The Showdown at Solar Flats
Judah Grimm reckoned he never did have a case this odd. The Textropian gunslinger had long since spurned most of the longevity treatments of that were all the rage these days, letting his tanned skin harden into something like leather and gray have covered his scarred face. With a beaten synth-leather duster and dark Stetson hat with more than a few bullet holes, he sat back in his chair. His old optic nerves, still bearing some of the first implants on the market, leveled at his client.
Benedict Durston, last of the robber barons on Janus, sat across from him. Despite probably being older than Babylon and more evil than Hell, he took the body of a blonde young man in a light blue shirt. The man's blue eyes drifted towards the exposed holster of Grimm's modernized LeMat revolver. The old Ranger patted the weapon back into his clothing, as if embarrassed for a split second. He saw his client exhale a subtle sigh of relief.
"Mister Grimm," Durtson sighed. "Thanks for your interest in this case!"
"Your rep and stocks ain't doing so well, partner," Grimm nodded. "So long as ya ain't gonna try to pull one on me, we're on the level."
"Don't worry, Mister Grimm," Durston lit up a cigarette. "I have a very personal interest in resolving this case, and one I'm willing to pay anything to have it resolved to my satisfaction."
"That ain't a healthy habit, partner," Grimm leaned back in his chair, letting his faux-leather boots up on his desk. "Gonna kill ya one o' these days."
"It hasn't done me in yet," Durston blew wisps of smoke from his lips. "Even if I have to get a new set of new lungs implanted every few years. I've got enough spare clones to last several lifetimes."
"Still, Mister Durston, it'd be mighty fine if ya wouldn't do that in my office," Grimm said. "At least while you're here."
Durston definitely blew smoke into the air. "You know, these hyper-stim sticks are much better than nicotine," he held up the box in a jittering hand. "Want a smoke?"
"No thanks, partner," Grimm waved his hand. He subconsciously shuddered as he recalled the results of a quick cyber-search into his client's business past. Looking over the list quickly, he estimated the chances of him surviving were directly proportional to staying on his client's good side. "I reckon I'll be gettin' on with the case, partner."
"I like a man who knows his place," Durston wore a shit-eating grin that seemed to complement the rest of his features. Durston stood up, and headed for the door. "Go get 'em, cowboy. Get 'er done, and all that jazz. I want that bastard in black behind my spaceport sabotage, dead or alive. Preferably the former. This bastard killed several bystanders with his antics. More importantly, bystanders riding my shuttles. I know all about your days before bounty hunting, Grimm. How'd you like to help put a dangerous terrorist down for good?"
"I ain't no assassin now, partner. My days as a hired gun are long over," Judah reminded his client. "But I'll bring 'em in. That I can promise. Even if he's is much of a troublemaker as you say, I'd want to bring 'em low before I put a bullet to 'em. But I will get my man. Or die trying."
"Sometimes, when you have to hire the lowest bidder, cowboy," Durston's expressionless face glared at him. "Sometimes you get what you pay for. Other times, you get a surprise. Give me a pleasant surprise, and I'll double your pay."
"Deal, partner," Judah said. "Remember, I've got our talk here recorded, case I need tah remind ya."
"No need, cowboy," Durston replied as he left. Grimm groaned him himself as his client left. The cowboy pulled down the Stetson hat over his forehead, and exited the front of his office. Locking the door behind him, he looked out the tinted window. The sun beat down like a dreaded basilisk's gaze permanently over the sprawl outside. A glittering expanse of solar panel-covered dwellings extended outwards in all directions, covering up the endless desert horizon behind them. Being on the equator of the sunward side of a tidally locked planet meant it was always high noon. Off in the distance, a number of shapes stood out of the black desert.
Solar Flats' spaceport was a distant shimmering of sleek silver shapes and toadstools. Judah noted robotic construction equipment, clad in bright yellow and orange colors, sticking out near the edge of the horizon. His outdated optical implants could barely make out the words "Durston Contractors" painted in chipped black letters on each. The machines endlessly shoveled clods of dirt and sand, taking them to piles behind recently reconstructed shuttle hangars. Ignoring the machines and their Sisyphean labor, Judah locked his gaze on one familiar destination, and descended down to heart of the Textropian colony.
