A Death on Mars
by Joe Vadalma
forum: A Death on Mars
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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A Death on Mars


        Duke Wilberstone rested his heels on his desk as he brought up The Martian Chronicle on his laptop. The headline read, "Wife of Mountaineer Murdered by Humbot." Below it, the article read, "Barsoom City, Amazonis Plantis, Mars. A domestic humbot named Newton is being held in connection with the shooting death of Gabriella Martilonza, wife of the famous mountaineer, Richard Martilonza. The body of Mrs. Martilonza was discovered by the custodian when an anonymous caller complained about the noise coming from the apartment. Richard (Rick) Martilonza had been on an expedition to the Olympos Mons when he learned that the humbot had shot his wife. The Chief of Police of Barsoom said, 'The investigation is not complete. For the present, we're holding the humbot as a person of interest.'"

        Wilberstone was a private investigator. He specialized in cases involved with insurance fraud and scams of large corporations. He had been contacted by a lawyer working for Solar System Robotics, the manufacturer of the humbot accused of the crime.

        Martilonza was suing Solar System Robotics for a million credits accusing them of selling him a defective product which caused the wrongful death of his wife. If the courts agreed that the humbot had a factory defect which directly led to Gabriella Martilonza's death, the corporation would have to pay him a great sum of money. The cost of the suit wasn't the worst of it. If people worried that robots were capable of committing murder, the consequences to all humbot manufacturers would be disastrous. So far, Martilonza refused to settle.

        Wilberstone scratched his head. He was under a lot of pressure to come up with an alternative explanation for Gabrielle's death. He had been assured by the company spokesperson that humbots absolutely could not cause deliberate harm to a human being. Even if one was defective, it was supposed to fail safely; it would become immobilized if the safety circuits failed.

        Wilberstone's many years of experience as a detective, both on a police force and as a PI, told him that it was not the humbot who murdered Gabriella, but a human being who knew the victim. Most likely it was a husband, a lover, an ex-lover, an ex-husband or a rival. But how? His first choice would be the husband. He would gain monetarily through a large insurance policy and the lawsuit. However, Rick Martilonza had a perfect alibi. At the time of his wife's death, he was hundreds of miles away. Also, as far as Wilberstone could determine, Rick was not having any extramarital affairs. Of course, after he traveled to Mars, a trip he was not looking forward to, he would have to delve into the Martilonzas' backgrounds more closely. Perhaps something was going on in their marriage that led to murder.

        Another problem with pinning the murder on Rick Martilonza was that he would have needed expert technical help to tinker with a humbot. From what Wilberstone could determine, the mountaineer was not particularly technology oriented. He was an outdoors man, an expert mountain climber. He had scaled several major peaks in the Himalayas, on the moon and Mars. If the expedition he was on when his wife was murdered had succeeded, he would have been the first human being to scale the largest mountain in the solar system, Olympos Mons. Nonetheless, as soon as he received word that his wife was dead, he left the mountain.

        It was a puzzler which Wilberstone had to solve quickly, before the media sensationalized the death by implying that any humbot could turn on and kill its owner.

* * *

        Before traveling to Mars to talk to the local police and question witnesses, Wilberstone first went to the humbot factory, which was in an artificial satellite that orbited earth at a La Grange point. He needed a robotics expert to accompany him to the red planet.

        As he stepped off the shuttle, he was greeted by Donald Porto, the factory manager, and Doctor Shirla Cassico, his chief robotics consultant.

        After introductions and small talk, Porto told Wilberstone that Doctor Cassico would go with him to Mars. This pleased the detective since Cassico was single, good looking and had a great figure. The three-week voyage to Mars would be much more pleasant with a pretty young woman by his side.

        Wilberstone said, "I'm looking forward to working with you, Doctor Cassico. I understand that you're one of the foremost authorities on humbot psychology."

        "Thank you. Robotics have been my passion since an early age. By the way, please call me Shirla. Since we'll be working closely, there's no sense in being formal."

        Wilberstone smiled broadly. "I agree. My friends call me Duke."

        Porto said, "You're in luck that Shirla is available. She finished the design work on our new model eight weeks ago, and just returned from a well-earned vacation."

        Wilberstone was brought to a meeting room. Once they were seated, Porto said, "Before you leave for Mars, we want to take you on a tour of the factory so that you'll understand how we design our humbots."

        "Good. I need to know as much as possible about humbots. I've been told that they're fail safe, that no defect could cause one to deliberately harm a human being."

        Cassico said, "Not only that. Our humbots will prevent a human being from being harmed if at all possible."

        "I'll want to question you about that after the tour."

        She smiled. "My pleasure," she said pleasantly.

