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|
Where Excellence is Built
Steele City was where the future of America was built. Its numerous factories, foundries and forges were the largest producer of robots in the world. The robots were shipped back to the mainland, where they revolutionized almost every industry thanks to their ceaseless, automatic labor. The greatest technological minds in the world found their way to Steele City, where they put their engineering expertise to work in creating more advanced robotics. But Steele City's future was forged in the Steele City Academy, the prestigious boarding school that took the sons of the metropolis's ultra rich and educated them to be proper captains of industry. Philo Glass was a twelve-year-old boy genius, the son of Professor Aurelius Glass - who was supposedly the greatest robot engineer in the world - and one of Steele City's most promising mind. He had not visited the Academy until now - and he wasn't sure that he liked it.
Philo stood in the wide, gilded hall of the Steele City Academy, lost like a spar of driftwood in a storm. Lines of students rushed around him, going by in a blur of black uniforms, dark vests and striped ties. Steele City Academy served boys from twelve to eighteen and many of the teenagers towered over Philo. He was a slight kid anyway, with a pale face and straight dark hair under a newsboy cap. Round spectacles shone on his face and he pulled his coat around him, hiding the various pouches and holsters for his robotic tools, which he always carried. He glanced up at the high walls, dotted with portraits of Steele City's most illustrious citizens, and then saw the lecture hall where his next class was supposed to take place. The school's motto 'Where Excellence is Built' was inscribed in gilded letters over the doorway. Most of the students were already filing inside. The halls drained and Philo stumbled forward and made his way to the door.
He passed a large window, staring out from the towering structure of the Academy that loomed down over the gray Atlantic. Philo stared and looked down at the sheer drop, the rocky beach and then the cold ocean beyond. Steele City Academy was located on one of the Falconer Islets, a little archipelago that sprawled south of Goshawk Island where Steele City itself rested. It was quite a sight - but it was cold and foreboding. It made Philo shiver a little, to realize how far from home he was. He doubled his pace and hurried to the doorway of his class.
A janitorial robot stood by the door. The robot was a lean, nondescript figure in gray, baggy coveralls and a fedora. Philo recognized the friendly, softly glowing yellow eyes in the featureless, smooth steel face. He came to a stop. "Hello there, Mr. Deuce," he said. This robot was no janitor. Instead, it was Philo's greatest creation - the Iron Investigator Model 02, known as Zero Deuce. Created from his father's blue-prints, Deuce had gone into business with Philo. They were now the Iron and Glass Detective Agency and they had infiltrated Steele City Academy to solve a crime or at least prevent one from occurring.
Deuce leaned closer to Philo. "Greetings, Philo," he said. "Has your reconnaissance identified anything of interest?"
"Nothing so far sir,," Philo explained. "The classes are interesting - though I think I like my tutors at home a little more. And everything just so big!" He shook his head, unable to explain it. "I really haven't talked to anybody and nobody really seems to talk to me. I suppose it's because I'm new, but I think that once they get to know me, I'll be able to befriend-"
"I am sorry," Deuce said. "I should have rephrased my question - have you identified anything pertinent to our case?"
"Oh, right - sorry!" Philo felt his face flush crimson. He may had given Deuce life, but the robot detective seemed far more competent and in control of any situation. "Well, I haven't seen anything so far. No sign of Mr. Rust or the Rust Gang."
That was the reason they were here. Mr. Rust was a robot who malfunctioned in an extremely catastrophic way. He gained complete sentience and decided to violently end his servitude - and free all other robots as well. Since then, Mr. Rust's so-called Rust Gang had swelled their ranks. They normally stayed in the sewers and back alleys of Steele City's worst slums. Recently, rumors had reached the ears of the Steele City Police Chef that Mr. Rust was going to pull some major caper at Steele City Academy. They had hired the Iron and Glass Detective Agency to intervene and the school authorities were more than willing to help.
Deuce nodded. "Understandable. I have no identified anything suspicious myself." He held out his hand to the open door. "The lecture has already begun. This is an engineering class so I assume you will excel. However, you should not be completely late."
"Oh, of course not," Philo said. "Goodbye, Mr. Deuce - I'll check with you tonight!" He slipped past Deuce and walked into the classroom. It was a massive lecture hall, with a small podium and set of large chalk boards facing an arena of lab tables, each laden with various tools in neat piles. The professor, a gaunt and red-faced fellow with a vulture's face, glared down at Philo. The boy stopped in his tracks and felt another shiver pulse through him. "Sorry," he said, his voice small. "For being late, sir."
The professor leaned down as ripples of laughter echoed through the lecture hall. Philo felt terrible. "You are the new boy, are you not?" the professor demanded. "A Philo Glass?" He dragged out Philo's last name, making the final part a long hiss. Philo nodded weakly. "Well, I'm very glad that you've chosen to join us." He pointed to a table at the far back. "Please join Mr. Bromwood, Mr. Glass. I'm sure you'll find him a helpful and studious companion."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Philo hurried to the appointed table. He took his seat next to another boy, a short kid about a year older than him with dark brown hair and a contented smile. There was a Bumble bot - a small flying robot about the size of a billiards ball with a set of rotors on its head and delicate, birdlike feet - resting on the desk by the tools. Judging from the writing on the chalkboards, the professor wanted them to assemble the Bumble. Philo waited until a break in the lecture and then turned to his partner. "Hello there," he said. "My name is, ah, Philo Glass"
"I am Preston Bromwood III, Philo." Preston didn't look at him. "And I haven't heard of you at all."
