Friday, May 9, 2014

The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue. Pt. 9.

Here are the previous episodes of The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue.

Part 7
Part 8

The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue. Pt. 9.

Louis Shalako

The briefing ended and the gathered detectives were grabbing jackets and briefcases. This particular killing was nasty. A woman and her two little girls were watching TV, when her husband answered a knock at the door. Hearing an altercation, she was just hustling the kids to a back bedroom when her husband was shot with an automatic weapon.

She made the girls go down in the basement, and grabbed a knife from the kitchen before investigating further.

Her husband bled to death in her arms even as emergency responders arrived.


“Yes, boss?”

“I don’t think I really need to go down there. You guys can handle this.”

“Sure. Okay.”

“I need to call the chief, and then I might have to pull you off too.”

“Sure. Whatever.” Detective Francine Suleiman gave him a wry look, patted him on the bicep and then did up the final fasteners on her vest.

“If I can get us in there, we need to know a lot more about that damned robot.”

“Still on that bullshit, Inspector?”

“Yeah. I got the lucky tap from above, and the Cartiers are VIPs.”

“So where is this place?”

“SimTech. They’re in Buffalo.”

Her shoulders tensed. She was winding up, thinking of babysitters, endless calls and texts, another monkey wrench thrown into her day. She took a quick breath and settled down again.

“Okay. Try and give me a little notice, okay?” It was three hours by high-speed train.

It was two and a half hours by air. Too much of it spent in terminals and waiting on the ground in the aircraft...

“Why do we got to go up there, anyways?”

“Because I like to look people in the eye when they lie to me.”

His frosty smile took some of the warmth and humidity out of the air.

She nodded ruefully, inclining her head.

It was true enough, she supposed.

“Thanks, Francine.”

He watched her turn to go. The last of them filed out of the room, loaded for bear and carrying far too much electronic gadgetry for his liking. The helmets alone weighed eleven pounds each.

But so far the lady of the house wasn’t talking. She claimed she had no idea of who shot her husband or why anyone would ever want to do so.

The only thing she had admitted, was that her husband might do a little ADHD from time to time. She was pretty sure there were two males out there on the porch. As to whether her husband Dwayne had been buying or selling, or maybe he just owed the wrong somebody a little too much money, she claimed not to know.

The trouble was that no one ever did anything for no reason.

It only stood to reason that she knew more than she was letting on.


Gene MacBride and Francine Suleiman stood in awe.

The great room stretched off into a haze of atmospheric perspective. The air was blue with soldering fumes, and rows of heads, all robot girls, bent in fixed concentration upon their tasks.

KUKA Roboter Gmbh, Bachmann. (Wiki.)
There must have been ten thousand overhead lights, sodium or halogen, all hanging on metal tubes and looking like rocket engines more than anything else.

“Our products are the finest on the market today.” Mister Burch was in full sales pitch. “Right now we are at only twelve percent market penetration. With full amortization, certainly within the next twenty years, we foresee the cost coming down somewheres in the range of thirty to forty thousand a copy for the base models. Think of it, a household servant, one that does windows, walks the dog and can even home-school your children.”

He beamed at them, and then extended an arm in invitation. Gene wasn’t quite sure if Allan Burch was selling ‘bots or selling shares…he probably did both, when you thought about it.

Sell, sell, sell.

That’s just the way of the world.

Allan Burch led them on to another workstation. Here a torso, with gaping holes for the waist, neck and arms, had a pair of hatches on the back. It was clamped to the bench and separate robotic arms were working on the placement of small components. There was a more complex robot involved as well. This one was moving around, looking at a screen for specifications if Gene was interpreting correctly, and adding in accessories from a list of luxury options. Just like a new car, he thought.

“What are we building here?”

“This is a typical ambulatory robot.” Burch stepped in, leaned forward, and read off the screen. “It’s for commercial applications. Oh. This one will be driving for United Postal Service.”

“Ah.” Francine’s eyes met his, eyebrows raised in amusement. “At least he’s not flipping burgers for Mickey D’s.”

Gene nodded.

The machine would have to have some independent reasoning skills. The nature of its job and the modern traffic landscape meant it would always be presented with unforeseen circumstances. This might include anything from traffic snarls to customers refusing to sign, ducking payment or even just the usual, more run-of-the-mill psychopaths. They would have to defend their cargo on occasions. If nothing else, they would have to get around and talk back and forth with head office...

