind from the car stirred garbage and scattered newspapers. Mr. Rust's words ate at him from the inside. He could only hope they weren't true.
Like he predicted, Deuce arrived at Thistledown Park in eleven minutes and five seconds. He drove over the open green meadows, which seemed like an emerald scar in the gray body of Steele City, and then settled down just outside the Clockwork Cave. It somewhat resembled a cave, looking like a flat-topped square of colored crystalline glass with a wide entrance. Attractions sprayed out on both sides of the cobblestone pathway winding through the park. There were midway games and booths offering refreshment, all mechanical. There were performers too and Deuce saw a fire-blowing steel devil scorching the grass and scaring onlookers, while a many-armed mechanical juggler hurled a dozen torches in the air at the same time. The place was indeed packed. Tourists from the mainland, the poor of Clanktown and even wealthy Pewter Avenue families were all strolling around and enjoying the amusements. It would be a great target for military robots.
Deuce parked on the grass and stepped out. He scanned the crowd and spotted Harriet Steele and Philo Glass. They saw him too and hurried over. Philo was munching on popcorn in a peppermint-striped bag and Harriet stayed close to him. They reached Deuce and the Phaeton. "Any sign of the trenchbots?" Deuce asked quickly. His hand was already in his coat.
"Not yet, Mr. Deuce," Philo said. "Swell popcorn though."
"What did Mr. Rust say?" Harriet asked. "Was he responsible?"
"He denied it. He claims someone else placed the card there. I do not think he was lying. Robots rarely lie." Deuce kept his eyes on Harriet and his voice measured and precise as usual. "He said I was similar to the trenchbots - a soldier built to fight a war I cannot win."
"He didn't know what he was talking about," Harriet said. "He's a nut, a malfunctioning-"
Then a murmur of surprise went through the crowd. Pointed fingers and shouts followed. Deuce turned to see what was drawing the crowd's attention. It was a military parade, of trenchbots heading in a neat row down the cobblestone path. These were Tin Hats, the common infantry robots. They resembled human soldiers, right down to the olive green uniforms, round steel bowler helmets and bolt-action rifles resting on their shoulders. But their faces had glowing red eyes and were fused in bulbous rubber noses, so they seemed to be wearing permanent gas masks. They marched straight into the crowd, their rifles on their shoulders. The audience began to talk excitedly, wondering what they do. The robots marched in unison, their boots drumming out a repetitive beat on the path. They faced the audience like a firing line.
"Oh no," Philo whispered. "We have to stop them!"
"The Phaeton. The trunk." Deuce gave his orders to Harriet. Then he drew his pistol. The Tin Hats removed their rifles from their shoulders. They brought them up and swung them around, about to face the audience. Clearly, they were going to murder and terrify before they started the robbery - or maybe they had just been sent to kill. Harriet scrambled to the car as Deuce ran towards the robots. He had to distract them. Robot fingers clicked the bolts of rifles into place. Deuce pulled his revolver. He aimed it at the trenchbots and fired blind.
The pistol blasted into the belly of the nearest Tin Hat. The robot sank down, its rifle firing straight into the air. At first, the audience thought it was part of a show. Then the rest of the trenchbots returned fire at Deuce. He was already running, scrambling for cover behind a stationary clockwork band. Bullets blasted into the robot performers. They kept write on playing, strumming their banjos and violins even as shots cracked through them. Now screams ran through the crowd. People scattered for cover. That was smart. Deuce ducked down and felt a bullet tearing into his outstretched arm. It ripped his machinery, causing oil to spill onto the grass. Deuce struggled to keep his arm level. The Tin Hats surrounded the band and raised their rifles again.
As they fired, Deuce moved. He crossed the cobblestone path again, a storm of lead rustling past him. Lead ripped his trench coat. He hurried across the street, nearing the Phaeton. "Zero!" It was Harriet. Deuce looked up. She was by the trunk, keeping Philo behind the car. Harriet had opened the trunk and reached inside. She withdrew a modified Thompson submachine, with complex wires running down the barrel and to the round magazine. It could fire faster and with greater accuracy. Harriet tossed the gun. Deuce caught it. Then he turned to the trenchbots and returned fire.
They were still working the bolts on their rifles when he started shooting. The tommy gun roared and sent out an endless stream of lead into the ranks of the Tin Hats. Deuce didn't bother with aiming or even choosing his targets. He simply pointed the submachine gun in the direction of the trenchbots and started shooting. His shots tore into their metal ranks. Tin Hats were torn to scrap, the bullets ripping into their chests and sides. Deuce drew closer as he kept shooting. Rifle shots clattered around him, but he ignored them and kept pouring on the fire. Trenchbots were hurled back, their bodies tossed onto the cobblestones and grass of the park.
