A Fistful of Trouble – Sample Chapters

Chapter One

The big blue robot ran through the desert. It had once been red, but that made the robot too easy to identify, so it got itself a nice new paint job. But running through the desert scratched the blue paint and made it look old and weathered. The robot had been running a lot recently. It had to run because someone was chasing it.

My name is Quincy Randall and I am the robot hunter. If I catch this one and turn it in for scrap, I can get two hundred dollars. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a thousand dollars if I can sell it to someone who needs a big ugly robot. I don’t think the robot is keen on being sold. But a thousand dollars would get me another step closer to buying a ticket off this squit-hole planet. I chase the robot. The robot tries to get away. That’s the game.

The robot is a machine that doesn’t feel pain and never gets tired. I’m human. You have to even the odds somehow. That’s why I chase the robot in a Trekker – an all-terrain vehicle with chunky tyres. I also have a big gun. I stole the robot’s weapons and hid them. Its gun was bigger than mine.

There’s not much cover in the desert. Just sand, an occasional outcropping of rock, and scrack-all else. The robot was a mile or more ahead of me but I could still see it plainly. Until it disappeared. It literally dropped out of sight.

“Scrack!”

I jammed my foot down on the pedal and the big electric motors whined. The acceleration threw me back in the seat. The ground here was uneven, peppered with lumps of reddish rock. The big springs in the suspension creaked and bounced me around and the tyres kicked up red dust.

The Trekker skidded to a halt. There was a fissure in the ground – not large enough to be a canyon but big for a gulch. Sloping down into it was some rough-looking scree. It was steep – forty-five degrees or worse – and the robot was almost at the bottom of it.

I dropped the Trekker into hill descent mode. The lower gear might help, but there was still a good chance I’d flip ass over teakettle and the Trekker would slide down on its roof. I could survive that – as long as a sudden jolt didn’t snap my neck. I crept forward slowly and tried to hang on to my breakfast burrito when the front wheels went over the edge.

I tried steering but soon realised I wasn’t achieving anything useful. The Trekker’s system selectively locked and unlocked the wheels, trying to keep us upright and in a nose-first controlled slide. My butt cheeks were clenched all the way down – I was down to my last pair of clean underpants and didn’t want to stain them. I didn’t relax until the front wheels scrabbled for grip at the bottom.

I turned to follow the escaping robot and pushed the selector into high gear. I needed to make up ground – and quickly. There was a dirt road in the bottom of the gulch so that made progress smoother. A little.

At the far end of the valley, where it opened out, I could see what the robot was heading towards. A small desert town that had grown up around some sort of mining operation. I wasn’t sure what they mined in this part of Saphira, but judging from the state of the town it didn’t pay well.

The robot had known the town was there, of course. The buildings would offer it all sorts of hiding places – and opportunities to lie in ambush and attack its pursuer. I had to catch up with it before it could conceal itself. It was part of the game. The robot might be smarter than me, but luckily I was quicker. Or the Trekker was.

The stratified rock of the gulch walls did weird things with sound, sending back and amplifying echoes. I could hear the thudding of the robot’s feet over the whine of the Trekker’s motor – but I decided these footsteps weren’t loud enough. I punched the button on the dashboard that would fire up the fake engine sound and I turned it up loud. I wanted the townspeople to hear us coming. They needed to be warned. I could just have easily cranked up the William Tell Overture or something, but I’d blown out a speaker the last time I tried that.

As we approached the town, I saw people start to appear. They all took one look at the big blue robot thundering towards them and ducked back to watch from safe hiding places.

I closed the gap and was almost on top of the robot when we passed the sign that said Welcome to Vulture’s End. A few more seconds and the robot would be running down the main street.

I stomped on the brake and the Trekker skidded to a stop. I drew the big gun from its holster behind the seat and threw open the door. Learning on top of the door frame, I took aim at the centre of the fleeing robot’s back.

It was a zap gun and it had quite a kick to it. Electricity streamed from the barrel and snaked towards the robot, fizzing loudly and making that ozone smell. The blast hit the robot between the shoulder blades and for a moment the two of us were joined by that umbilical of lightning. Then the light show ended and the robot pitched forward onto its face.

