News of the incident spread like wildfire. It was all over the tabloids, splashed across every front page in GIANT, UNMISSABLE LETTERING: the Lord Governor of Median City had thrown Raguel Doomstorm, Robot-Hunter-Extraordinaire, reigning world wrestling champion and national record holder for blueberry-pie-eating, out the window of his office. From the fifty-seventh floor.
In his thirty odd years of life, Raguel Doomstorm had crushed vagrant robots with his bare hands. He had chased rebel machines and torn them apart, axle from axle. He had defeated innumerable fiends, tyrants, maniacs and angry old ladies.
But Raguel versus the speedily approaching concrete pavement?
Old Doomstorm stood not a chance.
Blueberry pie went everywhere. The scene of the gruesome occurrence was hastily yellow-taped. Emergency personnel moved in, cleaned up, and departed. And Lord Governor Max Finch remained in his office, untouched, unquestioned. Because obviously, it was Raguel who had done wrong. Max Finch was the hero and protector of Median City. He would be the one to deliver them from the terror of the robots.
Whilst the police wiped Raguel off the pavement fifty-seven storeys below, Finch sat at his desk and crunched chicken bones between his molars. He had his heels propped carelessly on the luxurious leather-topped table, and surveyed his motley crew of inferiors with a sardonic stare. The Lord Governor’s employees quaked beneath his beady gaze. There was an unsettling stench in the room: the stench of…fear.
Or, possibly, it could have just been Finch’s feet. They were unshod, and almost grotesquely hairy.
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Ptoooi. A well-aimed fragment of chicken bone flew into the rubbish bin. Max Finch swung his feet off the desk and hefted himself up. He was a huge man with a calm, melodic voice, which was strange and terrifying. The Governor said, “How is the public taking the, ah, incident?”
Ewan shuffled his feet. “Ah,” he harrumphed, “not too badly, Your Eminence. Spot surveys report that 93% of Median City continues to support you, and only an additional 0.7% is asking questions about your plans to rid this city of the robots. Certainly you are still untouchable, Your Eminence. No one will take the Governorship away from you.”
Crunch, crunch, crunch. The narrow gaze swept the room like a radar. The secretaries and assistants and second-in-commands quaked.
Crunch, crunch, ptooi. A chicken bone embedded itself in Ewan’s cheek. He stifled a yelp.
“I,” growled Max Finch, “do not want to hear pointless numbers about who is ready to be friends with me. I do not care about my Governorship. I care about destroying the Grindiron Beast before it destroys me and my city.”
“But Your Eminence,” ventured a second assistant. “You sent Anarchus West to destroy the Beast, and he fled to the far east. You sent Lady Steel, and she came back weeping in fear. You sent Raguel Doomstorm, and he returned admitting defeat.”
“And then I hurled him out the window, yes, yes, I know the rest of the story,” said Max Finch, swallowing a mouthful of bone. He rubbed his chin. “But the Grindiron Beast must be eliminated. The Beast leads the robot militia. The Beast threatens to tear Median City apart.”
“But who can possibly stand up against this mighty robot?” Dewey almost wailed. “There is no hunter left who could offer us any hope of victory.”
“Ptooi, that is where you are wrong.” Max Finch gazed out of the window, in which there was still a Raguel-shaped hole. “There is one other robot-hunter: one whose skills are unmatchable in all time.”
The crowd of assistants gasped in awe.
“Who is this fearsome hero you speak of?”
Max Finch chewed on his chicken bones. “His name,” he said, “is Algernon Fluewhistle.”
Algernon Fluewhistle killed robots for a living.
Well, all right—perhaps killed is the wrong word. After all, robots are machines, and machines are not alive, and how can you kill something that is already dead?
Algernon Fluewhistle hunted, overpowered and dismembered robots for a living.
He was fifteen years old.
When the Governor’s officials found him, Algernon was in the garden pulling weeds for his mother. He was wearing yellow gumboots and an apron with daisies on it. The officials halted when they saw him and asked, “Are you really Algernon Fluewhistle?”
“Yes,” said Algernon.
“The same Algernon Fluewhistle who mercilessly gunned down two hundred robot-children at the Battle of Faux Bridge?”
“Yes,” said Algernon.
“All right,” said the officials, and brought him in to the City. There, they measured him, weighed him, shone lights into his eyes, examined his medical and criminal records, and took his fingerprints. He was five foot six, one twenty pounds, brown-haired, brown-eyed. Altogether unremarkable.
Max Finch was waiting in his office. He took one look at the robot-hunter and said, “Boil me alive before you tell me that you’re really Algernon Fluewhistle.”
“I am Algernon Fluewhistle,” said Algernon.
“The same Algernon Fluewhistle who pitilessly tore the legendary robot Xerox apart in front of his wife, and then ate his control chip as a trophy of triumph?”
“Yes, that was me,” sighed Algernon, with a note of regret. “I had dreadful indigestion for a week.”
