Story-A-Day May #24: The Kindness of Killbots

I wasn’t planning to immediately write more in the setting of Professor Calamity and the Clockwork Cowboy, but the new prompt from storyaday.org fit too perfectly. It’s to create a story inspired by this Eagles lyric: “The towns lay out across the dusty plains like graveyards filled with tombstones waiting for the names.”

This story takes place at an indeterminate time between those two previous tales.

***o

The Kindness of Killbots

Lying atop a ridge, Silas pressed the looking glass against his eye. Far across the dusty plains, the sun glinted off three metal objects marching in his direction. Killbots. Likely the same ones that had laid waste to Reedtown only last week.

Silas had hoped they’d turn east toward Fair Valley. That was the sad state of the world, and its chilling effect on the human heart. Everyone living in isolated enclaves, praying every day that the danger would pass them over for another. Once, they’d united to fight a war against these killbots. And they’d lost. Silas had lost damn near everything. Now both sides, human and machine, were leaderless. But the automatons still had the advantage.

He crawled back from the ridge, out of sight, and returned to his horse. Then rode like hell back to town.

His posse, such as they were, waited for him on the outskirts. The look on Silas’ face answered their first question.

“How many?” asked Wilder, who was hardly more than a boy. He trembled a little and squeezed his rifle.

No use in sugarcoating it. “Three.”

This time, the looks on their faces said it all. Silas shared their feelings, even if he forced himself to appear brave. It was an old army trick, taught by the dead.

“But I have a plan,” said Silas. “If we work together, we’ll get through this.”

From the rooftop of the saloon, Silas watched the three killbots approach the town in standard formation, spread wide but remaining within visual range. He didn’t know if they’d been taught that method, or if it was part of their nature, etched into those spinning cogwheels they called a brain. But he knew to expect it. Almost there…

The buried dynamite engulfed the central killbot in a massive upheaval of dirt and flame. It took every stick the town had saved, scrapped, and salvaged over the years. And even that was barely enough.

As the dust cleared, Silas saw the broken skeleton of its frame still twitching. But not enough to cause trouble. His posse whooped and cheered — against his strict orders — from their concealed positions. Which were now less-concealed, thanks to the killbots’ sensitive aural sensors.

That’s where his well-laid plan devolved into full-blown chaos. The surviving killbots rushed into the town, unloading their weapons with greater speed and accuracy than any human could muster. The air cracked with flying bullets. Wood splintered and chipped apart in giant chunks.

If there was any saving grace, any limitation on the killbots’ danger, it was good old-fashioned cheap human manufacturing. In the old days, the killbot army had been equipped with deadly weapons built by their creator, Professor Calamity. These days — like everyone else in this world — they made do with salvaged scrap.

The posse returned fire. Shoot and move, shoot and move. Just like Silas taught them. Killbots were quick and deadly when reacting. But slower and less efficient when making predictions.

He did the same from his rooftop, then leapt to another before the gunsmoke had cleared.

The bullets tore through the killbots’ tin plating easily enough, but they were made of sterner stuff inside. No way to tell what damage had been done, if any. Not until they stopped moving.

His conscripts were supposed to concentrate fire on the western-most killbot, before the one at the other end of town could rejoin forces. But in all the noise, smoke, and confusion it was difficult to tell if that happened. Complicating matters, the killbot kept dipping in and out of cover itself. Shooting and moving.

At last it slowed down and disappeared into a barn. Sensing an opportunity, Silas crept along a board he’d laid between the nearest rooftop and the barn’s loft. The killbot crouched in a stall, giving off sparks that threatened to set the hay, and the whole barn, afire. It appeared to be attempting some sort of self-repair.

Silas took careful aim at its skull with his rifle. He squeezed the trigger.

More sparks flew and the killbot collapsed in a heap. Silas reloaded and jumped down for a closer look.

The barn door was smashed open by a mighty blow, showering him with splinters as he raised an arm for defense. But there was no defense.

The third, wholly undamaged killbot had him dead to rights. Three was always too many. The townsfolk just hadn’t had enough firepower. But Silas wouldn’t go down without a fight.