(Detail.) Photo by Gnsn. 
A gynoid, a lady robot designed to mimic human form, albeit in a nice shiny blue-chrome and featureless way, was just attaching a small chip or something into a set of sockets deep in the interior of the machine. Her hands, very deft and sure, were amazing to watch. It reached into a plastic bin and picked out more parts. It soldered them into place carefully with tools all lined up neatly. It took a wire harness and began snapping the leads into place. There were plastic ties to bundle the wire harness. Gene felt smarter just watching this.

"Ambulatory robots are quickly and easily reassigned to other tasks." It was like the assistant was reading his mind sometimes. "Fixed robots just sit there when production of their specialized task is not required."

There were more bands of wires bonded together in straps, brightly coloured and plugged in here and there.

“Yes, this is all very interesting.” Interesting, it was fascinating as all hell, thought Gene. “But more to the point—”

“Oh. Yes.” Burch cleared his throat and looked a bit uncomfortable.

In accepting an appointment from two senior cops, naturally his able (and fully robotic) secretary had asked what it was about.

“Well, anything, really.”


"Well. yes, Inspector.  Anything. Our robots are fully capable of completing a multitude of tasks independent of any higher supervision. They're designed to be left alone for long periods of time."

Burch was more confident now. Taking Francine’s arm in a proprietorial manner, he led them on.

Standing there, the factory was curiously quiet, but all the stamping and welding were done elsewhere.

They watched as the legs and pelvic sub-assembly were attached to a ball-joint and either hydraulic or pneumatic actuator arms were attached to pins at gusseted hard-points. Gene didn't want to stray too far off-topic with extraneous questions.

“Ah. Originally, our ‘droids were designed for military, police, and security use. Then we branched out into mining, nuclear waste handling, all kinds of hazardous occupations. Fire-fighting, and with forest-fires in particular, you really need those boots on the ground, ones with autonomous capability and not too large, if you know what I mean.”

Francine piped up.

“No. What do you mean?” She wasn’t being snarky, but the whole picture was overwhelming.

“Well, nuclear plants were designed with doors and hatches for human access. Fighting forest fires can be done with thirty-ton automated bulldozers, but our bots have less impact on the forest floor…it's better than ripping up the hillsides. There are all kinds of concerns, and hundreds of industrial applications.”

"Robots have to be able to see and react to be functional in the human environment." The assistant again.

"Then there's the whole automated aviation industry." Gene nodded thoughtfully.

The drones didn't look human, they looked like model airplanes. But their functions were relatively simple by comparison. Maybe that was the difference.

Francine nodded, and Gene noted the robot in front of them had no mouth aperture and didn’t look up from its work.

The assistant took over again.

"The assembly robots are capable of problem-solving in a limited number of hierarchies. Our more advanced models can cope with higher hierarchies of challenges."

“Yeah. What we’re interested in, are those autonomous functions…especially as it pertains to our missing robot. They tell me that never happens, incidentally.”

Executive assistant to Mr. Burch, plant manager,  Felicia Emery, the picture of sternly-repressed sexuality, a nineteen year-old librarian in appearance, stared at Francine through her flat lenses.

Standing slightly behind and to her left, Gene saw the multi-coloured display carets on the inside of her lenses.

His own display had lit up with all of her relevant information upon entering the room. She was extremely well educated, but more of a surprise was the Doctor himself, silent the whole time as if studying them.

Rudolf Piqua had originally conceived the SAL 9000 series of gynoids after seeing a need for sex toys that transcended currently available models, which were certainly crude enough. It was Piqua who had integrated chassis and skin, eyes and software, bringing the whole product up to consumer standards of appearance and utility. After effectively demonstrating the initial models, he had gone on to greater and greater things.

According to Al Jazeera/Newsweek, the man was a genius at fundraising for further research.

“Well.” This was the first time the doctor had spoken, up until now seemingly content to let lesser mortals speak for him. “Briefly, from the chassis, to the power systems, balancing gyros, awareness, autonomics, to the nominal IQ of each model, the goal was maximum adaptability.”

This made sense. Like a series of automobiles, outwardly different but sharing commonalities, chassis and running gear serving big cars and light trucks and vans, for example. Gene nodded in comprehension.

“They are designed to operate independently for long periods, to extrapolate, to identify new tasks, to plan, to prioritize…”

His eyes held Gene’s for a moment, and then he turned to Francine.