I kept the zap gun ready as the Trekker crunched towards the knocked-out robot, but the big blue meanie didn’t even twitch. I looped a chain around its ankles and dragged it into town behind the Trekker, scratching its paintwork some more.

People came out of hiding as I rolled down the main street. I was expecting at least a smattering of applause, but I was disappointed. The townsfolk just gawked at the fallen robot. I guess they’d never seen one quite that ugly.

Sheriff Henry T. Maddox had an impressive set of side-whiskers that he must have cultivated to draw attention away from his characterless face and weak chin. I’m sure he envisioned himself as a big, tough-talking sheriff and he was working on a paunch so he could look the part. But his genes had made him tall and pale and skinny. With those whiskers and no clothes, he probably looked like a toilet brush. It was not an attractive mental image. He was the local scrap merchant as well as the sheriff. It was a small town.

He was staring into a cash box. “I can offer you two hundred Alliance dollars,” he said, putting emphasis on ‘Alliance’ like most of the folk on the planet Saphira did.

I’d been offered less, but only once. A kid had offered me all of his savings. A whole five dollars. Sheriff Maddox could tell I was disappointed with his offer.

“You’re pretty handy with that thing,” the sheriff said. He was pointing to the zap gun slung over my shoulder. “There’s some local outlaws you might want to go after. You get more for them than you do for scrap metal.”

There was a display of wanted posters pinned to the wall behind his desk. The faces were smudgy blow-ups from bank surveillance cameras or sketches that looked like they’d been drawn left-handed by a right-handed child.

“I don’t hunt people,” I said. “Two hundred’s your best offer?”

“I won’t make much more than that selling it for parts,” he said. “It’ll be dismantled in the morning as soon as Scooter gets here,” the sheriff said.

“Now let’s not be too hasty about that,” said a voice from outside. “It’d be a shame to break up such a splendid machine.” The doorway was then filled with a big, greasy pork roast of a man in a wrinkled white suit. He wore a broad-brimmed hat with a paisley silk band and was mopping his face with a matching handkerchief.

“Who’s the balloon man?” I whispered, turning to the sheriff.

“That’s the mayor. You should be nice to him. He’s a big man in this county.”

He’d be a big man in any county.

“He’s the boss?” I asked. Sheriff Maddox nodded. “Then why am I talking to you?” I turned my back on him and walked towards the hog in the linen suit.

“You’re the robot hunter?” the mayor asked.

“Quin Randall,” I said, extending my hand.

“Beauregard S. Bacon,” he said. I heard his middle initial as ‘eff’ but I think he’d said ‘eth’. He had a slight lisp and a tendency to thpit when he thpoke. “I don’t like to brag,” he said, “but I’m…”

“A big thing in Vulture’s End,” I said. His hand was plump and damp when I shook it.

A smile spread across his face. It took a while for it to cover the whole distance.

“You’ve heard of me already? That’s flatterin’. Mighty flatterin’.”

“Sheriff Maddox speaks very highly of you.”

“Well, of course he does. Of course he does.” He mopped his face with the handkerchief. “It’s hot in here – lets you and me step outside, shall we?”

I indicated that he should lead the way. I had no choice, he was blocking the exit. He had to come into the office so he could turn round and go out again. The sheriff followed us outside.

In the unpaved street, a small crowd of rubberneckers had gathered around the fallen robot. Sheriff Henry T. Maddox shooed them back so he could examine the metal monster more closely himself.

“You were expressing an interest in the robot,” I said.

“Yes, indeed,” Mayor Bacon-Burger said. “A fine specimen. Very fine. I’m what you might call a private collector. Of militaria.”

“What might a collector of militaria pay for a robot like this?” I asked.

“I might go as high as a thousand dollars,” he said. “If it’s in working order.”

“Boot him up and he’ll be fine,” I said. “And he’s worth at least three thousand.”

“I’ll meet you half way,” he said. “Fifteen hundred.”

“That’s half, not halfway,” I said.

“It is?”

“Two thousand dollars,” I said. “Alliance dollars.”

He had the look of a man who would agree on a price and then try to pay in local currency. I could see that the price pained him, but I could also tell from his face that he really wanted the robot.

“Perhaps I’ll have better luck in the next town,” I said.

“Sold!” Mayor Bacon said, seizing my hand and shaking it. “Two thousand dollars.”

