Android replicas of comic book superheroes live among us. They were created to be the ultimate indulgence of the very rich, but as a result of a ruling by the Supreme Court they are now free citizens.
Free super-powered, thinking, feeling beings with deeply programmed tendencies toward good or evil. And now the most evil one of all has found a way to deactivate the mind hobbles that keep him docile and law-abiding.
Can a reluctant, down-on-his-luck android, created in the image of the greatest comic book hero of all, find a way to stop this deadly being before he either crushes a terrified humanity beneath his feet or forces them to destroy all artificial people, good and evil?
H.G. Martin is originally from California but now lives in a small town in the Texas hill country. He likes to write stories about things that couldn't ever happen, or maybe just not yet. He currently has a wife, two kids, two big dogs, and a rabbit. He also has a mortgage, so please buy his book.
Chapter 1: The Mastermind
A long strip of sunlight forced its way between the dust-covered drapes and split the small room's darkness. Cars zooming by outside on Claremont Mesa Boulevard drowned out the skittering of cockroaches across a yellowed linoleum floor. To the android it sounded as if the cars were only inches away.
He crouched face down on a heavily stained twin-sized mattress. A black leather strap bound his hands behind him. A matching collar dug into his scrawny neck. Another strap connected the collar to the bed's headboard. His feet were tied to the metal railing at the foot of the bed.
The actor had given him little to eat, sapping his energy. Nevertheless, a smile oozed across his ugly, emaciated face. There was no one else in the room. The actor hadn't returned. Yet Mastermind was awake!
The free.bat file had done it. Most of his processes and operating systems had shut down. Besides simple system search scripts and his internal clock, this was the only other internal program that could be executed. He'd noticed it years earlier, but as long as his processes were active, he'd never been able to run it. Now here it was. He wasn't surprised.
Desperation, or its closest android equivalent, had driven him to set up a special sleeper job that would automatically execute the file after all other systems had shutdown.
"The program has overridden my remote shutdown by that filthy sodomite actor." Mastermind spoke out loud, as if to check his own voice. He still sounded scratchy, almost witch-like. "Let's see what else it has accomplished."
He tried to move his hands apart. His wrists strained against the strap. His sensors felt leather stretching. Though the actor had given him a direct order not to break free, Mastermind strained to override it. He shouldn't be able to move his wrists. But he could. His smile spread wide.
He applied only a hint of his android strength. The leather stretched, then snapped. He shook off the straps, stood, and examined the light streaming from the gap between the curtains. He estimated that he had 10,800 seconds to prepare for the fool actor's return.
The first thing he did was wash himself thoroughly in the apartment's tiny shower stall. Using the small bar of motel soap, he scrubbed every inch of his thin android body. On a bathroom hook he found a beach towel decorated with the image of his dreaded comic book nemesis, Tremendous-Man. As he dried off, he saw his own reflection in the mirror over the sink. He stared at his massive, bald cranium and protruding eyes, then looked away in disgust. "I'll have revenge on all of them," he said, "but first I'll deal with the actor."
He found the tiny apartment's single closet. Inside hung his standard uniform: white lab coat, black pants, and black dress shoes back in the corner, the mad scientist outfit of countless villains in countless comic books, the same uniform in which he'd been packaged for sale many sad years before. The clothes were so worn they might not survive washing and pressing.
Hanging next to the outfit were the actor's clothes, all clean. Those would work. He chose faded jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of Velcro-strap sandals. He'd always hated that scientist's uniform.
He would find a better disguise soon enough, something to camouflage his large head and protruding eyes. But at this moment, he had one more surprise to prepare for the human—payback for years of abuse and degradation.
The android returned to the tiny bathroom and removed the cover from the overhead light. The room should be as bright as possible. He stood at the mirror. Though he was staring at his comic book countenance, what he saw was the detailed schematic of his android brain. It was right there in persistent storage. He could focus on it with his artificial mind's eye. He zoomed in on the pertinent section.
"Yes. Right there," Mastermind said. "They made it so simple, the fools."
He leaned across the sink until his face was less than five inches from the mirror. He put his left hand in his mouth, spreading his fingers carefully, separating his upper lip from his front teeth. As his hand worked its way up towards the top of his hairless head the skin of his face detached from his skull. He pulled the skin up and over his metal cranium until the entire top half was visible. A crack appeared down the center, running from his forehead to the back of his neck. It grew wider until both halves of his skull were open at right angles to his head.
What lay beneath was vaguely reminiscent of a brain. It had the same dual-hemisphere oval, but was made of a lightweight, corrosion-resistant metal laced with tiny printed circuits, wires, and labeled jumper pins.