“Betty Blue is the first malfunction of this magnitude in the history of our program.” The doctor stabbed the plant manager with a quick glance, and then went on. “Naturally, we are most eager to have her returned to us. Without making too big a deal of it…there are concerns.”

“Yes, public safety, among other things.” Francine found the pallid skin and dead eyes of un-activated gynoids unnerving, creepy even.

The robot building other robots in front of them was completely expressionless. This was another in the shiny chome. It had a different chassis as this one was clearly not intended to have skin. It pressed coloured squares on a keypad, and the neck and head assembly of a 9000 model went through a series of facial expressions as the group sauntered past.

“Ugh." Francine shook her head and hugged herself as if she had a sudden chill.

“All very fascinating, I’m sure. But it would be helpful to know a little more. Does Betty have military capabilities?” Gene was prodding, but gently.

“Ah.” The doctor pursed his lips. “The basic programming, of course. She has no specialities, no weapons onboard, outside of her own very considerable physical skills.”

“What do you mean, the basic programming?”

“Hmn. It’s like you and I, Inspector. Neither of us is a soldier, or a pilot—and yet we have the basic programming in our bodies to do it.”

“Ah. Now I get it—I think?”

Doctor Piqua grinned and patted Burch on the shoulder, giving him another of those quirky sidelong looks.


The young lady stepped forward and gave Gene a data-chip.

“The SAL-9000 series are designed to be one hundred percent autonomous.” Miss Emery’s bright blue eyes were on him. “For that reason, they have access to the entire internet, wirelessly.”

Gene didn’t want to give too much away, but he had to give them something.

“So she would know the bus schedule, things like that?”

Felicia nodded. According to her PPP, she was forty-three years old, and she would pretty much have to be that age to have had the time to acquire all of those degrees and certifications. The trouble was she didn't look it. He'd never met anyone who'd had gene therapy before. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking at. Something about her didn't add up in the physical sense.

Gene could only conclude gene or glandular therapy, something he’d never seen up close.

The results were certainly compelling, she looked, sounded and smelled just exactly like a nineteen year-old. 

It was the gravitas, that and the most swaggering walk he’d ever seen on a woman wearing high-heeled shoes. Her sternum was held high and the lower spine had the perfect S-curve.

The ankles weren’t bad either. Gene wondered who had served as the original model for the original model so to speak. Betty Blue had to have been sketched at some point. Or was that just a sign of his old-fashioned thinking?

The world was too fucked-up these days.

“She would have city, state and national maps. She would be able to pinpoint any GPS point on  the globe, and any LPS on the moon.”

“I see.” Gene nodded and gave Francine a bright look.


Francine nodded. She couldn’t think of a damned thing to say. They’d all seen them on TV and marveled, but looking at row upon row of assembled products and rack on rack of parts lined up for the assembly line put the thing in a whole new perspective.


The sound, when it came, was unmistakable. In spite of the crackle of distant thunder, he heard it.

Scott’s heart leapt, and then the fear came and his heart almost locked up in his chest.

There was a vehicle, not far away. It was coming this way, and while it clearly went behind buildings, even fading out completely for a full minute by his internal reckoning, the next time he heard the tires crunching on gravel, it was much closer.

The vehicle slowed, creeping along now, the characteristic whine of a power steering pump indicated it was turning. The deep, booming rumble that cut across the sky obscured it for the next thirty seconds or so, and then came the sound of rain drops hitting a tin roof. No water hit him, and he thought he was sort of half indoors at least.

Scott lay flat on the blankets. It was more than any man could do to lie on his back.

He rolled over onto his stomach, facing the threat, praying that it was Betty, or that whoever it was would just go on past.

Scott had no idea of the surroundings, the locale. An abandoned auto plant, that’s all he knew.

The vehicle stopped, and his heart-rate soared.

He could literally hear the shifter cables pulling the lever on the side of the transmission into parking gear.

It idled softly, just on the far side of a screen of brush, which he knew was there from the rustles and the chirps and the heavy, drowsy buzzing of bumble-bees. The rain came then, sweeping in from somewhere behind him in a wall of sound that closed off everything but the immediate world.

There came the sound of a door opening, and yet no corresponding thunk of it being closed again.

He was petrified in case it wasn’t Betty, and the scrape of something a few feet away sent barbs of pure, distilled adrenalin through his guts and his thoughts.