He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a stack of worn banknotes. He began counting them. A couple of the sheriff’s deputies unhooked the chain from the back of the Trekker and dragged the robot off the road. It took three of them to move it.

“It certainly is a fascinating item,” the Mayor said. Handing over the cash.

“And a very dangerous one,” I said. I counted the bills. “Much obliged.” I tucked them into my jacket pocket and buttoned it tight. “You should have someone check that thing has been deactivated properly.”

“The sheriff knows what he’s doing. I have every faith in him.” The mayor thought about this statement for a second and then yelled over his shoulder. “Hank! You have Scooter check that thing before you lock it up!”

“Yes, boss!”

The mayor took off his hat and dabbed his head with the handkerchief, disturbing the comb-over. “You come across anything else like that robot on your travels,” the mayor said, “I’d be obliged if you’d let me have first refusal. I’d be happy to pay a finder’s fee on top of its actual value. Cover your expenses in bringing it here, so to speak.”

“I will be sure and bear that in mind, Mr. Bacon,” I said. I had no intention of ever setting foot in Vulture’s End again, but he didn’t need to know that. “And I meant what I said about being careful with that robot. You can’t trust them. You think you can control them, but then they go feral and you have to put them down.”

“Quin, my boy, it sounds very much like you’re speaking from personal experience.”

“I am. That thing tried to kill me – more than once.” I wasn’t lying when I said that.

“Don’t you worry about us, sir. He’ll be powered down and then dragged off to the jail we got built behind the sheriff’s office. Stone walls three feet thick, no windows, and a big steel door. We use it for the local outlaws and ain’t one of ‘em ever escaped from it.”

“It sounds like you’ve got everything covered,” I said, “so I’ll bid you adieu.”

“You’re not staying the night?” the mayor asked. “We have a very fine hotel which I can vouch for on account of being part-owner. I’ll give you a very good rate…” He raised his eyebrows. They were like two bloated hairy caterpillars.

“That’s mighty hospitable, Mayor Bacon, mighty hospitable. But I prefer to travel at night when it’s a little cooler,” I said.

“I’m disappointed you won’t stay, I won’t pretend I’m not. But I understand what you mean about the darned heat.” He mopped his cheeks with the soggy handkerchief.

I turned and gave the sheriff a snappy salute then walked back to my Trekker.

*

There was trouble in Vulture’s End that night. I stood in the shadows and watched it unfold.

“Sheriff! Sheriff!” The youth came flying down the main street holding his hat on with one hand, heading for the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Maddox stepped out of the saloon, a whiskey glass in his hand. “Over here, Jeb. What’s all this ruckus about?”

The youth skidded to a stop. “It’s the robot, sheriff,” he said between gasps. “It’s waking up!”

The sheriff frowned. That shouldn’t be happening – he’d watched the local mechanic Scooter McSwain power the robot down and pull out some sort of fuse thing.

“Don’t go making such a fuss, boy. Even if it does wake up, that jail is strong enough to hold it until morning.”

“You sure about that, sheriff?” the youth asked. “That’s one big-ass robot in there.”

The sheriff opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again. He glanced over to where the robot had lain in the street earlier. He tossed back his drink and set the glass down. Squaring his shoulders, the sheriff crossed the street and opened up his office. I saw the light go on inside and through the window watched him unlock the gun locker. I couldn’t see what it was he took out, but it looked big.

Sheriff Henry T. Maddox stood in the doorway of his office and hit the button to power up his weapon. I could hear the whine it made from my hiding place across the street. It was a big old zap gun, twice the size of the one I carried. The rifle was old, but it looked like it carried a serious charge.

“Will that stop the robot, sheriff?” the wide-eyed youth asked.

“Jeb, this thing will stop a tank dead in its tracks. Come on.”

The sheriff marched off around the corner and Jeb scampered after him. Of course I followed, I didn’t want to miss this show.

The jail had been built behind the sheriff’s office and was separate from it. It was squat and round, maybe thirty feet in diameter, constructed from local stone and with a concrete slab for a roof. There was a big steel door studded with bolt heads and it had a little grilled window. It looked pitch black inside, but you didn’t need to see in to know that the robot was moving around. You could clearly hear the loud crashing and feel the vibrations through the soles of your boots. That jail might have been enough to hold local outlaws, but I doubted it was going to contain the robot for long.