        Wilberstone was tall, athletic and handsome. He was not at all surprised at the robotics expert's flirtatious manner. He often used his looks and charm in his profession. That she seemed attracted to him made him more certain that the journey to Mars would be pleasurable.

        Cassico pressed a button on the conference table and a holovision display started at the other end of the room. After a list of credits with humbots performing in the background, what Wilberstone first thought of as a man spoke in a well-modulated voice like a radio announcer. "Good day, Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Mikey. I am a model AI-975 humanoid robot, usually referred to as a humbot. In this holovision, I will describe how I was born. Nowadays, many tasks formally done by human beings are accomplished more efficiently by humbots. Some jobs are odious; for example, sorting garbage for recycling. Some are dangerous, such as construction work on skyscrapers and handling radioactive materials. Some exist in hostile environments, such as in space or under the sea. Many people have humbot domestic servants. We humbots don't mind doing any of these tasks—and without pay. In fact, we can be programmed to do any job that a business may require.

        "Solar System Robotics uses the team approach to design humbots. Initially, each team works independently. As the work progresses, the teams interact. A robotics team designed my body—my mechanical structure." Mikey pointed to its torso, legs, arms, and hands. "And my senses, such as tactile sensing..." It touched the lectern with its fingertips. "...image processing..." It pointed to its eyes and blinked a few times. "... aural interpretation..." It pointed to its ears. "...and chemical detection." It pointed to its nose and tongue.

        "The brain group designed..." The top of Mikey's head became transparent. A device with many thin wires attached to it could be seen. "...my computation center, a powerful quantum computer that contains a duodecillion bytes of RAM.

        "The software team designed my mind, to give me artificial intelligence. How much intelligence? I am almost as smart as a human being. But you will have to judge that for yourself, depending on how well I do my assigned tasks.

        "Solar System humbots are tested extensively for defects before leaving the factory. Not one in a thousand has failed in the field."

        "Thank you for your time. Your tour of our facilities will proceed shortly." The humbot vanished.

        Cassico asked, "Perhaps you have questions before we start the tour?"

        "Is Mikey your latest model?"

        Porto said, "At present. However, we're about to announce an improved version for a spaceship company. The humbot accused of killing that woman is of the same model as Mikey."

        "Mikey stated that it was almost as intelligent as a human. Does that mean it actually thinks, rather than simply executes software?"

        Cassico smiled. "That's a deep philosophical question. Tell me, do you think or are you simply running a program hardwired into your genes? If you mean, 'Is he self-aware?'" She shrugged. "Who knows? On the other hand, if you mean, 'Does he behave as a human would in response to his environment?' That was what he was designed to do."

        "Okay. But what prevents it from harming human beings as you asserted earlier?"

        "I knew you'd ask that. By law, Mikey's, and all other humbots', brains are designed with built-in safeguards. The safeguards are: a humbot cannot harm a human being or allow a human being to come to harm if he can prevent it; he must follow a human's orders unless it conflicts with the first safeguard; and he cannot allow himself to come to harm unless it conflicts with the other two safeguards. No humbot leaves this factory without being tested and retested. Should any brain failure cause an error in any of the built-in instructions, the humbot becomes immobilized."

        "How does a humbot know whether someone is human? At first, I thought Mikey was human. What if it encounters a human-appearing humbot?"

        Cassico shrugged. "If he thought the humbot was human, he would treat that person as he would a human being. What's the harm in that?"

* * *

        Porto and Cassico led Wilberstone through a maze of corridors to an area the size of a gymnasium which was cordoned into sections by partitions. In the first section, engineers were assembling a humbot skeleton with metal bones.

        Cassico pointed to the spine. "As you see, we borrow from nature. The humbot's spinal column has the same number of vertebrae as a human's."

        Wilberstone asked, "Why a skeletal structure? Wouldn't a simple box shape be sufficient?"

        "For flexibility. If the humbot's body were box shaped, the back would be rigid and unbending. Because the spinal column contains separate vertebrae, our humbots can bend forward, backward, to either side or even twist around, as a human does. Note also that the vertebrae are hollow." She picked up a vertebra section from the bench. "This allows a fiber optic cable to pass telemetry between the body and the brain."

        Wilberstone hefted the chunk of bone like material. "This is light."

        "It's a special plastic lighter than bone and stronger than steel. Note that joints are not the same as human joints. Instead of a ball and joint arrangement, we use ball bearings and tiny wheels. Our humbots' movements are controlled by the skeleton, not by muscles. The hand contains nineteen 'bones' to give it the same flexibility as a human hand. It can be used as a delicate pincer or firm grasper. It can twist objects, bend them, pull them, push them and type on a keyboard."