Judah descended into the rusting metal corridors beneath his office. A dome-shaped cleaning bot scuttled around him, sucking a fraction of dust and dirt into its body. Judah paid it no heed, and mused about his case. It was simple enough. All he had to do was find someone behind sabotage. Given Durston's many enemies, there was a long list of suspects. Even by Solar Flats' few laws, he was pretty sure someone was breaking at least a few.
After walking into the honeycomb of pungent tunnels for almost an hour, his senses were assaulted by the augmented reality pop-up adds that signified he was approaching the central warrens of downtown. To his right and left, Judah saw some scantily clad women of all sorts, some who had implants and a few total robots. "Evenin'," he tipped the brim of his hat to the ladies of the artificial night.
A Babel of neon lights, vision-blocking pop ups, and gaudy storefronts filled the tunnels that connected with the current one. He saw men, women, robots, and others in dusters, jeans, and stranger fashions as they walked ambled in front of the different shops. The former Rocket Ranger turned his attentions towards a humble wooden door behind a neon sign for a homeopathic snake oil shop. Judah walked into the Galt's Gulch Saloon, letting the chest-high wooden doors close behind him.
Inside the establishment was the traditional group of scoundrels he had grown accustomed to. The saloon was hardly better lit than the corridors Judah had traveled down. The air was full of enough strange-smelling substances Judah was sure could alter the minds of anyone who lingered their too long without proper protection. In the corner, he saw a number of well-dressed robots and cyborgs sitting at poker tables, utilizing their game theory-based logic to its fullest extent. An overeager man was escorted upstairs by two strumpets, likely for hours of paid companionship in virtual or meat-space. In a darkened corner, several large, swarthy figures brandished knives to each other in some doubtless drunken comparison. A flickering holographic dancer disrobed for her patrons. In the rear corner was a grizzled, overweight man with half of his body covered in jagged metal implants. A thick beard, scarred face, and shotgun slung over his back undoubtedly deterred the casual patron from making conversation with the saloon owner. The private detective and bounty hunter approached the grizzled man, who smoked a hand-rolled cigarette of substances Judah didn't care to identify.
"So, what brings yah down to my slice o' Heaven?" the saloon owner's eyes looked up at his newest guest. "Need anything?"
"'Fraid so, Jim," Judah nodded. "Some favors tah ask of ye."
"Want to come into the backroom, then?" Jim chomped his cigar. "Got a pipe with my favorite blend in it, if yah fancy that."
"No thanks, partner," Judah raised his right hand and shook his head. "I reckon I'd like to keep what's left of my guts workin' for a few more years."
"Don't need to worry when you're half metal, Grimm," Jim leaned against the wall, then pointed his thumb at a nearby door. "Now, how about we get on down to business?"
"'Bout time, partner," Judah added as he entered the side office. Inside were plenty of things he recalled Jim having. There were medals from wars on distant worlds, photographs of his estranged family, and photos of the saloon owner from happier points in his life. Judah saw a sigh escape Judah as he looked at the image of his younger self and wife in her wedding dress.
"All I reckon I need, Jim, are those surveillance records from Durston's part o' the space port," Judah nodded. "And maybe a copy o' where he did his clonin' at."
"Both can be done, Judah," Jim booted up the ancient console in front of him. "Got yer checking card handy?"
"Already transferred the funds, Jim," Judah grim nodded. "And tossed in a lil' somethin' extra if yah can get it to me real fast."
"Done and done, partner," Jim nodded at Judah. A few minutes later, Judah left the backroom with the information he needed. Judah walked outside the transhuman cesspool, and headed down the corridors towards his next destination. As he walked, the surveillance records from several angles replayed themselves in front of his optic nerve, high definition feed shown to an obsolete, battered screen. Focusing on the latest incident, Judah saw what was likely a standard day at the space port. Durston's shuttle landed, and was disgorging passengers from its side, like a slow trickle of blood from a wounded animal. Suddenly, in the background, flashes of light sent the passengers into a panic. Several secondary blasts obliterated any chance of an organized escape as the mob of people became a mad torrent in all directions. The dead and dying laid on the ground, and several nearby structures and shuttles were reduced to smoldering wreckage. Judah was able to stomach the entire spectacle due to years of seeing things no sapient being should.