The sheriff’s vehicle, a shiny year-old Charger with a big star-shaped badge on the door, was parked behind his office. The sheriff took up a position behind it, resting his elbows on the hood and aiming the zap gun towards the steel door of the jail. Jeb hunkered down beside him.

Like them, I thought the door would be the weak spot, but we were all wrong. A crack in the wall and a puff of white dust showed where the robot was pounding on the inside. The split widened under the barrage of blows and a stone was knocked loose, clattering to the ground. Another stone fell and there was a hole about a foot across in the thick wall. More cracks appeared. The wall seemed to explode outwards as metal fists and feet assaulted it. Stones the size of a man’s head flew outwards and rained down. A big cloud of dust swelled outwards. Something moved inside the cloud – coming out of the hole in the jail wall.

The robot stood just outside the jail, fists clenched at its sides, body hunched like a fighter in the ring. The red eyes were a nice touch. Spotting the sheriff behind the Charger, the robot raised its fists high above its head and let out a deafening mechanical roar I’d never heard before. This really was a five-star performance. Though if it started pounding its chest, I’d have to knock off a point for over-acting.

“Shoot it, sheriff!” Jeb urged, but the sheriff needed no urging. He aimed the rifle and squeezed the trigger.

Lightning snaked from the zap gun towards the robot, striking it squarely in the chest. It was hard to miss a target that big. When it hit, the lightning spread, becoming a net of writhing, shimmering energy that covered the robot’s body.

“I’ll show you who’s boss, you big ugly scrack!” the sheriff yelled, fighting the bucking rifle like a fireman with a hose.

The robot let out an inhuman scream, though whether from anger or agony I couldn’t tell.

The crackling spark of energy that shot from zap gun to robot disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared, but it left an after-image on my retinas. The sheriff lowered the rifle, its charge spent.

“Is it dead?” Jeb whispered.

The robot stood motionless, frozen in its angry King Kong pose. Heat haze and smoke rose from its casing into the night sky. Then it moved. The robot tilted its head slightly to one side, staring straight towards the sheriff. It took a step towards the Charger.

“Scrack! All you did was swazz him off!” Jeb didn’t wait around to see what happened next, he turned and ran.

Sheriff Maddox stood transfixed, staring at the advancing metal monster.

The robot reached for the Charger and lifted the vehicle off the ground as if it was no more than an empty cardboard box. The sheriff’s car sailed through the air and crashed into the jail, demolishing what was left of the weakened structure. The Charger was written-off too – a smart move, as this would prevent the sheriff from leading a posse anytime soon.

The sheriff stood exposed, staring up at the angry blue robot. If I was him, I’d have swazzed my pants. He tossed the zap gun aside, turned and ran.

The robot made no move to follow him. Instead, it headed out of town, aiming for the hills where he and I had arranged to rendezvous.

I was still holding the remote control that had reactivated the robot. It showed a steady green light, so I guessed the charge from the zap gun hadn’t done any serious damage to the robot’s systems. Our plan had worked perfectly.

Chapter Two

I had named the big blue robot Floyd. This was back when he was still big and red and just after he’d tried to kill me. He’d been defending his turf from invaders, so I understood his motives and had more or less forgiven him. We’d teamed-up in order to fight a gaggle of pirates and had been hanging out together ever since. Our short-term goal was to put together enough cash to get off the planet Saphira and head back to civilisation. I’m not sure either of us had a long-term goal.

Floyd had a fire going when I reached the spot where we’d arranged to meet. I pulled open a pouch of self-heating chicken curry and screwed the top off a can of instantaneous coffee. He didn’t mention the new scratches on his casing but I knew he wasn’t happy about them. He never was. We’d run the fake robot hunter scam about a dozen times so far in little towns all around the desert and each time he ended up looking a little worse for wear. On the up side, our stash of cash was looking pretty healthy.

We sent the drones up to keep watch. Gnat and Mozzie had been with me longer than Floyd and had saved my ass more than once. They would warn us if a posse from Vulture’s End rode out after us. I didn’t think they would. If they did, I’d give Floyd his big gun back and he’d scare them off. I had a rule about not killing folk and the big blue robot was reluctantly playing along. For now.

