The following work of fiction was created using the universe of Automata – a series of short story comics by Penny-Arcade. Penny-Arcade, for the uninitiated, is a video game related web-comic helmed by the venerable Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (or Tycho and Gabe as the fans know them) updated thrice weekly that deals with game culture and whatever else strikes-hot their fancy. In addition to running a multi-million dollar children’s charity, creating creative content for some of the biggest industries in gaming, and hosting enormous bi-costal gaming conferences – they occasionally venture into the territory of science fiction, and this is where Automata was born. Set in an alternate version of our 1920’s, Automata is a hard-boiled detective story where autonomous robots walk the streets along side humans; some make our coffee and others solve our crimes. This wavy human-robot relationship has been known to cause unease, and this is where the story of detective Sam Regal and unit Carl Swangee begins. At the time of this writing there are two Automata comics, a total of eleven pages to read, and they are linked in the text at the bottom of this episode. It’s the terrific genesis for a world much larger, and through the following adventure, we’re about to learn more.
Automata, the art, characters, and concepts are all copyright Penny-Arcade. This story hasn’t been requested or approved by them, and is purely a work of fan-fiction – however it is my sincere hope that you enjoy it. For those reading, if you can, you are strongly encouraged to sit back and listen to the recorded narration – there’s music and everything. Really.
Part One: You’re a Saint If Anyone Said So
Dark noir flows over New York, the swath of tonight’s brush is wide and grim. The 18th amendment has passed, and with it the cessation of all robot production – if it makes you toast it’s permissible, but if it reminds you to pick up more bread at the grocery – you’re heading for the pokey on a one-way. Large sections of the city are under general quarantine – jobs lost, people removed – not off limits so to speak, but more or less ready for a new purpose. Models of all shape and size are slotted for deactivation and deconstruction, only held up in legislation by letter writing campaigns from what the rest of the civilized are calling “saps for the statics.” A weary truce lies over the tumultuous United States, you can keep the ones you’ve got, but most robot repair shops have either been shut down on some vague code violation, or they’ve packed up and headed west after one brick too many through a costly front window. Those slotted for the public service and utility outlets in major cities have started wandering the streets – forever walking and talking but headed nowhere in particular. Some took to homes, some took to the shady, and others took to the dumpster – their will or that of an unkind stranger. Few things are certain in the times as they are, but most rely on the kindness of others where it can be found – and more often than not this is the occasional bioscientist working out of his basement in fear for the law. Spare parts surround him, electric smiles are his thanks.
In a tight room with no toilet, private detective Sam Regal is adjusting a standing floor lamp – the cord tightening as he moves it closer to his desk. The rent in the top floor of this building was too much for him to pass up, just shy of nil and nought, something that fit right into his budget. There are only three floors, and with the first two locked up due to city ordinance 58499, what was once a shipping hub for one of the largest robot manufacturers, now sits as little more than a graveyard without electricity. Automaton KR-L: Detection and Analysis unit “Carl Swangee” stands silently in the opposite corner of the office observing his partner adjusting a floor lamp. Hands still at his sides, he watches and he observes – running quiet tabulation with relevance most would struggle to understand, let alone question. Detective Regal pauses, takes a step backwards, and places his hands on his hips.
“Okay,” he says, “it’s the only outlet we’ve got and the one in the ceiling doesn’t work. How’s this?”
“I’m unclear on what you’re asking Detective Regal,” replies Carl.
Sam turns over his shoulder to look at Carl. “I’m asking – the, Carl, the lamp. Is this enough, you know, enough light or whatever?”
Carl’s head tilts to the left, and his neck does not. His glowing eyes shift from blue to green. “Apologies, Detective Regal, but if you are inquiring as to if there is light – I can assure you there is. If you are pondering the luminescent qualities of this particular lamp, then-”
“Carl, no, dammit. Look,” says Sam, holding his thumbs into the air before him. “From this angle does it make my desk look all ominous and wise? Here, I’ll go sit in my chair.” Sam takes a seat, props his feet on the desk, and pulls the rim of his hat down to his eyes. “How about now?” he asks. “Looks good?”