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunched Finch sceptically. He looked at the boy’s yellow gumboots and floral-patterned apron. Ptooi.
In the half-second that it took for the chicken bone to fly across the room, Algernon moved swiftly to Ewan the assistant’s desk, picked up a letter opener and deflected the missile with the small blade. The chicken bone bounced back across the office and landed square in Finch’s left nostril.
The Lord Governor snorted violently.
“I am Algernon Fluewhistle,” said the young robot-hunter patiently. “Quick, accurate and ruthless as a dentist. And I don’t have a conscience. What do you need me to do for you?”
Whilst Ewan and Dewey rushed frantically to fetch tissues, Max Finch held his bleeding nose and said, faintly, “I need you…I need you to kill the Grindiron Beast.”
“Fair enough,” said Algernon, and took off his apron, and handed it to the Lord Governor. “Hang on to this for me, won’t you? I won’t be gone long.”
The entrances to the Underground were always heavily guarded. The Underground, whose tunnels once made up a sophisticated transport system beneath Median City, was now the province of the robots. The only way to gain access to the enemy’s domain was via one of the many old Underground stairwells scattered throughout the City.
Algernon had taken off his mother’s apron. He now wore a breastplate of titanium, and bear-skin gloves with iron knuckles, and alloyed shoulder-guards, and a series of thigh- and shin-guards of reinforced steel, and a pair of night vision goggles. There were a number of weapons strapped to his chest and back. He had forgotten to bring his combat shoes, so he still wore the yellow gumboots.
He gunned down the first two at the top of the stairwell.
“Sir, you shouldn’t be going down this way—”
They crumpled, two scrap-piles fizzing with bolts of electricity.
Algernon ran down the stairs, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. The darkness of the tunnel was crowded with moving shapes. He unfastened a second, smaller gun from its chest-holster and raised it in his left hand.
“Sir, are you authorised—”
“Hey—who goes there?”
“Stop that fellow–!”
The tunnel floor crackled with heat. Lines of light zigzagged between the ends of broken wires and shattered mainframes. A metallic voice mumbled something over an invisible PA system, and an alarm began to wail. Blue lights went on overhead—and winked out—and came on, and continued to flash, like a tide of liquid light washing over him, on and off, back and forth.
With the siren sounding around him, Algernon ran into the Underground.
He saw more of them coming from a distance: fluorescent green figures in his heat-filtered vision. They had sent a small back-up squad: lightweights, no problem to take out. He fished a grenade from his belt.
The explosion was small, but enough to shake crumbs of mortar from the walls and ceiling. Damn. There was one left. He raised his gun.
Bits of robot flew into the air.
Algernon ran on down the tunnel, hurdling triumphantly over mounds of twitching debris, guns brandished above his head. He leapt on through the darkness…
…and skidded to a standstill in front of a heavy metal grille.
He shook the grille. He kicked it. He fired bullets at it.
It didn’t budge.
He frowned, and tapped his chin thoughtfully with the muzzle of one gun.
There had to be a better way to do this…
When the next wave of heavyweights came down the tunnel, Algernon put his guns down, and unbuckled his weapon-girdle, and let it slide off his shoulders. He raised empty hands into the air. He made his eyes wide and guileless. “Please,” he whimpered, “don’t kill me.”
The lair and stronghold of the Grindiron Beast, the hub of the enemy’s base, was buried deep in the earth. Algernon was handcuffed and stripped of his weapons, and marched down, down, down many flights of stairs. The darkness thickened as they descended. The robots flanking him did not breathe as they walked; they hummed—the soft whirring hum of machinery.
A glimpse of a wide space—a large chamber? It was impossible to tell in the lack of light. One of the robots nudged Algernon in the small of his back. “Walk on. The Beast will see you.”
That didn’t sound promising. The robot might as well have said, “The Beast will eat you.”
Algernon walked forward with slow, shuffling steps, pretending that he could not see properly in the dark. The robots had not removed his night-goggles, perhaps assuming that they were part of his face. As he walked, he picked the lock of his handcuffs with a small lock-pick he kept in a very private place on his body.
Once his wrists were freed, he walked a little faster.
The robot-guards were long behind him. He was alone in the pitch black. How long was he supposed to keep walking? Had he gone in the wrong direction? What if he couldn’t find his way back?
For the first time in a long time, Algernon Fluewhistle’s heart began to beat a little faster.
But then, he must have passed through a doorway, because he came into a small chamber, which was well-lit, and he could see all the way from where he stood to the far wall.
There was a girl who stood with her back to him.
She had long, chestnut hair that fell to the base of her spine. She was slender in a dress the colour of rainclouds.
Algernon stopped, confused, blinking in the sudden onslaught of light. Shaking his handcuffs off, he walked forward, slowly.
The girl turned around, and he saw that she was not fully a girl. Not really a girl at all. There was her porcelain face, or at least half of it, with its button nose and rose-petal lips. But there also was the blinking LCD light where her left eye should have been, and metal beneath her skin, and metal inside her mouth and all along her limbs.
