Disclaimer: I don't own any of the Dredd characters, places, etc.
Chapter 1: Robot of the Year
Dredd had completed his third circuit as he spotted Judge Diablo waving him over. Dredd wasn't unused to working security detail, he was just not as comfortable waiting for something to happen rather than actively pursuing wrongs already commit. He cut through the press of crowds filling the Robot of the Year exhibition and made for Diablo, his name badge and mustache the only differentiating characteristics about him to the public. Dredd knew him as a seasoned Judge, an expert really at protection details with an eye for trouble brewing few others could boast. He'd worked counter terrorism for years and handled many high profile cases, a regular at most public gatherings.
All smiles and polished manners Diablo was deceptively relaxed. He leaned against the railing overlooking the main show floor. Sociable almost to a fault there was more than one reporter usually present at these circuses that lost her heart when Diablo worked his PR magic after an event or arrest. Even with all this in their favor and the assortment of auxiliary members between independently hired muscle and a battalion of regular police officers Dredd had a sense that things would go wrong.
"All quiet on the western front," Diablo remarked when Dredd reached his side. He turned and leaned both elbows on the rail to study the floor below. "We'll see if our perp was just hoping to cause a stir with his threat."
"Unlikely," Dredd remarked flatly, skimming the crowd below. Diablo chuckled.
"Protection detail isn't usually your thing Dredd. Could it be you're secretly fond of technology and curious about the show this year? I hear there's going to be a demonstration that'll mark a new era in robotics." Diablo's smile already said he knew better.
"The number of potential casualties is unacceptable," Dredd replied and Diablo chuckled.
"If you're one thing you're consistent Dredd. All badge and duty," he stood up straight, hooking his fingers in his belt.
"A pity there aren't more with equal consistency," Dredd replied. Diablo laughed this time.
"They churn 'em out of the Academy younger all the time. You just gave another rookie Assessment recently didn't you?"
"They say it was a doozy, one of the biggest drug busts in history."
"A drug bust's a drug bust," Dredd brushed off the implied praise. He'd have expected no less of another seasoned Judge like Diablo. Anderson had done extraordinarily. She was supposed to have been a failed Judge and instead he found himself partnered with an equal, inexperienced as she might have been. Diablo shook his head.
"The girl, I think her name was Anderson right? They say she's got a great record since then. She's notorious, the first rookie you ever passed."
Dredd offered no reply.
"Not even a scrap of insight for me? She must have been a Mutie," Diablo laughed as an alarm bell sounded in Dredd's head. Beneath his visor his eyes shot suspiciously to Diablo. Anderson's "condition" wasn't common knowledge.
"What makes you say that?" he asked, his scowl deepening.
"Don't they emit pheromones or something? She must have some unnatural charm for a passing mark," Diablo said as Dredd realized he was teasing.
"Her record proves she earned the pass. It wasn't a hand out," was all he said. Diablo chuckled again but offered no more heckling, his attention shifting to the floor below where a flamboyantly dressed businessman was stepping up with a humanoid robot moving smoothly in tow.
There was something almost human about the android's gait, less comprised of exact angles and more attuned to the actual movements of a human body. A copper toned, slightly larger than life replica of a blocky human shape, the android seemed to look around it as if curious. Dredd's eyebrows came together. What was this android's purpose? It didn't have apparent tools for carpentry or construction, not for street cleaning or washing or any number of assorted attachments for the various jobs assigned to robots. George was written boldly across the robot's chest.
"Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the annual Robot of the Year!" the demonstrator announced, his arms held up to a crowd that offered enthusiastic clapping and rippling whispers of anticipation. The salesman's smile was too broad, his teeth glittering with artificial brightness. "You've seen some amazing things this year have you not? But I believe this may take the cake. Allow me to introduce George."
Curious applause this time. Diablo stroked his mustache as he studied the stage below. Dredd let his eyes drift across the crowd in search of anything untoward. Threats had been made and Dredd fully anticipated their attempted fulfillment.