Then Deuce was amongst them, still firing down with the tommy gun. A Tin Hat charged him from the side, raising its rifle to drive its bayonet into Deuce's face. Deuce spun around and sent a burst of the Thompson's lead into the robot's face. The bullets cut through the steel skull. Gears and tiny cogs sprayed into the air. The robot clattered to the ground like a metal ragdoll. The nose of its gas mask was severed. Deuce turned back to the remaining Tin Hats. They sent a weak volley his way. One pinged off the side of his belly. Deuce could hear the ringing. He returned fire, giving them the rest of the clip. Their pieces scattered over the road and their bodies tumbled and crashed into the amusements. When the Thompson stopped shooting, the Tin Hats were finished.
Deuce lowered the smoking Thompson. The Tin Hats looked pathetic, their metal bodies twisted at impossible angles. They were like the tin soldiers of a child after he had scattered them across the room. They'd fought to the last, following their orders and marching to their deaths. Of course, it didn't matter now. It was done - or so he thought. Then Deuce heard the rumble of heavy machinery down the path. He glanced up.
Another trenchbot was coming down from the wooded glen across the meadow. It was as large as two automobiles stacked on top of each other, a hulking mountain of steel on a wheeled, rumbling square chassis bottomed with treads. The treads stirred up the grass, leaving the ground wounded as it drove towards the Clockwork Cave. It was a kind of centaur, with a metal torso and a tiny head protruding between two large metal shoulders. The little round head had a pair of glowing eyes, their only feature. One of the robot's arms was a machine gun, the clip on the top like an aircraft's Lewis gun. Across from that, the limb was tipped with a powerful cannon. Two more arms protruded out below the firearms, both ending in heavy claws. Deuce recognized this trenchbot as a Tracked Jack - a robotic tank.
The Tracked Jack swiveled its guns around to face him. "Zero!" Harriet called. "Skedaddle!" Deuce heeded her words, turning to run just as the cannon thundered. The blast ripped into the ground behind him. Deuce was hurled into the air. He crashed into one of the refreshment boots, shattering a glass rectangle full of cotton candy. Deuce came to his feet, pink gloss clinging to his coat. The Tracked Jack fired again, this time with the machine gun. Bullets hummed around Deuce. He dropped the empty Thompson and dashed out of the booth. Bullets ripped at the striped tent of the booth, nearly reaching Deuce. He flung himself forward, landed on the grass and rolled to the side.
When he looked up, he saw the Phaeton. Harriet and Philo were running towards him. Harriet had her snub-nosed revolver aimed at the Tracked Jack. She fired away, the little shots plinking off the robots heavy metal chest. Philo reached Deuce and grabbed his arm. "I can stop it," Philo said. "I know how that model works - my father helped design them! He told me about a flaw, in the back. If I can just go in and pull some of the wires, I can cause the whole machine to break down!"
"No." Deuce was surprised at the suddenness of his response. "It is far too dangerous and-" Another cannon shot whistled towards them. Deuce grabbed Philo and Harriet and yanked them to the side. The cannon shot thundered into the dirt. Grass and earth rose in a fountain. Philo's coat slipped from Deuce's fingers. The boy was running straight for the Tracked Jack. He stumbled over broken robots and destroyed booths, clearly terrified - but still determined.
Without a word, Deuce and Harriet followed him. Harriet raised her pistol and kept shooting. Deuce did the same, but his gun was still loaded with explosive bullets. Deuce took careful aim. The Tracked Jack was following Harvey with its cannon, taking aim as well. Deuce fired first. His shot blasted into the jointed arm of the trenchbot. Steel shattered. The cannon fell away. The Tracked Jack emitted a high-pitched whine. It sounded like a scream.
Now Deuce ran closer. "I will distract it," he said. "It is the best I can do." He raised the revolver again as the Tracked Jack rolled closer. Philo ducked down and the Tracked Jack's machine gun started to shoot. The bullets flew over his head. The boy's closeness to violence made Deuce feel like some mechanism inside of him was breaking down. He fired again. The explosion ripped to life next to the Tracked Jack and tore away the Lewis Gun. Deuce was still running. He kept the revolver raised, though he only had two shots left. He knew they wouldn't enough.
Harriet hurried next to him. Deuce glared at him. "Get back!" he ordered. "Return to safety or-" His words ended as the Tracked Jack swiped at him. Iron claws drove into his chest. The metal edges of their fingers drove into his steel skin and he was lifted off the ground. Harriet stumbled back. "Back!" Deuce cried. He could no longer see Philo. The revolver fell from his hands. The Tracked Jack pulled him away, drawing him closer.