        Cassico led Wilberstone to a room farther down the main corridor which was fitted out as a combination chemist's lab and electronic workshop with retorts, rows of bottles, soldering equipment, oscilloscopes, computers and rolls of extremely thin wire. Spread over one bench like a bolt of cloth was a long strip of flesh-colored rubbery material. Along its edges was a fringe of hair-thin wire.

        "The humbot's skin." Cassico held up a four square foot sample for Wilberstone to examine.

        "It feels like real skin."

        "It's supposed to. Look at it closely. Those tiny points that seem to be pores are sensors that send signals to the wires along the edge. Pressure, heat, cold and so forth cause tiny voltage changes to be transmitted to whatever we attach the wires to. In this manner, the humbot's brain is informed about its physical environment."

        "What's this jar of flesh-colored paint for?" Wilberstone picked up the small jar.

        "As touchup. Sometimes there's a small discolored area on the skin. If it's any larger than a small coin, though, we send the entire sheet back to the supplier."

        He used a brush laying on the bench to paint a small section of cardboard that he found in a wastebasket. He stuck the cardboard in his pocket.

        In another section of the laboratory, Cassico showed Wilberstone the machinery that controlled the humbot's movement and its power source. "Since our humbots don't need internal organs, the extra space is taken up by a power supply and mechanics. Whenever the humbot senses that his power is low, he can plug himself into an ordinary wall socket and recharge himself."

        In the sensory laboratory, a metal framework of wires was shaped into the outline of a human skull including a hinged jaw. The contraption resembled the head of a horror-movie monster with round eyeballs in the eye sockets and realistic ears and a tongue. The sensing organs were attached by cable to a plastic box below the table and to a laptop. The monitor showed a tall dark-haired man walking forward followed by another man and woman as seen by the eyeballs.

        With his back still to them, Sam Bradley, the technician, greeted them. "Hi, Shirla and Donald. This new visualization program works well."

        "Glad to hear it, Sam," said Cassico. "We're showing a VIP around. How about the audio system?"

        Bradley adjusted something inside the ears with a fine instrument. "Great. I'm glad you're here. I'm ready to test it."

        "Wonderful! Talk to it, Duke."

        "What should I say to that thing?"

        "Tell it your name."

        Wilberstone bowed toward the apparatus. "My name is Duke Wilberstone."

        The jaws moved up and down; the tongue wagged. It said in a pleasant tenor voice, "Hello, Duke Wilberstone. I am pleased to meet you," .

        "Would you like a demo of the visualization software?" asked Bradley.


        Bradley gave it more commands. He took flash cards out of a drawer and selected cards that contained geometric shapes and photographs. He held the first one, a square, in front of the eyeballs. The skull correctly identified each card.

        "Mr. Wilberstone, please stand in front of the device."

        Wilberstone looked directly into the strange eyes. The skull said, "Hello, Donald Wilberstone. I am pleased to see you again."

        "I'm impressed. What's next on the agenda?"

        Cassico said, "Our kindergarten."

        They went into a room set up as school. Several assembled humbots sat at classroom desks. A humbot stood at the front of the classroom lecturing.

        Cassico said, "That's Mikey doing the teaching. I used to run the kindergarten, but it became too much for me with my other duties. Once we came out with more intelligent humbots such as Newton and Mikey, we allowed them to do the teaching."

        Wilberstone said, "I don't understand. I thought humbots were simply loaded with all the information they needed. What are they learning here?"

        "Common sense. The kinds of things that humans learn at an early age. For example, you should not move people by pushing them, if you steal something, the owner will be angry, you can push things with a straight stick but not pull them, when you release a thing holding in your hand it falls, you cannot move a object by asking it 'Please come here.' The humbots learn to interact with people and things. We can't teach them to act properly in all situations, but by the time they leave this plant, they're somewhat prepared."

        A humbot student approached Mikey. For a while, the humbots stared at each other.

        "What are they doing?" Wilberstone asked.


        "Is the room soundproof? I don't hear a thing."

        Cassico chuckled. "You wouldn't. Our humbots include wireless transmission. They communicate with each other using radio waves. It's like telepathy, if telepathy actually existed in human beings. It's a function our competitors have not yet included."

        "Could a human communicate with one of your humbots using a radio transmitter?"

        "Absolutely. That's the whole point. A humbot's owner can give his humbot orders remotely and receive the humbot's responses and sensory information the same way."

        "Very interesting." Wilberstone said. He thought, So a humbot can receive orders from a remote location, even one hundreds of miles away. "May I talk to Mikey?"

        "Of course."

        They entered the classroom. Cassico said, "Mikey, may we interrupt you for a moment?"

        Mikey turned toward her. "You already have, Doctor Cassico."