He fired his rifle as he dove into a stall, landing atop the hay. He was almost surprised to have survived this long.

His surprise became astonishment as he managed to safely reload before the killbot advanced and finished him. After an even longer wait, curiosity won out. He poked his head from the stall.

The killbot lay still beside the broken barn doors, its head no longer attached to its shoulders. Silas could only blink at it. Some kind of catastrophic failure? He’d have to be awfully lucky for one of those metal monstrosities to suddenly give out after all these decades. But, examining the damage, there was no way a bullet had caused it.

He had to stand in the town square, shouting that it was all clear, for several minutes before the townsfolk trusted him enough to emerge. Then, they did so in droves. Once they were assembled, he asked, “Was anybody hurt?”

A chorus of voices answered simultaneously.

One of his deputies got winged in the arm, not too bad. Another in the foot. Painful but treatable. From there, they degenerated into complaints about splinters in fingers, ringing ears, and general feelings of disquiet. Old Deek claimed he’d twisted his knee in the fighting — coincidentally the same one he complained about every other day of the week.

“Okay, okay, let me rephrase,” said Silas. “Was anybody killed?”

After a moment of silence, someone yelled, “Yeah, Mr. Briller, he’s lying over behind the grocer.”

Damn. And Silas had almost begun to hope they’d done the impossible.

There was already a small crowd gathered around the body, which lay face down. A bullet had taken him clean through the back.

“Sheriff, sheriff, I saw the whole thing.” Wilder came running up. “It wasn’t no killbot, it was that feller who done it!”

“It was me.” A stranger stood in their midst. He wore an oversized duster with its collar turned up, and a broad hat pulled low to obscure his face. “I was hired by a woman back in Snakehill Falls. She said your Mr. Briller had it coming. I believed her.” His voice had a strange, tinny quality.

How did so much trouble find them, all at once? This was the last thing Silas needed. He shook his head. “That don’t sound like a proper bounty to me. And if it ain’t a proper bounty, it’s cold-blooded murder.”

Maybelle, a dancer at the local establishment, had come to witness the commotion. Now, she snorted loud enough to get everyone’s attention. “He was a real bastard. Good riddance, I say.”

“Being a bastard ain’t against the law,” said Silas. He peered at the mysterious man, trying to see beneath the brim of his hat.  “Better tell me your name, fella.”

With a shrug, the duster fell open, exposing a tin-plated chest.

Everyone panicked.

Silas fumbled for his six-shooter, which got stuck in its holster. He was a soldier, damn it, not some slick gunslinger. By the time he got it out, the killbot still hadn’t made any threatening moves. But Silas kept it in his sights anyway.

Slowly, as if it could recognize his fear, the killbot dragged a metal finger below an etching. “Unit-N1T0. I prefer ‘automaton’ to ‘killbot’.”

Silas had no idea what to say to that. Oh, he’d had a conversation or two with a killbot before. They were complex, able to do more than killing, that was just what they liked best. But he’d never spoken to one quite so polite.

Maybelle was the first to speak, as usual, “I don’t care if his hide’s metal or skin. I say he done right. I don’t doubt that woman had her reasons. Which of us ain’t been wronged by that bastard?”

Another unruly chorus broke out all at once.

“He stole from me!”

“He whipped my horse, for no cause but meanness!”

“He cheated me at cards!”

“You always lose at cards, ya old codger!”

“That just proves it!”

The killbot simply seemed to take this all in, and everyone seemed to forget their fear of him — or forget him entirely.

“Now, hold on,” said Silas, waving them all to silence. “We still got laws in this town, and they don’t allow for shooting a man in the back, no matter what kinda bastared he is. The kilbot’s got to hang by the neck until dead.”

The killbot, very helpfully, volunteered, “I should inform you that a fall from your gallows will be insufficient to break any of my mechanisms.”