“When we get off this rock, we’ll get you a proper paint job,” I said. “Base coat, a layer of metallic flake, and a top coat of diamond glass to keep it shiny.” Floyd rarely says much and I just keep talking to fill the void. “You should think about what colour you want to be. Or maybe you want a custom design – something fancy, like flames, a snake wrapped around your arm, or maybe an eagle across your chest.”

“How soon will it be?” he asked.

“What?”

“How long until we get off this planet? We already have more than twenty thousand dollars. Isn’t that enough to buy two tickets?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?”

“We need to charter a ship with a captain that won’t ask awkward questions.”

“What sort of questions?”

“Like – Why are you trying to smuggle an illegal military robot off Saphira?”

Floyd went back to saying nothing. He didn’t have emotions, but sometimes it seemed like he did. He was certainly more than just a dumb robot. There was an artificial sentience hidden in his chest, salvaged from a battleship. That’s who I was talking to. The robot was just a vehicle – Floyd’s equivalent of my Trekker.

“We just need to hit a couple more towns,” I said. “Then we’ll have enough to buy-off a freighter captain and bribe any spaceport officials that come sniffing around.”

If truth be told, I was extremely nervous about heading for even the most out of the way spaceport on the planet. There was a price on my head and at least one bounty hunter knew I was on Saphira. The last time I’d been in prison, the warden had taken great pleasure in telling me that O’Keefe was on his way. I hadn’t seen any sign of him, but O’Keefe was so good that I would never see him. Until it was too late. He was bound to have all of the spaceports staked out, even those that only handled freight.

And it wasn’t just the cops and licensed bounty hunters I was worried about. I hadn’t mentioned this to Floyd yet, but I had once made the mistake of crossing one of the galaxy’s biggest Mister Bigs. His people were also looking for me. And they had a red hot poker with my name on it.

When Floyd and I did make our dash for freedom, I wanted to make sure we were prepared for all eventualities. And the best way to do that was to have a big fat emergency fund.

“We’d only need to hit one town if I turned you in for the bounty,” Floyd said.

The jury is still out on whether Floyd has a sense of humour. In this case, I don’t think he was joking. The bounty on my head was ten times the best price I was getting for him – maybe even more than that by now. While the thought of all that cash was attractive, I had a major problem with this idea. I would have to depend on Floyd to get me out of jail. And while I liked him, I didn’t exactly trust him. He’d fired his big gun at me too many times to count. He’d tried to feed me to a dragon – twice in one day. And he had attempted to put a cleaver in my skull. I guess I’ve always had trust issues, but in this case I feel justified. And it’s not just a case of anti-robot prejudice. I don’t trust Floyd in the same way that I don’t trust either of my ex-wives or my ex-husband. It’s personal.

But how do you explain that to an eight-foot, fifteen hundred pound ex-military robot? You don’t. And you don’t try lying either. Floyd had sensors that could pick up my vital signs and that meant he could tell when I was lying. Most times. The only option I had was what my grandpa used to call obfusticatin’.

“We could do that,” I said. “But what if something happens to you and you’re not able to break me out of prison?”

He stayed silent and I took this to be scepticism.

“Two towns back your cooling unit failed and that robot suit of yours shut down. No movement. Nothing. I had to drag you to a repair station. And they said the fix they put in there was only temporary. We need to get you to a proper robot engineer – get you the repairs and upgrades you need.”

“He would have to be an engineer that didn’t ask awkward questions,” Floyd said.

“Yes, he would. And that costs good money.”

“And after the repairs are done, you will trust me?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said. I was thinking of those sensors. “I don’t trust anyone except myself.”

He gave me the silent treatment again. Maybe he’d figured out that it made me uncomfortable. And he had infinite patience. Unlike me. I sighed.

“We’ll do one more town,” I said. “I’ll figure out some way to get us the extra money. Then we’ll leave. We’ll be off this planet before the end of the month.”

I should know better than to say things like that – it’s practically begging fate to deal us a sqitty hand.

*

I don’t always drag Floyd behind the Trekker, there’s a small flatbed behind the rear seats where he can sit and dangle his legs off the back. All that weight back there affects the handling, but it helps conserve his batteries. And if the Trekker runs out of juice, he can get off and push. When he’s sitting on the back he can turn his head a full hundred and eighty degrees like an owl and watch where we’re heading. The first couple of hundred times you see that it freaks you out, but I figured I’d get used to it. Eventually.