Judah cross-referenced all the types of explosives he knew, and hypothesized what manner of explosive devices the saboteur had set up. He identified the likely explosive agent by luminosity, range, and blast shape, and forensic records of the after-investigation, he concluded the saboteur likely had a hacked security feed or physical presence nearby. Judah noted a few slight abnormalities with a security camera at the time of the latest attack, and traced the origin to a group of packets set from a location elsewhere in the space port. Using counter-hacking analysis honed from years of experience, he estimated the saboteur was likely an amateur, although a dangerous one. He figured whoever it was was probably one of Durston's many enemies, or at least someone with good reason to try to sabotage his business efforts.
As Judah mentally reviewed the index of potential foes on Durston's list, he paid careful attention to their psychological profiles. While many had been indeed utterly ruined, none of them seemed to prefer such a blatant strategy. All of Durston's enemies would prefer either ruining him economically, or killing him personally. Durston was not present on that particular day, and security records and public information both vouched for that. All of this drove Grimm to consider perhaps this was a foe Durston was not yet aware of, a fact that drove the robber baron to employ him. Durston seemed to prefer the lowest bidder for outsourcing work, which is one reason Judah was glad he kept his rates low.
While he had his own theories, Durston realized he'd first have to confront the saboteur. Using a specialized hunter algorithm, he managed to mentally track down the saboteur's likely location and lodgings with a high probability. While most of his hardware was better suited for a museum, the algorithms programmed inside could do the same thing the shinier counterparts could. Judah ensured his LeMat revolver was loaded, and headed for the access tunnels beneath the star port.
Getting into the access tunnels was not hard for the bounty hunter. The soot-choked arteries of the spaceport had many suspicious activities conducted in them. Plenty of contraband passed through the grimy tunnels, as Judah recalled from personal experience working both sides of the law. Now and then, star port security would clear it out, although few knew the tricks on getting in. Judah was one of the few who did. Using an access code supplied to him by a contact, he opened a nearby hatch and entered the labyrinth of tunnels.
Judah Grimm drew his revolver and moved through the tunnels in a manner that was reflexive. He swept and tracked left and right, adjusting his implant to let him see in the dark. He stayed on edge, aware of every slight wrapping, pounding, or hissing in the forsaken place. Grimm thumbed the hammer back, and followed the tunnels in which the dust had been disturbed the most. The only illumination came from the handful of flickering lights in the corridor. Grimm's low-light senses gave the entire hallway a surreal, greenish glow, as if looking through emerald glasses.
Grimm followed the trail to its end, a metal bulkhead propped a sliver open by due to the last time it was lubricated being a decade ago in standard years. He could hear a less rhythmic sound inside, that of someone cursing and the sound of mechanical parts being assembled. Whatever the finished product was, he reasoned, it would likely be used for more mayhem and disruption of his client's holdings.
Judah Grimm drew a breath of the stale air into his half-metallic lungs, aware this may be the last breath he may ever take. He readied his LeMat, and forced open the door while yelling, "Freeze!" He leveled the pistol at the room's sole occupant, a man disassembling a scoped rifle on the table. The man looked at the table, and realized his best chance of resisting was now scattered into half a dozen pieces in front of him. He went down on his knees and raised his hands as Judah cautiously approached. He saw a knife on the ground, but kicked it away before the man could reach it.
"On the floor," he gestured. The man obeyed. Judah got a better look at the man as he cautiously approached, as if he might pull some concealed weapon and attack, or try to suicide bomb both of them. He approached with his heart racing, holding the man at his mercy on the edge of his gun. Despite Judah being in this position before, his heart worked overtime without fail. As he surveyed the man from different angles, it was clear he was the splitting image of his client, right down to his blonde hair. The main difference was the orange star port staff jumpsuit he wore, undoubtedly his method of escaping detection. He scanned his face, and saw no matches in any databases. Several crude explosives lay scattered around the room.
"You haven't shot me, yet," he asked. "Or did he send you to torture me and make this long?"
"I'm a lot of things, partner," Judah kept the revolver trained on the man. "But I ain't here to torture ya."