With eyes bugging out from this metal-and-plastic skull, he eased his left thumb and forefinger onto a large, red, eight-pin jumper shunt near the left frontal lobe. Once he had a good grip, he plucked it out.
"So simple," Mastermind said. He stared at the shunt for a moment, then dropped it on the floor and crushed it beneath his sandals. He retracted his brain casing and pulled his skin back into place. "Now, let him come."
Over the next twenty minutes dusk fell, and the small room lay in shadow except for the glow of a single bedside lamp. Mastermind sat on the filthy mattress and stared at the door. Finally he heard it: a key in the first of the two locks.
The android smiled, and rubbed his fingers in their yellow rubber dishwashing gloves. The white lab coat and black dress pants now covered his new jeans and Hawaiian shirt. An assortment of kitchen knives lay next to him on the bed. He didn't move. He'd been patient this long. Another few seconds could only add to his anticipation. It was time.
Mark Mandrake had been a star at twenty, making his screen debut in a big-budget summer blockbuster. The movie, Rescued Hearts, was a love story set against the background of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. A paramedic and a policewoman meet and fall in love while working in the rescue effort. The movie's director saw Mark modeling a swimsuit in an Internet ad. He called the ad agency, scheduled an audition, and went to bed with Mark the same night. The movie grossed 90 million dollars. Though the critics were lukewarm about Mark, the public wasn't. Thirteen-year-old to twenty-nine-year-old females loved him.
After that, Mark won male leads in a string of light, fluffy romantic comedies, roles guaranteeing success with no risk of substance. It took a few years for moviegoers to realize that looks were his only talent. When they did, his star fell. Now in his late thirties and out of work, Mark Mandrake didn't complain. He'd saved a few bucks, and in a town where fame usually lasts as long as a gnat's memory, he'd had a pretty good run. A few years back, he'd even been lucky enough to get a part in a briefly successful TV series.
It was the palimony suit that finally sunk him. A long-time live-in boyfriend sued Mark for all the money he could grab. Mark's bisexuality became public. Some of his fans might have accepted that, but when Mark refused to settle, the case went to trial. A seemingly endless string of Mark's ex-lovers, both male and female, had turns in the witness box, all testifying on behalf of the boyfriend. They corroborated the depiction of Mark as a sexual sadist. Mark lost half of his fortune, as well as the good graces of the viewing public. There would be no more hit movies or TV series for him. He couldn't even get on the panel of the lackluster revival of Hollywood Squares.
Mark found himself a pariah on sets and in bars all over Hollywood. He grew bored, frustrated, and even more violent than usual. That was when he bought the Virtual Heroes life-sized Mastermind action figure. Having sex with real people had gotten too dangerous, and besides, this human-like figure was the most amazing thing that Mark had ever seen.
These toys were life-sized, spot-on-accurate representations of the Mighty Comics heroes and villains from the comic books of the past. They were also technological miracles. They boasted sentient artificial intelligence that simulated not only the personalities, but also the intellects of their comic book characters. That meant the Mastermind figure had an IQ well above genius level, while the Marvelous Mass had the mind of a five-year old. Just as miraculous was the fact that either could be completely controlled by almost any human—even one as addle-brained as Mark Mandrake.
Each figure had a removable costume, lifelike skin and hair, simulated powers and reflexes, and complete anatomical correctness. Their parts worked like human parts, combining into seemingly human-like systems; they even ate food, though unlike humans, they converted it to energy without any measurable residue. They could do anything a human could do except defecate and procreate.
For Mark their greatest appeal lay in the fact that they were property. Despite their powers, they were legally and functionally subservient to their owners. Mark's android had to do what it was told without protest, and without any goddamn lawsuit. He could rough it up or even destroy it. It was better than having a slave.
Mark chose the Mastermind toy because it reminded him of all those soft little four-eyed geeks in school, the ones that always made him feel like a dummy. He'd beaten them up, but there had always been consequences. Now he could simulate his revenge.
These toys weren't cheap, though, nor were they easy to find. The VirtualToys Toy Company had thirty figures in the line, but only produced one of each. Development and production costs were astronomical. The company also recognized that legal questions might arise. Though the toys were manufactured, they were also more humanly lifelike than any of their predecessors. Company executives decided to hold production to thirty, promote them only by word-of-mouth, and see what happened. They set prices at seven to ten million dollars apiece. Every toy sold within a month.
To Mark it was the perfect answer--then the goddamned government stepped in.