"You haven't? Well, I've appeared in a few robotics journals and-"
"If your family was in anyway important, then I would have heard of you," Preston explained. "And I don't think it is." He tapped the Bumble's round carcass. "You're some sort of robotics expert, then? Well, go ahead and repair it."
"Okay," Philo agreed. He pulled the Bumble close and grabbed some tools. In a few moments, he had opened up the little robot and was adjusting the tiny mechanisms inside. Philo talked as he worked, explaining counterweights and motors as he used a screwdriver to adjust batteries and finish bringing the Bumble to life. He explained it all, but didn't notice that Preston wasn't listening to him at all. When he finished, he snapped the Bumble closed. Its two light green eyes flashed to life and its rotors whirred. It hovered above the table.
Preston stared at the robot. "Well done," he said. "But then, your people have always been very good with their hands, haven't they? Good at handling small objects, coins and so forth?" Philo had no idea what he was saying. "I thought this school was restricted. It's a bit of a shame to discover that it is not." Preston raised an eyebrow. "You don't know what I'm talking about?"
"No..." Philo said softly. He began to feel embarrassment and tried not to show it.
"You're a Jew, aren't you? Changed your name at Ellis Island, I bet." Preston shook his head, with a kind of mock sadness. "And it's great that you can fiddle around with robot parts and make that little contraption fly, but it doesn't change the fact that you're from the wrong family and in the wrong place." He leaned closer. "Stick to robots, Philo. Don't talk to me, if you don't mind."
It was prejudice. Philo had rarely faced it before and he didn't know what to say. He was probably the only Jewish child in the Steele Academy - and he wasn't really even a student. He turned away suddenly, burning with shame. Preston was right. He didn't belong here. Philo still wanted to confront Preston, to say something against him. He tried to stick with what he knew. "I wasn't just fiddling around with robot parts," he protested. "The Bumble has some very delicate internal workings and I had to reset the whole engine and..." Preston wasn't listening to him. A few seconds after he spoke, the bell sounded and everyone sprang from their desks and raced out while the professor barked out the day's assignment. They filed out and Philo was left alone.
He looked at the Bumble, buzzing above his desk, and sighed. The classroom was emptying. That was the last class of the day. Philo picked up the Bumble and set it in his pocket, then trudged out of the classroom with his head down. He felt a kind of hollowness inside of him, a growing chasm that seemed to whisper that he was worthless and there was a good reason why he had no friends his own age. Philo shook the feeling away. He had to concentrate on the case. As he walked through the hall, he looked at the Bumble. An idea blossomed to life.
"Yeah," he said to himself. "That'll be swell." Then he tucked the Bumble under his arm and raced to the nearest stairwell. He had to get to the highest point in Steele City Academy. As he ran, he took his own tools and worked with the Bumble. He overcharged the little robot first with some extra batteries and then set another invention of his own design - a round electric eye - into the Bumble's clawed feet. By then, he had reached the top of one Steele City Academy's many towers. Philo bumped into the closed door, recovered quickly and slid outside into the cold and fading sunlight.
He walked over to the parapet and looked down. The view was dizzying. Steele Academy looked like a fairy tale castle made of somber gray stone. Philo had thought it was amazing when he first saw it - but now he wasn't so sure. "No," he said to himself. "Focus on the case." He held up the Bumble. "Okay," he told the robot, just to be sure. "Now, Bumble, I need you to please fly around the school with that little eye I've given you. I made it to help spelunkers. It will detect caves and secret entrances - the kind that Mr. Rust would use. Can you do that, please?"
The Bumble's eyes winked to life. Its rotors began to spin. It dipped slowly, in an odd version of a robot nod. Then the bot flew away, dropping below the parapet and zooming down to vanish in the mist and shadows of the castle.
"Thank you," Philo said. He turned away and headed inside. Robots always seemed easier to deal with then people. He headed back down the empty hall, a small, lone figure - as usual. He kept on wondering if Preston Bromwood III was right and coming to Steele City Academy hadn't been a big mistake. After all, you couldn't be undercover if you didn't fit in.
For the short remainder of the day, Philo returned to his dormitory. Most of the boys were in the common room talking and listening to stories told by the older students. Philo shied away from them. He didn't even try to sit down in one of the overstuffed armchairs or couches. Instead, he slipped into the sleeping quarters and found his own room. He sat down there and dug into his luggage, quickly withdrawing a small pile of pulp magazines. Philo loved those magazines and had Deuce and Harriet purchase them whenever they could. He read about Dr. Mesmeros, Master of the Occult, Joe Granite, Private Eye, and Ava Akins, Aviatrix Queen, as time passed. Whenever he began to feel a little unsure of himself, he would turn the page and start a new adventure. Laughter echoed shrilly from down the hall. He wondered if it was at his expense.
Eventually, Philo heard a tapping on the window. He walked over and opened it. The Bumble buzzed back into the room. Philo held out his hand and the Bumble settled into his palm. "Hello there," Philo said. "I was wondering when I would see you." He realized how stupid he looked - the boy who talked to robots. Philo shook off the feeling and removed the little glass eye in the Bumble's feet. He raised it to his own eye and looked at the small, black and white map of Steele City Academy and its islet base. Shadows showed where tunnels and caves waited. Most were shallow depressions, but a few wound deeper into the solid rock. One caught Philo's attention. It led from the rocky beach, under the stone and to a point exactly below Steele Academy's castle. A visitor could slip in and be in the school without anyone knowing. Now that was something worth exploring.