“Oh. Jesus—”

When she grabbed his arm, just under the armpit, and began turning him over to see if he was all right—he figured that out, lying on his face wasn’t the best idea after all.. It was all he could do not to speak too much. 

Something snapped in Scott.

Something let go inside.

“So.” That was it, nice, tight, or taut, and his jaw worked back and forth.

Don’t say it.

Don’t say it.

Don’t even think it.

“What. Not even a, Honey, I’m Home?”

“I’m sorry, Scott. I really am. But we have a car now. Come on, let’s go.”

He stumbled to his feet, rocking slightly, head all woozy from the sudden exertion.

“Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute.” He sucked in oxygen.

With her helping him, he grabbed his packsack and she led him to the car.

He sat on the seat, his side door open, as she went back and checked for anything they might have left behind.

Her smell was right at the door again. She patted him on the shoulder and he belted himself in as she slammed the door and went around to her side.

There was the deep, cold burn of fear in Scott’s lower abdomen, it was like a puddle of something in the trough at the bottom of your innards sloshing around like the bilges of a fishing boat in the perfect hurricane.

The vehicle moved along, Betty’s situational awareness helpful as she had a picture of everything articulating in a wide circle.

Scott felt heat on his face. It was warmer for some reason, and a lot brighter around him now.


“We’re outdoors now…”



He felt the machine accelerate.

“What about drones?”

“They have a terror alert uptown. We should be all right for the moment.”

He nodded. 

The Eye in the Sky never sleeps. (Mintguy, Wiki.)
“Yeah, the drones will be all over that like shit on a baby’s blanket.”

She reached over and gave him another little pat on the shoulder.

“There’s a cold beer in the bag at your feet.” Her scent washed past him and he heard the rustle of the bag.

She placed it on the seat beside him.

He nodded.

“Thank you. That was very thoughtful of you, Honey.” He pondered the significance. “Did you call it in?”

He meant the terror plot.

She made no answer. He shrugged.

I wouldn’t put it past her.

Now that he had time to actually comprehend it, there was a hot roast beef submarine in the bag as well—and going by that smell, she had remembered to load it up with extra onions and the juice, that thin, runny pale juice that the Greek boys always squirted on there just before they were done.

Everybody liked the juice. They never would tell you what was in it, and of course Scott hadn’t seen it lately, nor even tasted such a thing in years.

He heaved a deep sigh and reached for the bag.

Who knows, maybe it was all worth it.

Up until then, he’d never really thought his life worth risking for anything. Anything at all.

This was a whole new way of looking at things.

He turned to face Betty for a moment.

“My life is worth risking. That means something, Betty.” Then he turned away. “It means something.”

She gave him a look, of which he was distinctly oblivious.

She obviously thought there was something worth risking…something worth running away for.

It was all he could do, just to try and gag down that first bite, and maybe try and get some kind of a handle on all of these sudden and rapid mood-swings.

“Hold onto your sandwich there, Scott. We’re entering the traffic stream.”

“What kind of a car is this, anyway?”

She turned down the radio a bit. It was raining heavily, and their faces would be obscured for the traffic cams. As for the vehicle, he was afraid to ask, although he certainly meant to.

They had about twelve minutes on the freeway going by the weather radar, and then she had another place to go to ground all picked out.

“It’s a Ford, a station wagon. A nice medium blue colour—there are a million of them out there, and that’s just this model year.”

“Station wagon? When did they come back?”

“Yeah. They’ve been popular for four or five years now, Scott.”

“You learn something new every day. So…ah, what else? It’s obviously stolen, right? I mean, you didn’t use my credit card…?”

She snickered.

Someone out there is missing fifteen vacuum cleaners.
“No, you’d never get that paid off, would you?” 

She went on. “It’s a stolen car, Scott.”

“See, I knew that.”

There was a long silence.

“There’s more.”



Scott slumped up against the window. After sleeping on the ground, and going hungry for eighteen solid hours, all he wanted was to feel safe, to be in a room. To be indoors.

“There are fifteen Filter King vacuum cleaners in the back, Scott.”

He snorted.

Scott reached over and gave Betty’s knee a squeeze.

“I sense a story.”

“Well, I saw a guy stealing it, and then I kind of took it off of him.” Her voice was warm and mellow.

“Well. That sucks.”

Her laugh made up for one or two things.

Maybe not everything, but a few things.


 My science fiction novel Horse Catcher is available from Kobo.                          

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on the blog posts, art or editing.