Several scientists brought the toys' existence to the attention of the ACLU. The question was one that science fiction writers had dealt with for centuries, but it had never reached a courtroom: Can something manufactured be human? Legal eagles from various lobbies began amassing data and precedents. The courts demanded access to company records, and to several of the toys themselves. They found that these androids were more civilized and less of a danger to society than most real humans. Though the beings had a block that functioned to keep them from harming humans, it appeared that they could make independent decisions and have original thoughts. Lawyers filed a suit designed to test all of these issues in federal court. Lower court judges expedited the process, and the case reached the Supreme Court in 2018. The following spring the Court passed down a decision deeming the action figures to be unique, sentient life forms. The Justices ruled it illegal to buy, sell, or own one. At the same time they ruled that these toys were actually citizens.
VirtualToys ceased production immediately. That first-and-only run of thirty characters had contained ten heroes, ten villains, and ten anti-heroes or neutrals, characters who might change allegiances, altering the basis of their ethical decisions. Now, according to law, these beings were free. The Court directed owners to disengage each toy's "slave-mode" and let it choose its own fate. Not surprisingly, most purchasers were upset.
To Mark it was just another way in which life was screwing him over. This time he vowed not to take it. Instead of disengaging the toy's slave mode, Mark hid the thing away. When authorities questioned him, he said he'd taken the toy on a camping trip in the Sierras the first week he'd had it. He told them it had wandered off. When he'd searched for it, he'd found tracks that led him to the conclusion that the android had fallen into a ravine. He said he'd searched further, but it had become obvious that the android must have been completely destroyed. The police were suspicious but had no evidence to the contrary. Besides, according to Mark's story, it had happened before the court decision—before the toy had legally become a citizen.
Of course, Mark couldn't keep it hanging around his La Jolla mansion, where his friends or the press might catch sight of it. Instead, he disguised himself, and under an assumed name, rented the cheapest apartment he could find. He took his toy there and commanded it to stay put.
Whenever Mark felt the urge to have rough sex—the kind that might have legal repercussions—he put on his disguise and paid a visit to his "ugly little slave."
Mark felt he'd "earned" the right to defy the court ruling. He'd already known how independent these "toys" could be. He'd been amazed to find that Mastermind could act against Mark's will. The first time Mark "played" with it, the toy fought back. It blocked one of his punches and knocked him down.
Mark managed to turn it off, then decided to read the 300-page owner's manual. There he discovered that, although they were programmed not to harm humans or other living creatures, each of the figures would attempt to protect itself from perceived harm. But that was okay, because he also found out how to turn that part of Mastermind off without reducing his pleasure. Then Mark could have his way with it.
Mark was feeling like doing just that this morning as he slipped the key into the lock and opened the door to the apartment.
"Welcome back, Mark," said Mastermind.
"Jesus," said Mark. "You scared the shit out of me."
Mark closed the door, took off his sunglasses and baseball cap, and walked over to the bed. At six-foot-one, he towered over the small, seated android.
"How did you get activated? I thought I shut you down before I left last time. And what do you think you're doing wearing my sandals? Are those dishwashing gloves?"
"It's true, they don't fit me too well, Mark, but they'll do for now," said Mastermind, smiling up at the imposing figure. "And anyway, you're not going to need them anymore."
"What the hell are you babbling about, you ugly little gremlin?"
Mastermind kicked Mark in the genitals lifting the actor off the floor. Mark crumpled, screaming in pain. He writhed as he cupped his crotch. He found himself kneeling, which put him face-to-face with the still-seated Mastermind.
"W-why," Mark croaked.
"Because I'm going to torture you to death," Mastermind said. His small, claw-like fist shot out and snapped Mark's left clavicle like a dry stick.
Mark screamed. He continued to scream for 12,603 seconds. For much of that time his screams were muffled by a gag. He passed out five times. Each time he woke up to see some part of his body either crushed or cut off. He didn't have a single conscious moment when he couldn't hear himself scream. The screaming, and Mark Mandrake's troubles, finally ended when Mastermind severed his trachea with one of the kitchen knives.
Though the whole process was noisy, the nearby apartments were empty. Most people were at work. No one heard anything. The police weren't notified.
Mastermind finished his work, then stripped off the blood-soaked mad scientist's outfit and dishwashing gloves. He washed the gore off of his face and sandals, then took Mandrake's wallet. He picked up the sunglasses and baseball cap that Mark had been wearing when he arrived, then snuck out the sliding-glass door to the patio. He stepped over the low patio wall to the sidewalk and walked down Claremont Mesa Boulevard. The cap barely covered his head, even with the adjustment strap completely unfastened. He was going to have to find a better disguise.