Silas had kinda figured that. It didn’t sit well with him. When he was young — if he ever had been —  he’d seen a few criminals hanged by badly-strung ropes that didn’t snap their necks. Seemed an eternity that their boots kicked in the wind, their faces turning all sorts of colors he hoped to never see again. But the law was the law, so no one had intervened. If humans didn’t stand by laws and principles, they weren’t any better than killbots. “Then we’ll leave you hanging ‘til you turn to rust.”

The killbot nodded its head. “I can’t agree with your moral absolutism, but I understand it. I will comply.”

Of course he would. This infernal automaton just couldn’t make anything easy.

“Imagine that,” jeered Maybelle, “even a machine man is more flexible than you.”

The townsfolk had all gathered round the gallows beneath a gray sky.

“Any last words?”

“None I could vocalize,” said the killbot. A noose was already tightened around his neck, since it didn’t seem to discomfort him any.  “I hope this won’t leave you feeling worse than you did before.”

Silas nodded to the hangman. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“How can you do this?” Maybelle ran from the crowd to beat him soundly round the ears with the aluminum sole of a tap-dancing shoe. “You ain’t no kind of man, at all.”

The words stung Silas worse than the shoe — which was really saying something — but neither would move his heart to betray his duty.

The hangman pulled a lever. The killbot fell through the platform. The rope creaked.

Despite being warned what would happen, the townsfolk gasped and moaned. Then inched closer out of curiosity. Usually, this was the part of an execution where everyone began to look a little embarrassed and shuffled off, one by one.

“As anticipated, I am undamaged,” the killbot stoically announced, dangling by its neck.

“Are you in pain?” asked little Sally Delkins.

With a dark glower, Silas searched the crowd. Where was her useless, drunkard father? Did he think this was something a child should see? By rights, no one should. If it wasn’t Silas’ duty, he wouldn’t have attended.

The killbot opened its chest panel, and indicated one of the tiny black dials within. “Pain is set to zero. However, even at higher settings, the answer would be no.”

The crowd lingered. It was Silas who left first, returning to his office. There, he only sat at his desk and spun his tin badge round and round, watching how it caught the light.

The next dawn, the killbot still hung there, seemingly untroubled by his predicament. For the moment, Silas was alone. He expected the onlookers would return shortly enough. Even if these were unusual circumstances, it didn’t seem right to pester the condemned with so many questions. No matter how cheerfully he answered.

But Silas had one of his own that needed answering. “I suppose it was you who destroyed that last killbot?”

Unit-N1T0 regarded him with inexpressive optic sensors. After a moment, he said, “I think it would be easier for you if I answered ‘no’.”

“Stop doing that. Don’t pretend to care about my feelings.”

“I am incapable of stopping.” The killbot opened his chest panel, again, and pointed at some broken part, beside those other black dials. “My Empathy is maximum, and cannot be lowered.”

Silas knew he couldn’t say the same. He wanted nothing more from this machine.

Back in his office, he went back to spinning his tin badge atop his desk. He couldn’t understand all these changes in the world, in himself. At least in the army, so long ago, it had been simple. Three square meals, a bedroll, and no shortage of orders to follow unquestioningly.

He still couldn’t forget how he’d wished those killbots had turned for Fair Valley. It gnawed at him.

After another sleepless night, he had a new plan. But it was long into the afternoon before he convinced himself to go through with it.

Silas returned to the town square, where Unit-N1T0 still hung without complaint. This time, there was a sizable audience. He wanted them all to witness this, whether it was right or wrong. It was no act to be done like a thief in the night.

“Come to admire your handiwork?” asked Maybelle. “Bastard.”

Standing at the automaton’s side, Silas gestured for someone to come forward. “Doctor?”

The elderly Dr. Grevele limped along, leaning heavily on his cane. He placed a stethoscope against Unit-N1T0’s tin-plated chest. “He’s got no heartbeat.”

“Well, that settles it,” said Silas, trying to convince himself most of all. “Hung by the neck until dead. Somebody better cut him down.”

Maybelle squealed and covered her mouth. As Silas retreated back to his office, she chased after him. “That was a real fine thing you did, sheriff.”

“No, you had my measure,” he said, gently extricating himself from her hands. “I ain’t any kind of man. But I’m trying to be.”

***

Thanks for reading!

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