        "Mr. Wilberstone wishes to speak to you."

        "Shall I dismiss the class?"

        Wilberstone said, "This will only take a couple of minutes. I want to ask you a couple of questions."

        "I will do my best to answer them as long as they do not involve company secrets. You are not an employee."

        "Fair enough. Tell me, Mikey, can you tell a humbot from a human being?"

        "Usually. To be on the safe side, I assume that a person who seems to be a human being is one although I know there are humbots, such as myself, who appear quite human."

        "What about holograms?"

        "I use the same logic. If I see a hologram that seems to be a real person, I assume that it is a human being unless I have reason to believe otherwise. I may try to touch it if I was uncertain. My hand would go right through a hologram."

        "Suppose you were in a holochamber where there were mixed holograms and actual human beings?"

        "I would tread carefully."

        "And if you were given an order to shoot one of the holograms with a gun, would you do it?"

        The humbot stared for a few moments. "Not unless I was absolutely sure that it was a hologram and not a human being that I was shooting." It started to tremble.

        Cassico said, "I must ask you to desist from this line of questioning, Duke. You're upsetting Mikey."

        "Just one more question."

        "Okay. But you're treading on dangerous grounds. Humbots are extremely sensitive when it comes to violations of their safety instructions."

        "Can you tell a toy gun from a real one?"

        "Certainly. Toy guns come in bright colors, pink, blue, purple and so forth. Real guns are a metallic color."

        "Thank you, Mikey. I enjoyed talking to you."

        "The pleasure was all mine," it said mechanically. "Have a nice day."

* * *

        The three-week trip aboard a cruise spaceship to Mars was as pleasant as Wilberstone had anticipated. Shirla Cassico was an intelligent and congenial companion, as well as being extremely beautiful. The first couple of days, their conversation centered around robot engineering and the case, but as they warmed to each other, they discussed many things and became intimate. Wilberstone learned that Shirla had an interest in mechanical things from an early age. When she was eleven, she had designed her own bug-like robot which won several robot war contests. She had a Ph.D. in robotics and artificial intelligence and played a mean game of chess, beating Wilberstone game after game.

        Evenings, they often went to the ship's casino, where Cassico usually won big at blackjack. In a cocktail dress and carefully applied makeup, she was dazzling. In addition, they drank exotic concoctions, laughed at a lot and danced. Before the week was over, they had made love in Wilberstone's cabin in free fall, an altogether unique experience for the detective, which put Shirla and him in the "free-fall club."

        Wilberstone had so much fun with Cassico on the tourist spaceship that he felt a big letdown when the ship landed at the Phobos space station. From Phobos, a shuttle took him and the robotics' expert to Barsoom City. It was back to work for the detective.

        After Wilberstone and Cassico checked into separate rooms in the Royal Martian, Wilberstone called the city police department for permission to interrogate the robot.

* * *

        After the detective and robotics expert checked in with the desk sergeant, they were taken to Lieutenant Matsuchi, the detective in charge of the Martilonza case. Like most third-generation Martians, he was extremely tall and thin, over seven feet, as a consequence of the lower gravity. "I'm glad you two are here. We're thinking of releasing the humbot we arrested into your custody."

        "Really?" Wilberstone asked.

        "Although it looks human, it's a piece of machinery. As far as I'm concerned, this is a civil matter, not a criminal case. You wouldn't put an automobile in jail if the brakes failed and it ran over someone. It was only because of Rick Martilonza's insistence and some hysterical press coverage that we incarcerated the thing at all."

        "Have you interrogated the humbot?"

        "Yes, but it was not cooperative. My theory is that it can't recall what occurred because it became traumatized by what it had done, it. That often happens with people who are not natural killers but pop off someone in a fit of rage or accidentally."

        Cassico said, "But a humbot is not a person. Hysterical reactions do not occur in a humbot. May we speak to him?"

        "Be my guest. I'll have him brought to an interrogation room."

        Matsuchi told the desk sergeant to have someone bring the humbot to room two. He turned to Wilberstone and Cassico. "Come with me."

        The interrogation room was windowless and bare. It contained a table and four chairs, two on each of the longer sides of the table. A one-way mirror covered most of one wall.

        Matsuchi moved one of the chairs to the other side of the table and indicated that Wilberstone and Cassico should sit in two of them. He took the third. A uniformed officer brought in the humbot and ordered it to sit across from the three humans.

        Matsuchi said, "Newton, these two people are investigating Mrs. Martilonza's death. They would like to ask you some questions. The man is Duke Wilberstone. He's a private investigator. The woman is Doctor Shirla Cassico. She's a robotics expert."