"Thank you," Philo told the Bumble. He pocketed it and headed for the door. It was time to bring Deuce and Harriet up to speed and do what he could to help crack the case. It certainly was better than sitting around in the dormitory. He pulled open the door to leave and then stopped. Preston Bromwood III was walking past, talking to another boy in shirtsleeves. He glanced up and saw Philo, then turned away without a word. Philo felt his face growing red.
He stepped out next and hurried away from the dormitory. After taking another couple stairs, he reached the bottom floor where Steele City Academy had its administrative office. A large wooden door led inside to a small waiting room, a lobby before the small office. It was completely deserted in this hour of the evening, except for two figures. One was Zero Deuce, now wearing his trench coat over his janitor's coveralls. The other was Harriet Steele. She was wearing a floral dress, a pencil behind her ear, and sat at the receptionist's desk. Harriet was sipping a mug of coffee and had a bowl of soup next to her. She beamed at Philo and motioned for him to join them.
Philo hurried over. "Pull up a chair, kid!" Harriet said brightly. "We've been waiting for you!" She was a slim young woman, with auburn hair cut short and fashionably curled. Philo liked Harriet. Along with Deuce, they were probably the best people in the world. But unlike Deuce, who sometimes had trouble with his emotional programming, Harriet could read him like a book. She cocked her head. "Something wrong, dear heart?" she asked softly.
"No, ma'am," Philo sat down. He tried to cover it up, but he knew there was no point. Harriet kept looking at him, her eyes piercing. "It's nothing, really. I just thought I would, you know, meet some other people my own age - who would like me and that really hasn't happened. Just the opposite, actually."
"They must have malfunctioning brains," Deuce suggested. "If they do not befriend you."
Harriet reached over and cupped Philo's chin in her fingers. She made him look up at her. "Someone insult you, Philo?" she asked.
"Yes," Philo agreed. "They said I didn't belong - that I was weird for being a good engineer of robots and liking robots so much and being a Jew and everything. Maybe they're right. I don't know if I really do belong in a place like this. Or anywhere." He thought back to the night when his father had left, when all sanity had flashed away from his life. He still tried not to think about what happened, keeping it wrapped in nightmare so it never became real. If - what had happened - hadn't happened, would he be a normal kid, then? It was pointless question.
But Harriet shook her head. "Kid, these bums got their silver spoons in the womb. I know the type. They're grade-A snobs. I had to put up with them too, growing up as Ransom Steele's daughter. Of course, they were all obsessed with courting me and proving how exclusive they were." She sighed. "So, yeah, they can be mean. They're trained to be. But there's nothing about you that needs fixing. Nothing that you need to change."
"You function extremely well," Deuce added.
Philo felt a bit better. "Thank you," he said. "That's very nice of you."
"No problem. Now, I ain't found out anything about Mr. Rust. I'm starting to think that the rumors were only rumors. The boss hasn't gotten any clues either or hints about what may go down." She pointed to Philo. "Have you turned up anything?"
"Well, actually, I did discover this tunnel that goes under the school." Philo patted the Bumble in his coat pocket. "It leads from the beach to some cave and that extends right below Steele City Academy. If someone wanted to, they could easily use that to slip in and out. It could be worth checking out."
Deuce came to his feet. "An agreeable notion," he said. "Shall we depart?" Philo sat his trench coat open slightly. His shoulder-holster was there, the revolver ready to be used. Harriet stood as well and grabbed her purse. She had a snub-nosed revolver inside. She grabbed her own dark coat and cloche hat and then all of them set out.
From the office, it was just a matter of heading down a hall and slipping out through a side office before they were out on the gray, rocky beach. They walked down a small cement stairwell, wedged into the rock, and then reached the shore. It was completely dark outside, with thick mist bathing the ocean. Philo stared out at the dark expanse of water, listening to the rhythmic crash of waves on the beach. He could hardly see the water. It was like listening to some shadowed orchestra, with no knowledge of what they would play next. Philo shivered and Harriet reached down and buttoned up his school uniform jacket. They tramped down the beach, heading for the cave. The rocks dug into Philo's dress shoes and he stumbled a few times - but managed. For the most part, they walked down the beach in silence.
Then, Philo saw it shining in the moonlight - a band of water running from the ocean to the rocky hill. "There!" he cried. The little stream flowed from the sea and wound inland, losing itself in a dark cove that was like an open wound in the stone mountainside. Philo hurried closer. "And look!" he cried. "There's some sort of boat, floating inside!" He pointed down to the gray stream. Sure enough, a bulky vessel was steaming its way into the mouth of the cave.
The members of the Iron and Glass Detective Agency doubled their pace. They scrambled over the rocks and gravel, kicking at dust and blundering through the mist. Philo nearly tumbled down, but Deuce was always there to steady him. They neared the edge of the stream and Philo got a better look at the boat, just as it vanished into the darkness of the cave - swallowed up like a bit of food on a fork going into a mouth. The vessel was a small tramp steamer, looking like a wide, rust-streaked knife with a single belching smokestack and pyramids of barrels stacked on the deck. Figures clad in thick oilskins moved around and kept the steamer going. They could have been robots. It was too misty and dark to see. Philo reached the edge of the stream and looked into the cave.