“Looks good,” Carl replies.
There’s a past here, a friendship hard won. Detective Regal never cared much for the robots when they started rolling off the lines, but when the bioscientists started making them talk, that’s when his stomach began to churn. When he was on the force, it didn’t seem like much to have an extra camera or two come along on the homicide calls – and when they started arriving to the forensics lab with legs to carry themselves, it only seemed all the easier. A few years later he’s got one riding in his car wearing a badge and everything. Hard won was this friendship, but won it was. More than once the automaton KR-L: Detection and Analysis unit saved his skin. “Hell, Carl, most of this bacon is yours by now,” he liked to joke. Jokes weren’t his bag on the daily, but when Carl started cracking them at Sam’s expense – he knew there was something behind those glowing blue optics that transcended cogs, wires, and hydraulic fluid. Something special, and in there a friendship bloomed. It wasn’t easy working with a robot in 1927, but nobody else knows you quite like your partner, and few others can claim a coworker that would take a bullet for them.
“Alright, buddy,” Sam began, “I’m going to steal a wink or two and try and forget that we’re completely broke and probably crazy. If that phone rings, grab it would ya?”
“Certainly,” Carl replied.
The rain is pouring hard tonight. It seems sometimes as if the rain will never cease, as if the world now consists of a darkened sky, a large black tarp pricked full of holes letting the ocean from the other side of the world leak down into New York City. With his cards still at the print house, there’s little for detective Regal and Carl to do but sit and wait out the clock so that today feels somewhat like any other. At 5:50pm Carl quietly walks over to Sam’s desk, leans forward, and lightly touches his ankle.
“Mmph.. what, Carl? What is it?” says Sam, bringing his fingers to his eyes with a wide yawn. “It’s nearly six o’clock in the evening detective Regal. Perhaps it is time to head home for the da-” Carl pauses before his word is finished. He looks to the door. Finishing his full-body yawn, Sam sits up in his chair. “Look, I told you to call me Sam. Now- what? What is it?” Carl looks back to Sam. “The distribution of weight on our floor has just shifted slightly. Two of the major support beams have bowed.”
“What are you telling me?” Sam asks, hurried. “Is the floor in our cheap-ass office already falling in?” Carl looks back to the door. “No, detective Regal, it means-”
Carl’s words are once more ended shortly when the door to the office is swung violently open, making way for a gentleman of considerable corpulence. Standing at around six feel tall, the man is large, red-faced, and sweating profusely – and the only way Sam knows this is from the smell – rain is sweet – sweat is not. The man looks sharply around the room, catching his breath, and patting his face all over with a blue handkerchief. He looks to Carl, takes a step back, then looks to Sam.
“This the private dick’s office?” the man asks, still out of breath. He pauses for just a few seconds. “Well ain’t it or ain’t it?”
Detective Regal stands up and gives himself a brief moment to collect the events of the past twenty or so seconds. “Yeah,” replies Sam, “it is. Though I spose’ you couldn’t read my door while slamming it open all fast-like.” The large man looks back to the closed door. “I’m sorry mister, really I am – it’s just, well they told me this is where I could find me a detective on the cheap.”
“And says who?” asks detective Regal.
“Got a friend who’s nephew is one of the Bulls downtown. Said you used to be one until about a week ago. Said you’d be hard for work. Said you had a coppertop for a partner. That right?”
Sam looks to Carl, who’s been keeping a close watch on the man since he hurriedly burst through the door – observing every detail, logging everything away.
Sam looks to the large man. “That’s about the size of it. Why don’t you have a seat here and dry your bones a bit. Tell me what’s going on.”
The large man sits, and with a weighted creak his bulk settles into the chair. Still patting his face, neck, and bald head, he takes a few deep breaths and looks across the desk to detective Regal.
“It’s like this,” he begins. “My name is Ken Rahn, Kenny to everyone. By day I’m running the barber pole on 26th in the Blacklight area, but with the large basement and all…”
“Speakeasy,” interrupts Sam.
