Criminals couldn’t escape justice. Not with a dedicated Ranger after them.
Out on the frontier planets, any Ranger was a good Ranger, synthetic or not. People needed Star Rangers, even ones with metal arms and insectoid legs. So six years back when Melissa (original designation M3L-15-A) chose to join the outfit, she’d gravitated towards frontier assignments.
This night, she ran all systems dark, the better to keep her suspect from catching a silvery glimpse of her in the street before she made her move. The serial art thief would target a private collection on the penultimate floor of this commercial building. Melissa would stake her reputation as the best tracker in the American Star Rangers on it. All the data lined up.
In the moonless silence, she ran thermal imaging cameras up and down and around the building where she expected the thief. As soon as she found a trace of his entrance or exit, he’d be hers.
There! On the roof. The thermal image from the building was consistently blue-green, blue-green, blue-green, except for a bright-hot yellow flash. Since the roof plans didn’t contain any windows or hatches in the relevant location, it could only be her thief’s escape route.
The yellow spiked and writhed like a flame, like a smoke-signal to her Ranger cameras saying, “I’m here, I’m here! Collar me!”
The two unlit lamps on the sides of her head, designed by a long-forgotten engineer who thought they’d make her look more human-friendly, cocked upwards. Her aftermarket sensors chased and confirmed a signal. The criminal probably thought the roof would be stealthy, a place to hide from local law enforcement; pursuers would need to ascend through the locked building, giving away their intentions and allowing him to run off before the law reached him.
If she’d had a human mouth instead of a speaker-grille, Melissa would have grinned. As it was, she slipped her four pick-sharp legs out of their flat-bottomed sheaths. Her shoes, as it were. Her thief hadn’t accounted for the only robotic Ranger to be chasing his tail, didn’t know she had an insect’s knack for climbing sheer surfaces.
She tested her limbs, bending her four knees even closer to her face. “Backwards,” some disturbed citizens of the Core worlds called it. Well, she wasn’t here to argue for the beauty of the engineered form or AI rights. She was here to catch a thief and a murderer.
One last flex. She leapt for the building wall, swarming skyward on four legs and four arms. Her legs speared into the mortar, giving her leverage. She didn’t need all eight opposable thumbs for extra grip, so she freed two hands—four thumbs—to wield her pump-action rifle.
The weapon was a tad old-fashioned, but she was an old-fashioned kind of gal. She’d read up on her Ranger history the moment she’d found out she would be allowed to join them. She’d gotten hooked on the old stories, and that tendency displayed itself in her choice of weaponry.
The roof was empty when she made it to the flat top, and she tapped her right front leg spike on the cold concrete. She’d chased his criminal body across three planets and five cities, always one step behind. Now that she was a step ahead, he made her wait?
She hated criminals. She hated thieves.
Things Melissa hated, in ascending order of detestation:
- Needing to socialize with coworkers
- Paying for air on her single-user spaceship (she always ran with life support turned off because why bother?)
- Judgmental looks from anti-synthetic lobbyists
- Going to dinner with coworkers who expected her to eat or drink things (she wasn’t built for food, but give her a can of Dallas54-brand oil any day)
- Kids who climbed on her back and asked for rides (somehow she couldn’t ever say no; still, just because she had a low-slung bench structure, that didn’t make her a pony)
- Thieves who escalated to violence (they were never any good at it, and everyone who got hurt was an unnecessary casualty in everyone’s opinion)
- Criminals who got away
There! The thief emerged from his hole in the roof. Her cameras told her he’d dressed in deep grey, the better for staying unnoticed. He’d even wrapped his ill-gotten gains in highly durable, tencel cloth. Unfortunately for the criminal, she’d left most of her cameras on the thermal imaging setting. To her senses, he lit up like a beacon of villainy.
She stayed utterly still as he approached the edge, imagining she could feel the smugness radiating off him, seeping through her worn joints and patches. He crept closer, and perfect! She snatched out with her unoccupied hands, grabbing his wrist and cuffing it.