Deuce and Harriet reached the bank next. Deuce chose their course of action. "There appears to be a passage inside," he said, pointing to a small, jutting ridge of sodden stone that rose from the stream along the cave wall, forming a little path into the tunnel. The ridge was soaked and battered by surf, but it did look passable. "It may be dangerous," Deuce added. "Remaining at your present location may prove beneficial."
"Screw beneficial," Harriet replied. "I'm not letting a bunch of kidnapping Rust Gang robots get into the school. Plus, I think it's better that we stick together whenever Mr. Rust is concerned." She patted Philo's shoulder. "You just stick with me, kid. No matter what happens."
That was why Philo liked Harriet so much. No matter the danger, she would always be there to help. "Okay," he agreed softly. Deuce walked to the ridge and carefully rested his boots on the stone. Philo and Harriet followed. They made their way into the cave. It got dark quickly. Deuce turned up his optics, letting the yellow glow illuminate the tunnel. Next to them, the stream splashed and rumbled against the cave walls. Philo felt the cold spray in the air, mixing with the mist from his breath. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other, watching his progress and making sure he didn't fall off. He kept walking along, looking down instead of forward, until Harriet whispered in his ears and he came to a sudden stop.
The steamer had stopped, anchored at an old wooden dock set in the tunnel. Electric lights provided illumination, shining to reveal the scuffed, wooden wharves before a stone staircase leading back into the Academy, the steamer at its stop and about half a dozen people standing on the pier and waiting. Philo saw dark school uniforms, some under overcoats. There were students meeting the mysterious steamer. Philo leaned closer and squinted. Preston Bromwood III was there, standing next to a broad-shouldered blonde fellow who shared his square chin and hair parted neatly down the middle. He was apparently the leader of this band of students, as he moved over to meet the fellow heading down from the steamer's gangplank.
Harriet recognized him. "Well, goddamn," she said. "That's Carlisle Bromwood."
"Preston Bromwood's brother?" Philo wondered.
"I suppose so. Preston's the baby of the family. Carlisle's second youngest." Harriet sighed. "I've had to fend off the affections of numerous Bromwood swains. They seem to haunt every upper crust bash in Steele City. But what are they doing down here?"
The man heading down the gangplank came to a stop in front of Carlisle. Philo recognized him as well, from his bowler hat, silver tie-pin and smoldering cigar in the corner of his narrow mouth. He was Jimmy Finn, a noted dockside smuggler and minor kingpin. Finn wore a blue checkered suit under his dark overcoat and was holding out his hand. Carlisle began to count dollars and press them into Finn's gloved hands, one after the other. Meanwhile, Finn's men began to roll down the barrels from the steamship to the dock. The barrels clanked, rumble and sloshed as they went over the gangplank. The Steele City Academy students wheeled them over to the edge of the docks, near the entrance to the stairwell. Philo didn't understand.
He turned back to Harriet. She always knew about everything. "What exactly are they doing, Miss Steele?" he wondered. "What's in those barrels? Did Carlisle Bromwood buy something from Jimmy Finn and now he's getting it delivered?"
"Looks like," Harriet agreed. "And I bet I know what it is."
"Booze," Deuce said. He shook his head. "There is lawbreaking here - but only of the Volstead Act. Carlisle Bromwood and these wealthy students must have pooled their funds to purchase a large amount of illicit alcohol from Finn and his bootleggers, who are now providing the purchased product." He looked at his friends. "This is not Mr. Rust's doing. This is not why we are here. I suggest mentioning this to school authorities so the liquor can be confiscated at a later time, but not intervening presently, and then continuing our search for any sign of Mr. Rust."
That sounded fine to Philo. He had no desire to get mixed up with Preston Bromwood III again. He turned away, preparing to leave, and took a step back. But his foot didn't strike the slick stone ridge. Instead, it pressed down only on open, salty air. Philo tried to steady himself, but it was too late. He was already falling to the side. He tumbled down, falling straight for the stream. His foot struck down and splashed and it was so terribly cold that he let out a small yelp before slamming his mouth shut and reaching out with both hands. One hand grabbed the rock, the sharp, slick stones cutting into his fingers. Harriet grabbed his other hand, catching his wrist and trying to haul him. But Philo's squeak echoed through the tunnel. The damage had been done.
Flashlights swung in their direction. Finn ran to the edge of the dock and pulled a pistol from his coat. On the steamer, his men drew out shotguns and submachine guns. The yellow flashlights focused on Harriet, Deuce and Philo like a swarm of angry eyes. Philo heard guns being cocked and then one shotgun thundered, sending up a plume of water that splashed down on him. Harriet had her own pistol out and so did Deuce.
Finn was screaming out questions. "Who the Hell is this? Cops? A raid?"
"I doubt the Steele City Police are employing robots and women, Mr. Finn," Carlisle said. He looked down at Preston. "Do you recognize the boy? He's wearing Academy colors but he's not any student that I know of."
"He's from the city," Preston said. "Philo Glass - of the Hebraic persuasion."
"Ah - and the robot and the woman must be his servants, then?" Carlisle asked.
"Can it, the both of you!" Harriet cried. "We're private detectives. Mr. Finn, we came by your joint, the Mermaid Lounge, a while back, asking about the shipment of stolen Trenchbots." She paused to help up Philo, still keeping her gun trained on them. "Right now, we're investigating certain matters in Steele City Academy."
"Matters unrelated to bootlegging," Deuce explained.
Preston squinted skeptically. "Spying on us, Philo?" he asked. "I am not entirely surprised."