"George here is a domestic bot, custom designed to mind the house and even nanny the children. This is nothing new. So what might make George so special you may ask? Well, lets have ourselves a demonstration. You madame, why don't you come on up here?"
He beckoned a blond woman, pretty in her mid thirties, dressed in trendy brand names. She approached the stage and George came to meet her, offering blocky fingers to her gallantly. Hesitantly she accepted the hand and let the robot help her onto the stage.
"Now my dear, why don't you try having yourself a conversation with George here?" the representative suggested as the robot stood waiting attentively.
"Uh, hello George," she said hesitantly.
"Hello miss," George's bronze colored head dipped slightly. "Shall I fetch you a chair perhaps?" The cadences and speech patterns were totally human. Dredd felt an immediate warning bell. Make a robot too human and it would soon have human compulsions, good and bad. He came closer to the rail beside Diablo.
"That would be lovely George," the woman nodded, still nervous. George moved with swift, long strides, graceful. He collected a chair in his blunted fingers and brought it back for the woman who sat with another "thank you". They proceeded into a conversation that began with George's abilities and wound its way into politics and the state of Mega City 1 itself. By the end the woman was laughing as the crowd stood agog.
"Well he's human enough," called one of the crowd. "But will he do as he's told?"
"A fine question," the demonstrator nodded.
"Miss Del Monte, allow me please to help you off the stage," George said, the sensors in his eyes oddly shaped like irises flicking to the demonstrator. Dredd might have sworn it was leery of the human, apprehensive of the almost cruel delight spread of his face. The woman accepted George's blunted fingers again as he walked her to the edge of the stage and helped her down. "There you are ma'am. Thank you very much for taking the time to entertain this humble bunch of bolts."
"Oh George, not at all. The pleasure was all mine," the woman assured him.
"Now then George," the demonstrator clapped his hands and jets of fire burst to life behind him in an impressive wall of flames. The crowd gasped and drew back. "Into the fire with you!" George hesitated there by the edge of the stage, standing with a very human sort of fear.
"Sir, I think it may be painful to stand in there," he said with trace notes of hesitation.
"Nonsense George. You won't feel a thing. You're only metal after all. Metal and an impressive ability to mimic human emotion," the demonstrator clucked his tongue. "Now, into the fire."
"I...I would rather not..." George's fingers came together, the soft sound of them being wrung almost echoing over the captivated crowd.
"2 million!" Miss Del Monte shouted suddenly. "I'll give you 2 million credits for him!" Her voice was high, reedy. Fear made her face tight, drained it of color where a few moments ago her blue eyes had shimmered with her laughter and her wheat blonde bob had danced as she shook her head in an enthusiastic modesty against George's offered praise.
"Sorry ma'am, this particular model isn't for sale. We've got plenty more lined up and we can certainly get you one of those, just like this one."
"I don't want one 'just like him'. I want this one. Four million!" Del Monte almost snarled as the crowd began to stir from its stupefied silence into uncertain agitation.
"George!" the demonstrator bellowed. "Into the fire! Now! Its an order!"
As if on strings George jerked several steps forward towards the roaring flames. He was the better part of the way to them when Miss Del Monte hoisted herself athletically onto stage – she must have played tennis with other well to do wives by the tan and the tone in her arms – and made for George. Dredd moved too, heading swiftly for the stairwell down to the showroom from their observation point where he could collect her.
"Don't George!" Del Monte protested, her hand hooking around the robot's wrist. Security surged like a hill of angry ants, the first one there taking the woman's arm. Del Monte jerked her elbow back reflexively and caught her would be taker's nose, sending the burly man with "security" written in yellow across his chest staggering back. "Don't listen to that horrible man! Run George!"
"Please make them stop master!" George pulled Del Monte out of the reach of more body guards. "I will do as you say but please do not let them take Miss Del Monte. She is much too kind to this old jumble of circuits."
"Enough!" the demonstrator shouted just as Dredd pulled himself nimbly onto the stage. He approached swiftly through the retreating security, the one with the bloody nose muttering curses and snarling at the well dressed woman.