        The humbot nodded solemnly. "I already know Doctor Cassico. She is chief robotics consultant at the factory where I was built. It is good to see you again, Doctor Cassico. I am also pleased to meet you, Mister Wilberstone. I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability."

        Cassico asked, "After the event that caused you to be arrested, did you do a check of all your systems including all fail-safe circuits?"

        "Yes. After they told me what I was accused of, I tested every function, especially my safety functions. All my circuits and software read nominal."

        Wilberstone said, "You called Mrs. Martilonza Gabriella. Calling your mistress by her first name seems to indicate that you were on intimate terms with the lady."

        Cassico interrupted him. "Not necessarily. Newton, is Gabriella what your mistress wanted you to call her?"

        "Yes, because we were intimate, as Mr. Wilberstone pointed out."

        A disgusted look crossed Cassico's face.

        Wilberstone said, "How intimate? What was your relationship with Mrs. Martilonza? Were you simply mistress and favored servant? Good friends? Lovers, perhaps?"

        "All of those."

        Wilberstone whispered a question into Cassico's ear. She nodded. She also looked quite cross, as though she was personally offended by the fact that the victim and Newton were lovers.

        "You were lovers, then. You performed the sex act with Gabriella."

        "Yes. I regret that, however. Mr. Martilonza was angry about it when he walked in on us. Gabrielle and he quarreled quite extensively afterwards. He even threatened her." Newton shivered. "Our love making may have hurt him—emotionally. But I did not know that would happen until the day he witnessed us having sex." The humbot became agitated, drumming its fingers on the table.

        Cassico said in a soothing voice, "It wasn't your fault, Newton. You didn't know how Mr. Martilonza would react." She turned to Wilberstone. "I need to speak to you in private for a couple of minutes." She rose from her chair. "Excuse us for a while, Lieutenant."


        Cassico and Wilberstone left the room. After the door was closed, Cassico said, "We cannot continue this line of questioning. Newton will have a breakdown. He knows now that his making love to the Martilonza woman caused pain on the part of Rick Martilonza."

        "That's all right. I've learned something. This 'love affair' between Newton and his mistress could be a motive for murder."

        Cassico frowned. "You're the detective."

        When they returned to the room, Newton was again placid.

        Wilberstone asked it, "Newton, can you describe the events of the evening that Gabrielle died?"

        "No. I cannot."


        "I cannot tell you that either."

        "May I see the palms of your hands?"

        "Certainly." The humbot placed his hands on the table face up.

        "There's pink paint on them. How did it get there?"

        "I cannot tell you that."

        Matsuchi said, "You see. Uncooperative. But you people have got more out it than we did. I congratulate you. I would not have thought of questioning it about its relationship with the victim."

        Cassico said, "There's a reason for Newton's seeming uncooperativeness, Lieutenant. I doubt whether the humbot can give us any more information about the unfortunate event. Please keep Newton locked up until Duke and I return to Solar System Robotics. I'll take him with us to the factory, where I can examine him more closely for defects."

        "Sure, as long as you're sure the thing isn't dangerous."

        Cassico smiled. "I have no fear of Newton."

        Before they left the station, Wilberstone asked to examine the weapon used to kill the victim. Matsuchi brought out a plastic bag with an automatic pistol inside. "We've already dusted it for prints. There were none."

        "Well, a humbot wouldn't leave prints. I wonder why it was painted pink, though."

        "I thought that strange, too."

        "Was a ballistics test done on the slug?"

        "We never found it. It passed right through the victim. It's probably still in the apartment somewhere. Since we had a witness that saw the humbot holding the weapon over the corpse, we didn't search all that hard. Besides, this has become a civil case. We're no longer involved."

        "Who was the gun registered to?"

        "No one. On Mars, gun registration is not required."

        "So you don't know whether the gun belonged to Mister or Mrs. Martilonza?"


* * *

        After Cassico and Wilberstone left the station, Cassico said, "I didn't want to say this in front of the Lieutenant, but the reason Newton could not supply any information about the Martilonza woman's death is that someone has given it a strict order of silence about the events of that evening. Nonetheless, everything it saw and heard is recorded on its hard drive. When we get back to the factory, I'll remove it. Then we'll see what really happened."

        "That's good. Uh, Shirla, you seem disdainful of the dead woman. How come?"

        "She's a tramp. Imagine ordering a humbot servant to make love to her." She made a sour face.

        Wilberstone thought, This is a side of Shirla that I haven't seen before. Apparently, she has a thing against human and humbot sex. Not me. What people do in the privacy of their bedrooms is nobody's business.

        "Well, what now, Duke? Do we book a spaceship back to the factory?"

        "Not quite yet. There are still people I need to interview. Also, I'd like to visit the crime scene. You're welcome to come with."