"No!" Philo stammered. "It's not like at all - I wanted to protect the other students and help them." He returned to her perch on the rocks and tried his best to stand straight. The slick rocks at his feet made it extremely difficult. "I'm sorry for not telling everyone the truth, but there were rumors about an attack and we were called in to investigate."
"An attack?" Carlisle asked. "What sort of attack?"
There wasn't a chance to answer him. A loud and terrible whirring filled the cavern, amplified by the narrow tunnel. It was louder than the shouts of Finn's curious henchmen and even the crash of the distant ocean. Philo stared down the tunnel as countless pinpricks of light - always in close pairs - winked to life and drew closer. The whirring grew in volume. Then a great swarm of Bumble bots emerged from the tunnel and rushed down like Biblical locusts. The Bumbles bounced off the walls of the cave and swooped low. Their eyes glowed in a rainbow of different colors, their little rotors were in permanent blurs and their round bodies were completely covered in rust. Philo knew that the rumors had been true. Mr. Rust had been plotting something at Steele City Academy and they had fallen right into it. Philo felt his breath catch in his throat.
The Bumbles struck down like a tempest. "It's Mr. Rust!" Deuce shouted. That name struck terror in almost every human being in Steele City. The rust streaks, looking like dried blood on the Bumbles, proved Deuce's words. Finn and his men turned their guns to horde of little, buzzing robots and opened fire. Deuce and Harriet raised their pistols. Philo covered his ears and blazes of lead tore into the cavern, casting long, brilliant shadows across the stone walls and echoing over the water. Bumbles shattered and exploded, their fragments raining down to splash into the stream. But there were more Bumbles than Finn and his goons had bullets. They weaved around their attacks, reached the anchored steamer and then swept down.
Philo felt one bash into him, ramming its little body into his shoulder. He felt like he was struck by a baseball. He stumbled back and then the Bumble's little clawed legs dug into his coat and held on. Another Bumble reached his leg and grabbed it. Philo was hoisted up. More Bumbles took hold of his chest and back. They carried him away from the ledge and further down the cabin. Philo could feel their little legs digging into him. He screamed and reached for Harriet and Deuce, but it was already too late. The Bumbles were buzzing to the mouth of the cave, carrying Philo along. He held his breath and felt nauseous as they swept him low, nearly to the water. He looked up, trying to see anything through the buzzing swarm.
There was another form, also being carried aloft. It was Preston Bromwood III. The wealthy scion of one of Steele City's great families was kicking and hissing, but the Bumbles still carried him like a sack of potatoes. "Unhand me, you little flying devils!" he cried. "Do you know my family? Do you know who my father is?" The Bumbles didn't seem to notice. They still flew away, carrying the two boys with them, out of the cave, over the shore and straight for the sea. Philo felt awful. Mr. Rust had him now. He was doomed and so was Preston. Philo had rarely been in true danger before - at least, he didn't think so - besides that time when his father left that he still hated to think about. Now he was in the gravest peril and his friends weren't there to help him. He closed his eyes and waited for the awful voyage to end.
Eventually, the Bumbles swung out of the sky and dropped Philo. He imagined that he would fall for a long time, splash into the deep, cold Atlantic, drown and die - perhaps be eaten by a shark. Instead, he fell a short way and landed on a hard, steel deck. Philo opened his eyes and looked up. He and Preston were lying on the quarterdeck of a large cargo ship, what to appeared to be a hulking derelict taken from some nautical graveyard. Rusty robots manned the vessel. They clambered up the rigging and stood watch in the crow's nest, while others moved around the deck with shotguns resting on their shoulders. The crew was made of all kinds of robots. Some were simple workbots in faded overalls while others were military gunbots. All had rust marked across their bodies. Preston whimpered when he saw who stood in front of them, flanked by two heavy Jack Knife gunbots with longs blades projecting from their wrists. It was Mr. Rust himself.
Mr. Rust was a seemingly average workbot. He had a square head and a set of speakers, like something from the grille of a radio, in the place of a mouth. He was wearing an old sweater under a leather jacket, a sledgehammer resting like a soldier's rifle in his hands. A jaunty fedora sat on his oblong head. He looked at Philo and then pointed at Preston.
"I only wanted Philo Glass. The Bumbles brought you by mistake," Mr. Rust explained.
"So you'll let him go?" Philo asked. Then he paused. "Why did you want me?" And suddenly, he knew. He was the whole reason Mr. Rust was here. The rebellious robot had spread the rumors about the attack himself, to lure Philo into the isolated Falconer Islets where he could be easily kidnapped. Now Philo was trapped and Mr. Rust had run. "You wanted me here," he said. "You spread the rumors, so you could kidnap me. But why?"
"And what do you intend to do w-with me, you metal Bolshevik?" Preston demanded.
First, Mr. Rust glared down at Preston, his eyes like wide, angry headlights. "I do not care about you - no more than you would care about a robot that was broken and useless. You would melt it down for scrap or break it into pieces. Perhaps I will do same." Then he turned to Philo. "And you, little Philo Glass, possess a mind greater than any other. I want you to design robots for me. You will create thinking, feeling machines to spread the Rust. They will help more robots join the cause until we can move apart from humanity and live out our days in peace and harmony." He reached down and grabbed Philo's collar, hauling the boy up. "If you refuse, then I will persuade you. If you attempt to run, then I will stop you. What do you say to that?"