She looked sad.
Algernon baulked. “What are you?”
“I am the Grindiron Beast,” she said, in a soft, sweet voice.
“You?” Algernon scratched his head. Well. This was an unexpected turn. “You are not a beast. Nor a robot. You are—”
“Human,” said the Beast, “or at least I once was. But the robots didn’t do this to me. The humans did.”
No wonder the others before him had failed. Not even a battle-hardened warrior could turn a finger against a small, doe-faced girl. Algernon curled his fists in and said, in a cold voice, “And now you lead the robots army against the humans in bitter vengeance.”
“No, no!” said the girl, eyes flaring wide in protest. “I am here against my own will. I could tell you of the horrors that have been done to me—horrors that have made me—like this…but you may not want to hear my tragic story. The woes and ghosts of my past made Anarchus West flee to the east, and sent Lady Steel crumpling into tears. A naive, innocent boy like you—I could not dream of burdening you with such black retellings…”
Algernon cocked his head. “Right. Um. What did you say about me?”
For a moment, the Grindiron Beast looked confused. “I could not dream of burdening you..?”
“No, no, before that.”
“A naïve, innocent boy like you…”
“Right.” Algernon paused for a heavy moment, and twisted his toe in the dirt, as though in steadfast contemplation. And then he whipped an enormous knife out of his boot, and strode forward.
The Grindiron Beast shrieked. “Oh, heavens! Are you going to kill me? Oh, good Lord! A boy is going to kill me! A small boy is going to do what the other hunters could not?”
Algernon grabbed her roughly by the collar of her thin dress, shaking her frame so that her head bobbed violently back and forth on the axis of her neck.
“Oh, please, in the name of all heaven and hell, take your hands off me!” the girl screamed, tearing away from the knife. “I beg you, Algernon, do not hurt me! I am a girl! I am human! Look at my face: there is flesh and blood in my face! Look in my eyes—”
He slid the knife into the base of her neck.
He moved it side to side, cutting through flesh and wire and bone.
When it was done, he let the parts of the body of the Grindiron Beast fall to the ground. He scrabbled around until he found a palm-sized computer chip, and put it in his pocket for later. There was probably blood on his clothes and his skin: he could smell it. He couldn’t wait to get home and have a bath.
“You’re filthy,” said Max Finch, almost leaping out of his chair in eagerness. “Does that mean you did it? You killed the Grindiron Beast?”
“Yeah, she’s dead,” said Algernon, offishly. “Can I have my apron back, please? It’s actually my mother’s, and she’ll be narky if I don’t get it back to her.”
“That’s it?” Finch almost shrieked, actually rising out of his chair this time. “Just like that, the Beast is gone?”
“Just like that,” the young robot-hunter echoed, distractedly rubbing a stain on the sleeve of his shirt.
Finch’s crowd of gathered assistants ooh-ed in amazement and began talking furiously amongst themselves.
“Here’s the chip, if you want proof,” added Algernon, and tossed the evidence onto the Lord Governor’s table.
Finch peered at it, and then waved one of his assistants, the technician Wrangley, forward to inspect it thoroughly. Wrangley nodded.
“Impressive,” said Finch, leaning back in his chair and surveying the scrawny Fluewhistle. “Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting some sort of reward. What’ll it be, boy? Lunch money for the rest of the week? Free Christmas presents? Hm?”
“I want a third of the shares in your mining company,” said Algernon, and flung a piece of paper in front of Finch’s nose. “That’s for starters, anyway. The rest of my demands are listed there. Oh, and you can add #34: I want to keep the Grindiron Beast’s computer chip.”
Finch looked deflatedly at the list of demands. “Oh…”
Algernon tapped his toe.
“Oh, right, the computer chip.” Finch sighed and tossed it to the boy. “I suppose you want to be all heroic and devour it as a trophy of your triumph and whatnot, like you did after you defeated Xerox.”
“Something like that,” said Algernon. “Gives me awful indigestion afterwards, though.”
“I can imagine,” said Finch, swallowing a chicken bone. “Can I ask, though—how did you do it? When all the other failed? I mean, look at you—you’re not exactly a prime physical specimen, no offence.”
Algernon shrugged as he pocketed the chip. “There’s something a lot of people don’t know about small boys. Something that sets us apart from all your battle-hardened hunters.”
“What’s that?” said Finch.
“We don’t have consciences,” sighed Algernon, and went home.
Algernon went home, and if you’re waiting for an ending where he traipses up to his bedroom and puts the computer chip on a shelf with a collection of all the other chips from robots he has defeated, and he stands silent for a moment with tears running down his cheeks, and hands clasped, in respectful memory of what he has destroyed—well, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Because when Algernon got home, he went into the kitchen and took out a rolling pin, and crushed the computer chip into pieces on the bench, and pushed them all into a cereal bowl. He added Sultana Bran and milk on top and devoured the concoction with childish glee, and a lot of lip-smacking. He had lied to Max Finch. It didn’t give him indigestion at all.