"Come with me ma'am," Dredd instructed.
"No charges from us sir. The lady just likes the product," The demonstrator gave him a bleach toothed grin as fake as his tanning bed tan. "What about you sir?" he shot the security guard a blistering look.
"None," the guard answered.
Del Monte looked back at Dredd with tears glittering in her eyes, threatening her lashes. Her face pleaded with him. He only motioned her ahead of him off the stage.
"You're the law! How can you let him do this?" she demanded, her voice shaking with anguish.
"This thing belongs to that man. What he does with his personal property is not my concern so long as it does not harm anyone else."
"What about George? He'll be harmed."
"Robots do not qualify as persons. They're property," he shook his head. Anger flashed in Del Monte's eyes.
"Go on ma'am. Its been a real pleasure," George assured her, a smile in his tone though his voice box offered no way of shifting into the expression. Dredd carefully took Del Monte's arm so as not to startle her into retaliation and gave her a gentler tug than he might have under normal circumstances. She stepped back, eyes still fixed on George, and he guided her back down the steps off the stage.
George marched resolutely into the flames. He turned back to face the crowd as his iron exterior began to glow and then to melt, gears exposed just long enough to be visible before they too began melting, circuitry sparking. Oil boiled up from everywhere, including some that streamed down the robot's face.
Del Monte was silent beside Dredd, her elbow still loosely in his hand lest she decide to do something foolish. They watched until George was nothing but a bubbling pile of molten metal.
"Judge, you see a lot of things out there so maybe you would know," Del Monte turned a stony face to him, her eyes glittering with tears she refused to shed and at the same time hard with fury. "Why would you give a robot feelings, thoughts, just to destroy it?"
"Power," Dredd released her. Del Monte's smile jerked at one corner of her mouth and a tear almost spilled over. Dredd extracted a book for citations and scratched one out for her. "Public disturbance," he tore out the ticket and handed it to her. She rolled her eyes as she accepted, glancing at the amount. She did a double take. "It might be better if you stay home next year Miss Del Monte."
"I'll be far too busy figuring out how to legally protect robots like George to get another one credit fine," she nodded as he turned to go. "Judge?" He half turned to look back at her. "Would you protect them too? If there were laws?"
"You do your part and I'll do mine," was all he replied. Del Monte gave him a faint smile and finally reached up to wipe away the tears suddenly pouring down her face. Dredd left her and returned to where Diablo was still watching the spectacle as half the crowd grumbled dispersing and the other half were crowding around the demonstrator with wallets out.
"Amazing what they can do with circuitry these days," Diablo remarked.
"Giving robots human emotions will only lead to more trouble," Dredd replied, watching Del Monte depart through the crowd. She was a little wheat blond head making for the exit amidst the swirl of many bodies.
"Probably. But it looks like there are plenty of people willing to pay," Diablo gestured at the throngs of people pressing towards the demonstrator. "About time for another circuit. I'm surprised our yahoo hasn't followed up yet. It all seems far too quiet."
Twenty minutes was not much time. Everything was so still, so perfectly undisturbed but for the quiet hum of machinery and the quiescent robots stationed attentively, anticipating the commands of their masters.
The dead lay strewn across the floors, chocking the aisles and walkways. Many of them were collapsed in the frothing pools of partially dissolved lung they'd hacked up before drowning in their own fluids, a result of the gas tapped in via the air ducts. Panic had lasted all of two minutes, a stampeding, raging group of people before the gas had done its work and they were all dead.
Diablo coughed behind him, a gurgling sound. He'd sounded the alarm the moment he'd caught a whiff of the poisonous gas, the few seconds warning Dredd had needed to settle his own respirator. Diablo had gotten the barest bit in him but it was already at work, slowly eating at him. The pain must have been excruciating but his fellow Judge moved with him swiftly down the corridors, stepping over the dead in search of the perpetrator.