        Cassico grinned at him and grabbed his arm. "I'll come along. It'll be interesting to see how a master private investigator does his job."

        Wilberstone laughed, but was flattered anyway.

        They took a taxi to the apartment building where the Martilonzas lived. Rick Martilonza had moved out soon after his wife's death. Wilberstone knocked on the building superintendent's door. A middle-aged balding man in a dirty T-shirt answered.


        "My name is Duke Wilberstone. This is Doctor Cassico, a robotics expert. We're from the robot factory that built the humbot that shot Mrs. Martilonza." He flashed his private investigator credentials.

        "Yeah. Tragic thing. I never did trust humbots. Why anyone would want to build a machine what looks like a human being is beyond me."

        "Would you mind showing us the apartment where Mrs. Martilonza was killed?"

        "No trouble. I'll get my passkey."

        After they entered the apartment, Wilberstone asked, "Where did the shooting occur?"

        "Right here in the living room."

        Wilberstone carefully examined everything, the sofa, tables, overstuffed chairs, pictures on the wall, the walls themselves, the holovision set and the carpeting. He dug something out of one wall which he slipped in his pocket. When he was done, he said to the superintendent, whose name was George Oplagos, "Mr. Oplagos, the police told me you used your passkey to enter the apartment after you received a vidphone call from someone who complained of loud noises in the apartment."

        "That's right."

        "Did you recognize the caller?"

        "No. The video was blocked. Wouldn't give me her name, either."

        "When you entered the apartment, what did you see? Describe the scene exactly as you remember it."

        Oplagos hesitated, as though trying hard to recall what he had witnessed. "Well. First thing I noticed was that the holovision was going full blast. The room was full of holovision characters. Some sort of crime show was on. I recognized Newton—the Martilonza's humbot. It was holding what I thought was a toy gun. Later the police told me that it was real. I ordered Newton to turn off the holovision. It complied immediately. That's when I noticed Mrs. Martilonza on the carpet. I examined her and realized that she was dead and lying in a pool of blood. It was awful. I called the police then."

        "What did the humbot do while you called the police?"

        "Nothing. It merely stood there. Oh, I think it asked me whether Mrs. Martilonza—it called her Gabriella; nervy don't you think?—was ill. I told it she was dead. It showed no emotion. Cold blooded bastard. Kills a woman, who from the rumors I've heard it had been screwing, and doesn't blink an eye."

        "Newton's a humbot," said Cassico. "Humbots cannot show emotion readily, although they may be hurting inside."

        Oplagos looked her up and down. "Say, don't I know you? I've seen you somewhere before."

        Cassico sniffed. "No way."

        Wilberstone said, "Mr. Oplagos, can you show me exactly where the humbot was standing to the best of your recollection?"

        "Uh, right about here." Oplagos moved into the position where he thought the humbot had been standing. He even simulated a gun with his forefinger to show how Newton was holding the gun.

        "And where was Mrs. Martilonza's body?"

        Oplagos pointed at a position on the floor directly in front of him.

        "Did you notice anything else that you think might have a bearing on the case?"

        Oplagos scratched his head. "No. Oh, wait. There was one thing. Mrs. Martilonza was probably drinking heavily. An almost empty bottle of vodka was on the coffee table. She was quite a sot, from what people have told me"

        "Thanks. I guess that's all I need to know for now. If you think of anything else that may be pertinent, give me a call." After writing the vidphone number of his hotel room on the back of his card, he handed it to the superintendent. "Let's go, Shirla. It's getting late, and I want to go to the morgue and examine the body before the coroner leaves for the day."

        In the hallway, Cassico said, "You don't need to look at Gabriella's body. I've got the crime all figured out. Rick Martilonza must've murdered his wife using Newton as the murder weapon. He gave the order over the radio directly to Newton's brain. Martilonza must've known that his wife watched a certain detective show at a certain time. He painted the gun pink to convince Newton that it was a toy. What's more, he told the humbot to shoot the hologram characters with the supposedly toy gun. No harm to an actual human being could come of that. He probably told Newton that it would amuse Mrs. Martilonza. But she was among the holograms the humbot was firing at."

        "Hmm. Nice theory, but there are several holes in it. Newton knew Gabriella intimately. He certainly could distinguish her from a hologram. Also, if he had been shooting at the characters in the holovision show, there would be bullet holes randomly in the walls."

        "Not if the first character he shot was that slut."

        "It sounds like a plausible theory, but doesn't quite fit with what you and Mikey told me about humbots. Sorry. I'll need more proof. Are you going to the morgue with me?"

        "I think I'll pass on that pleasure."