“Right. Is that, is that going to be-” Kenny sheepishly begins to ask. Sam interjects, “No judgements here friend. It’s bots and booze for the moment, next week it’ll be illegal to cut hair for all we know.” Kenny let’s an exhausted laugh leave his lungs, the kind that sounded like it had been festering for a while. He continues.
“So it’s just me running the joint with a bot or two for help, pouring drinks and watching the inventory and all. It’s a friendly joint, all classes are welcome and we don’t turn away no bots – all kinds want to come drink they’re pleased to do so. Thing is, it’s that lately…” Kenny lowers his head as his voice begins to warble. Visibly upset, he brings the handkerchief back up to his eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s my stepdaughter. That fucking priest!” Detective Regal leans forward to Kenny, “Alright now, let’s just take it from the top. Who’s the priest? What’s with your stepdaughter?”
Kenny looks to the ceiling, collects himself, then stares back at detective Regal’s desk and continues. “It’s not easy getting shine this deep into the city these days. We’re neck deep in eyeballs watching everything that goes on from spit to shit. Competition is tough and some outlets are looking to steal from other joints even just to get more. I’ve got a couple of roughneck buddies keeping the flies away, but after what’s happened to Stephie, I just… they killed her. That priest and his little bot army came in and killed my Stephie!”
Sam leans back in his chair. “Homicide? Has this been through the 15th?”
“Yeah,” Kenny replies, “in and out. They just said it looked like a suicide, a hanging and all. Tell me though – how in ten hells did my little girl get up there? The ceilings in my place are twenty five feet high! She was murdered by that hooch hating priest they call Gamble.”
“Gamble?” asks detective Regal. “Tell me about this Gamble – why would the cloth seek to kill your girl?”
Kenny puts the handkerchief into his overcoat pocket, then withdraws his bulky hand holding a folded piece of paper. He opens it up, and places it on detective Regal’s desk. It’s an advertisement of sorts, for a church. It reads:
SINNERS REJOICE: CAST OFF YOUR WICKEDNESS
WAIT NOT FOR SIX STRONG MEN: SALVATION BECKONS
Temperance of Drink, Confessionals, Robotic Perversions
Palaver With Father Luke Gamble
2102 South Calvert, Behind the BioStorage
“So it’s a church,” quips detective Regal. “What’s wrong with the church going?”
“It’s not them,” replies Kenny. “It’s their shepherd. Father Luke Gamble – the guy’s a complete crook. He’s preaching all peace and friendship while he’s four knuckles deep in the tithing.” Detective Regal paws his forehead quizzically. He looks Kenny in the eye. “You’re going to have to spit it out – I’m not seeing what this priest has to do with your passed daughter.” Kenny slams his hand on the table, startling Sam and causing Carl to take a smooth step backwards, arms still at his sides.
“Robots!” exclaims Kenny. “He’s got at least a dozen of those ovens working as thugs – turning over every bar in town. Whoever’s got the most jack hires him out to shake up the others. I wouldn’t do it – I wouldn’t pay up so he trashed my place – twice. On the third visit me and mine came out swinging. Thought I had em’ warned off for good. I come into the bar early in the morning last week and there she is, my Stephie, dancing lifeless from a steel cable ten inches off the ceiling, white as a ghost. Since then I’ve closed the house up, can’t afford the blood anymore.” Kenny dabs his eyes with the handkerchief, folds his hands in his lap, and looks at his shoes. Detective Regal looks over to Carl, then back to his desk. “Alright,” he begins, “I’m going to want a look at this Gin Mill of yours. First though, I’m going pay a visit to this priest Gamble. Feel things out. Can’t guarantee you’ve got anything here, but it’s my job to take a look.”
“Oh, good, shit that’s good,” says Kenny. “You’re a saint if anyone said so.”
“Not terribly,” replies detective Regal. “I did say it was my job. Carl, please.”
Carl walks to Kenny and places a hand on his shoulder, leaning in for a closer speaking distance. “We do require a fifty percent deposit for services. Allow me to review the details with you, Mr. Rahn.”