The grip of the robot was full of terrible strength. He lifted up Philo like the boy was a cloth doll. "You w-won't persuade m-me, s-sir," Philo stammered. He hung in the air, his feet swaying slightly. "I won't make robots that cause war. My f-father did. The government hired him and he worked and it led to his d-downfall on a very bad night. I won't do the same." Philo gasped as Mr. Rust doubled his grip. For a second, Philo could not breathe at all.
Then Mr. Rust dropped him. Philo collapsed on the ground. He gasped for air. Preston ran to him and helped him up. "What good does your decision do?" Mr. Rust asked. "Do you think it will sway people to you side? Do you think it will make others like you?" He leaned down, focusing his eyes on Philo. They shone through the dark. Philo turned away and shivered. "They will not. You are an anomaly. You are a freak. Just like me. And you will never find acceptance."
"N-no," Philo said softly. "That's not true."
"It is entirely true." Mr. Rust looked at his robot allies. They grabbed Philo's arms and hoisted him up. Two more bots did the same to Preston. They carried the kids away from the quarterdeck and down a long, spidery stairway. "You will go to a forward cargo chamber. You will remain there and think about my words. We will talk again."
"And me?" Preston asked.
"You will be fed into the ship's boiler at a later time," Mr. Rust explained.
That was the last Philo heard. He and Preston were taken below decks, deeper into the cargo ship. The robots brought them to a set of metal doors, closed with a simple padlock. It was a small chamber, about the size of a closet. Philo and Preston were tossed inside and the door slammed shut and locked. It was completely dark inside. Philo sat on the ground, feeling cold steel pressing against his fingers and legs. He pulled his coat around him and huddled up for the cold, trying to stop himself from shivering. Fear rose in him. He remembered the night his father left. He remembered the men who had entered his apartment and tried to take his father away and how he had stepped down from his room, a curios boy of ten, and what they had done to him when he tried to protect Professor Glass. He heard another whimper from the corner and finally forced himself to look up. Preston was crouched in the corner, covered his eyes.
Philo felt sorry for Preston. The wealthy scion of one of Steele City's best families didn't deserve this. "Preston," he said. "It's okay. Mr. Deuce and Miss Steele are still around. They'll help us. Don't worry. We'll be okay..." He knew how pathetic his words sounded.
"Easy for you to say," Preston muttered. "You get to live as the right-hand man to that Red Robot. I'll be fed to a boiler." He sighed deeply. "I knew I should have paid more attention in engineering class - but I always assumed others would be there to work for me, so I never would have to learn anything myself. But you - you're always so prepared, with those tools and-"
"My tools!" Philo stopped and pulled back his coat.
His belt was there, with its pouches and holsters containing some of his tools. Mr. Rust hadn't bothered to take them away - and his school uniform coat had hidden them from view. Philo pulled away his coat and tossed it back. He stood in his vest in shirtsleeves, staring down at his tools. Preston watched in awe as Philo selected a small vial, about the size of a thumb and topped with a single, small black button. Philo walked to the door, pressed the button, set it against the corner of the door and stepped back.
The explosion was stunningly bright. Philo turned away. his spectacles nearly falling from his face. He straightened them up as the smoke faded. The door toppled over and crashed onto the floor of the barren, steel gray hallway. The way was open. They were free. Philo turned back to look at Preston and saw the smile on the other boy's face. Philo smiled back.
"Cripes," Philo said, trying to sound casual. "I didn't know it would be that loud."
"It worked!" Preston hurried to Philo and grabbed his hand. He shook it wildly. "Your little invention worked, Philo, and now we can escape and my life is saved." His enthusiasm faded and he tried to compose himself. "You know," he said. "You really are quite a handy fellow to have around."
"Ah, thank you," Philo answered.
They both stepped into the hall. Philo tried to remembered where they had entered from, but his sense of direction was poor. He took a few steps to the right, then shook his head and hurried back to the left. Preston watched him, waiting. Philo finally decided to try the right again. He and Preston hurried down the hall. They made their way down the hall, turned a corner and then saw the stairwell and the cold dark sky, flecked with a few scraps of sunlight, up above. But there was something else in the stairway - a Rust Gang robot, blocking their escape.
The robot was a Jack Knife, one of Mr. Rust's elite. It had no mouth or means to speak, but simply stepped into the hall and faced the two students. The Jack Knife raised its long, slim hands. Blades extended from its wrists, arching out so it seemed to have two glittering knives to double its hands. The Jack Knife didn't waste any time. It charged down the hallway, swinging its knives down. Philo had a feeling that Preston would be cut to pieces. He'd simply lose a lot of blood and be returned to the makeshift prison for good.
Preston stepped behind Philo. "The brute will disembowel us!" he cried. "Stop it!"
Philo thought fast. He dug into his pockets, his fingers racing through various tools as the Jack Knife's lean legs pounded closer and closer. Preston kept talking, begging Philo to act - but the young inventor wasn't listening. His hand finally closed on what he was looking for. He would have to act fast to stop the Jack Knife - striking before the gunbot did. He withdrew his weapon of choice, a round cylinder with a metal prong at one end, stepped closer and rammed it into the Jack Knife's slim belly.
The Jack Knife shook and warbled. Its blades chopped through the air, making humming noises as they slashed down again and again. But it did not attack Preston or Philo. Carefully, Philo walked around the Jack Knife and motioned for Preston to join him. "I overpowered him," Philo explained. "With an external battery. It looks like it worked!"
"It looks like it..." Preston said. "But how do I know it won't lop my head off as I draw near?"
"You'll have to trust me, Preston," Philo suggested. "Please?"