The thief thrashed and whirled in her grip, his dark evidence clattering to the roof. He kicked at her plated side (as if that would do anything to an impact rating 9 out of 10), and cursed when his steel-toed boot clanged off her skin. With her top two arms, she pumped the rifle, letting its menacing tone talk for her, but the criminal in her arms continued to squirm and twist.
Then he was still, facing her with a pistol in his hand.
She growled, an ugly and throaty sound intended to unnerve him, made all the more disturbing for the way it echoed out of her speakers. Surround sound. All he had to do was surrender, let her finish cuffing him. They both knew how this would play out. But no. He had to do things the hard way.
Well, Rangers were schooled in the hard way.
He fired his pistol into a leg joint, the easiest target for him at waist height and the one most likely to do actual damage. But that wouldn’t stop her from doing her job, getting her collar. He had to hold still to fire and aim, and she didn’t give him the chance at a second shot.
Predator-quick, she reared back and slammed a leg spike through his gun arm’s shoulder. He screamed his surprise and pain, pinned to the rooftop.
She extracted her limb precisely, to keep from tearing anything.
The fight was over. She had no reason to cause further damage. He’d be fine with medical attention.
Using internal communications channels, she sent a pulse to the U.S. Marshals she’d seen in town. Then she rolled him over, affixing the cuff behind him to his free wrist. She holstered her unfired pump-action across her upper back and took the moaning criminal in her topmost pair of arms.
By the time she hit the ground and slipped back into her practical walking shoes, a team of Marshals had arrived. The Marshals came out in force with vans and containers and who knew what else, all illuminated by headlights.
She passed her bundle over to the lead Marshal. “He’ll need some medical attention,” she said, voice husky but nonthreatening, no trace of the earlier growl. “Left shoulder’s punctured through and through.”
She was finished here, but You’re only as good as your next collar, her training officer had said. One down, an unknown number to go.
The lead Marshal was practically an advertisement for the uniform bomber jacket he wore. His teeth sparkled white in the electric lights, and his shoulders were as wide as her own… and probably almost as hard.
“You’re all right, Ranger,” he said. “Good work.”
His team echoed the sentiments. “Nice job, Ranger!” and “Way to lighten our workload!”
One able-bodied beauty with her hair in a shoulder length blond braid and an air of confident camaraderie tried for more. “Come out with us for a celebratory drink after we get this scumbag squared away?”
Melissa didn’t answer her. Rangers worked alone. Had done so since the 1800s. Everyone knew that. No one expected them to be social, not so long as they got the job done. And she’d gotten the job done.
She headed back to the Port Authority and her ship, the Cold Night, home of her hat collection, library, and memorabilia from both this life and past ones. Before she left the planet, she’d use its network to find herself another criminal to track, and then she’d take him (or her) down like the rabid blight on society he’d turned himself (or herself) into.
Behind her, she heard the Marshals punching each other in the shoulders and a lilting female voice say, “Hey, I tried.”
They’d be all right. And she’d find a way to protect them all from some other crime wave so that their lives could stay well-oiled and efficient.
A multi-stage hunt through the frontier crime databases netted Melissa information about a rash of thefts and killings across a slew of planets. Each crime moved farther and farther from the American Core. The crimes weren’t necessarily linked, but she synthesized her reasons and thought it was the way to bet. All the thefts had something to do with frontier living, from experimental seed plants taken from a private research lab to blank homesteading certificates acquired from a planetary bank vault.
The attendant killings seemed more incidental, but that only made Melissa mad enough to cross all her arms tight over her trunk, a mannerism echoing her favorite maintenance engineer when he worried about his college-bound daughter. Damned thieves who didn’t understand violence. They wasted human lives the way actual murderers didn’t. At least murderers had a reason, even if Melissa didn’t think it was a particularly good one.
It seemed a giant coincidence for anyone to be connected to more than three of the crimes in her web, and she had three suspects connected to at least four of the seven crime scenes. By location, or family, or work, or happenstance. Of those six, three had bought passage out to John Wayne Station over the planet Kessel. So that’s where she’d head.
A few keystrokes, and she jacked herself into symbiosis with her ship. She didn’t need controls or readouts, not the way the ship’s builders had intended. It was just a machine, and she had plenty of ways to control it with her mind alone.