“Someone up ahead,” he said. His eyes are better than mine. The sensors on my dash confirmed what he said – it looked like a truck. A big one. It was stopped on the side of the road.

We were on a long, straight stretch of inter-county highway. The highway passed through a couple of towns along its hundred-mile length and parts of it were even paved. The big truck was probably just delivering supplies to the towns, but it pays to be cautious. I told Floyd to lose an arm and fit his cannon in place of it – just in case.

As we got closer, a man stepped out into the road and waved his arms above his head. He wasn’t dressed like a delivery driver and his truck was just one step up from a bombed-out wreck. He was a scavenger. And there was a good chance he wasn’t alone. I slowed and came to a halt some way short of him, made him walk towards us to talk. He stopped when he was within hailing distance.

“Hello, there!” he called.

I waved a friendly greeting out of the open window. He took this as a signal to move closer.

“Thanks for stopping. I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a pickle.” His arm swept towards the truck that was leaning at quite an angle on the side of the road. “Trailer blew a tyre a few miles back.”

The highway was littered with debris – bits of twisted metal, dead coyotes, and curls of shredded tyre. You ran over the small bits and swerved around the big ones – it helped break the monotony.

I flicked a glance towards the truck. There was no sign of anyone else there, but that didn’t mean it was empty. The trailer looked like something from a carnival show – the whole side of it could drop down to make a sort of stage. It was covered in filth and rust but there was a sign painted across it. It was too dirty and faded to make out.

“That’s me,” the man said proudly. “Joseph Hawkins, Robot Salesman.”

I’d been right, he was a scavenger. I opened the door of the Trekker and stepped out. The old salesman scurried toward me, hand outstretched.

“Joe Hawkins,” he said. “But most folks call me Happy.”

Folks can be ironic like that. His face looked like it hadn’t cracked a smile since before the War. The wrinkles in his face were filled with road dust and his lips looked dry and chapped. His bushy grey beard might have been made from wire wool and his eyebrows were the same. He wanted people to see him as some sort of road-punk Santa Claus, but his real character was revealed by his dark beady eyes. Not a man to be trusted.

“Quin Randall,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Travelling alone?” Happy Hawkins asked, peering over my shoulder to see if there was anyone else in the Trekker. From where he was standing, he couldn’t see Floyd. When I didn’t answer him, he carried on talking as if I had. “Ain’t safe to ride the highway alone. You should get yourself a robot travelling companion. I’ve prob’ly got just the thing you need. Got all kinds in my trailer.”

Behind me, the springs of the Trekker creaked. Happy’s eyes narrowed as Floyd came around and stood behind me.

“I see you’ve got that covered,” Happy said. “Haven’t seen one of those since the War. And it’s got the original accessories.”

He was referring to the canon Floyd was carrying in place of his left arm. There was a glint of avarice in the old man’s eyes. Floyd was the kind of hardware scavengers dreamed of finding and I bet Happy had to stop himself licking those chapped lips.

“I’ve got fresh water, if you need some,” I said.

“Thank you kindly, but I have a supply in my cooler. Water is not what I have need of.” He was talking to me but his eyes were on Floyd the whole time.

“You said you’d lost a tyre?”

“Losing one wouldn’t normally be a problem, but the fact is I’ve now lost two on that side and my trailer has taken to leaning something alarming. I’m afraid she’ll topple right over and spill my livelihood across the highway.”

I nodded my understanding. That would be a lot more debris for drivers to swerve around.

“Trailer has a jack built-in but the darned thing’s busted,” Happy said. “I’m a little past due on the servicing, I’m afraid to say. You don’t carry a heavy-duty jack in that vee-hickle of yours, do you?”

I shook my head. “Nope. But I’ve got the next best thing.” I nodded back towards Floyd.

“You reckon that robot of yours can lift the trailer so my robots can put a tyre on?” Happy asked.

“I reckon he could lift it and throw it down to the next town, if you wanted him to.”

Old Happy cackled at that and I saw why he didn’t smile too often. I’m guessing he couldn’t decide whether to have his teeth taken out or not so he had them pull every other one. Those he had left were a mottled green-brown like snail shells.