* * *

        Before going to the morgue, Wilberstone met with Matsuchi. He gave the slug to the police detective. "Keep this with the other evidence. The Martilonza case may turn out to be criminal after all."

        "Do you really think so? Do you believe her old man used the humbot to do the actual deed?"

        "I'm not quite ready to go that far. Let's go to the morgue."

        At the morgue, Wilberstone examined the entrance and exit wounds on the victim. "According to the way that the building super described the scene when he entered the apartment, Gabrielle was lying at the feet of the humbot, which means they were standing close together when the shot was fired."

        "Yeah. I remember him saying that when I interviewed him. So?"

        "The slug should have been on the wall directly behind the victim. The reason you didn't find it there was that it was on another wall altogether."

        "So, what are you saying?"

        "Just that it's puzzling."

        "Are you going to interview the husband?"

        "Since I'm working for the company that he's got a million-credit lawsuit against, I doubt whether he'd talk to me. I think you should hold the humbot as evidence. I'm beginning to have an inkling of a theory. I need to return to the robot factory to put the last few pieces of the puzzle together."

* * *

        Cassico went into a rage when she heard that the Barsoom police changed their mind about releasing the humbot. "We need to return Newton to the factory to remove his hard drive."

        "Well, I suppose the Barsoom cops have their own experts that could do that."

        "And if they aren't careful, they could do irreparable harm to Newton. The fools."

        "I suppose you want to be on hand to supervise the operation."

        "Yes. I'm going to contact that Lieutenant Matsuchi and give him a piece of my mind while I'm at it. I just don't understand. If they consider the incident a civil matter, why are they being so hard nosed?"

        Wilberstone shrugged. "Well anyway, I'm heading back to your factory on the next space flight out."

        "What for? Without Newton, what's the sense?"

        "There's one or two things that I need to clear up in my own mind."

        "I don't understand. Well, give my regards to Donald Porto and Mikey while you're there. Tell Porto that I had to stay, that I couldn't let incompetents destroy a wonder of robotics like Newton."

* * *

        When Wilberstone arrived at the factory, he found Porto in an agitated state. Apparently the civil trial had started and things did not look good for the defendant. "What have you found out? Is Newton defective? Why didn't you bring the humbot? Why isn't Shirla with you?"

        "The Barsoom police won't release the humbot. Shirla stayed on Mars to make sure Newton isn't damaged by the Barsoom forensics department."

        Porto brightened. "Forensics department. Does that mean that they think a human was involved? That it was murder?"

        "It's a good possibility. But I need to find out a few things first, things you might know the answer to."

        "Sure. Shoot. What do you want to know?"

        "First, where did Shirla go on her vacation?"

        "To Mars. I don't know why she wanted to go there. She talked about some canyon, supposed to bigger than the Grand Canyon. But, once you view something like that, what do you do afterwards? She was on Mars for two weeks. Of course, I hear that on Mars there's something of a frontier mentality. They don't even have any gun control laws. Perhaps she needed a little wildness in her life."

        "She's quite an intense person when it comes to robotics."

        "Oh, she loves the robots, especially the later models like Mikey and Newton who seem almost human. They were like her children. In fact, she put up quite a stink when we sold Newton to the Martilonzas to become their domestic. She said that was not a proper occupation for a humbot of Newton's quality. But Rick Martilonza made us an offer that was too good to refuse. Perhaps, he had it in his mind to murder his wife, blame the humbot and sue us even then."

        "I don't believe that Rick had anything to do with his wife's death. But in order to prove my suspicions, I need to be able to order Newton to tell us exactly what happened. The murderer gave the humbot a command not to speak. Is there a way I can countermand that order?"

        "Yes. There's a password. When it's spoken, the humbot will obey only the person who speaks the password. But Shirla knew that. Why didn't she get Newton to talk?"

        Wilberstone smiled sadly. "Can you give me that password to use on Newton?"

* * *

        When Wilberstone was leaving his hotel in Barsoom, he was accosted in the lobby by Cassico. "What's going on, Duke? Why did you tell me that the police were going to try to remove Newton's hard drive? They had no such intentions. In fact, they even refused to allow me to do it."

        Wilberstone shrugged. "I thought they were. I'm on my way to see Detective Matsuchi now. You want to tag along?"

        "Absolutely. What did you do at the factory?"

        "Simply cleared up a couple of loose ends. I guess the lawsuit is going badly."

        "It shouldn't. I must appear as an expert witness to tell the court how impossible it is for Newton to be defective."

        "I don't know that an employee of Solar System Robotics would be believed."

        "You don't think that there's a way to prove that Rick Martilonza tricked Newton into killing that slut of a wife of his."

        "Not at this point."