"No one comes down here for charity work," the man looked up. "You with some smugglers? Or you working for him?"
"I've been asked to take you in tah Mister Benedict Durston, alright," Grimm explained. "He don't like you going around, blowing those folks up."
"He doesn't like his investments blown up," the man snapped back. "My bombs killed fewer people than die in a day due to his industrial accidents. I've done the math."
"That don't mean it's right, partner," Grimm continued. "Now, what's your name?"
"Don't have one," the man replied. "Guess why."
Grimm searched some of the recently downloaded information for some some of his top guesses. "He ain't got any family now," Grimm continued. "But there was that there breakout at one of his clone farms. Lowest bidder for security and all that. I reckon that be you."
"You guessed right," the escaped clone looked up. "Now, you going to turn me into spare parts, or just shoot me? Shooting's definitely quicker."
"Graves' been using sapient clones," Judah added. "That ain't right either. But why blow up innocent folks?"
"I needed some way to draw Graves out," the clone replied. "He's on this planet, and it looks like it worked."
"And you just want to put a bullet in 'em, and think'll solve all your problems?" the bounty hunter pointed to the rifle. "Or you just lookin' to get payback for using treatin' you like spare parts?"
"If I don't kill him, he'll just keep doing it to more clones," the suspect sobbed. "He gives us all self awareness and enough knowledge to know what we were created for, and what we're destined for. All we do is sit in those tubes, waiting for our turn to come."
"And how do you reckon fixin' that, son?" Judah kept his revolver trained on him. "You think a puttin' a bullet in the head of one of the richest men in this here system is just going to solve all your problems?"
"It means no more self aware clones are killed pointlessly," the clone fugitive replied. "But also, I know how to hack his files. I can take over his whole company, and I'll give you ten times whatever bounty he put on my head."
"I don't want no more innocent folks harmed, friend," Judah added. "Promise."
"I promise," the man replied. "And I'll give good compensation to all the victims' families."
"Now, I got a way to give ya Durston," Judah nodded. "But if ya don't stop harming innocents, friend, I'll come gunnin' for you."
"Deal," the clone asked. "Can I get up now?"
Judah let the man up, and discussed his plan with the Durston-clone. Judah went on auto-pilot for the next few hours, making preparations of his own. Several hours later, he walked side by side with Benedict Durston into endless expanse of solar panels, near the edge of Solar Flats. The sun's evil glare was in full force, and not a cloud in the sky gave them mercy. Judah felt himself sweating in places he forgot he had skin. Durston, however, wore a suit of some self-cooled material and sunglasses, seemed unaffected by the heat. His client merely walked like he would around an air conditioned office.
"I found your man," Judah pointed his finger at a solar panel that was converted into a makeshift lean-to shelter. A canteen and tattered bedroll were placed beneath it, both choked in dirt and dust. "He's been holed up over yonder since I drove 'em there."
Durston withdrew an ivory handled pistol from his coat, and pointed it just past the solar panel.
"You get a glimpse of 'em?" Durston asked.
"'Fraid so," Judah nodded. "Have to say, I reckon he looked a lot like you, partner."
"He's an escaped sapient clone," Durston added. "Highly sociopathic and a compulsive liar. We have to stop him before he gets any more of my customers killed."
It was then a rifle shot rung out, and Judah saw Durston's pistol fly from his hand. A second shot caused the robber baron to crumple to the ground, clutching his knee in pain. Judah took a split instant to realize something was not as it should be, and shot a nearby solar panel. The panel rotated to an angle as such to blind the sniper with solar glare. Judah dove for cover behind a massive solar panel and brought his revolver up. A round ricocheted near his previous position.
"We had a deal, partner!" Judah shouted. "You put a hole in Durston's head, and we both walk away richer!"
"And you believed that?!" came a familiar mocking voice from behind a distant bank of solar panels. There was another round fired, sounding less like a distant twang and more like a cannon. "I want to remove every organ from this scumbag's chest with my knife!"
"Then why shoot at me, dagnabbit?!" Judah yelled. "I woulda let ya, as long as you remembered our deal!"
"It ain't about the deal, partner," the clone mocked his voice. "It's about leaving no witnesses. Come out, and I'll make this fast."