“I guess I’m not going to be stuck here all night after all,” he said. “I’ll get the robots to bring out the fresh tyres.” He stomped off towards the trailer.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Floyd asked.

“Definitely not,” I said.

“I’m going to need two hands,” he said.

“I know. I’ll keep your canon close-by.”

Floyd disengaged the big gun and handed it to me. He went around the back of the Trekker and re-fitted his other arm.

“Is this thing charged?” I asked, holding up the cannon. It got its power from him.

“You’ll get one shot out of it,” Floyd said.

“One shot’s all I ever need,” I said, grinning.

The sound Floyd made as he walked away was something like pffft!

“Hey!” I called after him. “Keep an eye on the old man. I think he wants to add you to his doll’s house.”

“In his dreams,” Floyd said. “Let’s get this done.”

Happy Joe Hawkins had the little side door of his trailer open and a couple of skinny robots were trying to get the replacement wheels out through it. They looked like clowns from a rodeo and their casings were stained and patched. I was tempted to stick my head into the trailer to see what other antique automata he had in there, but the smell wafting out made me keep my distance. Could be that Happy was a serial killer who kept his victims hanging in there. I backed away, keeping one hand close to the gun in my holster. The zap gun was stowed back in the Trekker and was carrying the pistol with the explosive cartridges. Just in case. The other hand I kept behind my back, holding Floyd’s cannon.

The robot clowns used a power-wrench to undo the nuts on the wheel with the damaged tyre. They chattered to each other in a high-pitched language that only they could understand. Floyd then stood with his back to the trailer and lifted it so they could get the old wheel off the hub and put the new wheel in place. As the trailer rose something inside was dislodged and fell. The sound had my fingers darting towards my gun.

“Just the cargo shifting,” Happy said dismissively. He’d seen me make my move for the pistol.

The power wrench made brrrp noises again as the nuts were tightened to hold the new wheel in place. When Happy had said ‘fresh’ tyres, he’d meant ones that weren’t quite as cracked and shiny as the ones that had been shredded.

“Your guy’s better for this kind of thing than mine,” Happy said. “But I bet mine are better in the kitchen.”

I wouldn’t let either of those turd jugglers anywhere near a food preparation area, but I just smiled and nodded. I figured that if Happy was going to try anything, he’d wait until his second tyre was replaced. The look in his beady eyes made me think he would try something and that meant he had something up his sleeve he thought would allow him to defeat both me and Floyd. That sort of confidence was worrying. I don’t like nasty surprises. Four more brrrps and I’d have to be ready to rumble.

Brrrp.

Brrrp.

My eyes were on the old man and his were on me. Showdown.

Brrrp.

The attack could come from any direction. My fingers were near the pistol, ready to draw.

Brrrp!

Nothing happened. Was this a trick? The old man was still watching me. I heard the sound of the wind and a big crow cawedoverhead – probably attracted by the smell from the trailer. I glanced towards Floyd. He didn’t move. Time seemed to be frozen, waiting for someone to make the first move. Did I mention that I’m not big on patience?

“I guess that about does it,” I said, my eyes locked on the old man’s once more. He didn’t respond. Not giving anything away. No hint of where an attack might come from. Dammit, I should have had the drones covering us. I thought about just shooting Happy. If I’d been carrying the zap gun, I might have done. Zap guns aren’t lethal weapons. Not usually.

A flicker of the old man’s pupils – the briefest glance towards the trailer. I drew my pistol and aimed it towards the open door. Happy Hawkins looked at my gun and unveiled his nasty green-brown teeth in a nasty green-brown smile. He thought my weapon wasn’t big enough. That sort of look does nothing for a man’s confidence.

A sound inside the trailer and a robot appeared in the opening. It was some kind of top-end security robot. Almost new. Its chassis was gleaming chrome and the plating on its chest and legs was a matte blue-grey. It didn’t have any hands – both of its forearms were machine guns. Red eyes and a face like an Art Deco skull completed its intentionally disturbing persona. I hated security robots. It leapt down to the ground and its movements made me think of spiders.

Happy was still smiling. I guess situations like this were where he’d earned his nickname.