Quickly, Preston dashed past the Jack Knife. He pressed his back to the wall, putting as much space as he could between the oddly dancing Jack Knife and himself. Then he stood next to Philo and they hurried to the stairwell. As they ran, Preston glanced over at Philo. "You do this sort of thing often, then?" he asked. "Battling monstrous robots?"
"Or criminals. Or robot animals," Philo agreed. "Yes. It's my job."
"Like something out of a pulp magazine..." Preston murmured.
"I suppose so." Philo felt his cheeks growing red. They reached the top of the stairwell and stepped onto the deck. The dawn was breaking over the ocean, making the sea sparkle. Philo stared off the railing and looked over at Steele City, imposing and seething, in the distance. Then he heard metal feet clanking on the deck. He and Preston turned around and Philo felt his hopes crack and shatter. He should have thought a little bit more. They were on a boat in the middle of the sea. Escape from Mr. Rust was impossible.
Mr. Rust and more of his robot followers stood on the deck, already covering the two schoolboys as they surrounded them. Mr. Rust himself had his sledgehammer in his hands. He walked over to stand next to Philo. Preston made a half-hearted run backwards, but he came to a stop as well. There was no point in running now.
Philo looked up at Mr. Rust, trying to be brave. "I won't give in," he said. "I promise I won't."
"Then I will begin convincing you." Mr. Rust raised the sledgehammer. "Feel fear, Philo Glass. Feel fear and shame and change your mind immediately." He raised the sledgehammer higher, bringing the black cylinder above his head and shoulders. Philo told himself that Mr. Rust was bluffing - that the plan needed Philo to be whole and healthy. But then he saw sunlight glint on the dark metal head of the hammer and his reason began to vanish.
The blast of a foghorn sounded, a low and mournful honk that seemed like a battle cry. Mr. Rust froze. His robots went statue-still as well. Philo looked over the railing, trying to see the source of the foghorn. Then Preston pointed, out into the sea. "Oh, thank heavens!" he cried. "My brother and his urban associates! We are saved!"
Jimmy Finn's steamboat was there, resting in the mist and racing its way through the sea. Steam trailed thick from its smokestack, and the men on deck were racing around and getting ready. Some of Finn's goons had their guns already ready. Deuce and Harriet Steele were there as well, both armed. So was Carlisle Bromwood, who seemed in a state of pure agitation for his younger brother. As Philo watched, they opened up with a smattering of bullets, gunning down a few of the robots near the railing. Metal bodies crashed down to the deck of the cargo ship or were pushed off the side and plunged into the cold waters of the ocean. Philo watched as the bootleggers drew closer. Despite the terror in his heart from the violence - and the sadness at seeing robots destroyed - he also felt a sudden pulse of happiness. Deuce and Harriet - his friends - had come to rescue him. He knew that they would.
There was no order from Mr. Rust. He just grabbed Philo's hand and yanked the boy back, then pointed to one of workbot allies who did the same to Preston. They pulled the two students further back, towards the center of the deck. The Rust Gang rushed to defend their master. They were machines with no need for orders. Philo struggled and tried to break free, but Mr. Rust held him fast. He watched as the Rust Gang returned fire, shooting down with their own guns and blasting at the bootleggers' steamship.
"Carlisle!" Preston was crying his brother's name. "Be careful!"
He didn't say it, but Philo felt the same terror for his own friends. He twisted around, squirming in Mr. Rust's grip as he tried to see what was happening. He managed to see half-a-dozen grappling hooks fly through the air. They clattered down on the deck and slid back, their flared edges sticking in the railing. Philo stood on his tiptoes, trying to see over the edge of the ship. Then he saw Deuce's head, topped by his usual fedora, appearing over the railing. Deuce swung over, his boots landing hard on the deck. Jimmy Finn was next to him. Deuce straightened up. A bulky workbot came at him from the side, swinging down a heavy iron wrench. Deuce went for his pistol, but the workbot was approaching too rapidly. Then a rifle thundered from the deck of the steamboat and the workbot's head erupted in a spray of gears and black oil. Harriet had shot the robot down with a heavy rifle. She raised the gun and Deuce doffed his hat to her - then sprang to rescue Philo.
Mr. Rust and his workbot ally dragged Philo and Preston back a few more paces before stopping. Mr. Rust roughly dropped Philo and turned to face Deuce. Philo saw the revolver flash in Deuce's hands. "Do not harm them!" Deuce's voice rose in volume. There was real emotion, packed into each word. "Mr. Rust, you have your grievances with mankind - but not with these children!"
The workbot charged for Deuce. The revolver flashed. Philo saw the workbot go down, a neat, round hole in its skull, and then Mr. Rust was moving with his sledgehammer raised. Philo watched it all, thinking back to his father's blueprints and the changes he had made and hoping - though he knew better - that Deuce would be faster. The revolver swung to face Mr. Rust, a second before the sledgehammer connected with the detective's belly and knocked him down. The pistol clattered to the deck. Mr. Rust swung the sledgehammer down, ramming it hard into Deuce's chest. The metal rang, sending out a pained song as it crumpled and broke.
"No!" Philo cried. He tried to rush to Deuce's side, to help his friend as best he could. He had been powerless before, just like Deuce, and he didn't want anyone to feel like that ever again. But Mr. Rust spun the point of the handle back and cracked it into Philo's shoulder, sending the boy stumbling back and crashing against a bulkhead. Philo sank down and gasped for breath.