Biological hazard units were already outside but they had to quarantine the surrounding area so they could process the air out lest it creep through the city and devastate blocks. There was so much poison gas it clouded the air like mist. The quarantine would take at least another thirty minutes. As yet Dredd had ten minutes before the oxygen in his respirator would be gone. Diablo was as good as dead in less time than that and they both knew it.
"Sir," something stirred in the mist and both Judges whirled around, Lawgivers raised and ready to fire. "There are lethal amounts of toxin in the air. You should evacuate before you die too." One of the George models from earlier came out of the mist. "Oh. Respirators. My apologies, sir."
With the respirator in Dredd couldn't speak. He tapped his visor and motioned around the room. The George bot tilted his head before seeming to scan his surroundings.
"If your question is 'have I seen anyone' the answer is no. If it is your desire sir I could perhaps bypass the defenses of the present security system and we may be able to view the feeds."
Dredd gave George a nod and the robot stepped very carefully over the fallen, back the way he'd come. Dredd and Diablo followed, Diablo coughing a few more times. George led them to a console in the wall and adeptly began keying information into it. He made a very human sound of irritation before pulling the paneling back with an easy tug – no mean feat as the bolts squealed back stripped of their threads – and plugged a cable directly from himself into the system.
"Please regard this," he stepped slightly to the side so the pair of judges could crowd in.
In an uncanny similarity to the event in Peach Trees the war protocol had been activated, sealing the entire building. As George replayed the footage Dredd watched a man in a gas mask stroll in and blow the room away. A robot came in behind him and dutifully hacked into the system and sealed off the building. And then the man had simply worked the console with air controls and the gas had vented, as if put there beforehand. They'd had building security look the whole place over head to foot. These systems should have been checked. It no longer mattered as the one who'd overlooked it was surely dead by now.
George tracked the man and his robot's progress through the building and realized they had stopped, and were still sitting, at the main platform where the demonstrations had been held. Dredd glanced at Diablo, just finishing another wheezing coughing fit, bloody foam dribbling down his chin behind the respirator. The other Judge nodded, flicking the selection on his Lawgiver to Hot Shot.
"Shall I try to vent the gas sir?" George asked. Dredd shook his head. "Perhaps I can find a way to clear one room. I doubt your respirator has much air left. I shall work it out as quickly as I can sir." Dredd gave him a nod and was about to go when the robot removed his pinky finger and held it out. "So I can locate you sir." Dredd accepted the finger, tucked it in his belt, and moved into the poisonous fog like a wraith.
He and Diablo moved through the halls in practiced familiarity with death. Diablo took only a handful more risks than he ordinarily would, the limit of his mortality clearly weighing on him. He must have been in great pain, struggling to breathe as he was, but his arms were steady as he sighted down corridors and turned around corners in the labyrinthine displays.
"Do you see how effective the Judges are Buck? Look at this. Six hundred dead because they didn't feel my threats were genuine. A bit of work on the front end and they couldn't sweep the building thoroughly. Why not check the vents? It was there!" snickered a voice through the fog. Both Judges came to a halt. "The Hall of Justice. What a joke! The Hall of Totalitarianism more like it! Inept at best!" he burst into a short cackle, shrill. "Six hundred dead! They'll not forget this Buck. Not at all. And at the annual Robot of the Year showcase no less! They'll think twice I imagine. Pah!"
"Sir, heat signatures at two o'clock," came the monotone reply of an older A.I. model. They didn't have a line of sight but Diablo took the risk. He plunged forward, vanishing ahead of Dredd and shots were fired. Dredd's voice grated in his throat, the closest he could come to a swear with his respirator in place, and moved to follow by cutting a wide arc around one side.
Diablo was face down on the floor, the back of his helmet a gaping hole. Blood pooled underneath him, evidence of wounds to his chest cavity though in his obscured sight crouched by the edge of the stage Dredd couldn't see where the bullets might have come out the back of his Kevlar vest.
"There sir," the robot pointed Dredd out, standing with sparking holes in its back. Peering around the robot was the muzzle of a gun and the gas mask.