“Don’t expect your robot pal to save you this time,” the old man said. He held up a device that I recognised immediately. It was the kind of remote control that the old pirate Jack Sulver had used to deactivate Floyd. Of course, a robot scavenger would have access to such a thing.

I looked from Happy Hawkins to his security robot and back to Happy. I grinned as if I liked these odds. I grinned even more when I saw his smile falter.

“Kill him!” Happy yelled.

“Gladly,” I said. I lowered the pistol and brought Floyd’s cannon round. I had one shot. And for once, it was all I needed.

The cannon was meant to be used by a hundred and fifty-pound robot soldier. The recoil almost dislocated my elbow and it knocked me backwards on my ass. I’d aimed for a spot just under the security robot’s breastplate and the blast was angled up slightly. The robot’s upper torso was carried up and back into the trailer, clattering inside. Its legs stood where they were for a moment and then pitched forwards. The skull-like head bounced back out of the trailer and rolled to a stop near my left boot.

Happy didn’t look so happy now. Floyd had his massive hand wrapped around the scavenger’s throat. The old man’s eyes looked like they were about to pop out. Happy’s skinny clown-bots both stood with their hands above their heads.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“Am I allowed to damage him?” Floyd asked.

“Let me think about that,” I said. I held my breath and climbed up into the trailer to see what else Not-So-Happy was hiding. I was relieved to see that there were no human remains in there. But it did look like a robot mortuary had been dynamited. There were mechanical limbs and torsos and heads scattered everywhere. A sort of repair shop had been set up at one end of the trailer and there were some more or less intact robots hanging on a rail – presumably these were to go on display for sale at the next town Happy pulled up in. It wasn’t going to be much of a beauty pageant. The stench was coming from a barrel of artificial flesh that had been stripped off an old android. Who knew that it rotted like that? And apparently the maggots loved it. I’d seen enough.

Happy and Floyd were standing exactly as I’d left them, like contestants about to begin some sort of murder-themed ballroom dance.

“Put his feet back on the ground,” I said.

Reluctantly, Floyd did as I asked, but he kept his hand around Happy’s neck.

I took the remote control from the old man’s numb fingers and held it up for Floyd to see.

“Recognise this?” I asked. “Aren’t you glad I gave you that upgrade?”

“You disconnected two wires,” Floyd said.

“And you told me I was wasting my time because no one else would have one of these things.”

“You were right and I was wrong,” Floyd said. “It had to happen eventually.”

“Apology accepted,” I said.

“What are you going to do to me?” Happy croaked.

“What are we going to do with him?” Floyd asked.

I looked the old man up and down. “He doesn’t look like he’d make good eating,” I said. “We should probably just let him go.”

“You don’t want him as your personal slave?”

“Nah,” I said, “I’ve got you.”

“No, you really don’t,” Floyd said.

“If you want a house robot, take one of mine,” Happy said.

The two clowns looked startled by this offer. One pointed at the other. That one shook its head and pointed back at first one.

“Have them both, if you want,” Happy said.

The two skinny droids might have been fun to have around for a while, but eventually I’d probably want to shoot them and that would just be a waste – of two good bullets.

“Go inside and fetch that barrel of dead skin,” I said to the clowns. “Take it out there and bury it.”

The robots went off to work, chittering merrily.

“Mr. Hawkins,” I said, “it’s been nice visiting with you. I wish you happy trails.”

Floyd let go of him and the two of us started walking away.

“I’m not going to forget this!” Happy yelled after us. “If I ever see you two again I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” I turned, pointing Floyd’s cannon at Happy’s truck. He didn’t know it was juiced out.

Happy put his head down, muttering something at his shoes.

“I don’t think you made a new friend today,” Floyd said when we got back to the Trekker.

There was a roaring sound behind us and a long insulting blast on an air horn. Happy’s truck pulled back onto the highway and rumbled away, belching thick black smoke into the air. I hated to think what he was burning. One of the skinny clowns leaned out of the side door and flipped us the bird.

“Just one more reason to get off this stinking planet,” I said. I was still trying to get the smell of rotting android out of my nostrils. “We’ll stop at the next town we come to. I need a bath.”

“I was wondering how to broach that subject.” The rear suspension of the Trekker dipped as Floyd climbed on board.

“Please don’t do that thing with your head,” I said.

“What thing?” he asked, rotating his head to face me.

“Never mind.”