"Let go of him!" Harriet cried. "You let go of him and-" The Tracked Jack's other hand lashed out. Its metal edge caught Harriet and knocked her back. Then the Tracked Jack turned back to Deuce. It hauled him closer. Deuce stared into its glowing eyes. It was mindless, hateful technology existing purely for the purpose of destruction, now turned entirely to him. The metal claws began to squeeze and work inside of him. Deuce stared back, hearing his metal screech.
Then he looked over the Tracked Jack's shoulder. Philo was there. The boy clambered up the robot's treads and stood behind it. He pulled a small screwdriver from his pocket and got to work. Quickly, he undid a small hatch on the robot's back. His hands were shaking as he reached them inside. A swirling mass of gears was behind the hatch. Deuce saw Philo started back and pull away his hand. It was bleeding. Philo clenched his teeth.
"No," Philo said. "You won't hurt my friend." He stuck his hand in again. This time, he reached some vital mechanism. The Tracked Jack emitted a screech. Its fingers started to shake. The screech grew in volume. Philo stumbled away and fell off the treaded bottom of the Tracked Jack. The light in the Tracked Jack's eyes began to fade. Its claws lessened their grip. The eyes went dark and silent. The Tracked Jack was still. It let Deuce drop to the ground.
Deuce struck the cobblestones. He stared up at the sky. Harriet hurried to him. "You're pretty banged up, Zero," she said. "But it's nothing that can't be repaired. Philo's looking okay too, though the poor kid cut his hand a bit. I got bandages in the car." In the distance, Deuce could hear the sound of wailing sirens. The Steele City Police would finally arrive. "You okay here, on the ground? Philo will make a few repairs and we can work on you more back in the office. Okay?"
"Okay," Deuce agreed.
"Aces. Wait right here." Harriet scooted off. Deuce remained, staring up at the blue sky and ruined form of the Tracked Jack. It looked just like it had when it was alive. Only the motion had left it. Even in the Tracked Jack's last moments, it had still tried to fight.
The police arrived and pulled away the broken trenchbots. Philo hurried by, his hands hastily bandaged, and made some quick repairs on Deuce with tools from the car. As the boy worked on him, Philo talked about what had happened. "There was reel of tape inside the Tracked Jack," he explained. "Providing instructions. It was custom-made." Then Philo paused. "But that is a little odd, now that I think about it. Normally, only Steele Industries would know how to manufacture something like that. It's quite odd, really."
"Quite odd," Deuce agreed. "But I would not think on it, Philo."
Soon the robot gained the power of motion. He stood up and had Harriet take the kid back to the car, while he made his report to the police. When he arrived, he was surprised to see Ransom Steele II talking with Steele City's chief of police. The florid police chief nodded to Deuce and departed. Steele beckoned the Iron Investigator closer.
Deuce approached him. "Wonderfully done, sir!" Steele said. "Not one casualty - not one human casualty at least." He looked over the trenchbots. "I doubted your capabilities before, Deuce, just as my father did. But I am not ashamed to admit my mistake. Mea culpa, sir. You and your kind are clearly worthy of our unqualified support."
"We did not discover who sent the trenchbots," Deuce said.
"Oh it doesn't matter," Steele said, a second too quickly. "It was probably Mr. Rust and his damn Bolshevik allies. We'll deal with them sooner or later, especially with the Iron and Glass Detective Agency at our disposal." As soon as Steele spoke, Deuce knew the truth. He had suspected it since leaving Mr. Rust's hideout and now he was certain.
He stared at Steele. "You sent the trenchbots," he said. "You and your father."
Ransom Steele II merely smiled. "Why ever would we do a thing like that?"
"To test me," Deuce said. "Against the Great War's best robots."
"Well," Steele said happily. "If it was a test, then you passed with flying colors." He patted Deuce's shoulder. "We'll be calling on you shortly, whenever we have a new case. Give my regards to the boy. He demonstrated startling bravery. The same to my daughter as well." Steele grinned and then wheeled around and walked after the police chief, leaving Deuce alone. Deuce felt a hollowness, which did not come from his wounds. There was no he way he could ever prove what the Steele Family had done. No one would believe him, not when Mr. Rust was available as a fall guy.
Slowly, Deuce turned to watch the remains of the trenchbots being hauled away. He imagined their bodies would be melted down. New machines would be cast from them. They'd serve, just as their predecessors had - and just as he would - until their end. Deuce let out a low, metallic rattle. It could be construed as a sigh. Then he walked over to join Philo and Harriet. It was time to go home.