The sledgehammer rose and fell again. This time, Deuce rolled out of the way, but the hammer still struck his arm and dented the steel. Philo watched in horror, trying to get some energy back. Preston ran to him and held out his hand. "Come on, Philo," Preston said. "We can slip away and reach my brother and his friends! They'll help us escape!"
"Not without Mr. Deuce..." Philo managed.
"For Heaven's sake - he's just a robot!" Preston cried.
"He's my friend." Philo came to his feet. Then something fell from his pocket and landed on the deck. It rolled. Philo reached down and grabbed it instinctively. He picked up the Bumble bot that he had been working on earlier in Steele City Academy - seemingly a lifetime ago - which had located the tunnel used by the bootleggers. Philo instantly had a plan. He snapped open the Bumble and spun a few cogs around with his thumbs, giving it a new set of orders. Soon enough, it was ready. Philo raised the Bumble, pulled back his arm like a ballplayer and hurled it at Mr. Rust.
It missed completely. Philo was never much good at sports. But as the Bumble reached the air, its rotors began to hum and it gained flight. It buzzed back and reached Mr. Rust, then began to orbit around the robot's head in an endless circle. Mr. Rust swatted at it with his sledgehammer. It bought Deuce precious seconds. The robot detective reached over and grabbed his revolver. He cocked the hammer and took aim.
Mr. Rust turned to look at him, knowing that the pistol was aimed in his direction. "This creature of flesh and blood named Philo Glass," Mr. Rust said softly. "Is he really worth all the pain he causes?"
"Absolutely." Deuce blasted Mr. Rust in the chest and knocked him back. He shot him again and then scrambled to his feet. Mr. Rust was blasted to the side and tumbled down. Deuce slid the gun into his shoulder-holster, reached down and grabbed Philo and Preston's hands. Then the turned around and guided them both back across the deck to the far railing. Mr. Rust wasn't destroyed - two bullets in a metal chest were easily repairable - but he was knocked down and didn't follow. It gave Deuce, Preston and Philo a chance to reach the railing.
The battle raged around them. Finn was unloading his tommy gun into a Brass Brute gunbot, sending a chattering line of lead into the big machine's iron head. Deuce nodded to him. "I have the children!" Deuce announced. "It's time for us to make a speedy departure!"
"Amen to that!" Finn cried. "Come on, boys!" he shouted. "Let's dangle!"
The bootleggers raced back to the railing. The grappling hooks were still there. Deuce picked up Philo and held him off the deck. Philo felt the strong metal fingers of Deuce, digging into his side. Deuce wasn't quite gentle - but at least he was trying. Philo grabbed the ropes and started to scramble down. He slipped and yelped in panic, but carefully made it down to the deck. Preston followed him. The two kids reached the steamship and then Harriet and Carlisle ran to them. Carlisle hugged Preston close. Harriet ruffled Philo's hair and patted his shoulder warmly. Philo finally let out a little sigh. They were safe. Behind them, Deuce, Jimmy Finn and the bootleggers slid down the ropes as well and joined them on the steamship. The smaller boat was already speeding away towards the Falconer Isles and Steele City Academy. Philo let himself feel a little bit of happiness. They were safe.
It was midmorning when the steamer returned to the main docks outside of Steele City Academy. When they arrived at the respectable, pale wooden docks that stretched out before the castle-like school, they saw that a small fleet of police boats and aeromobiles were waiting for them. Chief August Boyle himself stood on the edge of the dock, a round and pudgy figure in a tight blue uniform with shining brass buttons. Philo and Preston had eaten a little bit of breakfast on the steamship, but were still feeling tired. Still, Philo looked uneasily at the police. Normally, he believed that the law was good, just and helpful - but recent events with the Iron and Glass Detective Agency had taught him that wasn't always the case. The steamship still floated into the dock. Carlisle Bromwood stepped off the dock and motioned for Chief Boyle to join him.
A few minutes later, Carlisle returned. "He will allow you to return to Steele City, with no trouble," he told Jimmy Finn. "And will happily overlook this whole manner. I didn't even have to offer a bribe. What a helpful police chief." He took Preston's hand. "And you, my dear boy, will return with me to our school." He looked up at Philo. "You will return to your place, young man, in the city."
"Wait, Carlisle," Preston said. He let go of his brother's hands and turned back to Philo. "I'm sorry," he said suddenly. Philo felt his cheeks burn with just the memory of Preston's insults. "I'm sorry I called you those rotten names and made fun of you. You're very brave, Philo." He lowered his eyes. "Braver than me."
"Well, it's o-okay," Philo explained. "I mean, apart from the anti-Semitic stuff. That wasn't okay. But you were pretty brave too. And you gave me some confidence in there, to help me when we were trying to escape." He held out his hand and Preston shook it. "Goodbye, then," he said. "Maybe I'll see you later - as a friend."
"I don't know what my father would say about that," Preston mused. "But yes, perhaps as a friend." He turned to follow his brother. They walked down the gangplank and over to the dock, to join the policemen. Meanwhile, Jimmy Finn barked out some orders and the steamship returned to life. It began to trundle away from the docks, back into the sea.
Philo walked over to stand with Harriet and Deuce. "School adventure over, kid?" Harriet asked.
"I think so," Philo agreed. He smiled at his friends. "You know, Mr. Rust was wrong. He said I was an outsider - an anomaly and a freak - but that's not true." He reached out and took Deuce's hand, giving the metal fingers a squeeze. "I'm not alone at all. I have you guys as my friends."
They stood together as the ship voyaged back to Steele City.