"Sorry chum, no survivors but myself. I'll surrender then and get my piece with the media to explain 'why'." He cackled and squeezed off a few more well placed shots. Dredd ducked under the lip of the stage. If he hadn't needed his respirator he would have pointed out that responding Judges would execute him on the spot. The best form of communication he could hope for was an interrogation with Judges highly skilled in the art, followed then by an execution for 600 counts of manslaughter, acts of terrorism, murdering a Judge, and the list could go on to almost countless smaller infractions that hardly mattered.
His line of sight wasn't good enough for Armor Piercing rounds, not to catch them both. The robot had already eaten a few heat seekers by tracking their trajectory and stepping between it and his master. So Dredd shifted it to High Ex. There would be some backlash but the man wouldn't walk away and the robot couldn't shield him from it. Besides, Dredd figured his own chances of walking away were slim so the detonation didn't concern him overmuch.
Shifting he waited until his man had to reload and then popped up and squeezed off one round. He managed to duck in enough time that the shuddering explosion of shrapnel only grazed the top of his helmet, other chunks flying in every direction. It was accompanied by wet plops too as his real target collapsed in pieces. Dredd stood up to survey the damage. Satisfied the man was done in – the legs the only pieces left whole – he moved back through the haze towards the front door. Maybe they could rig up something for him to slip out in the remaining four minutes of his oxygen.
A shadow morphed out of the haze and caught his arm. The muzzle of his Lawgiver was out so fast he had almost pulled the trigger before he recognized George.
"This way sir," George instructed politely. So Dredd followed through the choked walkways before they slid into a spare room filled with transparent air. Dredd pulled in at the last dregs of his oxygen supply as the robot clicked on panels that pulled out the remaining toxins and vented some purified air back in its place. "It is safe to breathe now sir. You may remove your respirator."
Dredd pulled out his respirator and took a breath, half expecting to feel the burn of the poison eating his lungs. Instead he got a cool supply of oxygen and he took a few breaths in appreciation. George was keying away at another control panel, pausing almost thoughtfully as he considered the best approach.
"Can you patch us through to the outside?" Dredd asked.
"That is my present objective sir," George nodded, his voice distracted. "Sir...do you know if that woman made it out? Del Monte?"
"I don't," Dredd answered.
"I hope she did."
Dredd tilted his head slightly at the sentiment.
"Sir, what will become of me?" George inquired. "Shall I be returned to Wex Corps?"
"Not immediately. You'll be cataloged as evidence first and your databanks will be copied for records."
"What if I had already been purchased? My new owner died today sir...and I do not wish to be used in a demonstration like G-5004."
"You'll go to his next of kin," Dredd replied.
"We have communication with the men outside sir." George stepped back, hands tucked behind him and metal chin dipped subserviently. Dredd came up and leaned against the consul.
"Dredd here. Do you copy?"
"Copy Dredd. This is control. Status?"
"Only survivor. Judge Diablo killed in action. Perp executed. Current location annex room C115."
"Sit tight. Air purification should be completed in about two hours. Do you have enough oxygen?"
Dredd looked over at George who nodded.
"We'll get to you as soon as possible Dredd," the control operator assured him.
"Control, I need you to pull up the purchase records of Wex Corps model George unit..."
"G-5009," George supplied.
"G-5009," Dredd repeated.
"One moment." There was a pause and the faint sound of keys working. "Sold this afternoon to Alexis Killian."
"All possessions are to be auctioned off."
"Tag G-5009 as evidence and find me a woman in her mid thirties by the last name Del Monte. She was amidst the patrons here. If she was marked as departing the show inform her that Wex Corps model George unit G-5009 is to be released into her custody until the liquidation auction and that she will still be expected to either bid on him or work out the price with the auctioneer in accordance with Killian's will."
"Understood Dredd. Anything else?"
The link crackled into silence as George stood staring at Dredd in what almost felt like shock. Very slowly the robot hinged forward until he became a perfect ninety degree angle.
"Thank you Judge," he seemed to whisper.
"You'll need this back," Dredd tossed the finger back to George as he sat down on one of the storage crates to await collection.