She had one more piece of business to take care of before she could officially start the hunt. Before she could be sanctioned by Ranger HQ and unhindered by any of her peers. If she wanted this crime spree to be hers, she’d have to call it in. Though the Cold Night was already underway, she was still close enough to the Port Authority to use their networks and report in to Dispatch.
Someday, when she was too old and slow and beaten down, maybe she’d join Dispatch too. She could meld herself with the computer there and live on forever as part of the Rangers. If she lived that long. If her mind survived till her body became that decrepit.
As far as she was concerned, she’d only been alive for seven years, although her body was somewhere around forty. It was hard to tell exactly how old her original hardware might be, what with the filed-off serial numbers, but no one had made a PersonalRobotTM in decades.
The Dispatch computer transferred her call to her boss. He just went by Jon, no last name. His weathered face filled her visor camera with its dark, lined skin and greying hair. He wore an old-fashioned cowboy hat, Stetson, even though he was clearly indoors at the moment. He liked traditions, and she had to agree with him on all that Ranger nostalgia. She liked to nod to the old days too, sometimes with an accent module and sometimes by flashing an actual badge (carried in her vest) instead of a digital one.
The picture she sent down the packets to his comm console showed her face as it truly was: nearly spherical with a gunmetal grey eye visor, round headlamps where ears might be on a human head, and a round grille for her mouth speaker. She didn’t bother to hide from him. They’d worked together for six years, and they were both Rangers.
She didn’t actually talk, didn’t bother in her spaceship’s vacuum atmosphere. But she sent the waves to be transformed into words in her own voice, free of the reverberation she’d put on for the art thief.
“I want this manhunt,” she said as she flashed Jon the data she’d collected on the crime spree, amping up her sometimes-drawl because she knew he liked it. She’d be more likely to get what she wanted if she kept him sweet. “I’m going out to John Wayne to look into some suspects.”
Courtesies observed. She hoped no one else had already claimed the case.
The older Ranger nodded, cream-colored hat bobbing. Then it changed direction, as he shook it from side to side like a bull at the rodeo. “We can put Satryani on that. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about taking a vacation.”
She didn’t let her avatar show annoyance, no flashing visor or rotating headlamps. She did, however, up her volume, just a bit. “I don’t need a vacation, sir.” Discussion over. “I’m the best tracker in the department, and I’m going to track down these murderous thieves and bring them to justice.”
Jon frowned, the lines around his mouth going a dark brown that clashed with his whitish lips. “You’ve gone six straight years with no breaks, Melissa. You’re a great Ranger, but part of being a great Ranger is knowing when to take a break from Rangering.”
She let space’s chill leech the heat from her frustration. She knew that! Even the great Frank Hamer took breaks from being Ranger, back when they’d been Texas Rangers and not American Star Rangers. Why, he’d been out of the corps for years before he went after Bonnie and Clyde.
But she wasn’t a human. She didn’t need breaks. Even if she did, she’d be the one who chose when she took them.
“Trust me to take care of myself, sir. And please deed over the Ranger quarters on JWS.”
He blew out a loud breath that came to her as vibrating waveforms, but it was only a few seconds before she got a notification message saying that she had custody of the quarters in question. “Take ’em down, Melissa.” Jon dipped his hat’s brim to her. “I know you can do it.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. She cut the link. Her connection was about to get too spotty for real-time conversations.
But it wasn’t too spotty for looking at stored data. And if she was going to hit the station at full tilt, she needed someone to open up and rewire that Ranger apartment before she arrived at JWS.
What Melissa wanted, in descending order:
- Someone who knew how to update wiring
- Someone trustworthy
- Someone who could deal with administration issues on station so that she didn’t have to
- Someone who’d be around to do more work if necessary (or fix mistakes)
- Someone with references
She grabbed the résumé listings coming out of JWS to see what was available. Lots of just passing through types who didn’t have any proof of ability. One brilliant engineer who was much too good for her, but planned to relocate to the planet beneath the station in the next few days. A bunch of explicitly unqualified types.
And… what’s a Devoted from Dyfed doing out on the American frontier?