* * *

        Wilberstone was seated in the interrogation room while Cassico and Matsuchi watched through the one-way glass. Before he entered, Cassico made a fuss about not going in with him. "Duke, you don't have the expert knowledge needed to interrogate Newton. You could throw his equilibrium all out balance, cause him permanent damage by asking questions that concern his safety circuits. He's already on the borderline, since he was the actual shooter and caused harm to a human being."

        "Don't worry. I'm sure that what I'm going to ask won't affect Newton that way."

        "You had better not, or I'll come in there immediately."

        Newton was brought into the interrogation room and sat down opposite Wilberstone. "Hello, Mr. Wilberstone. Are you going to ask me more questions?"

        "Yes. I would like to know about your relationship with Doctor Shirla Cassico."

        "She was my teacher before I was sold to the Martilonzas."

        "Were you close? I mean, would you consider her a friend?"

        "Oh yes. She treated Mikey and myself as though we were her children, similar to the way a human mother is supposed to treat her children, according to books I have read."

        "Was she even closer to you than that? What happened when she was told that you were being sold?"

        "She wept. I suppose she loved me—as a mother loves a child."

        "You weren't lovers, then?"

        "I'm not allowed to say."

        At that point there was a rapping coming from the one-way mirror and a muffled sound of arguing. Newton looked at the mirror. "What is that noise?"

        "Nothing. Don't pay any attention." He said the password that Porto told him would allow him to override any previous commands given to the humbot. "Now, Newton. I want you to disobey any previous commands to be silent about certain matters. Do you understand?"


        "Answer my question about your relationship with Shirla Cassico. Were you lovers?"

        "Yes. We had sex often. She said she loved me. I suppose she meant as a woman loves a man who is not a blood relative."

        "I see. Now tell me what happened on the day that Gabrielle Martilonza was killed."

        "That day, Gabrielle was drinking a lot. Mr. Martilonza had told her that morning that he was going to file for divorce when he returned from Mount Olympos. They had been quarreling ever since Mr. Martilonza discovered Gabrielle and myself having sex." The humbot shuddered.

        "Don't worry about that, Newton. It wasn't your fault. You did not know that Rick Martilonza would become so angry. By the way, did he tell anyone about her affair with you?"

        "He told everyone. I recall him saying that he was going to complain to Solar System Robotics about it. Gabrielle laughed at him. She said that she ordered me to have sex with her, which was true."

        "Do you know whether he followed through on that threat?"

        "I believe he did. One day I saw him talking to Shirla on the vidphone."

        "Okay. Go on. Tell me how Gabrielle was shot."

        "Shirla knocked at the apartment door. She pushed her way in, shut the door, pulled out a gun and turned the sound up on the holovision. Before I could stop her, she shot Gabrielle. I tried to help Gabrielle, but she must have been killed instantly. I asked Shirla why she did it, and she said, 'You fool. Don't you know I love you? When I heard that this woman was ordering you to make love to her, I couldn't stand it. There's nothing you can do to help her now, but you must help me.'

        "'What do you want me to do?' I asked her. She showed me where to stand. Then she painted the gun with some pink stuff and told me to pick it up. She ordered me to stand there with the gun in my hand until someone arrived and then to follow the orders of the police. She also commanded me not to say anything about what had transpired and not to tell anyone that she and I had sexual relations. She left the apartment. A few minutes later, Mr. Oplagos came in and called the police."

        "I've heard enough. Thank you, Newton."

        "What will happen to Shirla?"

        "She committed a serious crime. She took the life of a human being, something you would never have done. She will be tried in a court of law. If she is convicted, she will be incarcerated."

        "Her safety circuits must have failed. Can they not be repaired?"

        "I'm afraid not."






copyright 2007 Joe Vadalma.

Joe Vadalma:

I've loved science fiction and fantasy from the time I learned to read. My hobbies, besides writing, are adventure game playing and do-it-yourself projects. Before I retired, I was a technical writer at a major computer manufacturer. Several short stories of mine have been published in E-zines, and I've sold a series of dark fantasy novels called The Morgaine Chronicles to Renaissance E Books, http://pageturnereditions.com. Renaissance has also published two collections of my short stories, The Sands of Time and Mordrake's Apprentice, two SF novels, Star Tower and The Bagod, and a dark fantasy called The Laws of Magic. These books are also available at Fictionwise, http://www.fictionwise.com Delingers Publishing, www.thebookden.com, has published my science fiction novel, The Isaac Project. The Book of Retslu, a humorous fantasy, has been accepted by Mundania, www.mundania.com, and will be published soon. My web site, The Fantastic World of Papa Joe, www.fantasticworld.cafe150.com, contains SF, fantasy and horror stories, serials, my blog and art. My E-mail address is papavad@juno.com

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