Judah fired a few rounds blindly towards where he estimated the clone to be. A rifle shot whistled through the solar panel Judah had crouched behind, missing the bounty hunter by millimeters. Judah rolled forwards to another bank of solar panels, hearing ricochets all around him. Judah figured the mad clone was firing blind, trying to flush him out of cover. A lucky shot got Judah through the coat as he looked down at the wound. He felt warm blood flowing from a gash on the side of his chest. A rifle round had passed through both sides of his duster, but only have him a flesh wound. The cowboy exhaled a sigh of relief. A torrent of lead flew in, but Judah estimated the source.
Behind the solar panels was the only source of shade in the vicinity. Judah savored taking cover behind them compared to walking out in the burning sun. While the solar panels didn't give him much protection, they did shield him from view. Judah flanked the Durston clone, slowly but surely getting closer with each salvo of gunfire. Some blood oozed from his side, but not enough to slow him down. He rounded one bank of solar panels, and saw Durston clone cursing to himself as he loaded another magazine. Judah aimed his revolver.
"You really need some practice with your shooting iron, partner," Judah remarked as he blasted the clone in the center of the chest and head. The rifle fell out of the mortally wounded man's hand, and the clones eyes went back into his head. Judah felt his pulse fade, and closed the man's eyes. Judah bent down, tossed the body over his shoulder, and clutched his side with his other hand. The bleeding had stopped, although the bounty hunter reasoned he should take it easy for the next few days.
Judah returned to where the original Durston lay clutching his leg towards his body. In one hand, he had retrieved his pistol, and leveled it at the bounty hunter.
"Well, this is a surprise," Durston asked. "Not a very pleasant one."
"Ain't a pleasant surprise for either of us, partner," Judah set the body of the clone down on the ground, some blood getting on his duster. "I reckon he ain't gonna be worth usin' as spare parts."
"You didn't really think you could deal with him, did you?" Durston spit in the dust near the corpse. "Can't say I'm happy about you double crossing me."
"I ain't happy about you not tellin' me 'bout your cloning," Judah replied. "Figures something like this happens, with you payin' lowest bidder for security, and usin' sapient clones who know they're headin' for the icebox."
"Know how I knew he was a lying, sociopathic son of a bitch?" Durston grinned. "Because I imprint them all with my personality. That way, whenever I use a clone, I know I'm killing a sociopathic, evil man. Or at least a clone with the potential to be one."
"Partner, I don't know what darn things are loose in your head," Judah shook his head. "But they be more twisted than a bundle of carbon nanotubes in a space elevator. You coulda just used vat-grown or bio-fabbed organs, and avoided the whole thing!"
"I could have," Durston muttered. "Probably will, from now on. Call me old fashioned, but where I grew up, we didn't have vat organs or biofabbers for spare parts. And I do it because I can."
"Didn't mean it was right back then, partner," Judah glared down.
"You know I don't give a damn about that," Durston grumbled. "But I'll give you your pay. That's the one deal I do honor. Most of the time."
"I want a few more things from ya, partner," Judah looked down at the wounded robber baron. "Don't just screw innocent folks outta compensation, and don't keep on using the lowest bidder."
"Don't try your luck," Durston grumbled. "Just be glad I'm feeling somewhat grateful for you saving me. Even if it was a situation you engineered to kill me."
"Make your payment in my office, partner," Judah leaned down to pick up the businessman. "I can't force ya to be good, but putting a bullet in you just means I don't get paid."
Judah saw anger appear on Durston's face, and then vanish with a flash. "Fine," came an utterance in defeat. Durston began to mutter. "Figures this is what happens when I use the lowest bidder. Dammit, I need a smoke."
Judah didn't know if he could squeeze anything else out of his client, but he was damn well going to try. He was unsure which of the two Durstons was worse, but he could barely stand to look at the man today. With that, he carried the businessman back to his office. Durston sent some money into Judah's account, and then promptly left without a word. Judah had already seen enough of that face for one day. As he looked at the new balance in his account, something turned in his stomach. He wasn't quite sure what it was, but this case made him feel like he needed a long shower. Then again, he reflected, few of his cases did not. Judah sighed and locked his office for the day. Tomorrow would bring new clients, and likely, new reasons to pity himself in the future.