Most Americans wouldn’t have heard of Dyfed, she knew, except in a vague “the Welsh were the first to leave Earth” kind of way. And they certainly wouldn’t know about that colonial planet’s society, the best and brightest males rising to the top of the food chain only by attaching themselves to a charismatic Queen or Commander. But Melissa wasn’t most Americans. She had a computer’s ability to speed-process data and an upgraded memory that kept her ahead of the crowd. Plus, she could translate to and from any language she’d received a module for.
So, yes, she knew about Dyfed, as much as had ever been written and exported about it. Which meant she knew it didn’t matter if the man whose résumé she’d found, a Gavin Reynolds, had official references or not. Devoted were brilliant, rigorously vetted by their home governments and universities, and the most resourceful men their planet could offer. Apparently he’d been trained as a Creative Technologist.
She messaged him, text only, saying she wanted to speak about possibly hiring him for a job. She couldn’t just snatch him up, not until she knew what he was doing looking for work.
When she was only two days out from John Wayne, Melissa swerved into range of a communications array with near-instant connection to the station. Three hours available to get in a call to the unemployed Devoted.
She lucked into a connection on the first try. His face filled her screen, young and innocent, reddish blond hair falling in a mess to below his shoulders. His wide eyes and trembling smile made her yearn to soothe him. She wouldn’t. She had to play the tough, would-be employer. But she saw no reason to scare him with her actual appearance, not just yet. She sent back a picture, a nondescript woman in her forties, all browns and symmetry.
“Hello?” Gavin said. His voice came out higher than expected.
Yes, he was young. She found herself leaning forward even though her avatar stayed still on the screen. No reason to treat him like a child, though. She’d get straight to the point.
“I need someone to upgrade my quarters on the station and be available for general maintenance and engineering jobs for the foreseeable future. Your documents show applicable education and proven electrical expertise across multiple planets from your travels with the Stage One company. The position includes the salary I’m sending you in another packet, as well as room and board. Any questions?” His questions would tell her more than asking outright what a Devoted was doing out here looking for work.
He heaved in a giant breath, enough that his rib cage expanded. The boy had been taught to breathe from the diaphragm, even when he was nervous as a cornered informant. “I can definitely do all that.” He looked to the side, but didn’t inhale again. He had enough breath. “But does that offer of room and board extend outwards? I have five, ah, dependents?”
He made the last word a question, more as though he weren’t sure he should call them dependents than as if he were expanding on the previous thought.
Ah. So that’s it. Room and board for an entire Hive. They’d be expensive, and six people taking up her personal space could get exhausting. Melissa didn’t flip back through the other résumés. She knew what was there. But he was good, and he was responsible. And she wouldn’t have to worry about him getting in trouble if he was always busy with his Hive.
Besides, maybe she could help these young people to find themselves, if she had the time, and that’d be a useful endeavor good for all civilization. She could protect them from themselves as well as from the criminals. Plus, it never hurt to have powerful allies, and any Hive connections would be powerful if she ever found herself out Dyfed way.
“Can you sign a contract now, or do you need to clear it with your Queen?” she asked. Her inner deliberations had taken a bare femto-second.
He tilted his head down and looked away from the camera, then back. “Who are you really?”
What? She widened her avatar’s eyes.
“Whose skin do you wear?” he clarified. “For the flesh on those digital bones moves on the tick and not on the beat.”
She knew the playwright he quoted, knew that the beat was the heartbeat. Her lack of practice with realistic conversational avatars had caught up to her. This Gavin Reynolds had a sharp eye for details.
Impressed, she switched from false picture to actual live feed. The image she provided came from above, looking down to show off her four arms and her four insect-style legs. She hid nothing, not her lower body’s bench nor her hands with their dual opposable thumbs.
He sucked in a breath through his teeth. Would he scream? Cut the connection? But no. He grinned wide and so big for his face that his eyes had to scrunch to make space.
“That makes so much sense,” he said.
Dyfed hadn’t been part of the PRob marketplace, she recalled. He’d likely never seen a walking, talking robot, never internalized any opinions about them—good or bad.
“Room and board for a Hive,” she agreed. Her visor turned pale blue with her pleasure. Job well done. “I’m sending you the details now.”
She cut the connection before he could reply. Business concluded.